• Posted on December 15, 2014
Farmer & the Clown farmstead

The Farmer and the Clown

I was lucky enough to see some illustrations for this book earlier in the year and immediately thought The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee will be the book of 2014. There have been many beautiful children’s picture books published this year, with subject matter and illustration styles so diverse, it seems ridiculous to pick a favourite. And yet, there it is, in exquisite company yes…but at the top. The Farmer and the Clown is uncluttered storytelling; no words, but huge, breathtaking heart. It is a book told entirely in pictures – a visual narrative that is simply unforgettable.

The Farmer & the Clown meets farmer

The story opens on a prairie landscape of endless, empty horizon. A white-bearded farmer in a black hat is hoeing his field, a little stooped, crows circling in the sepia sky, when a circus train rolls by in the distance. Something falls off the caboose, and as the farmer approaches the figure, he sees a tiny clown in a pointed hat. He takes the clown in hand, and off they go to his farmhouse. In full makeup, the little clown is always smiling, but once the makeup is removed, so is the smile, and the face that emerges is both young, and frightened. The clown-child is confused and sad, but the farmer does his goofy best to cheer him up. Both are alien to one another, but the strangeness soon fades as the farmer teaches the child about life on the farm. They work and play alongside each other, milking the cow, juggling eggs, and enjoying a picnic under a tree. It’s hard to say who needs who the most. The farmer is alone, and possibly lonely, and the kid is far from home and family. There is no back story – we do not know what preceeded their current states, but in the here and now, they are wondrously present for one another. The farmer’s kindness toward the little clown is returned in amiable companionship and a dose of fun that was almost certainly missing from his life. Eventually, when the circus train returns, one story ends, but another begins. At the conclusion of The Farmer and the Clown, if there is any question that their lives have been uplifted, especially the farmer’s, it is answered with the final exchange of hats. Everything is different.

Farmer & the Clown no makeup

The Farmer and the Clown goodnight

The Farmer & the Clown the train

Marla Frazee is a relatively recent addition to my circus tent of brilliant illustrators. I first became acquainted with her work in Boot & Shoe (Beach Lane, 2013), which was one of my favourite books from last year, as well as God Got a Dog (Cynthia Rylant, Beach Lane, 2013). In those books, produced in her signature prismacolour, pencil and gouache, Frazee brings an unusual energy to her illustrations, as if there is an unseen breeze wafting through the imagery. In The Farmer and the Clown, Frazee’s illustrations are stilled, quieter. The endearing characterizations are there, and the gentle humour, but the overall atmosphere is more reflective, allowing the graceful story to unfold in warm, prairie-wide vignettes. Colour is flat and minimal, perhaps a reflection of the farmer’s lackluster life, until a little clown in yellow ruffles and a red cap shows up. The Farmer and the Clown is a profoundly moving, deeply charming, and gorgeously illustrated book about kindness, acceptance, and how unexpected moments and unlikely friendships can transform lives.

Farmer & the Clown goodbye

And there it is, my favourite book of 2014.

farmer-and-clown-cover

Marla Frazee is a southern California-based author and illustrator. She was awarded a Caldecott Honor for All the World and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. She is the author-illustrator of Roller Coaster, Walk On!, Santa Claus the World’s Number One Toy Expert, The Boss Baby, Boot & Shoe, as well as the illustrator of many other books including Mrs Biddlebox, The Seven Silly Eaters, Stars, and God Got a Dog. Marla teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, has three grown sons, works in a small backyard cabin under an avocado tree, and has a dog named Toaster.

THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN by Marla Frazee. Published by Beach Lane Books, 2014

My short reviews of BOOT & SHOE and GOD GOT A DOG (click on the links and scroll down)

  • Posted on December 10, 2014
Any Questions Marie-Louise Gay

Any Questions?

Yes. I have one. How do you do it? When I opened Marie-Louise Gay’s newly published Any Questions? for the first time, it was like being handed a bouquet of freshly plucked wildflowers. As I progressed through the book, the room filled with light. I felt uplifted. This is what happens, what always happens, when I read her books. Any Questions? is her most adventurous picture book to date, and certainly her most beautiful. Gay centres the story around her own real-life experience as an author – in particular the many hundreds of questions she is asked (by children) about her books and especially, her creative process:

“How did you learn to draw?”

Where does a story start?

Do you put a cat in every book?

Any Questions purple beast

The inquiring minds are represented by Gay’s typical menagerie of whimsically drawn children (no one is better at this), cats, rabbits, and  ever-present snails; this time, however, they are not so much characters in the story as the inspiration. Their questions balloon out from the page in one continuous (and utterly charming) conversation, each illustration richly infused with Gay’s luminous watercolour palette. As questions are answered (on the page and in an appendix), Gay invites further participation from her acolytes as she creates a brand new picture book, The Shy Young Giant, itself a thing of sweet wonder in a wonder-filled story. Visually and narratively, there is a lot of bang for your buck in Any Questions. At it’s core, however, is a profound message about valuing curiosity and imagination.

Any Questions Shy Giant spread

There is a mini-trend this year in children’s books in which the writer directly engages with the characters, and sometimes even the reader, thus breaking the picture book equivalent of the fourth wall. Specifically, The Battle Bunny Book (Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett) and A Perfectly Messed-Up Story (Patrick McDonnell) bear the marks of having been ‘interfered with’ in the form of scribbles and jam stains courtesy of the ‘reader’. Like these two publications, Marie-Louise Gay plays with the typical format of a picture book, presenting it as an interactive enterprise (albeit with fictional characters), and in doing so, giving us a glimpse into her own creative process. As one might imagine, it’s starts with a blank page, and a question. A lot of questions.

Any Questions yellow

And yet, with the publication of each new book, Gay is becoming more and more playful with her answers. There is a fluidity to her illustrations that is almost dream-like, as if each scene, characters and all, comes tumbling straight from her imagination to the awaiting page – issues resolved, compositions exquisitely realized. As with Gay’s recent books, in Any Questions?, some illustrations are watercolour only, while others take a more multi-media approach, incorporating found paper and bits of text. One senses that Marie-Louise Gay’s internal conversation with an in-progress illustration is loose and chatty. She is open to wherever the story wants to go, and the result, as expressed so beautifully in Any Questions?, is pure joy.

Any Questions coverMarie-Louise Gay is a world-renowned author and illustrator of more than 60 children’s books. She has won many prestigious honours, including two Governor General’s awards and the Marilynn Baillie Picture Book Award. She has also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Hans Christian Andersen Award, both of which she will surely win one day. Educated at the Institut des arts graphiques in Montreal where she studied graphic design, Gay moved on to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School where she majored in animation, followed by illustration studies at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. Marie-Louise Gay currently lives and works in Montreal when she’s not out and about answering questions.

