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Haunting films of Japan

by Debb Green on June 13th, 2011
Haunting films of Japan Cover Image

The history of cinema in Japan spans more than a century, with their first successful film released in 1897. By the next year, the Japanese produced two of the first ghost movies ever made. These silent black and white films were called “Bake Jizo” (Jizo the Spook) and “Shinin No Sosei” (Resurrection of a Corpse.) Given their history plus ancient folklore and superstitions, it is no surprise that some of the world’s most haunting movies come from this land of mystery and the rising sun.

Iowa City Public Library has an excellent collection of Japanese films, including both classic and new titles. Most are shelved together in the green labeled foreign movies section (look for the category “Japanese.”) There you can find several fantastic ghost movies, including:

Kwaidan (1965) Directed by Masaki Koboyashi. One of the most arresting films I’ve ever seen, this portmanteau (“ghost story”) movie is based on four separate stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s wonderful 1918 book, Japanese Fairy Tales. Though the eerie stories are unrelated, they are linked by a strong sense of ghosts and fear of the supernatural. The movie’s expressionistic color cinematography and set designs are breathtaking. Especially in the full scale reenactment by ghosts of a tragic, ancient sea battle set to music sung by a blind musician character called Ho-ichi, the Earless. My favorite story of the set is “Yuki-onna” (“The Woman in the Snow”), in which a demon snow woman falls for a freezing traveler she would normally kill only to have him betray her secret after their marriage.

Onibaba=Demon Woman (1964) In this tale, an impoverished mother and her daughter-in-law eke out a lonely, desperate existence in the susuki grass wastelands of feudal Japan. In order to survive, they are forced to murder the various lost samurai who pass by during the long civil war and sell their belongings for grain, dumping their corpses down a deep, dark hole. Exquisite black and white imagery will strike viewers as well as the women’s horrific punishment for first stealing and then wearing a haunted demonic mask.

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) This film has eight unique sections which are all based on real dreams of Kurosawa, its director, at different stages of his life. All are unusual for their use of magical realism and several have scenarios that are more fantastic than horrific. Two segments are specifically about ghosts. “The Blizzard” is about a desperate band of mountaineers lost in a terrifyingly fierce and supernaturally driven snowstorm. Sure enough, another Yuki-onna demon woman tries to convince them drop to the ground and sleep so that she can suck their warm breath away to death. The other nightmarish vignette is called “The Tunnel” and concerns a defeated Japanese officer who is haunted by his entire platoon of soldiers waiting for further orders since dying at his command.

Other haunting Japanese films include the following interesting titles. Check them out soon and be sure to turn the lights down low!

Ugetsu (1953) – Set in 16th century Japan, this film focuses on an ambitious potter haunted by a beautiful yet tragic ghost and a foolish farmer who yearns to become a samurai.

Suna No Onna = Woman in the Dunes (1964) – This is more an existentialist film than traditional horror, but the surreal landscape and storyline make it troubling and a visual masterpiece.

Ju-On = The Grudge (2003) Revenge and curses from the spirit world have never been more creepy!

Ringu = The Ring (1998) Beware watching those unsolicited videos – for it might be your demise shown on the TV next!

Judy Moody’s Bum Start

by Debb Green on June 10th, 2011
Judy Moody’s Bum Start Cover Image

Well, bummer and double drat! The reviews are coming in for this week’s release of the first movie based on the hit Judy Moody series of transitional fiction for kids. It’s called Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer. Unfortunately, the film isn’t stellar (or even close.) Too bad, as I’m sure the promotional hype will generate even more demand for Megan McDonald’s popular books. Interestingly enough, McDonald co-wrote the apparently frantic script. And there are or were plans for more Judy Moody movies in the future. See what you think of the critics’ comments:,1180545/critic-review.html

No doubt parents with kids under nine years old will still end up taking their kids to see it before it’s released in downloadable or DVD formats. If so, you’ll have kids clambering for more Judy Moody books. Here’s a library catalog screen listing all of the titles available to kids at Iowa City Public Library:

The film industry seems to be having some difficulty really focusing on quality productions these days when developing new movies based on famous children’s novels. Next big summer kiddie flick up is Jim Carrey’s new version of the classic 1938 children’s novel, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, coming out June 17th (Father’s Day weekend.) Here’s the movie’s official trailer:

And for those who loved the 2006 Disney/Pixar animation flick Cars, its sequel (Cars 2, of course) comes out on June 24th.

