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Jon Agee (1960-) - Sidelights

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Jon Agee is an author and illustrator of such children's books as The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, The Return of Freddy LeGrand, and Dmitri the Astronaut. In addition, Agee's fascination with language has inspired him to create a series of books on wordplay as well as the books and lyrics for two musicals produced off-off Broadway. A cartoonist, he has also had several of his cartoons published in the New Yorker.


Agee grew up along the Hudson River in Nyack, New York. He developed an interest in art at a young age: as a child he created picture books, detective comics, and flip books he constructed from train ticket stubs. Agee's mother, who had studied art during her college years, was an inspiration to him. "My mom is a wonderful artist, and she made it kind of irresistible for my sister and me," Agee told Heather Vogel Frederick in a Publishers Weekly interview. "The dining room table was her studio space, and there were always art supplies around for us to get into."


After graduating from high school, Agee enrolled at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York City, where he studied painting, dabbled in animation, and made an "art" film. It was at Cooper Union that he also discovered his knack for storytelling. As Agee commented to Frederick, "There was a point in college where I was painting and I was also doing animated cartoons and writing comic strips. I found a lot of joy in creating a story line, and after a while the idea of doing a picture without any narrative or sequence–of just an individual image–dropped away."


Agee eventually moved to Brooklyn, where his work caught the attention of editor Frances Foster who agreed to publish a holiday tale. Agee's debut picture book, If Snow Falls: A Story for December, concerns a young boy whose dreams of his grandfather transform the elderly man into Santa Claus. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found If Snow Falls to be "an extraordinary visual treat" that "unfolds like a lullaby."

Ellsworth relates the story of a dog who works as a university professor. Acting true to his doggy nature outside of the classroom, the academic pup soon loses the respect of his colleagues and students when he is observed chasing cats, burying bones, and lifting his leg near trees and signposts. Ellsworth spends much of his energy worrying about his career until he meets a poodle who is quite comfortable just being a dog. Horn Book reviewer Karen Jameyson noted, in particular, Agee's "textured, shadowy illustrations," which she maintained produce "a slightly comical, pleasing effect." A "lighthearted gem" was Debra Hewitt's summation of Ellsworth in School Library Journal, while a Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that the author/illustrator "scores a hit," adding that Agee's "big, lusty, full-color pictures illustrate this frolic perfectly."


Ludlow Laughs tells the tale of a grumpy man with an enormous frown and a perpetually sour demeanor. One day, however, the man's tedious daily routine is shaken up by an amusing dream. On waking, Ludlow begins to laugh, and his laughter becomes contagious as it spreads throughout his neighborhood and then throughout the world. Ludlow Laughs was a featured selection narrated by Phyllis Diller on the PBS children's show Reading Rainbow.


Agee spent more than two years completing The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau. A contributor to Publishers Weekly described the resulting volume as "an unusual picture book that works on several levels: as a work of art, as an inventive fantasy, and as a satirical comment on the academic art world." The artist Clousseau wins a grand prize when his entry, a painting of a duck, quacks. His other paintings, including a waking snake, an erupting volcano, a firing cannon, and a flowing river and waterfall, also come to life. While Clousseau is jailed because of the chaos his paintings cause, he is eventually released when a dog jumps from one of his canvasses to stop a thief attempting to steal the king's crown from the royal palace. Upon returning to his studio, the artist opts for a more benign world and enters one of his own pictures. Reviewing The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, Raymond Briggs wrote in the Times Educational Supplement that Agee's style "is a bizarre mixture of Peter Arno and Magritte." "Agee's pictures make even the most ordinary objects appear just strange enough to be worth our most wide-eyed attention," opined Leonard Marcus in the New York Times Book Review, adding that, "in their intensely quirky way, the author's paintings are every bit as lifelike as Clousseau's." In a review for the Times Literary Supplement, Jan Dalley wrote of the book that Agee's "monochromatic, block-like figures" provide "a counterweight to its whimsy."