ANY QUESTIONS? by Marie-Louise Gay. Published by Groundwood Books, 2014

Previously reviewed (click on the link):

Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth

Caramba and Henry

  • Posted on November 18, 2014
Plumdog Blog puddles

Plumdog

I found Plumdog Blog about a year after its inception. I’m not entirely sure how I stumbled upon this incredibly endearing, beautifully illustrated online diary of a dog and her owner, but once I did, I was hooked. Written by British Plumdog coverillustrator Emma Chichester Clark, or should I say, her dog Plum (with help from Emma), Plumdog Blog is a cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed glimpse into the life of a whippet/jack russell/poodle cross, and by extension, her human mum. As a children’s literature blogger, I am online for big chunks of the day – to the point of overstimulation. Plumdog, whenever it is posted (usually every two or three days), quiets the noise, instantly drawing me into a simpler, softer world – Plum’s world, but also a very English world, where grass stays green all year long, it rains an awful lot, and life, while sometimes harried, is always sweet. Plumdog collects the best of the posts in book form, and it is most definitely – one of the best books of the year.

Plumdog walking

Plumdog presents us with a world seen from an unusual perspective – the daily life of an illustrator from a dog’s point of view, and a dog’s life from the dog’s point of view. Beyond the obvious (and delightful) humour of the situation, what becomes clear, especially when read as a collection, is that Emma and Plum are living their lives at different speeds. Emma’s life, as one would expect of a prolific and popular illustrator, is a whirlwind of public/personal activity and looming deadlines, much of it (but not all) spent in the company of her observant little pup. Unlike humans, dogs are always in the moment – a point that is wondrously captured in Plumdog. We see, and more importantly, feel Plum’s joyful appreciation of the now, which more often than not revolves around water. Any puddle, stream, or lake will do, regardless of the weather. I think I know a dog or two like that.

Plumdog shadows

Still, life does not always go Plum’s way. Routines are interrupted, relationships with other dogs are mostly – but not always, friendly, and some days Plum is left behind, not knowing when or even if Emma will return (inspiring one of the most poignant moments in the book). I’ve often wondered what dogs (and cats) think when we leave them at home. Do they feel abandoned, or do they believe we are waiting just outside the door, and if so, do they think we are idiots? How do dogs experience time? Like Emma (and anthropomorphizers everywhere), I just naturally assume that dogs are capable of complex thought, which makes Plumdog a useful and exceedingly charming guide to the inner workings of a dog’s mind and, in all other ways, a perfect gem of a picture book.

Plumdog coming back 2

Prior to Plumdog Blog, I was a distant admirer of Emma Chichester Clark, but not overly familiar with her work. It was simply a matter of proximity – her books are not as well known in North America as they are in the UK and Europe. Since then, however, I have become a true fan of her art, and am slowly building my collection of books. One might assume that because Plumdog is a series of journal entries the art is mere dressing for Plum’s story – a visual record rather than fully realized illustrations, but this is not the case. The watercolours, especially the full-page spreads, are ravishing. Come for the dog, stay for the art! I am simply in awe of her ability to capture expression and body language with minimal brushstrokes, and the settings – interior and particularly exterior, are breathtaking. There is an immediacy to the illustrations which suggests a very sure (and quick) hand, and indeed, in Plumdog Blog (but not the book) the paper is often visibly warped by the watercolour. These are true in the moment creations, but taken as a whole, Plumdog weaves a tale that is full of warmth, humour, and above all, pure dog joy.

Plumdog Puddles 2

Emma and PlumAccording to her website, Emma Chichester Clark was ‘born in Hyde Park Corner, London, but grew up in the countryside in Ireland in an old white farmhouse surrounded by fields.’ A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London (tutored by none other than Quentin Blake and Michael Foreman, among others), Emma has illustrated many books, including the very popular Blue Kangaroo series, as well as books by Roald Dahl, Kevin Crossley, and Michael Morpurgo. She lives in West London with her husband, stepsons, and a lovely little dog named Plum.

PLUMDOG by Emma Chichester Clark. Published by Jonathan Cape, 2014

And for the continuing adventures of Plum, click on PLUMDOG BLOG. I demand it!

  • Posted on October 29, 2014
Halloween Greg Couch illustration

The Dark Art of Halloween (updated for 2014)

UPDATED for 2014: Beautiful, chilly, fattening October. Here again, and happily so. Along with the usual waterfall of dead leaves, fun-sized chocolate bars by the bagful, and if the drop in temperature is any indication, snow, I bring you my annual celebration of Halloween books. Yes, this is a re-hash of previous Halloween posts, but for this year~a few gorgeously ghoulish additions for your reading and visual pleasure, along with the ghosts of Halloween’s past (click on the links for longer reviews.)

Liniers coverNew For 2014, the truly scary WHAT THERE IS BEFORE THERE IS ANYTHING THERE by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers. This beautifully illustrated book is wildly funny, and surprisingly disturbing. As a former scaredy-cat kid, I can relate to the boys’ nightmarish visitations when the lights go out. Liniers balances humour with creeptastic (and yet somehow affable) creatures that do nothing but stare at the boy – until the thing that is there before there is anything there arrives. Yikes!

Continue Reading

  • Posted on October 28, 2014
What There Is Before-the bed

What There Is Before There Is Anything There

I spent most of my childhood scared stiff. As the youngest in a family of seven, I was first to bed. There were no bedtime stories. I don’t recall being tucked in. It was ‘get to bed’ and that was it. Light on in the hallway. Door open. Once I was under the covers, I did not move a muscle or shift a single finger, for fear that I would disturb whatever or whomever was Liniers coverlurking in the shadows. It didn’t help that I would often smell boloney being fried in the kitchen downstairs, as if the party started once I went to bed. Otherwise innocuous early 70’s television theme songs like Mission Impossible wafting up the stairs deepened my anxiety, becoming synonymous with my banishment. Forty years later I no longer remember what I was afraid of, just a vague recall of the anguish bedtime represented.

Liniers umbrella guy

What There is Before There is Anything There, the newly translated book by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers, is a perfect reflection of that nameless fear. The boy in this story, like every similarly afflicted kid, knows that once the lights are turned out and ‘the ceiling disappears’, the dark is not empty. Indeed, as he lay in bed, the first in a series of strange little creatures descends from above – on an umbrella. It stands at the foot of his bed, staring and silent, and yet its lips are pursed, as if whistling. One by one, the rest of the creatures appear, surrounding the boy’s bed. None of these ghouls are particularly scary, and in fact are rather whimsical, but their wordless vigil is incredibly unnerving. Once all the creatures have gathered, the dark void takes shape, transforming the bedroom into a nightmarish wood. Gorey-esque branches surge toward the child, and a face appears in the murk.

Liniers black monster

Liniers I Am What There Is

The boy runs to his parents’ bedroom, where he is the recipient of that time-honoured parental admonishment – it’s just your imagination. When you’re a kid, there is no room for subtlety. It’s all real. Unlike so many ‘scary’ kids books, Liniers does not rationalize, dismiss, or even resolve the boy’s fear. It is what it is. Indeed, when the boy is allowed to sleep with his parents ‘for the last time’, the creatures follow him (or at least the little guy with the umbrella) to bed. It is a devilishly mischievous ending, and it made me giggle.

