If I weren't Lucky Louise,
I would never have known about
Cliff Burke's wonderful middle grade novel
An Occasionally Happy Family.
But I am, and I won a free copy of
this hilarious and heart-wrenching book
in a drawing on Natalie Aguirre's
Literary Rambles blog.
If you are interested in writing and publishing,
then you must check out Natalie's blog
which is jam-packed with excellent information.
You might get lucky and win a great book too!
I finished An Occasionally Happy Family for the second time last night,
laughing even harder than the first time I read it.
Burke teaches English in Austin, Texas, and he definitely knows teenagers.
Thirteen-year-old Theo Ripley and his fifteen-year-old sister Laura reluctantly set off
with their father on a family vacation in Big Bend Nation Park in Texas.
Not only are they visiting the least popular national park,
but they are camping in the Chihuahuan Desert in July
where the afternoon heat climbs to sweltering, dangerous temperatures.
Big Bend National Park and the Chihuahuan Desert
Theo dreads this week in the national park
with his nature-loving father and his planning-obsessed sister.
He favors indoor comfort over wilderness
and prefers nature viewed through the window of an air-conditioned car.
And that's not the worst of it.
Their father has a big surprise planned for them
on their first vacation together since their mother died.
Neither Theo nor Laura suspect that the surprise is their father's new girlfriend.
The undercurrent to this funny and disastrous family vacation
is what gives this novel heart and depth and makes it memorable.
This is a family that doesn't discuss love, pain, or death.
They come together as a family only at dinner
and then scatter in different directions with their phones.
Theo and Laura's mother died of cancer two years ago,
and they and their father Stanley have never dealt with this as a family.
Stanley's new girlfriend Lucrecia is a life coach,
and she has been helping him get in touch with his feelings.
When she meets Theo and Laura and tries to connect with them,
everything falls apart.
Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park
The book is a page-turner, and the story is moved along
by its fast, lively dialogue and short, succinct sentences.
Theo, Laura, and Stanley are realistic characters,
and the situations they land in are comical, until they are not.
As a reader I laughed out loud as the Ripley family faced scorching heat,
a threatening bear, an annoying birdwatching father and his creepy vlogging son,
middle-aged nudists, and other comical characters.
Boquillas Hot Springs, Big Bend National Park
But I also felt the pain of Theo, Laura, and Stanley as they grieved silently,
especially when when their emotions burst out and had to be confronted.
I would recommend Burke's moving debut to middle grade readers
and their teachers looking for good novels to share in their classroom.
So how does this novel tie into my friend Rain's Thursday Art Date?
This week's theme is pop art,
and Burke's Theo Ripley happens to be an imaginative and talented graphic novelist.
He has written The Aliens Who Ate People and Never Got Full
and The Humans Who Fought Back by Eating the Aliens Who Ate People.
With nowhere to go in his first graphic novel trilogy,
Theo starts drawing a new book, Bob: The Boy with Perfect Memory.
When the girlfriend word dropped into his life,
Theo imagined drawing the word in "all caps
with lightening bolts flaring in every direction."
Sounds like an incipient Roy Lichtenstein to me!
I used to see his name hanging from the ceiling in the art room in my elementary school.
Our fabulous art teacher Preston Skitt introduced Lichtenstein
and other famous artists to thousands of students over the years he taught at Sunrise.
I didn't know who Lichtenstein was, and I never stopped in my busy days
as a second and third grade teacher to find out.
And then suddenly, Whaam! There he was hanging on a wall,
Roy Lichtenstein, as I toured the Tate Modern in London in 2018.
He was a pop artist!
Roy Lichtenstein's Diptych Whaam!
Tate Modern, London, UK
(My own photograph was too blurry)
To me that was Andy Warhol and Campbell's Soup cans.
The Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, Slovakia,
the world's first museum devoted to the personality of the king of pop-art.
I really knew very little about pop art,
an art movement that emerged in the US and UK in the mid-to-late 1950s.
Google summed it up well:
"The Pop in Pop Art stands for popular, and that word was at the root of the fine arts movement. The main goal of Pop Art was the representation of the everyday elements of mass culture. As a result, celebrities, cartoons, comic book characters, and bold primary colors all featured prominently in Pop Art."
I thought Warhol cans of soup would be too hard to tackle,
but I thought Lichtenstein's Pop! might be doable.
I now have a whole new appreciation for pop art.
It isn't as easy as it looks, even when you start with tracing.
My Attempt at POP!
I wasn't satisfied with my finished product, especially the dots,
so I sketched my own drawing WOW.
I immediately ran into trouble.
By the time I started the second W, I'd run out of room,
and I had already squeezed the O.
I was able to add another inch to the right side of the drawing,
but I had to give up my exclamation point.
Overall I was pleased, especially with my dots.
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved
The experience left me wondering how Lichtenstein created his paintings
with their industrial, machine-made appearance.
I discovered that he started with a cropped comic book reference or drawing.
He projected the image onto a pre-primed canvas and traced the lines with a pencil.
Then he filled in the image with paint.
As for his signature Benday dots, he painted each one by hand.
In Whaam! he used an aluminum mesh as a template,
and pushed the paint through each hole with a toothbrush.
Wow! I could have used a stencil?
It would have saved me time and tears.
See you next week! Stay happy and safe!