The Return of Freddy Legrand is Agee's tale of an early twentieth-century pilot who crosses the Atlantic in his biplane, the Golden Gull, only to crash in the French countryside. Unhurt, Freddy stays at the farm of Sophie and Albert, who put the broken plane in their barn and begin working to repair it. Meanwhile, Freddy bicycles to Paris and is declared a hero. He embarks on another trip in the Silver Swan and flies over the Great Wall of China, the pyramids, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Panama Canal. Freddy again crashes, this time in the Alps. With survival skills he learned from the French couple, he builds a shelter. Once again Sophie and Albert are his rescuers as they fly the repaired Golden Gull to the peak where Freddy is marooned. "Delightful entertainment," was Linda Phillips Ashour's description of The Return of Freddy Legrand in her New York Times Book Review appraisal. Horn Book reviewer Mary M. Burns wrote that Agee "knows how to woo the comic spirit so that various elements are exaggerated but stop short of heavy-handed caricature." "High-flying text and art convey the effervescent spirits of this simpler era," added a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Agee's picture book Dmitri the Astronaut relates the story of a space explorer who has returned from the moon after an absence of more than two years. He soon realizes that the world has forgotten him and that his moon rocks are insignificant. Rejected, Dmitri throws his rocks into a trash can. Unknown to Dmitri, his friend Lulu, a pink polka-dotted alien, is hiding in the bag. Revealing her alien origins to the public, Lulu quickly becomes a sensation, bringing Dmitri back into the limelight. "The wry humor of Agee's clever book springs in equal measure from the minimal, tongue-in-cheek text and adroitly exaggerated cartoon illustrations," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called the pictures "exuberant" and the story "deliciously nonsensical." "Agee scores again," wrote a Kirkus Reviews critic, dubbing Dmitri the Astronaut "a charmer."

A bumbling magician is the subject of Milo's Hat Trick. After Milo the Magnificent gives yet another disastrous performance, his frustrated stage manager delivers an ultimatum: pull a rabbit out of your hat or lose your job. Milo heads to the nearest meadow and attempts to snare a rabbit, but instead he meets a brown bear that can dive into Milo's top hat with ease, having learned the trick from a friendly bunny. The pair soon develop a wildly popular act, much to the delight of the stage manager, until winter arrives and the bear returns to his cave to hibernate, leaving Milo to perform the trick solo. "The tough, cigar-smoking theater manager is the perfect foil for droopy haired, short-trousered Milo, and Milo's unlikely savior, the generous-hearted and uncannily graceful bear, is a natural for situation comedy," observed a critic in Horn Book. Other reviewers praised Agee for his artwork in Milo's Hat Trick. In School Library Journal, Helen Foster James noted that the "amusing illustrations use interesting perspectives and close-up crops to focus on the characters and action," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that "Agee sets off the delectably farfetched story line with pared-down charcoal-and-watercolor illustrations, and the strong planes and diagonals of his cityscapes recall Ben Katchor's comics."

In addition to story books, Agee has crafted and illustrated a number of books that play with words and language. Go Hang a Salami! I'm a Lasagna Hog! and Other Palindromes was called "delightful visual and verbal fun" by a Kirkus Reviews commentator. The book's approximately sixty entries are a collection of palindromes: phrases and words that, when read left to right or right to left, say the same thing. Illustrating one such phrase, Agee paints a parking lot filled with animals: a "Llama Mall." In another, a cook yells: "Stop pots!" "Hilarious," was Michael Steinberg's description in the New York Times Book Review, while a Publishers Weekly contributor concluded: "It all adds up to plenty of fun."

Susan Sullivan, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, called Agee's second collection of palindromes, So Many Dynamos! and Other Palindromes, "even better" than his first. Sullivan noted the example of two owls sitting on a tree limb in the sun. Because of the heat, one falls, unable to even flap its wings. Calling the caption under the illustration—"Too hot to hoot,"—"pure whimsy," Sullivan called the more-than-sixty entries in the book "a truly inspired marriage of cartooning and wordplay." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that while some entries are slightly off-color, they are nonetheless "likely to please kids." An example is a dog lifting his leg by a tree as he says to a man painting the Tower of Pisa, "As I pee, sir, I see Pisa!"