The Octopus Ballet

by Debb Green on May 28th, 2011
The Octopus Ballet Cover Image

A night owl by nature, I often read books or the web late at night after my hubby has gone to sleep. It’s a quiet time, alone in my thoughts and reflections. Plus a chance to discover and explore news, trivia, or unusual stories. I’m especially fond of web blogs like Boing Boing and Listverse. Where tonight I found a cool Youtube video begging to be shared.

It’s short, features music by Beethoven, and was shot in high definition at 6600 feet below the Pacific Ocean. Called “The Octopus Ballet”, it features a beautiful white octopus basking near a hydrothermal vent. It’s worth a look:

After such inspiration, here are some nice picture books about our eight-legged cousins in the sea, who always puzzle and fascinate children. Check them out and share them with kids soon:

Octopus Soup by Mercer Mayer (2011). An octopus struggles with misadventure when he leaves home but is relieved to know how and where to find a safe haven.

The Daily Comet: Boy Saves Earth From Giant Octopus by Frank Asch (2010). Hayward spends “Go to Work with a Parent Day” with his tabloid reporter father.

Cowboy and Octopus by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith (2007). Cowboy and Octopus maintain their friendship despite different opinions about things like beans and knock-knock jokes.

Tickly Octopus by Ruth Galloway (2007). Octopus has eight twisty, twirly tentacles, and he loves to use them to tickle. But not all the sea creatures enjoy being tickled.

My Very Own Octopus by Bernard Most (1991). A boy imagines what fun he would have with a pet octopus.

Road Tripping

by Debb Green on May 25th, 2011
Road Tripping Cover Image

My travelin’ dreams are on the rise, now that spring is here and summer’s just a month away. There’s nothing like a road trip when skies are blue and the world’s freshly green! The Library has a wonderful collection of travel books and DVDs, many of which have good road trip recommendations for different parts of the country.

But the type of car trip I like best involves stopping at more unusual roadside attractions. Ones that include natural or man-made curiosities, folk and outsider art, eccentric architecture, forgotten historic sites, giant statues, or just old-fashioned, down home restaurants and diners. The Midwest has quite of few of these locations and there are plenty within a day’s drive from Iowa City. For inspiration, one can get lots of ideas on the Roadside site at:

Or, better yet, browse through these nifty books from ICPL:

Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food – Jane & Michael Stern (2006)

Oddball Iowa: a Guide to Some Really Strange Places – Jerome Pohlen (2005)

Iowa Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities,  & Other Offbeat Stuff – Dan Coffey (2005)

Midwest Marvels: Roadside Attractions Across Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin – Eric Dregni (2006)

Roadside America: Architectural Relics From a Vanishing Past – John Margolies (2010)

Weird Illinois – Troy Taylor (2005)

Weird Wisconsin – Linda S. Godfrey (2005)

Weird Minnesota – Eric Dregni (2006)

Weird Missouri – James Strait (2008)

As Jack Keroac wrote in his famous work, On the Road:

“…the road is life.”

Happy travels!

Intelligent Horror Films

by Debb Green on May 23rd, 2011
Intelligent Horror Films Cover Image

Since I was young (and my father let me watch midnight Creature Features on TV), I’ve enjoyed a good scary movie. Whether classic or new, the best horror films are those that capture viewers’ imaginations. While also exploring our uncertainties about mortality, morality, and fears of the unknown. When done well, much of the menace from their spooky moving images comes from within the viewer, rather than from extreme gore or violence. This is especially true for those some people call “intelligent horror films.”

