|The Journal of the Children's Literature Council of Pennsylvania
Volume 3, Number 1, 1989
|Learning from Reviews
By Bruce McMillan
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You once asked me to write something for your regional publication. And I'll bet you thought I forgot all about it?
Nope. Didn't forget, just have anything to add that tied in with PA - until now. Read on. I hope it's something you can use. Please donate all royalties to the Dauphin County Public Library's Charles Demuth book acquisition fund.
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|School Library Journal, Sept. 1988
McMillan, Bruce. Fire Engine Shapes. photos by author. unpaged. CIP. Lothrop. 1988. Tr. 11.95 ISBN 0-688-07842-7; PLB $11.88. ISBN 0-688-07843-5. LC 87-38145.
PreS-Gr 1 In this wordless celebration of the color, chrome, and contours of an Emergency One, super-sharp close-ups focus on the standard "big four" shapes - plus diamond, oval, and hexagon (all precisely described and "indexed" on the final page). Only one engine is featured, so this isn't the equivalent of a trip to the firehouse, but McMillan supplies a note on the truck's vital statistics, and on his photographic methods. Young viewers will also enjoy searching for the lively four-year-old Oriental girl who appears - but sometimes marginally - in most shots. (And some adults will spot the homage to Demuth's famous painting of another Engine 5.) Like McMillan's earlier books and Tana Hoban's books, these photos help children see the geometry of the surroundings with fresh eyes. - Patricia Dooley, University of Washington, Seattle
This copyrighted © review originally appeared in School Library Journal and appears here with permission. www.slj.com
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|School Library Journal, February 1989
Fire Engine Shapes
Patricia Dooley wrote in her review of Fire Engine Shapes (Lothrop, 1988; SLJ, Oct., p 125): "And some adults will spot the homage to Demuth's famous painting of another Engine 5."
Never has a line in a review of one of my books led me on such a delightful research journey from libraries to bookstores. I'm somewhat knowledgeable about art. But I truly was neither familiar with the noted painter Charles Demuth nor his significant painting, The Figure 5 in Gold. Thanks to Pat Dooley, now I am. I hope to see it someday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
After seeing a reproduction of the painting I'm amused at the coincidence between it and my book. They both deal with fire engines and with the number five. Of particular visual note is the striking similarity between the style of the number five in the painting and on the South Portland, Maine fire engine. This wasn't intended homage. I wish it was. It was simply coincidence and Patricia Dooley has a keen eye to have made the visual connection. It was an accurate comparison and I compliment her on her visual awareness.
I now own the book, Charles Demuth by Barbara Haskell and have learned quite a bit about him and The Figure 5 in Gold. It's based on the poem, The Great Figure by William Carlos Williams. Isn't it interesting the things an author can learn prompted by a line in a School Library Journal review.
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|What can a book review in School Library Journal of Fire Engine Shapes, a book I photographed in Maine, have to do with Lancaster, Pennsylvania, an area I previously visited and spoke in?
The visit was April 27, 1987 in Lancaster. My visit was brief but remains full of pleasant memories of the children, people, and area. I quite enjoyed the surroundings.
At that time, I hadn't thought of doing a book about shapes, nor fire engines. That was to come two months later when I was back in Maine. There was no connection to Lancaster. In August of 1987 I completed Fire Engine Shapes and it was published in August 1988. No connection with Lancaster that I knew of, yet.
Once the book was out, my publisher sent me copies of the first reviews of Fire Engine Shapes. One in particular stood out. Not because it was a good or bad review, liked the book or didn't like the book, but because it aroused my curiosity. It was the review in the September 1988 issue of School Library Journal. Did someone from Pennsylvania review this book? Any connection to Lancaster yet? No. It was Patricia Dooley of the University of Washington, Seattle. What was it that aroused my curiosity? What was it that led me on an art journey from libraries to bookstores? What was it that caused me to purchase a pricey book published by the Whitney Museum?
In the School Library Journal review one line in particular stood out. "And some adults will spot the homage to Demuth's famous painting of another Engine 5."
"So who's this Demuth character?" I thought. I was amused. "Just who have I paid respect to? And what's this famous painting?" I visit my share of art museums and am knowledgeable about art. I truly was neither familiar with the noted painter, Charles Demuth, nor had any knowledge of one of his best known and most significant paintings, The Figure 5 in Gold. I subsequently learned that it's part of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But what did it have to do with Fire Engine Shapes?
When I started work on Fire Engine Shapes I first searched for a child to feature in the book. I spotted Jennifer Tamaki in a school audience during a speaking visit. Jennifer was too old for the book I had in mind but she introduced me to her little sister, Stephanie. One mile down the street from where they lived was a fire station. At that fire station I happened to find the newest fire engine in Maine. It had only three thousand miles on the odometer. Two thousand of those miles were accounted for in delivery from its place of manufacture in Florida. It was happenstance to find such a new and picturesque fire engine so close to Stephanie's home. Coincidentally, it happened to be South Portland's Engine 5.
After seeing a reproduction of the painting, I'm amused at the coincidence and can see why in her review Pat Dooley made the connection between my book and Demuth's painting, The Figure 5 in Gold. They both deal with fire engines and with the number five. Of particular visual note is the striking similarity between the number five painted on South Portland's Engine 5 and the style of the number five in Demuth's painting.
With my lack of knowledge of The Figure 5 in Gold, obviously this similarity wasn't homage. It was simply coincidence. Patricia Dooley, the SLJ reviewer, has a keen eye to have made the connection between my book and Demuth's painting. It was an accurate visual comparison. I compliment her on her keen eye and visual awareness.
The Figure 5 in Gold is a fabulous painting. The number five repeats three times, approaching the viewer, in overlayed images to give a feeling of motion. The painting is based on a poem, The Great Figure, by William Carlos Williams. I feel complimented by the comparison made between the painting and my book.
While I spend a lot of time and planning on the details in my books, details that often get noticed by reviewers, I cannot claim the Demuth connection as one thought of by me. I wish it was, but I did not plan it. I often do put minor details in my books that only I may notice and chuckle over, but this isn't one of them.
What can a book review in School Library Journal of Fire Engine Shapes, a book I photographed in Maine, have to do with Lancaster, Pennsylvania, an area I previously visited and spoke in?
My interest went beyond learning about the painting, The Figure 5 in Gold. I read about Charles Demuth, born in 1883 and raised in a town, which he'd feature in his paintings. I was fascinated by the rest of Demuth's work. I was fascinated by how he depicted his hometown, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In 1926 Charles Demuth stayed home in Lancaster. He found inspiration for The Figure 5 in Gold from a literary source and painted it in his hometown.
I now know a bit more about one of Lancaster's prominent past artists, Charles Demuth. Isn't it interesting the things an author can learn - prompted by a line in a School Library Journal review.
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|November 23, 1988
And this is the letter I got from the reviewer of Fire Engine Shapes. Thought you'd be amused to see the finale. The fire engine is going to show up at the school I'm speaking at on Monday - no kidding.
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|13 November 1988
Dear Bruce McMillan,
Thank you for your very kind letter and the article. I'll certainly use them in a workshop on book-reviewing I'm doing in January at the University of Washington (I'm there only part-time, hence the return of your first attempt. I'm glad you persevered!) I lived in NYC for 10 years and saw the Demuth often at the Met: with the typical parochialism of New Yorkers, I naturally assumed you knew it. I have several of your books - Kitten Can... was a favorite of my daughter's - and admire your work. I'll look forward to the next one!
With all good wishes,
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