Agee serves up a new offering of palindromes titled Sit on a Potato Pan, Otis!: More Palindromes. As Deborah Stevenson commented in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "this is more of the same, but when the same is fine entertainment it is hard to quibble." As in Agee's previous collections, each palindrome appears as either a caption or the punch line to a pen-and-ink cartoon joke, such as two cowpokes pondering the wanted poster of a big wildcat who kidnapped the deputy sheriff. One cowboy says to the other: "Darn ocelots stole Conrad." "The book hits some hilarious heights," enthused Stevenson, while a critic for Kirkus Reviews stated that "readers will enjoy [this book] backwards and forwards." In Palindromania!, the author "continues his love affair with the English language," commented School Library Journal reviewer Linda Wadleigh. The work contains some 170 palindromes, from the familiar ("Madam, I'm Adam") to the unexpected ("Stacy, must I jujitsu my cats?") Agee uses both single-page cartoons and four-panel strips in the volume; according to Roger Leslie in Booklist, the author/illustrator's "expressive, black-and-white illustrations enhance the humor, sometimes creating meaning where the palindromes alone do not." Calling the work a "comical, visual, and verbal train ride through the land of palindromes," Wadleigh noted that Agee whimsically mentions "aibohphobia," defined as an unusual fear of palindromes. "Good at least for several minutes of chuckles, these spirited cartoons may inspire readers young and old to find linguistic and artistic opportunity in gnu dung," wrote a critic in Kirkus Reviews, while Peter D. Sieruta, reviewing Palindromania! for Horn Book, stated that "readers who enjoy the clever wordplay and zany art . . . may be so amused they won't know whether they're coming or going."

Agee turns his attention to a different form of wordplay in Elvis Lives!: and Other Anagrams. "In this latest effort to unravel and reconstitute language," remarked a Publishers Weekly contributor, Agee "demonstrates how letters can he rearranged to produce new meanings and pumps up the humor with pen-and-ink cartoons." The collection includes some sixty anagrams, each accompanied by one of Agee's illustrations. Peter D. Sieruta, reviewing Elvis Lives! in Horn Book, stated that the anagrams "generally make amazingly apt connections between each set of rearranged words, coupling 'the eyes'with 'they see'and 'astronomer' with 'moonstarer.'" According to Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst in School Library Journal, "the black-and-white cartoons are an integral aspect of the humor," as in the cartoon for "Nice seat/I can't see," which shows a hulking figure blocking the view of a smaller man at a movie theater. As Booklist critic Carolyn Phelan observed, "Agee's cartoonlike drawings bring out the most in every phrase."

According to a Publishers Weekly contributor, the four-line rhymes in Agee's Flapstick: Ten Ridiculous Rhymes with Flaps "range from the sublimely slapstick to the mundanely silly. . . . Both children and adults . . . will giggle at the sight gags." In this interactive lift-the-flap book, Agee hides the last word of each rhyme under a flap. Edward Sorel wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Agee's illustrations "are loose as a goose. . . . Drawn with a brush, they have a spontaneous, unlabored look." Sorel felt they are "childlike enough to inspire children to try their own hand with brush and paint." School Library Journal reviewer Kathleen Whalin called Flapstick "a genuine delight" as well as "a salute to the zaniness in all of us."

Abbott Combes wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Who Ordered the Jumbo Shrimp? and Other Oxymorons is an "almost perfect collection." A Publishers Weekly reviewer seconded that assessment, noting that Agee's sixty sayings and illustrations demonstrate that "his pleasure from oxymorons depends on observational humor, à la George Carlin or Jerry Seinfeld." School Library Journal reviewer Pamela K. Bomboy noted that some of the themes are sophisticated—for example, "stiff drink" and "Great Depression"—and called the book "highly amusing."