Liniers surrounded

Individually, these nightly visitors are not particularly threatening, and in a less menacing context they could be the boy’s imaginary playmates (with the exception of that, um, bit of weirdness in the dark). Liniers is, after all, a cartoonist, and while the story may be nightmarish, his gorgeous watercolour and pen illustrations (in particular his characterizations of the boy and his bedtime crew) are little gems of wicked humour and expert draftsmanship. What There is Before There is Anything There is a validation of the imaginative mind, regardless of where it leads. As the title suggests, making something out of nothing, literally pulling it out of the darkness, is the very essence of imagination.

Some children (and adults) might think this book too scary, but others will find the boy’s predicament familiar (as I did), and therefore reassuring. Most will appreciate the humour. As Liniers is keenly aware – it’s fun to be scared, and What There is Before There is Anything There is a lot of fun.

Liniers (full name Ricardo Siri Liniers) is an internationally well-known Buenos Aires-based cartoonist, whose daily comic strip Macanudo has run for over ten years in Argentina’s La Nación. His work has appeared in newspapers, books, Liniers detailand magazines, including The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Liniers’ first North American picture book, The Big Wet Balloon was named a Parents Best Book of the Year. On the dedication page of What There is Before There is Anything There, Liniers states, “…to my parents, who turned out my light and lit up my imagination.” Perhaps, just perhaps, What There is Before There is Anything There is not just a quirky picture book, it is also an autobiographical story of a kid who grew up to be a brilliant artist.

 What There is Before There is Anything There by Liniers (translated by Elisa Amado). Published by Groundwood Books, 2014

  • Posted on October 05, 2014
Willy's Stories cover

Anthony Browne & the Illustration Cupboard

I had purchased tickets in March to see Kate Bush in London September 9th, but was unable to commit to the trip until three weeks prior to the concert date. Not sure why. A lot of money, I guess, for a short trip, but in the end, I realized that if I didn’t go, I would regret it for the rest of my life. It had been 35 years since Kate had last performed, and if I had to wait another 35, we’d both be dead. So, in mid-August, I finally booked my ticket. As it turned out, I would have about a day and half to explore London. I’d visited the city on previous occasions and did not feel compelled to hit all the the touristy stops, nor did I have the time, but I did want to see if there were any illustration galleries I could visit. Edmonton is a lovely place to live, but illustration, even at the University level, is not a visible, or truly appreciated art. There are fantastic illustrators in the city, and in Alberta, but no gallery caters to illustration art. We have neither the population nor the interest. In fact, I had never been to a gallery specifically dedicated to what I consider to be the finest of all the arts – picture book illustration.

Illustration Cupboard

The first thing that popped up on Google was THE ILLUSTRATION CUPBOARD in central London. And, in a delightful twist of fate, the upcoming exhibit would be featuring the art of Anthony Browne – former Children’s Laureate of Great Britain, primate painter extraordinaire, and one of my all time favourite illustrators. What a crazy random happenstance! So, the Illustration Cupboard was added to my list of destinations, along with the Tower of London (to meet the Raven Master), and a bookstore, if I could find one.

In the early afternoon of September 9th, I emerged from the Green Park District Line underground and, after several missteps, detours, and many failed attempts to orient myself using a map, I found the Illustration Cupboard, located in a very picturesque area of London (St James). A very busy, and high-end area as well. The gallery is tucked into a sloping street of shops, close to Fortnum & Mason (and its provocatively displayed sweets). I knew I was in the right place when I saw Anthony Browne’s newest book, Willy’s Stories, in the window. It was tremendously exhilarating to a: have found the place, and b: stand in front of Anthony Browne’s original artwork. The title of the exhibit was 30 Years of Willy the Wimp, his frequent protagonist (and chimpanzee) who is arguably Browne’s ‘shadow’ self. It was very interesting seeing the illustrations up close – they are far more delicate and beautiful than I could have imagined. This is not to suggest that the printed illustrations are anything less than magnificent, but the originals have a virtuosity of detail that, I can see now, is impossible to reproduce. There is genius in every line, whether in a chimp’s face, or the trunk of a tree. It is also oddly cheering to see areas of white-out. Watercolour, even for the great Anthony Browne, is a bitch.

Illustration Cupboard Gorilla

The Illustration Cupboard not only has original art, it also has the most exquisite collection of picture books, most of which have been signed; a crack house, in other words. I spent a long time in front of the Anthony Browne display but in spite of the first edition signed copies, I settled on his most recent book Willy’s Stories, which was also signed. I have most, if not all of his books at home, and as much as I would have liked to purchase ALL of the signed first editions, I just couldn’t. My addiction, thus far, is manageable, but given the right circumstances (robbing a bank), I could imagine spending many thousands of pounds in this gallery, starting with a certain chimp.

Illustration Cupboard selection

In addition to the Browne, I picked up a signed edition of The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde (Hutchinson, 2013), with illustrations by Alexis Deacon – an illustrator I’d never heard of, but fell in love with on the spot. Also, The Wonderful Egg by Dahlov Ipcar (Flying Eye Books, 2014). It’s a reissue of a book originally published in 1958. What can I say, I have a soft spot for vintage illustration, and the Ipcar The Selfish Giant coverbook has the most wonderful dinosaurs! There were many temptations at The Illustration Cupboard, including a selection of very beautiful limited edition books, in particular Through the Looking Glass, with illustrations by John Vernon Lord, but time was ticking, and I wasn’t at all certain that I could find my way back to the Green Park Underground. Turns out, I was right, ending up on embassy row, but a kindly man in a guard’s uniform came to my rescue, and I was soon on my way back to Hammersmith. My directional challenges were no fault of the Illustration Cupboard – the location being quite straightforward (once I found it). For reasons beyond my comprehension, I enjoy a certain, shall we say, mental distance from maps and logic, and at no point during my stay in London did I have a single clue as to where I was, or what direction I was facing.

It was several days (and many, many hours in airports) before I read through Willy’s Stories, which is a companion of sorts to Willy’s Pictures, published a few years ago. In Willy’s Pictures, Willy introduces the reader to his favourite works of art. In Willy’s Stories, it is great literature that inspires the affable chimp, and it begins with a trip to the library ~

“Every time I walk through these doors something incredible happens. I go on amazing adventures.”

Yes, and that’s just how I feel every time I open a new Anthony Browne book.

Willy's Stories down the rabbit hole

Reading, for Willy, is a full-immersion sport. One day he is Peter Pan, sword fighting with Captain Hook on the deck of a ship. Another day he’s a character in Alice in Wonderland, falling down a book-lined rabbit hole. As these classic children’s stories inspire Willy, so do they inspire Browne to create some of his most beautiful work to date. Typically, an Anthony Browne illustration is awash in bright colour, a counterbalance to the muted monkey-browns of Willy and his primate kin. Occasionally, however, Browne goes full on, fairy-tale dark, as in the painting that accompanies Willy’s description of a scene from the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows. The ghostly spectre of a fantastically gnarled tree sits in the middle of the page, every branch scarred by half-formed creatures. Eyes stare out from the murk while Willy, almost invisible in the autumnal colours of the forest floor, hides in a hollow at the base of the tree, terrified. Who knew Wind in the Willows could be so creepy, or inspire such dark imagery? There is nothing wimpy about that chimp’s imagination! And yet, in spite of the spookiness, Browne’s masterful illustration retains his signature playfulness in the humourously camouflaged details, like the row of books tucked into a hollow of the tree. In fact, books are present in every illustration in Willy’s Pictures (much like the bananas that have so often made appearances in previous books). As always, nothing is quite what it seems.

