Long ago, roundabout 1973 or so, a young Mark Alan Stamaty wrote a picture book. It was called "Who Needs Donuts?" and it remains, to this day, just the trippiest darn thing you ever did see. Trippy and remarkably beautiful. Somehow or other Stamaty was able to cram more tiny details in a single centimeter than most folks do on an entire page. It was like Peter Sis on angel dust. Since the publication of that book Mr. Stamaty has had various other titles for kids. Books like "Small in the saddle", "Minnie Maloney and Macaroni", and "Where's My Hippo?" More recently he's played about with graphic novels for kids, with titles like "Too Many Time Machines" and the remarkable "Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq". Now with his latest, Stamaty combines the graphic format with picture books, in the best little old autobiographical mash-up I've seen in quite some time. It may not have the sheer insanity of "Who Needs Donuts?", but "Shake, Rattle & Turn That Down" is definitely its descendant, and has a personal touch that kids everywhere should be able to connect to.
Mark and his mom were pretty simpatico when it came to music when he was a kid. When she got him a radio for his birthday, he would listen to gentle melodies or classical tunes. But that was all before HE came along. His name was Elvis Presley. The first time Mark heard him "a howling thunder of sound exploded into my room, engulfing me in a hurricane of excitement." The first time his mom heard Elvis she "burst into my room looking like a cornered hostage in a vampire horror movie." And never the twain quite met. Mark's mother was convinced that this was a fad that would disappear. Meanwhile Elvis and other singers like him started to transform the face of popular music. Part personal memoir, part history lesson in music, part graphic novel, part picture book, Stamaty's personal history with "The King" is a touching story that anyone can relate to. Backmatter includes photos of young Mark, photos of older Mark, and a personal history that even discusses him doing his Elvis impression for the President of the United States.
This is what a graphic novel is all about, people. Look at it. No lazy digital coloring slapped on without a second thought. No, Stamaty has utilized graphite, ink, gouache, watercolors, polymer paints, and even done in colored pencils to give each of these images the right texture and feel. Shirts and patterns are often colored pencils while the people's bodies are watercolors and the font of their words thick bright paints. And speaking of the fonts, no Comic Sans for this man. Oh no. Stamaty has meticulously drawn each letter of dialogue. If folks are just talking then the words are all capital letters in black ink. But when they shout or sing, suddenly the words take on a size and girth they never had before. Best of all are the layouts. Panels aren't just blocky squares. They become circular when they need to be, or take over entire pages. Sometimes, as when Mark hears Elvis for the first time, you've a full two-page spread to really drill home the excitement of the music. And the speech balloons! They start out normal, then expand and contract to an enormous degree. I love watching them curve around the action. The lyrics of music in particular are given a snaky quality, wrapping around the characters' dialogue. Amazing.
And then there's Stamaty's way with people. Folks in this book have a tendency to talk to one another with their arms placidly at their sides. However, given just the right amount of stress or joy, they're all over the place. Little Mark's legs convey all the crazy Elvis gyrations to a beautiful degree. And then there's Mark's mom. Her sheer shrieking panic is a thing of beauty on the page. Just look at her. Her hands clutch her hair, as if to rip Elvis's very voice out of her skull. Even the refracted light in her glasses has turned into jagged points that seem to cling to her wide-open eyeballs. This is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and it's all thanks to Elvis.
Interestingly, the book this reminded me the most of was "The Long Gone Lonesome History of Country Music" by Bret Bertholf. On the surface this might be because it's a non-fiction graphic novel picture book that seeks to teach kids about the history of music in some fashion. But both books also take a great deal of pleasure in drawing the faces of the famous folks of the time. Stamaty has a lot of fun showing everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Ray Charles to The Rolling Stones while Bertholf indulges in folks like Johnny Cash or Jake Tullock. The two would pair beautifully together for a historical music lesson. Each one catches the eye, though Stamaty stays in the realm of rock n' roll and Bertholf skews into full-blown country.
Autobiographical graphic novels for young readers are still few and far between on library shelves these days. You'll get something like Raina Telegemeier's "Smile" or (heaven help us) David Small's "Stitches" but actual picture book comic adaptations are as rare as Elvis sightings. Stamaty's book, like all his titles, is a true original. From the beginning of his literary career he's done his own thing and made books that look, feel, and sound like nobody else's. Now he's written one that kids will enjoy thoroughly and maybe even accidentally come to learn something from. Elvis lives all right. In this book.