In his alphabet book Z Goes Home Agee "brings a fresh eye to a classic genre," wrote Horn Book contributor Lauren Adams. At the end of a long day, the letter Z heads for home, passing an alien, crossing a bridge, and munching on some cake along the way. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by an object that the Z encounters, "but to make matters more interesting, the object is also shaped like the letter," noted Booklist critic Karin Snelson. When the Z goes for a swim at the seashore, for example, the beachfront curves in an S-shape. "Agee's clean graphic design energizes and dramatizes the bordered pages," stated a critic in Kirkus Reviews.


In addition to creating artwork to accompany his own stories, Agee sometimes illustrates texts by other authors. In Sitting in My Box, by Dee Lillegard, a young boy shares a box with an assortment of jungle animals. "Agee's distinctive pictures are full of lush vegetation and lively detail," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Booklist reviewer Susan Dove Lempke called Agee's artwork for The Halloween House, written by Erica Silverman, "hilarious," adding that the illustrator's work is "reminiscent of New Yorker cartoons." Agee also provided illustrations for Mean Margaret, Tor Seidler's story of woodchuck couple Fred and Phoebe, who adopt a human child. Booklist reviewer Michael Cart noted that Agee's drawings "match the text in wit and boundless good humor." M. P. Dunleavey, reviewing Seidler's book for the New York Times Book Review, maintained that Agee "infuses his black-and-white drawings with great comic energy. He nails poor Fred's hapless expression, and his Bunyanesque depiction of Margaret, who dwarfs her woodchuck caretakers, is hilarious." Agee also served as illustrator for Potch and Polly, William Steig's humorous look at an unlikely romance. "The balding, paunchy Potch and orange-haired, pencil-thin Polly make quite an eye-catching couple, and Agee makes the most of their antics," remarked School Library Journal reviewer Joy Fleishhacker.

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Book, November-December, 2001, review of Milo's Hat Trick, p. 75.

Booklist, December 15, 1990, p. 836; November 1, 1992, p. 517; February 1, 1993, p. 978; December 15, 1994, p. 747; April 1, 1995, p. 1412; October 15, 1996, p. 429; September 1, 1997, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Halloween House, p. 141; December 1, 1997, Michael Cart, review of Mean Margaret, p. 619; March 1, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of Sit on a Potato Pan, Otis!, p. 1206; February 1, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of Elvis Lives! and Other Anagrams, p. 1017; July, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Milo's Hat Trick, p. 2016; October 15, 2002, Roger Leslie, review of Palindromania!, p. 402; September 1, 2003, Karin Snelson, review of Z Goes Home, p. 127.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1992, p. 34; January, 1995, p. 156; February, 1999, Deborah Stevenson, review of Sit on a Potato Pan, Otis!, p. 194.

Horn Book, April, 1984, Karen Jameyson, review of Ellsworth, pp. 179-180; January-February, 1993, Mary M. Burns, review of The Return of Freddy Legrand, p. 71; spring, 1993, pp. 18, 101; January, 1994, p. 59; spring, 1994, p. 24; spring, 1995, p. 112; spring, 1997, p. 17; September, 1997, p. 564; January-February, 1998, Martha V. Parravano, review of Mean Margaret, pp. 80-81; March, 1999, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Sit on a Potato Pan, Otis!, p. 183; March, 2000, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Elvis Lives!, p. 179; May, 2001, review of Milo's Hat Trick, p. 306; September-October, 2002, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Palindromania!, p. 547; November-December, 2003, Lauren Adams, review of Z Goes Home, p. 727.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1992, review of Go Hang a Salami! I'm a Lasagna Hog!, p. 996; October 1, 1992, p. 1251; October 1, 1993, p. 1268; July 15, 1996, review of Dmitri the Astronaut, p. 1044; January 15, 1999, review of Sit on a Potato Pan, Otis!, p. 142; October 1, 2002, review of Palindromania!, p. 1462; July 1, 2003, review of Z Goes Home, p. 905.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 4, 1995, Susan Sullivan, review of So Many Dynamos! and Other Palindromes, p. 6.