Willy's Stories tree

As gobsmackingly wonderful as it was to see Kate Bush in concert, the opportunity to see Anthony Browne’s original artwork was, in its own way, equally exhilarating, and inspiring. My deepest gratitude to the Illustration Gallery for having the foresight to run this show while I was in London. So kind of them! And of course, for their continued celebration and promotion of great illustration and illustrators. My only regret is that I couldn’t stay a longer. The current show (Sept 24 to Oct 18) is The Art of Shaun Tan, another one of my absolute faves. Ah well…

Willy's Stories WillyWILLY’S STORIES by Anthony Browne, published by Walker Books, 2014

Other Anthony Browne reviews:

One Gorilla: A Counting Book,

Willy’s Pictures

Little Beauty

For more exciting stories about my adventures in London, read THIS.

  • Posted on September 27, 2014
Henry Homer Hudson detail 1

Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum

Everything has a story. So opens the extraordinary new book Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by first time author/illustrator Zack Rock, and yes, as the whimsical title implies, not only does this museum itself have a story, every single object within the walls of this old schoolhouse has its own eccentric life. And if you happen to be the curator of this museum, you’d better know how to tell a story. No problem. Homer Henry Hudson is your man, or should I say, dog.

Homer Henry Hudson's Curio Museum coverHomer, an old bulldog, is like one of the curio items in his museum: worn around the edges, perhaps a little out of place, full of quirk, and resonant with history. He may have a cloudy eye, but his vision is clear, and his taste for adventure knows no bounds. You see, everything in the museum has been discovered, collected, and/or presented to Homer over his long life as an explorer, and over time, the items have become totems – the material representation of past adventures. His first discovery, a Conatusaurus Skull (#0001) ‘no bigger than a chicken and as rubbish at flying’, found in the soil of his family’s farm, awakens an ‘unquenchable curiosity’ about the world and sets Homer on a life-long quest to uncover, to put it mildly, the unusual.

Ostensibly, Homer’s job is to keep the museum presentable for the visitors, and to ‘sit quiet as a curio’ while they explore the exhibits. Each item is accompanied by a description and a personal note as to its provenance. There are thousands of objects in the museum, but it is always his hope that the visitors will gravitate toward the few ‘favourite bits and bobs’ that have become emblematic of his travels. Some are stand-alone objects, like the Radial Tide Diviner (#0023), a device used by soothsayers on Calypso Island to ‘predict the future based on tidal pattern.’ Unfortunately for the Calypsoian civilization, the entire island slipped into the Ionian Sea after an earthquake in 487BC. “Shame the device never warned the soothsayers that their island sat on a massive fault line,” writes Homer.

Homer Henry Hudson Radial Tide Diviner

The Manneken Mort

The Manneken Mort

Other objects provide a through-line from one part of Homer’s life to another. A young girl who gives the explorer a  Nóttlandian Stuffed Animal (#1981) in gratitude for plucking her out of the rebels’ grasp makes an appearance later in the book when she presents Homer with the Manneken Mort of King Ingmar (#3415) –  a parting gift from her deceased father King Ingmar for saving his daughter’s life. A Manneken Mort is a figure made of fabric bands, each band representing one story in a Nóttlandian’s life. When a person passes away, friends and family gather, and as as each story is recited, another band is added. Like the discovery of the Conatusaurus Skull, upon seeing the Manneken Mort, Henry’s wanderlust is stirred. Has his last band been woven? More importantly, does his explorer’s hat still fit?

Zack Rock’s sepia-infused illustrations in Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum are little masterpieces of humour, imagination, and of course, gobsmacking beauty. Anyone who has ever picked up a watercolour brush will understand how little control one has over the medium, and given the complexity of Rock’s illustrations, it’s no surprise that he does a significant amount of planning before brush hits paper. “Usually I make a small, loose(ish) thumbnail sketch of the scene, just to get the composition down. Once that’s resolved, I do a larger, more detailed final sketch. That gets blown up on Photoshop and printed out so I can transfer it over to watercolour paper using a lightbox. If I have any hesitation about the colours, I do a quick digital mock-up in Photoshop before the painting begins. After that there’s no turning back; I’m walking the tightrope with only my brush for balance.”

Homer Henry Hudson Temple Montepaz Choir Finch

There is a completeness of vision to Rock’s Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum that is cinematic, like a Terry Gilliam film. It is a very particular and artistically playful world, matched in tone and style by Rock’s equally playful word choices. One could spend days with this book and still find visual and narrative treasures anew, like a portrait of Kafka (with antennae) tucked into the corner of a wall, or Homer’s amusing description of how he collected an ornate stone head: “I charged my plane toward the hidden city like a bull…though I lack provisions, I rammed ahead. Though I flew through a porridge of fog, I rammed a head. And then I rammed a head.” Brilliant.

Homer Henry Hudson bottle

Though a bulldog, Homer Henry Hudson is the embodiment of that most human of qualities – the desire to find meaning in life, even in the of smallest objects and the most seemingly unimportant events.

“Look around. Look closer. That bit of cloud may be the first puff of a newborn volcano. Those tree bark scratches may be an obscure secret code. That discarded rock might once have been, or may someday be, the cornerstone of a great kingdom. Everything has a story.”

Homer Henry Hudson hat fitsThe old bulldog’s declaration at the beginning of the book invites us in to the world of an ‘eccentric explorer extraordinaire’, but by the end of the book, it takes on a deeper resonance. A call to be mindful, to seek out stories, and most importantly, to be the story – to keep adding those bands to our own Manneken Morts, regardless of our age, or breed.

According to his website, Zack Rock is a writer, illustrator, and ‘cardigan enthusiast.’ Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rock spent most of his childhood in California, a state not particularly synonymous with cardigan weather. He received his Master’s in Children’s Book Illustration from the Cambridge School of Art in Cambridge, England – suspected source of his love for light, buttoned sweaters. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, video games, comic books, and on album covers. Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum is his first picture book, but I have it on good authority that others may be in the queue.

Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum (Creative Editions, 2014) by Zack Rock

Homer Henry Hudson end page

  • Posted on August 22, 2014
The Forever Flowers detail

Shelf Landings

Funny…I honestly expected to have few, if any, books for my next Shelf Landings post. And where did they come from anyway? It’s a familiar feeling – the one where I think I can’t possibly be gobsmacked by one more book. Surely the well of creativity and invention has been sucked dry. Nope. That well is infinite. (Too bad my pockets aren’t as deep.) Nevertheless, it was and IS my intention to make Shelf Landings brief and frequent, a quick post whenever a new book wanders into my life, but as the kids say, #epicfail. Ah well, I tried. Here are the books that have smacked me in the gob this last month.

Wild Things coverWild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Candlewick Press, 2014) arrived a week ago, and it looks…delicious. Written by fellow bloggers Julie Danielson, Betsy Bird, and the late Peter Sieruta, the book “offers untold (and often very amusing) stories behind many beloved children’s books and their creators and is a bracing antidote to the sentimentality that often surrounds the genre.” Oh wow! I couldn’t be more excited. As a former bookseller and life-long collector of children’s books, I am frustrated by the “fluffy bunny” dreck served to children on a daily basis, but like these three authors, I am also uplifted by the beauty and intelligence of a well-crafted children’s book. Wild Things promises to be an elucidating and wickedly fun read.

