Stephen Gammell

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Stephen Gammell

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Editat: ag. 8, 2019, 5:22pm

I came across my copy of The Relatives Came recently and sat down to enjoy it all over again. My own immediate family moved from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania when I was small; and we took annual trips back in the station wagon. Those were such fun trips, and we always wished for them to be longer. (Nowadays, I drive from West Virginia to Kentucky to visit my own extended family.)

Cynthia Rylant's relatives come up from Virginia, and though their destination is not named in particular, they drive "all day long and into the night." It's not possible to get a firm count of all the relatives, but it's clear it's a large and loving clan. They hug, they eat, they play and work together, and they sleep spread out all over the floor. Yeah, we did that.

Hiring Stephen Gammell to illustrate this story was genius. The combination of Rylant and Gammell made for a classic and award winning book. Rylant teams up with Gammell at least once more, but publishers noticed his knack with this particular type of tale, and he was asked to illustrate Appalachian related stories written by half a dozen other authors as well.

I'll post about those other books later.

Editat: ag. 22, 2019, 2:26pm

I don't like scary stories or horror, so I'm not going to review Gammell's Scary Stories series, authored by Alvin Schwartz.

But two of my grands have had a long standing fascination with slime in all it's permutations. I would never have tolerated the amount of mess and destruction they have caused in their household.

I will be sharing this book next time I visit:

The Secret Science Project That Almost Ate the School is a good vehicle for Gammell's silly characters and fun chaos. And the slime blob is comically reminiscent of the monsters in Schwartz's books. The chemistry of controlling the monster is given at the end of the book, and Miss Fidget (recovered from the school roof) makes our little girl CLEAN THE MESS!

Editat: ag. 9, 2019, 10:43am

Gammell is self taught. He began illustrating children's books in 1973, mostly chapter books, so his illustrations were required to adhere to publisher standards of acceptability. No messiness! He hooked up with Alvin Schwartz early in the 80s, and that's when his natural style was let loose. Even by 1983, he was still sometimes shackled by convention, and his 1986 rendition of A Regular Rolling Noah, by George Ella Lyon was pretty durn boring.

He has started to give the animals more life, but the human is dull.

Editat: ag. 9, 2019, 11:10am

But he continued communications with George Ella Lyon, a Kentuckian; and by 1990, they had collaborated on the more successful Come A Tide:

The book memorializes Harlan County in flood. Possibly the 1977 flood, which still remains a benchmark.

Gammell grew up in Iowa and lived his adult life in Minnesota, but he has hillbilly in his blood. I've rarely seen more true to life characterizations of hardscrabble people and landscapes, outside of Dorothea Lang's photographs.

The book downplays the true disastrousness of the flooding, with animals happily paddling in the water which is sweeping them away. But the focus is on the (perhaps foolish?) self reliance of families and the way they always offer mutual assistance.

I was in a flood like the one described, as "rain came down like curtains" in 1985 West Virginia. We had to muck out our homes with shovels, build mountains of trash on the curb for the National Guard to scoop up, and take meals at the Salvation Army food wagon. Never did see the Red Cross.

Editat: ag. 22, 2019, 2:30pm

A lot of Gammell's work was not credited on LT. I had to hunt many down and add his name. Some of these books wouldn't shine without his contributions.

I shared Laugh-Out-Loud Baby with my daughter this weekend; as well as the story of her first laugh out loud at less than three months.

We were driving home from Christmas with grandma and the timing belt failed. It was way before cell phones and general credit cards. We had no cash on us. Husband had an Exxon credit card for his business. Somehow, we got a tow to the Exxon station, which at that time, did full mechanics service (My, how times have changed!) But it was evening and getting dark. Husband persuaded the clerk at the gas station to give him cash on the card - something not really allowed. We put up in a motel just up the street in this tiny Maryland town, and a good Samaritan gave us a ride to the grocery store for sandwich fixings and diapers. Everyone was occupied with other things, and baby was laying on the bed with no one paying attention. Out of the blue, she gave a delightful chortling laugh. And we all joined her.