The reason I’m writing this is because I recently watched a movie that fits this description. It was so good that I actually watched it twice (on a weekend, of course!) Let Me In is an English language film released in 2010 that was a remake of a 2008 Swedish movie (and novel) called Let the Right One In. The Iowa City Public Library owns both versions.

In Let Me In, a bullied 12 year old boy named Oscar meets Eli, a beautiful yet strange girl he befriends when she and a man who appears to be her father move into an apartment next door. Though he sees her only at night, Oscar does not realize at first that Eli is a vampire, even though she doesn’t feel the cold and walks barefoot in the snow. When strange disappearances and murders start happening in the town, suspicions mount from her neighbors and police.

Then the man who lives with her gets caught trying to find a new victim to slake Eli’s blood thirst, and is killed. As she has for decades past, Eli must move on to stay alive plus find a new human protector. Or else stay to help save Oscar from a vicious, life-threatening attack by the bullies – the only way she knows how. This she does in a terrifying way (in the high school swimming pool.) Then together, Oscar and Eli leave town as the viewer realizes that he has become her protector and will be so for the rest of his mortal life. With eerie yet evocative cinematography and music, this movie is a gem which Stephen King claims is “the best American horror film in the last 20 years.”

Here are some other “intelligent horror films” well worth a look. Some cross over into other genres like science fiction or psychological thrillers. But, at heart, are as much about horrifying viewers as they are about astounding or mystifying them.  Check them out soon and enjoy. And pass the popcorn!

Alien (1979)

The Bad Seed (1956)

Black Swan (2010)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Diabolique (1955)

Donnie Darko (2004)

The Exorcist (1973)

The Hunger (1983)

Interview With the Vampire (1994)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both the 1956 & 1978 versions)

The Lost Boys (1987)

Mothman Prophecies (2002)

The Others (2002)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Psycho (1960)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The Shining (1980)

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Thing (1982)

28 Days Later (2003)

Vertigo (1958)




Metafiction Picture Books

by Debb Green on May 16th, 2011
Metafiction Picture Books Cover Image

Metafiction is an interesting, unusual type of literature. In essence, a work of metafiction is written in such a way that the reader is frequently reminded that they are reading fiction by systematically calling attention to itself in the story. In other words, they are reading a book about a book. Or a story where the author and characters may interact with readers. Or where there’s another book contained within the plot. There are modern authors who used metafictive devices in literature for adults (think Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, and Steven King.) It also occurs in older classics  like The Canterbury Tales or Don Quixote. Two of my favorites are Possession: a Romance by A.S. Byatt and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

Metafiction has also influenced children’s literature. And, since the 1990′s, there have been many picture books published with elements of it. Sometimes called postmodern, this genre includes titles that may feature nonlinear storytelling or self referencing to being a book. Nontraditional layouts may also be used plus connections to plots of other well known children’s books. David Macaulay’s Black and White, The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith , and David Wiesner’s 2001 Caldecott winner, The Three Pigs, are all meta-fictive picture books. These types of books are fascinating puzzles to read, examine, and solve. And those that do it well engage curious readers of any age.

There were several good examples of this published recently. They are great picture books and fun to share, pour through, and laugh at with the young folks in your life. Take a look and enjoy the following:

We Are In a Book: an Elephant and Piggie Book by Mo Willems (2010). In this great addition to the popular series for beginning readers,  Gerald and Piggie discover the joy of being read. But, OH NO, what will happen when the book ends?

It’s a Book by Lane Smith (2010). Smith addresses the ongoing debate about reading and e-literacy in a hilarious tale where two readers compare a print book to digital media, and learn that books are still valuable.

Chester’s Masterpiece by Melanie Watt, or as the title page says, by the acclaimed Chester without Melanie Watt! (2010). In this third book about the rascal cat Chester (who always takes control of books his author writes), Chester discovers exactly what a writer has to do to create a good story.