The Slug and the Rat covers

Newly published this month, The Slug and The Rat (Tundra Books, 2014) join their ‘Disgusting Critters’ brethren, The Fly and The Worm in this crazy wonderful series by Elise Gravel. I cannot say enough about this Canadian author/illustrator, and her funny, gorgeously illustrated, and yes, educational books. I plan to get down and dirty with these disgusting critters and write a longer review at a later date, but for now, I will leave you with the covers. Gotta admit though…I have a hard time finding rats or even slugs disgusting, especially when Gravel makes them so darned affable.

God Got a Dog coverGod Got a Dog (Beach Lane, 2013) is the just the sweetest collection of poetically arranged prose and exquisite art! I bought in on the spot when I saw the word ‘dog’ and the name ‘Marla Frazee.’ (And of course, author Cynthia Rylant is no slouch.) God Got a Dog is a dreamy, beautiful book that belongs in everyone’s library. Each page is an ode to some ordinary aspect of human life, like taking a bath, or…getting arrested. I am particularly fond of ‘God Woke Up’, where God is seen sitting under an apple tree in his pajamas, drinking coffee, quietly pondering the beauty around him –

“The birds were singing and He was at peace. Buddha told Him it could be this way, but He’d never really believed it until now. Life really was easier, sitting under a tree.”

God Got a Dog 2 tree

I am a HUGE fan of Marla Frazee’s illustration and cannot imagine a lovelier compliment to her art than the charming, evocative words of Cynthia Rylant. Protagonist notwithstanding, God Got a Dog is reverent, but not overtly religious. Most wonderfully, God is imagined as a man and as a woman, old, young, white, black, and as a lover of dogs. In pondering what it is to be human, imperfections and all, God Got a Dog is itself, a rare, perfect creation.

Henry's Freedom Box coverI have a fascination with the American Civil War. No surprise, as I am a white Canadian of the female persuasion. Seriously, I have no idea where this comes from, but I suspect it has something to do with Ken Burns and an early reading of Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter, a superb novel about abolitionist John Brown. Incidentally, I recently finished the fabulous The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, which is also about Brown’s sordid activities preceding (and precipitating) the Civil War, but written from the point of view of a young black boy.

There is no shortage of books about the Civil War and the history of slavery in the United States, and more than a few of these are written for children. One day I will do an overview of these books, but for now, I was pleased to find Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad (Scholastic Press) on the shelves of my local bookstore while I was still reading The Good Lord Bird. The picture book has been around since 2007, becoming a Caldecott Honor book the following year. No wonder – it’s beautiful. Ellen Levine’s biographical narrative of Henry Brown’s life from a young age (slaves were not allowed to know their birthdays) to adulthood is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Henry Brown was born a slave in Virginia, but later, when his own family is sold, he arranges his freedom by having himself mailed to awaiting abolitionist activists in Philadelphia, via the Underground Railroad. It is harrowing, but in Levine’s hands, it also reads like an adventure story (with a happyish ending.)

Henry's Freedom Box detail

I love Kadir Nelson’s illustration on the cover depicting a young Henry ‘Box’ Brown, at that point still a slave, staring intently at the viewer. In this illustration especially, Nelson truly captures the self-possession and determination Brown must have possessed to embark on such a desperate, dangerous journey. Inspired by a lithograph of Henry ‘Box’ Brown by Samuel Rowse (created as a fundraiser in 1850 for the anti-slavery movement), Nelson uses crosshatched pencil lines, with applications of watercolour and oil to achieve the original feel of the lithograph. The illustrations are stunning, and like Levine’s words, deeply intimate.

Not a day goes by when I am often lurking about the Brain Pickings blog, which is a good place to feed your book lust, if you have one. Back in April I Drawn to Drawing coverread a post about John Vernon Lord, a British illustrator, and his illustrations for a special edition of Through the Looking-Glass. I love pen & ink illustration, having dabbled in it myself, and his work just BLEW MY MIND. A copy of Through the Looking-Glass proved too hard to find, and too expensive, so I ordered a copy of Drawn to Drawing: John Vernon Lord (Nobrow Press, 2014), a newly published, visual biography of his creative output over the last 50 years. It’s splendid! Makes me want to unpack my pens…so I can stab myself in the neck with them. I mean, why bother?

Henry Hudson's Curio Museum coverA longer review of Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum (Creative Editions, 2014) by Zack Rock will follow, but I cannot resist posting a small teaser. Incredibly, this is Rock’s first picture book, but it is, like one of the curio objects in Homer Henry Hudson’s museum, a treasure; revelatory, full of quirk, and exquisitely beautiful. That Homer Henry Hudson just happens to be a bulldog is but one of the many delightful oddities to be found within the pages of this book. Can’t wait to dive in paws first.

A book like The Forever Flowers (Creative Editions, 2014) elicits two responses: the first, damn. The second, double damn. Forever Flowers II coverMichael J Rosen and Sonja Danowski have created something very special with The Forever Flowers. A young grouse clings to summer, as manifested in the petals of a forever flower – the first to appear, the last to disappear – which she keeps in a small packet around her neck. The extra weight draws her down to a pond, and she misses the migration. Taken in by a kindly spaniel and his companion, the bird impatiently awaits the return of spring. There is more to it, much more, but I will reserve my thoughts until I can write a fuller review. But for now…damn.

The Mockingbird Next Door coverI’ve just finished re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and was struck anew by the brilliance of the story, and by extension – Harper Lee. I am very much looking forward to reading The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee (The Penguin Press, 2014), a new biography of sorts, written by Marja Mills. In some metaphysical twist of fate, Mills was given Lees’ blessing to move next door to the notoriously media shy author (who lives with her sister Alice Finch Lee), and was, over the span of several years, privy to the daily minutiae of Ms. Lee’s life. A timely publication, as I am not yet ready to leave Maycomb.

Lastly, I picked up Krazy Kat & The Art of George Herriman (Craig Yoe, Abrams, 2011) because I have immense respect for the history of comic art, and I Krazy Kat coverwanted to read the the essay by Bill Watterson. I’m not sure if this constitutes a good enough reason to purchase the book, especially as I am only peripherally aware of George Herriman via my other cartoonist obsessions (McDonnell, Watterson, etc.,), but, as it turns out, Krazy Kat is as lovely as it is interesting. Most definitely a book to be lingered over.

That’s it! For now. Stay tuned…

  • Posted on July 29, 2014
The Promise Davies Carlin

The Promise

Be the change that you wish to see in the world ~ Mahatma Gandhi

If I had to name the theme I am most drawn to in children’s literature, it would be the transformational power of nature. It must have started with a youthful reading of The Secret Garden, or perhaps it’s a Canadian thing, but whatever the source, a walk in the woods can do wonders, figuratively of course, and also metaphorically, in books. But what if there are no woods? Arguably, children’s books that reflect (and celebrate) the urban experience are growing in frequency and popularity, but few deal directly with the other side of city life – the concrete wastelands that are the byproduct of urban decay and our ever growing estrangement from the natural world.

