The Long Chalkboard and Other Stories (Pantheon)

chalkheaderComedian Jenny Allen and her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, tell a trio of tales for the baby boomer in all of us.

 

 

136 pgs B&W; $16.95 Hardcover

(W: Jenny Allen; A: Jules Feiffer)

 

There's a long-standing tradition in children's literature of fully illustrated "picture books," separated from their "comic book" brethren by their prose-driven narrative, the illustrations serving more to capture the young reader's eye than to further the story. Jenny Allen's The Long Chalkboard and Other Stories uses this storytelling technique to tell a trio of tales of heartwarming victories over the bitter world of adulthood. The label on the dust jacket may say "graphic novel," but what Allen here has really created is a picture book…not for the young tykes, but rather, their baby boomer parents.

 

The eponymous lead tale stars an enormous chalkboard installed by a mother to encourage the creativity of her children. The children fail to use their gift, but no matter, as generation after generation of future residents of the home do to great success. The story's moral and conclusion are obvious far before the story's end, but there's a pleasant breeziness and a motherly tone that keep the story enjoyable.

 

Its follow-up, "What Happened," is far less so, mostly due to its thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Audrey is a bitter children's book author who mistakenly believes that another author has stolen her ideas. Acid-tongued, quick to anger, and unforgiving, Audrey, quite frankly, is given no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The ending ties everything up in a neat little bow in a 5-page sequence so out-of-tune with the rest of the story that you can feel Allen trying to tug your heartstrings but, unfortunately, it doesn't work.

 

The third and final story, "Judy's Wonder Chili," thankfully turns the tide. Judy is a wiz at cooking chili not because she follows a recipe, but because while she cooks it she thinks of nothing but the friend who will be eating it. Any mistakes she makes while cooking it turn into happy accidents that somehow make her jaw-dropping culinary concoction even better, and even scientific analysis can't find the secret behind her spicy masterpiece (this reader could practically see The Simpsons' resident nerd Prof. Frink saying "The secret ingredient is…love? Who's been screwing with this thing?!") The governor tries to get Judy to cook some up for a fundraising dinner, but she denies him; "Chili shouldn't have an agenda," she says, creating a controversy that pushes Judy to assess just what it is that makes chili worth cooking. Here, Allen takes a semi-silly set-up and crafts an engaging yarn that has far more to teach than just how much cumin to put in with the kidney beans.

 

A page from the title story, art by Jules Feiffer. Click thumbnail for a larger image.Allen, a writer for Esquire (among other publications) and a stand-up comedian as her dayjob, whittles the script down to keep it direct, but make no mistake: this is no children's book. Not only will the themes likely soar over young readers' heads but phrases like "je ne sais quoi" and "Pilates instructor" probably will, too. This book is very much aimed at the boomer demographic and those readers will likely get the most out of these vignettes of mothers and professional businesswomen; younger readers, and by this I mean anyone not old enough to have kids in college, may find it has a lot less to offer.

 

Though Allen's stories are enjoyable enough, the book's real energy springs from the illustrations by Allen's husband Jules Feiffer. Most readers will be familiar with Feiffer's sketchy style and lanky, neurotic characters in any number of venues, from his 42-year run at the Village Voice and his illustrations in The Phantom Tollbooth to his seemingly unending stream of cartoons for publications from The New Yorker to Playboy. After cartooning filled his award shelf to the brim–Pulitzer? Check. Oscar? Check.–recent years have found Feiffer working on children's books, which left him well-prepared for The Long Chalkboard and he handles it solidly. The raw quality of his linework and the constantly off-model characters may drive some aesthetes up a wall, but what Feiffer's style lacks in refinement it more than makes up for in nervous energy, capturing each person's mood perfectly to leave Allen free to concentrate on the plot and let the emotions speak through the art. While not a book for everybody, but The Long Chalkboard would fit well in the hands of any workaholic who may have forgotten what being a grown-up is all about.

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