Interrupting Chicken by David Stein (2010). Little Red Chicken wants Papa to read her a bedtime story, but interrupts him to retell and change the story endings almost as soon as he begins each tale.

A Book by Mordicai Gerstein (2009). Among a family who lives in a book, the youngest daughter is the only one who doesn’t have a story to belong to, so she sets out among fairy tales, adventures, mysteries, histories, science fiction, and others to try to find hers.

Do Not Open This Book! by Michaela Muntean. (2006) As poor Pig tries to write a book, he chastises the reader who keeps interrupting him by turning the pages.

Arthur Geisert’s Iowa

by Debb Green on May 12th, 2011
Arthur Geisert’s Iowa Cover Image

For years I’ve been fascinated by the intricate illustrations and unique picture books of Arthur Geisert. Long a resident of Galena (Illinois), Geisert originally started his career as a sculptor who did bronze casting. Eventually he found a special niche as an artist specializing in etching. Since then, Geisert has created 23 children’s books and his work has won awards and been displayed throughout the county.

Traditional etching is a process where strong acid or chemicals are used to cut into unprotected parts of a wax covered metal surface. The artist uses an etching needle to scratch the plate to create designs, which are then burned into the metal by the acid wash. Once completed, the plate is cleaned, combined with paper, and put through a high pressure printing press. The prints created are often finely detailed and quite beautiful to behold.

My favorite Geisert picture book is one that he published in 2010, sometime after relocating his studio to Iowa. He now resides in Bernard, a small town of 98 people in northeast Iowa, where he bought an old bank building. There he both lives and works, and he and his neighbors in the hard scrabble farming community have become fond friends. So much so that he chose to feature them in an unusual alphabet picture book called Country Road ABC: an Illustrated Journey Through America’s Farmland.

This book is a loving though realistic record of what life is like in small farming communities throughout the Midwest. Examples used for each letter are dead-on accurate in terms of agricultural information. For example, “A is for…ammonia fertilizer” while “K is for…KICK!,” (showing a surprised farmer’s kick in the behind from a cow.) There is an interesting complexity in the organization of the book, with different stories being told between the text and illustrations.  Best of all, Geisert thanks his neighbors personally for allowing him to draw and use their farms in his art.

Enjoy this book with a child, and then take a drive out in the country. You’ll surely have a new appreciation for our beautiful rural state and the farmers who work so hard in it.

Other picture books by Arthur Geisert include:

Ice (2011)

Hogwash (2008)

Lights Out (2005)

Nursery Crimes (2001)

Prairie Town (with Bonnie Geisert – 1998)

The Etcher’s Studio (1997)


Cherry Blossoms (Amidst Tears)

by Debb Green on April 8th, 2011
Cherry Blossoms (Amidst Tears) Cover Image

It’s the season of cherry blossoms in Japan, a time known for celebration and hanami festivals. And for parades and picnics in other countries in the northern hemisphere. Amidst cloud-like masses of pink blossoms, people stroll and watch in wonder as these beautiful trees burst forth with life.

The transience of the blossoms, with the contrasts of beauty and rapid demise, has often been associated with mortality. For this reason, cherry blossoms are symbolic, and are commonly seen in Japanese art, literature, and music. How fitting it seems then that, amidst the recent tragedies affecting Japan’s people, there are still fragile yet inspiring images in nature that can bring hope and the strength to carry on.

Children’s picture book writer Satoshi Kitamura recently described his experience since the devastating March 11th earthquake and tsunami. An author/illustrator who often used humor in stories, he questions whether that still will be possible. But admits that he’ll continue to try, knowing that the “one thing that has become very clear in the last few terrible weeks is that ordinary, mundane life is a miracle, and the only place where you can find happiness.”