The Promise cover

Most children’s books tend toward the utopian, especially in terms of setting. In The Promise, Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin hold up a mirror to our dying, degraded cities, and then, with a simple gesture, present us with a most beautiful and transformational resolution.

It is unclear whether The Promise is set in the present, or in a dystopian future, but the initial pages suggest a parched world where nothing grows. Carlin’s illustrations, stunning in their cool, abstract beauty, depict scenes bereft of colour: bleak, industrial, and entirely cheerless. The patchwork of buildings, distinguished only by the number of blackened windows, seem lifeless. The are streets empty, but for a few dogs and a scattering of people, all of whom reflect the broken connections of a town that has lost its way. There are many types of disconnection in Davies’ evocative tale, but threading through all is the disconnect from nature. In a harsh and ungiving environment, the people have lost the ability to find fellowship with each other. The young girl at the centre of the story does not distinguish herself from the ‘mean, hard and ugly’ people of her community. Indeed, she will even steal a bag from an old woman.

This is where The Promise takes flight. After a struggle, the old woman promises to let the bag go if the girl promises to plant what is within. Dismissing her words, the girl makes the promise, and is surprised to find not food and money in the bag, but acorns.

“I stared at them, so green, so perfect, and so many, and I understood the promise I had made. I held a forest in my arms, and my heart was changed.”

The Promise seeds grow

Like a Johnny Appleseed for the 21st century, she sets off on her journey, planting the acorns along roadways, train tracks, apartment buildings, abandoned parks; anywhere, and everywhere. When the trees begin to sprout, the people are curious. Curiosity soon gives way to wonder. Wonder gives way to joy. As life returns to the city, a community is reborn, and the pages of The Promise fill with breathtaking, transcendent colour.

The Promise colourful trees

Green spread through the city like a song, breathing to the sky, drawing down the rain like a blessing.”

Her mission continues, to other ‘sad and sorry’ cities, until she has, in turn, become an old woman with a bag of acorns. It is at this point she begins to narrate her story.

What is most profound about The Promise is that Nicola Davies takes a complex issue like urban decay, and shows us in simple, elegant prose the human cost – in a state of nature deficit, we cannot thrive. We may not even be able to live. More importantly, she places the responsibility for change on individual acts of stewardship. An important lesson not just for kids, but for everyone.

The Promise is a deeply moving and gloriously illustrated book that does not shy away from scenes of despair, nor does it suffer from a failure of the imagination, like so many other stories with an environmental message. On the contrary, Davies and Carlin envision a brighter, more communal, and nature-abundant future, in the actionable now.

The Promise birds

Nicola Davies is a zoologist and an award winning author of many nature-centric books for children. Clearly, she is a woman who has taken a walk or two in the woods. A woman, in other words, after my own heart.

The Promise is Laura Carlin’s first picture book, which is rather astounding. A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, Ms Carlin has recently illustrated The Iron Man by Ted Hughes.

The Promise by Nicola Davies, illustrations by Laura Carlin. Candlewick Press, 2014

For additional reading along a similar vein, I would suggest The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, which is based on the guerrilla gardening movement on Manhattan’s abandoned High Line.

On a related note, I love this Ted Talk by Amanda Burden, former city planner for New York, on how public spaces make cities work.

  • Posted on June 29, 2014
Rabbityness

Shelf Landings

As I have so often mentioned in this blog, I buy and/or receive far too many books to review, in spite of my good (and astoundingly naive) intentions. In an effort to shine a spotlight on the new arrivals, and assuage my guilt, I am starting a new feature on 32 Pages – Shelf Landings – to briefly introduce the literary lovelies that have wandered, teased, coerced, and/or otherwise charmed their way into my life. It is also my intention to say a few words about the provenance of each book – how it came to my attention, especially in cases where my fellow crack addicts, I mean, children’s literature aficionado’s, have inspired my choices. Most will be picture books, but not all. Some will get full reviews another day, and others will inflict guilt as they languish on my shelves – loved, but unreviewed. Depending the number of bookstore visits, and the (highly variable) depths of my pockets, Shelf Landings will be posted several times each month, in addition to the regular full reviews, but brace yourself, this inaugural post is valued packed with fantastic new(ish) books not just from the last week, but the last six months. The first step is admitting it, right?

The Promise coverThe Promise (Nicola Davies, Laura Carlin/Candlewick Press) This book will be my next full review, and it’s a beauty. Kind of a Johnny Appleseed for the 21st Century, The Promise is set in a bleak, industrial landscape wiped of colour, where everyone is mean and ugly – a reflection of their environment. A young girl snatches a bag from an old woman, who makes her promise to plant the acorn seeds within. Initially disappointed that the bag did not contain money or food, the girl soon realizes the seeds are a gift of incomprehensible magnitude. “I held a forest in my arms, and my heart was changed.” I LOVE stories about the transformative power of nature, and this book delivers on every level. It is glorious. I’m looking forward to diving even deeper in the coming days.

The Fly coverAlso queued up for imminent (full) review, the delightful Disgusting Critters series by Governor General Award winning illustrator Elise Gravel (Tundra Books.) Currently, I have The Worm, and The Fly, but hope to add to my collection as each new title is published (upcoming, The The Worm coverSlug and The Rat.) Unfailingly cheerful and fabulously gross, these little books are absolute gems of fun facts and wonderfully quirky illustration. I wish I had these books when I was a kid. Not only do they educate, they do it in the most artful and interesting way. As players in their own story, the fly and the worm respectively comment on, or act out the information provided, as in a sequence where a young fly learns to regurgitate his food: “There’s a good boy!” Tons of fun.

Bugs in a Blanket coverKeeping with the theme of insects, or buggery to be more precise, I am fascinated by the fabric illustration of Beatrice Alemagna. Bugs in a Blanket (Phaidon, 2009) and Bugs in the Garden (Phaidon, 2011) are tremendously engaging books about a family of bed bugs living in a discarded mattress. Hard to imagine a more despised sub-category of insect, but in Alemagna’s hands, they are the sweetest, funniest, jolliest bunch of critters to ever infest a blanket.

In the original book of the series, Bugs in a Blanket, the bugs meet for the first time. Little Fat Bug is surprised to learn that none of the other bugs are fat, or white. Bringing diversity to the bug world is a great way of flexing Alemagna’s artistic skills while making a subtle point about acceptance. Using wool and felt, she creates fantastically original characters, all of whom share one feature – a pendulous nose. In Bugs in the Garden, the bugs move beyond the blanket and into Bugs in the Garden coverthe garden where they face their fears of the unknown and make new friends with a giant louse (among others.) I will admit that it is strange to read Alemagna’s books about bed bugs and think, if only briefly, how nice it would be to have these guys around! I attribute this, in part, to my pathological inclination toward anthropomorphism, but in fact it is about superb storytelling and the sort of illustration that puts exceedingly cute faces on tiny things. The other books in this series include The Bug Next Door, and Bugs at Christmas. More about her unusual illustration technique here.