New York Times Book Review, November 27, 1988, Leonard Marcus, review of The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, p. 37; June 21, 1992, Michael Steinberg, review of Go Hang a Salami! I'm a Lasagna Hog; January 10, 1993, Linda Phillips Ashour, review of The Return of Freddy Legrand, p. 18; November 14, 1993, Edward Sorel, "What's under the Hood?," p. 22; December 9, 1996, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Turning Pages to Children's Pleasure," p. C18; March 2, 1997, p. 25; November 16, 1997, M. P. Dunleavey, "Woodchuck Nation," p. 34; November 15, 1998, Abbott Combes, review of Who Ordered the Jumbo Shrimp? and Other Oxymorons, p. 48.

Publishers Weekly, July 23, 1982, review of If Snow Falls: A Story for December, p. 132; December 2, 1983, review of Ellsworth, p. 89; July 29, 1988, review of The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, pp. 133-136; March 24, 1989, review of The Toy Box and Dishes All Done, p. 66; September 29, 1989, review of Sitting in My Box, p. 66; October 26, 1990, p. 71; July 20, 1992, review of Go Hang a Salami! I'm a Lasagna Hog!, p. 247; September 14, 1992, review of The Return of Freddy Legrand, p. 123; August 23, 1993, review of Flapstick: Ten Ridiculous Rhymes with Flaps, p. 68; April 18, 1994, p. 65; August 8, 1994, p. 450; November 14, 1994, p. 65; July 29, 1996, review of Dmitri the Astronaut, p. 87; February 24, 1997, p. 93; August 18, 1997, p. 93; October 6, 1997, review of The Halloween House, p. 49; March 23, 1998, p. 102; August 17, 1998, review of Who Ordered the Jumbo Shrimp? and Other Oxymorons, pp. 72-73; March 22, 1999, review of Sit on a Potato Pan, Otis!, p. 90; September 27, 1999, review of The Halloween House, p. 48; April 17, 2000, review of Elvis Lives!, p. 80; April 30, 2001, review of Milo's Hat Trick, p. 76; February 10, 2003, Heather Vogel Frederick, "Jon Agee: The ABC's of Picture Books," pp. 157-159.

School Library Journal, January, 1990, p. 83; November, 1992, pp. 65, 125; December, 1992, p. 19; March, 1994, Kathleen Whalin, review of Flapstick: Ten Ridiculous Rhymes with Flaps, p. 224; April, 1994, Debra Hewitt, review of Ellsworth, p. 97; November, 1996, p. 76; November, 1997, pp. 40, 99-100; March, 1998, p. 119; November, 1998, Pamela K. Bomboy, review of Who Ordered the Jumbo Shrimp? and Other Oxymorons, p. 133; March, 1999, p. 216; April, 2000, Lucinda Snyder, review of Elvis Lives!: and Other Anagrams, p. 144; May, 2001, Helen Foster James, review of Milo's Hat Trick, p. 108; June, 2002, Teresa Bateman, review of Milo's Hat Trick (video review) p. 63; August, 2002, Joy Fleishhacker, review of Potch & Polly, p. 170; November, 2002, Linda Wadleigh, review of Palindromania!, pp. 180-181; September, 2003, Sophie R. Brookover, review of Z Goes Home, p. 166; June, 2004, Steven Engelfried, review of Elvis Lives!, p. 55.

Times Educational Supplement, Raymond Briggs, "The Logic of Nonsense," September 6, 1989.

Times Literary Supplement, April 7, 1989, Jan Dalley, "Adult Assumptions," p. 380.


ONLINE

Pippin Properties, Inc. Web site, http://www.pippinproperties.com/ (January 11, 2005), "Jon Agee."

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