Rose says she still has the illogical impulse to laugh at distressing circumstances today.
It was a good share. I realized no one else alive would remember but myself. And it is such a treasured memory.

Editat: ag. 22, 2019, 2:48pm

Cartoony, but creepy, Old Black Fly is an alphabet book. The nasty fly ate the apple pie, bothered the baby, and all the way through the house, to the yarn in Mama's lap, then lands on her table ...Zzzzz Zzz!

Gammell uses paint splatter to describe his aerial tracks through the rooms. The human characters are not pleasing. They are odd and wacky, but have sour expressions, bulging faces and green/grey shading.

I don't like this book. It makes me cringe. I can't stand thinking of those dirty bug feet tracking over everything.

Editat: ag. 14, 2019, 11:51am

Gammell goes solo now and again.

He does so with Ride, which also goes by How About Going for a Ride?

He takes this opportunity to draw the words of the story inserting them into his images.

It's a pleasant mom and dad and their two children who stake out the back seat as war territory. The fighting starts with whispered insults and toe incursions into the other sibling's side. It's classic sibling loathing; and I don't like it either.

The only page that made me smile:
"You watch out... you're about to be extinct!" "Phew ... You already Stinct!"

These faces also have those green tints and bulges.

Editat: ag. 22, 2019, 2:50pm

If you are going to describe a wild party or a messy kitchen, Gammell is the logical go-to guy.

The kids in Hey! Pancakes! are classic Gammell. Frumpy, wild haired, joyous.

"Jelly in my ears, syrup on my toes, Hey, that's a blueberry stuck on my nose."

Their clean up is just as vigorous as their mess up.

ag. 14, 2019, 12:36pm

The Frazzle Family Finds a Way is less successful than others on this list. Perhaps it is just newer or missed it's niche. These characters would seem to be related to The Relatives from #1; and so I gave them an honorary spot in the Appalachian Tales series I established.

The Frazzles have a hard time remembering details. Aunt Rosemary comes and tries to help with notes, lists and twine. Daughter Annie finally finds a technique that works - she composes a song:

"Apples,lettuce, bread and beets,
Chicken, carrots, chocolate treats,
Milk and cheese and one thing more,
Don't leave Grandpa at the store!"

As Gammell prods in the dedication:

"C'mon now …. You know who you are."

Editat: ag. 16, 2019, 9:12am

Gammell collaborates once more in 2008 with George Ella Lyon with My Friend, the Starfinder.

Based on the cover, I thought this would be a favorite.

There is a postscript that says this story is based on a real person and gives a few biographical details of the neighbor, Glen Dean.

This is another book that seems to have missed in the market. (67 members on LT) Although owners review it with affection, the pages and story seem uneven to me. The pages with the friends together are charming and colorful. When Glen Dean is telling his stories though, the pages are in grey tones (except when he becomes tangled in a rainbow, and that is done strangely.) I would have edited this story differently. The ending falls flat.

ag. 16, 2019, 4:24pm

A year before The Relatives Came, Cynthia Rylant published a book of poems written about her childhood growing up in Beaver, West Virginia. And Gammell did the illustrations. These are very restrained, mostly in greys, and don't really add much to the package. Some of the paintings are very nice, and would be great if upsized and hung on a wall. But they are static and only vaguely connected to the poems.

Waiting to Waltz

Here's an interior page:

ag. 16, 2019, 9:51pm

Timothy Cox Will Not Change His Socks is fairly obscure. But the story is just the amount of silly that Gammell enjoys.

This is a rhymed saga that does go on too long. Timothy decides on a silly challenge - 30 days wearing the same socks. The odor wafts from his ankles in green. Gammell does have lots of fun, and he takes the opportunity to play with angles and silhouette.