Rabbityness coverSome covers are love at first sight. When I bought Rabbityness (Jo Empson/Child’s Play) a few months ago, we were in the middle of a dreary spring, and the Pollockesque spray of colour on the cover was like a summer day in March. Also, the title – Rabbityness? Wonderful. In the first few pages, we learn that Rabbit likes doing all the usual rabbity things, but he also likes to paint, and make music. Doing what comes naturally makes this creative rabbit very happy, and his wildly colourful forest paintings and didgeridoo musical compositions make all the other rabbits happy too. Alas, the Rabbit disappears, but leaves the tools of his artistic trade in his hole, inspiring those left behind. Rabbityness is lively, beautiful, and in some places a little sad, but ultimately, it is a celebration of individualism and creativity. As far as I know, there are no artsy fartsy rabbits in my neighbourhood (they’re mostly gardeners), but I’m gonna leave some paint out and see what happens. For other children’s picture books about art, check out Seasonal & Themed (under Books About Painting) on 32 Pages.

Dream Dog by Lou Berger and David Catrow (Schwartz & Wade Book, 2013) is exactly that – a book about an imaginary dog, but try telling that to young Harry. More than anything, Harry wants a dog, but his father Dream Dog coverworks in a pepper factory which has made his nose sensitive, especially to dogs, so by way of appeasement, he gets his son a chameleon. I speak from experience when I say, if you want a Mars Bar, a carrot is a poor second cousin. Several dogless days later, Harry puts on his X-35 Infra-Rocket Imagination Helmet and conjures up a spectacular, cloud-like dog, who he names Waffle. Harry and Waffle become inseparable, until a change of paternal employment allows a real dog to come into Harry’s life. In Dream Dog, and in every other book by David Catrow, the illustrations are infused with kid energy: hyperactive, good humoured, and in every way, dazzling. Lou Berger’s lively and warm-hearted words are perfect jumping off points for Catrow’s wild artistic imagination. These two, like a dog and a kid, are made for each other. A longer review to follow.

Time for Bed, Fred coverTime For Bed, Fred! (Yasmeen Ismail/Bloomsbury, 2014) is also a book about a dog, but unlike Waffle, this one is playfully disobedient. With simple, repetitive phrases, Time For Bed, Fred! is clearly aimed at a younger audience, but the gorgeous illustrations will appeal to young and old alike. In fact, speaking as an oldy oldenstein, Time For Bed, Fred! is a throwback to older illustration styles, with loosely drawn, boldly placed imagery front and centre on the page. No background, nor is it needed. Fred is the star, and Yasmeen Ismail wastes no space on extraneous detail. I’m not entirely sure how I first became aware of this book, but I do know that a certain two-page illustration – a scene of Fred hiding in flowers, inspired an immediate purchase. “Fred? That’s not your bed, Fred!” It’s truly stunning. I can imagine a parent or teacher reading this book to a giggling child, while the beautiful images subtly imprint themselves, remembered later, with deep fondness.

Fred in flowers

This is how it happens. I saw Warning: Do Not Open This Book (Adam Lehrhaupt, Matthew Forsythe/Simon & Schuster) in a store. I was trying to be ‘good’, so I took a photo of the book, gave myself an imaginary pat on the back, Warning Do Not Open This Book coverand vowed to pick it up later. You know, months later, when the stacks of books in my home were not so high, and my bank account not so low. A few days passed, I saw the book in another store, and out came my wallet. This is how it happens.

I blame it on the monkeys. In Warning: Do Not Open This Book, the narrator talks directly to the reader. Of course, I paid him no heed and opened the book, and of course, the monkeys got out. From chimpanzee to madrill (and one fabulous guy with a long nose and grinning teeth), the monkeys spill on to the page, later joined by a flock of toucans. It’s not all monkey business, however. Sporting guitars and cans of paint, these pop-eyed fellows createWarning Do Not Open this Book monkeys their own world, painting the vines and trees on which to swing, sit, and play their guitars. And then an alligator shows up. In the ensuing chaos, the narrator suggests extreme measures, involving a banana. Warning: Do Not Open This Book is cover to cover hilarious, and Matthew Forsythe’s marvelous monkeys are irresistible (clearly.) In a highly kinetic story like this, it’s easy to lose sight of the details, but I would suggest you disobey the narrator’s plea, and open this book at least a few times, just for the art. Warning: Do Not Open This Book is beautifully illustrated and designed. Canadian illustrator Matthew Forsythe also works on the brilliantly weird animated series Adventure Time. Of course.

I love picture books that make me feel wistful. Not in some airy-fairy way, but in a way that changes how I see the world, if only fleetingly. Sometimes, it’s the art, other times it’s the way the author plays with words. Often it’s both, but however the alchemy is put together, the feeling is unmistakable. I was not the least bit surprised to learn that Coyote Run, the new book by Gaëtan Dorémus, is published by Enchanted Lion Books. No other publisher in North Coyote RunAmerica is as consistently brilliant in the selection and publication of this (self-proclaimed) category of picture book – the wistful beauty. And yes, while Coyote Run is thoughtful and thought-provoking, it is also funny, a little strange, and gorgeously drawn.

In a series of wordless scenes painted in a weave of overlapping line and colour, a coyote escapes jail and is pursued by the sheriff, who may be a donkey, or a crocodile. While standing off against one another, the coyote notices a ladybug, who may or may not be the same ladybug who hung around the window of his jail cell. This lovely distraction transforms the relationship between the coyote and the sheriff. They throw down their weapons and spend the night eating fish around a camp fire. The next day, a posse shows up, and in a scene reminiscent of Thelma & Louise, the unlikely twosome make a run for it – to the edge of a cliff. Unlike the ill-fated Thelma & Louise, the coyote and the sheriff are spirited off the precipice by a cloud of ladybugs. An old-timey western, re-imagined with unusual characters, a fantastical storyline, and a ladybug hero, Coyote Run is simply magical. And yes, a little wistful.

Also from Enchanted Lion Books, the exquisite The Lion And The Bird by French Canadian writer and illustrator The Lion and the Bird coverMarianne Dubuc. Even if I hadn’t heard such great things about this book, the cover, depicting an immaculately coiffed lion in overalls with a rosy cheeked bird on his shoulder, would have been enough to warrant a second look. The Lion and the Bird is a quietly triumphant story about a solitary lion who rescues an injured bird moments before it’s journey south. The two become friends, spending the winter in each others company – tobogganing, ice fishing, and many companionable nights by a warm fire in the lion’s cozy cabin. As spring arrives, the bird returns to his flock, and the lion continues on with his life, tending the garden, watching the skies – purposeful, but sad. When the leaves turn colour, the bird chooses not to migrate, and instead joins his friend for another winter. The Lion and the Bird is longer than 32 pages, the typical length of a picture book, making it feel almost meditative in tone and allowing the reader time to enjoy the many transcendent moments of this story, not least of which Dubuc’s extraordinary art.

Some books are intended for the here and now – a passing pleasure, an amusing distraction, and others, like The Lion and the Bird, are lifers. As is so often the case with these books, they speak with a soft voice, and in their gentleness the truth is revealed. The Lion and the Bird is about kindness. It gets me every time. Other ‘lifers’ in a similar vein, the beautiful Little Bird by Germano Zullo/Albertine and South by Patrick McDonnell.

