The late autumn palette is a subdued mix of earth tones, cross-hatched by the black and grey spikes of defoliated branches. On a good day, it’s like a breathtaking Wyeth canvas stretched across the low horizon. On a bad day, it feels as if all the colour has drained from the world. Wandering around this blanched landscape the other day, thinking about my next post, one thing came to mind (OK, two things, but anti-depressants require a prescription): I needed to immerse myself in something juicy and colourful, like the newest book by Marie-Louise Gay, Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth, for instance. Imagine your computer screen in the dim setting, just before sleep mode. Now imagine tapping a key. Suddenly, the screen is infused with light and colour. To view the art of Marie-Louise Gay is like someone tapping us out of some dimmed state of consciousness into a bejeweled and bewitched landscape.
She is the cure for dull.
I have been following Marie-Louise Gay’s career since the early 90’s, through Mademoiselle Moon and Rabbit Blue,
to Caramba, and all the Stella books. Her latest publication, Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth, is in some ways, a progression from this previous work. Not necessarily better, although certainly as beautiful, just different. Incorporating strips of torn kraft and hand-made paper into her watercolours, which becomes both an interesting element of design as well as a textural surface for paint, pastel, and pencil, the illustrations have a multi-media complexity not seen in the Stella books, or any of her other books (as far as I know.) The effect is luminescent, reminding me of Lisbeth Zwerger’s Lullabies, Lyrics and Gallows Songs. But then, I often see Zwerger in Gay’s work, and vice versa. Both have a command of their respective mediums so deep, the watercolour strokes and pencil marks dance across the page with an energy and a grace that is simply breathtaking.
Roslyn Rutabaga is an energetic and imaginative young bunny determined to dig the Biggest Hole on Earth, perhaps all the way to the South Pole where she hopes to meet a penguin. “Will you be back in time for lunch?” asks her father. “Of course,” she answers. How long could it take? Roslyn heads outside and into the garden, but is quickly warned off by both a worm and a mole from digging near their homes. The rather grumpy mole views her quest as dubious at best: “I’m a hole specialist. And I can tell you there are no penguins down there.” The dirt-dwelling pessimists cannot dampen Roslyn’s enthusiasm, and she moves over to the lilac bush and starts
digging in earnest. Marie-Louise Gay uses a collage of torn paper to create the excavation site, which soon becomes littered with old fish skeletons, carrots, and most amusingly, bits of script with Chinese characters. Roslyn’s hole is getting very deep indeed. She finds a bone and imagines it’s a Triceratops’s big toe, but her hopes of a major paleontological find are quickly quashed by a dog, who barks, “I buried that bone last week. I got it at the butcher’s, and I know he doesn’t sell dinosaur bones. And dig somewhere else! You’re wrecking my bone cupboard.”
Just as Roslyn begins to fret that she will never dig the Biggest Hole on Earth, her father walks over and declares the hole the Biggest in the Universe, and would Roslyn care for some lunch? Father and daughter snuggle in the hole, eat carrot sandwiches, and ponder what to say when the penguins show up. There is no problem that can’t be solved with a little imagination, a dash of kindness, and a good sandwich.
As with all of Marie-Louise Gay’s books, there are many visual details and delights to discover in the pages of Roslyn Rutabaga: the dinosaur and winged-pig dolls that fly off the bed when Roslyn throws the sheets aside in her eagerness to start the day, the goldfish bowl on the breakfast table, the hilarious characterizations of the mole and the bone-stealing dog, and of course, Roslyn herself, a bunny girl in a plaid skirt and striped shirt.
And then there is the story. Always playful and funny, always reverential to the blossoming landscapes of young minds. For these reasons, I am particularly fond of the Stella books, with
red-headed Stella (OK, I’ll admit to a little bias here), and her ever inquisitive younger brother, Sam. The books are a riot of colour; Marie-Louise knows how to whip up the best sort of cookie, all sprinkles and sweetness, but these books, and all of her books, are a paean to that age when everything is new and worthy of comment, and the questions tumble forth like grain from a harvester.
In reading Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth, my mind wandered back to summer afternoons when I was a child, and I had the freedom to follow wherever my young brain took me. Sometimes it was to the couch, to watch old movies and cartoons on TV, but more often than not it involved some sort of outdoor exploration, a search for interesting rocks in the back alley, a game of hide and seek in the woods, guinea pig races, or maybe a dog picnic. The story of Roslyn Rutabaga is like the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon framed on my wall. In the first panel, Calvin says, “Look, a trickle of water running through the dirt!” He turns to Hobbes, “I’d say our afternoon just got booked solid.” It’s the epitome of childhood, where imagination is everything, and all the potential in the world lies in a trickle of water in the dirt, or in a freshly dug hole in the garden on a summer afternoon.
Marie-Louise Gay has been lauded across this country and throughout the world, and even a humble little independent bookstore in Edmonton not too many years ago, for her gifts as an illustrator and a writer. She is a two-time recipient of the Governor General’s Gold Medal, and has just launched a fantastic new website, Marie-Louise Gay’s World. The former art director has taught illustration at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, and continues to give readings, workshops and talks in schools and libraries and at conferences across Canada, Europe, Mexico and the United States. Marie-Louise Gay lives in Montreal with her family.
Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth by Marie-Louise Gay, published by Groundwood Books, 2010. ISBN: 978-0888999948
I would recommend all of the Stella books, but my favourites are Stella, Queen of the Snow and Stella, Fairy of the Forest, all published by Groundwood Books.
*Please note, my scanner is adequate at best. The colours are far more vibrant in person, just like me.