Tuesday, January 10, 2017
In the time of Mo Willems
I get pretty excited about greatness. And there are occasional times where I can't help myself from singing the praises about some extraordinary piece of art I'm suddenly wild about. Yes, I do think, deep down, it might do you well to listen to, for instance, Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else, or Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert, two jazz albums I have recently become transfixed by and consider unequivocal masterpieces, but you don't have to listen to them. They'll still be there, whether you listen to them or not. And though masterpieces are special, there are still quite a few around, even accounting for a great variety of taste and even of opinion.
But there is even a more special category than that of the completed masterpiece. I think of it as the "But it's happening right now" category. Deep down I understand that people have different artistic tastes and needs. And deep down I do believe we can pass even these works by at no real peril to ourselves, but they're nevertheless astonishingly rare and special. These are things where something extraordinary is happening right in our time, in a string of brilliance, a constellation of stars, pearls strung perfectly together. Think of being in Italy in the early 1600s and being able to check out the new Caravaggios as they appeared. Think of the unique privilege of seeing a fresh Shakespeare play as it was first performed. This is more like riding a wave of a series of singular yet connected masterpieces, the rare instance where a once in a lifetime genius rides the peak of his miracle and, defying all sense, stays there. When I come upon one of these and recognize it as happening I want to respect, appreciate, and follow the untampered thrill of something simultaneously new and for all time, whatever my bent or taste might be.
There are two of these streams of genius that I know of that are going on right now before our very eyes. Like any of these "But it's happening right now" things they are both fragile. They may end at any time, though both have been going, as is required to qualify for such an enormous thing, for many years. One of them is Messi, the soccer player. This one is obscured by the weirdness of sports and the weirdness of fandom in sport, but it's out there for anyone to see. We will most likely all be dead before it happens again. I missed six or seven years of that and have followed it for two or three.
As for the other one currently going on, I have been closely following the author, with deep pleasure, for years now, but I only finally recognized the magnitude of what was going on when I opened and, enthralled, read his new book today at the library.
This constellation of genius too is probably obscured, like Messi's. Here it is by his being a children's picture book author. But I defy anyone to read, say, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, We are in a Book, and Nanette's Baguette and feel they have enough ammunition to mount any serious dissent to my grand contentions here. And this book, after such extraordinary accomplishments, may even be his best yet, which is saying a ridiculously lot. Brilliant little handcrafted sets fused with Willems almost crude, yet astonishingly amusing and expressive cartoon figures, it is at once pure and minimalist yet baroque in its packed in delightful details. Every level of the book is a pleasure, from what the French animals the people are portrayed as to the nature of their pets. Characters serve the rhyme scheme and then in a single moment it flips in some weird miracle to where the characters were always there and all the dazzling rhymes were completely natural. Oh, I say, give Nanette's Baguette the Caldecott now and don't bother with the voting. Or tear down all the Caldecotts. All the Caldecott people can go home. Lock and chain the doors to the Caldecott building. Maybe never open them again. It's all over. Nanette's Baguette is here.
Oh, and read it regardless of your usual preferences. It will only take a few minutes. It rhymes. It's beautiful. It's funny. And it's magic.
You like magic, don't you?