Editat: ag. 19, 2019, 8:59pm

Will's Mammoth belongs more to Gammell than to the text author, Rafe Martin. Rafe's dedication at the front of the book gives us a clue as to where his inspiration originated: "To a certain boulder of my childhood, which taught me that stones can live."

Will has got an obsession. indulged by his family. Amid the rest of his typical bedroom clutter, I count 13 stuffed mammoths (and one woolly rhino) and even more flat images on paper, T-shirt and undies.

After a reality check exchange with his parents, he treks out into the snow and plays 19 pages worth of Woolly Mammoth adventures without any text. It's a fun book.

Editat: ag. 20, 2019, 9:45am

As an example of Gammell's early (1982) playfulness, The Best Way to Ripton succeeds. It is so obscure, I had to add a copy so as to load a cover image; and there was only one of those on the web.

These illustrations are all in pencil, no colors. But his car, both in motion and setting still, and his characters refuse to live by the laws of gravity. The old man is seeking directions from farmer pig. Farmer pig tells him why not to take Crying Hollow Junction, Deep Tumble Highway, Zigzag Expressway and Snail-Paced Lane. The old man gets frustrated until the farmer tells him that Ripton is 10 miles back the way he came.

"Why are you going to Ripton, anyway?"

For a rest." the old man panted, "at Blair's Inn."

"You should have said so," commented the pig. "Food's terrible. Beds are hard. You'd better come home with me."

So, in lovely profile, the old man climbs from the hood of his car onto farmer pig's back and does just that.

Editat: ag. 22, 2019, 2:51pm

Liz Rosenberg's Monster Mama is both terribly ugly and beautiful. Patrick Edward is seriously harassed by three boys, who tie him to a tree and threaten him with a baseball bat. Patrick Edward is not afraid, but that's not rational for any reader who might empathize. Gammell uses some of the creepy style bits from his Scary Stories series in depicting his monster Mama, his home, and Patrick Edward's rage at the boys when they slur his mother. But then there are the long shot depictions of his home on a green hill under a lovely night sky and the obvious affection of his Mama.

The boys are invited home for tea, and they all become fast friends. There is a lot that is unsettling here.

I wish I could share the last page; it's wonderful.

There seems to be a 'thing' about students reproducing Patrick Edward's scream. Google the title and look at images and you'll see what I mean. Or HERE'S A SAMPLE.

ag. 20, 2019, 4:10pm

Jim Aylesworth collaborates again a decade after Old Black Fly, with The Burger and the Hot Dog (2001)

Both of these seem at odds with Aylesworth's other, much more conventional story telling. His other stuff actually seems boring compared to these downright weird two books.

The Burger and the Hot Dog is a collection of food poems, with all the food anthropomorphized. There is a veggie country band, a huge Barb Brownie who is weighted down with fudge, assorted fruits and veggies, baked goods - well, in fact, most food groups are represented.

"One night Bert Beef Bologna
Switched the numbers on his tag.
The change made him expensive,
But his purpose was no gag.

Bert hoped to fool the shoppers,
Who would think him overpriced.
And then they wouldn't buy him,
And he'd put off getting sliced."

What'd I tell ya?

The most spectacular page is where a plain cheese pizza is faulting the other ladies ~

"Those other gals are floozies
Who are always overdressed!"

ag. 22, 2019, 2:32pm

Hmpf! All of the Amazon covers went away. I really didn't want to add all of these books to my catalog just to be able to add an LT cover.

Editat: ag. 25, 2019, 7:50am

Gammell can rein in his brush messiness when he wants to. The Wing Shop's illustrations are rich with details. His sky and greensward are full of moody colors. His buildings have all sorts of interesting details. His rejection of gravity makes this a natural story for him.

Matthew stumbles upon a shop filled with all kinds of wings, and Lucy, who is minding the store for her grandpa, lets him sample a variety. The story, while different, would be insignificant without Gammell's contribution.