Leonce and Lena coverLisbeth Zwerger is the best, and most celebrated illustrator of her generation, particularly in the realm of fairy tales. A talent as immense as hers cannot be limited to one genre however, and in Leonce and Lena, Zwerger brings her enchanted paintbox to the pages of a 19th century German play by Georg Büchner. Ostensibly, Leonce and Lena is a comic tale of mistaken identities, but there is another, more compelling (and contemporary) thread running through the story – a crisis of personal identity. Two young royals are preordained to marry, and yet neither is interested in marrying a stranger. In protest, they flee not only their upcoming nuptials, but a whole lot of broody inner turmoil. Dissatisfaction with the self…in an Oprah-less era. Interesting!

It’s an odd, rather flowery play, but Zwerger is on it, finding bits of otherwise innocuous dialogue and using it as inspiration for the most unusual and beautiful illustrations. For example, as the servants crowd around a window, one of them remarks, “I can see something! It’s a sort of projection, a bit like a nose – the rest of it hasn’t crossed the border yet.” The illustration is a literal interpretation of the words – a giant nose, just over the horizon. Zwerger has been increasingly experimental with her watercolours, flawlessly blending blocks of gorgeously designed pattern within her typically delicate compositions. Beautifully realized in The Tales of the Brothers Grimm, this unique style of illustration continues with Leonce and Lena, to even greater effect. The characters in Leonce and Lena may not know who they are, but Lisbeth Zwerger keeps showing us her brilliant, wondrous self.

Leonce and Lena nose

I don’t read as many children’s novels and YA as I used to (or would like to), but occasionally one finds its way to me, True (...sort of) coverand sometimes I seek out the author. More than 10 years ago, when I was still working in the bookstore, I read Ida B. by Katherine Hannigan, and fell instantly in love with the spunky and imaginative girl at the centre of the story. True (…sort of) was published in 2011 (Greenwillow Books), but the book only found me last month…on the shelves of a local bookstore. Haven’t read the book yet, but it looks terrific. Here’s a short clip of Ms Hannigan discussing True (…sort of).

Anything is Possible coverA bird-watching sheep thinks to himself, “How lucky they are! They can choose how they look at things: from far away, from up close, or from somewhere in between.” This is an unusual way of looking not only at birds, but at the idea of possibility. Theoretically, all of us can choose our perspective, but as if often the case, we are overwhelmed by self-limiting thoughts. In Anything is Possible (Giulia Belloni/Marco Trevisan, Owl Kids 2013) a determined sheep is prepared to do anything to make his dream of flying come true. Wolf, on the other hand, is full of doubt, but eventually helps the sheep devise a plan, actually many plans, for his flying machine. When it finally works, it is a marvel of design and kid-like imagination. Italian illustrator Marco Trevisan takes a multimedia-collage approach to the illustration, using scraps of mathematical figures, fabrics, and newspaper clippings to build the machine, while relying on paint and pen for the characters. Anything is Possible humourously celebrates imagination, perseverance, and the courage to dream big. Listen to the sheep (but definitely get help from the wolf.) Just a note, the translator of Anything is Possible is William Anselmi, a fellow Edmontonian and a Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Alberta. Yay homey!

Anthing is possible sheep and wolf fly

The RiverAnother gorgeous book from Enchanted Lion Books, The River (Alessandro Sanna, 2014) is a paean to the passage of time and the quiet observation of nature. Painted in washes of translucent watercolour, Sanna captures the changing light of a landscape in transition. While there is some narrative, from awakening spring to winter’s slumber, it is the illustrations that tell the story. Painted in four-panel vignettes, every scene of this exceptional and expansive book has the plein air immediacy of an Impressionist, but with respectful allowances for the interactions between paper and watercolour. “The images flow out of me without a precise order in mind and every time a new page appeared I felt as if I had brought an already formed image into the world.”  The River is an artist’s sketchbook, a naturalist’s diary, and a writer’s journal. It must be seen, and treasured.

Judith Kerr wrote a famous book 35 years ago that I had never read, or barely heard of, until very recently. The Tiger Who Came to Tea somehow passed me by, in spite of my many years as a bookseller and lifelong collector of picture books. I know. BIG. HOLE. (I have a few of them.) Kerr is much better known in the UK, I believe, than in North America, but nevertheless it’s a darn Tiger Who Came to Tea covershame it took so long to meet this incredibly presumptuous, and loveable tiger. With the approach of her 90th birthday last year, there was a lot of press about Ms Kerr, whose parents spirited her and her brother out of Germany on the eve of Hitler’s election in 1933. It was in these articles that I became acquainted, and to a lesser extent, reacquainted with her life and work. Enthralled, I purchased Judith Kerr’s Creatures: A Celebration of Her Life and Work (HarperCollins, 2013) at the same time I brought home the special gift edition of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It is impossible to not to love Kerr’s friendly and funny illustrations, especially the oversized tiger, helping himself to EVERYTHING in the house. No one questions the presence of the tiger, or the fact that he can talk. On the contrary, there is a very casual acceptance of the fantastic, and certainly Judith Kerr had a fantastical, and at times, very dangerous childhood. Kerr went on to write many other books, including When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, about her actual experiences in Nazi Germany, which I will soon read, but for now, I am basking in the charm of a teatotalling tiger. Better late than never.

Millions of Cats coverAlso in the retro vein, I picked up a copy of Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats (Putnam, 1928.) I love her work, and like Judith Kerr, Wanda Gag led a fascinating life. I did read this book when I was a kid but had largely forgotten it until the publication of The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, which included Gag’s illustrations for The Fisherman and His Wife, piqued my appetite for more of her distinctive, black and white illustrations. In fact, I plan to collect all of the Gag oeuvre some day, but for now, the story of one cat out of millions will do.

Lastly, The Mischievians (Antheneum Books, 2013) by the great William Joyce. In recent years, Joyce has devoted his talents to unraveling the back stories of childhood mythological figures, including the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and The Man in the Moon in a series called The Guardians of Childhood. With The Mischievians, Joyce looks not at the heroes, but the rascals – the tiny mayhem makers of a kid’s life, such as the Homework Eater, the Giggler, and my personal favourite, the booger Dangler. Told in the form of a Q & A with Dr. Maximilian Fortisque Robinson Zooper (a typical Joycean invention), The Mischievians is a blast, with loads of humour and wonderful, cheeky art. I will admit to a preference for vintage Joyce, but this imaginative new direction in Joyce’s Moonbotian empire is still thrillingly original. (And beautiful, of course.)

Mischievans cover 2

That’s the last of the books that have come my way since January, although it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed a few. The next posting of Shelf Landings will have far fewer books, which is not only a statement of fact but also a wimpery sort of command. I’ve got to slow down! This collection of 19 books represents the books that are physically in my possession and does not include all the books that have tempted me these last few months, nor does it include the books I actually did review. The wish list is long, and for that I thank the authors, illustrators, publishers, bookstores, and fellow bloggers who continue to inspire me with their creative passions. For gods sake, stop it!