Check out this Guardian.UK blog to read more about Satoshi Kitamura:

To find picture books by this author at ICPL, check here:

Satoshi Kitamura

And here are some good books about Japan to share with children:

Tsunami! by Kamiko Kajikawa (2009)

The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck (1948)

How Does an Earthquake Become a Tsunami? by Linda Tagliafarro (2010)

Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein (2008)

The Beckoning Cat by Koko Nishizuka (2009)

The Boy Who Drew Cats adapted by Margaret Hodges from a story by Lafcadio Hearn (2002)

What We Learn From Children’s Books

by Debb Green on March 19th, 2011
What We Learn From Children’s Books Cover Image

Sometimes the simple truths are best, whether one faces small challenges or large. Determining and then following one’s moral code isn’t easy. Especially for young people just learning how to live with or relate well to others.

No surprise then that books for children often convey examples of people whose lives are well-lived. Though some writers or publishers may focus on specific lessons or didactic approaches, the best children’s writers and storytellers achieve true art in their portrayals of characters, issues, and the possibilities for resolution.  These artists speak to our collective soul, offering hope of a better way and future to readers no matter what age.

Here’s a recent post about this topic from Flavorwire:

And here are the books the Library owns from the list:

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. (1987)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum. (1900)

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. (1943)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. (1964)

Plus several new picture books that can help children be the best person possible:

Hattie the Bad by Jane Devlin. (2010)

City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems. (2010)

Back of the Bus by Aaron Reynolds. (2010)

Best children’s information books of 2010

by Debb Green on March 8th, 2011
Best children’s information books of 2010 Cover Image

Every January there’s a buzz of anticipation in schools and libraries across the country. Not just because of possible winter storms or snow days. But because teachers and librarians can’t wait to see which children’s books have been chosen as the best of the year by ALSC (the Association for Library Service to Children) of the American Library Association.

Like the proverbial papal puff of smoke, ALSC announces books that are award-winning, honorable mention, or notable at a special news conference at the ALA Midwinter Conference. There are award categories based on different genres or types of publication. And committees of librarians who read and hotly debate all the books published in them. Some ALSC awards are well known, like the Newbery Award (for the best written children’s book) or Caldecott Award (for the best illustrated children’s book.) One that is less familiar is the Sibert Award. Created in 2001, it is named for Robert F. Sibert. And is awarded to the authors and/or illustrators of the most distinguished informational book published in English. They define books in this category as those written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret factual material.

Because there are special considerations when writing to inform or help children learn, the Sibert Award requires that books being considered meet certain criteria. These include use of excellent, engaging, and distinctive language and visual presentation.  Also having appropriate organization and documentation plus a clear, accurate, and stimulating presentation of facts, concepts, and ideas. Titles should have an appropriate style of presentation for both the subject and intended audience. They should include supportive features such as an index, table of contents, maps, timelines, etc… And, most of all, their presentation style should be respectful and of interest to children.

And, for 2011, the Sibert Award goes to?

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot, written by Sy Montgomery with photos by Nic Bishop. Part of the “Scientists in the Field” series, this fascinating book describes a remote island off the coast of New Zealand where the last 91 kakapo parrots on earth live. Originally they numbered in the millions before humans brought predators to the islands. Now, as an isolated refuge, scientists are using this island to try to restore the kakapo population before they disappear forever.

There are also two 2011 Sibert Honor Books, including:

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenburg and Sandra Jordan with illustrations by Brian Floca. A beautifully illustrated retelling of the events behind the creation of “Appalachian Spring,” Aaron Copland’s signature musical work. This ground-breaking piece debuted in 1944 with Martha Graham’s amazing choreography and Isamu Noguchi’s set designs, setting the stage for new styles of American music and modern ballet.

Lafayette and the American Revolution by Russell Freedman. In this biography Freedman leads readers through the events that influenced Lafayette as a young man during a time of change. And those that would shape the rest of his life when daunting challenges required his leadership during the American Revolution.

About Debb Green

Debb Green
Debb is now enjoying retirement!
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