• Posted on December 16, 2012
This Is Not My Hat crab

The Best of the Best 2012

I look upon this annual selection process with some trepidation. It’s a kind of literary Sophie’s Choice in the sense that every book I write about is loved, and to choose one above the other seems disloyal and unfriendly. You see, I not only support anthropomorphism in picture books, the books themselves possess qualities far beyond their threaded spines. When words inspire art, and a perfect picture book is born, the characters, be they animal, human or carrot, dance off the page. They have lives. They are alive. And for that I am grateful, and humbled.

With these words in mind, one book soared like no other this year. Little Bird by Germano Zullo, with illustrations by Albertine is the reason why I collect picture books, and why I write about them. The story of a delivery man in overalls, a sandwich, and a little black bird made my heart go thump this year. It’s that simple. Little Bird is the perfect embodiment of what is best in us: kindness, humour, beauty, and above all, possibility.

Named one of the Best Illustrated Books of 2012 by the New York Times, Albertine’s illustrations have a playful simplicity that belie the deeper meaning at the core of Little Bird. Though Albertine and writer Germano Zullo hail from Switzerland, the flat landscapes and prairie colours of blue, gold and red are reminiscent of western Canada, greatly charming this western Canadian. If not for Brooklyn-based publisher Enchanted Lion Books, Little Bird, originally published in French, may not have seen the light of day in North America. If you love beautiful picture books, start here, and start with Little Bird.

And now, in no particular order, the best of the best this year~

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  • Posted on December 06, 2012
The Christmas Quiet Book-Sleigh Bells Quiet

Christmas Books 2012

The snow is piled along the driveway, my breath freezes into cartoon bubbles when I exhale, and I’ve heard Santa Baby-that excruciatingly awful song, about a thousand times on the radio. Must be Christmas, and time for an updated list of festively-oriented books for 2012. Building on an original list compiled in 2010, I am pleased to add a couple of new publications to the scroll of Xmas excellence, and a few from years past. As I said in 2010, anyone who collects illustrated picture books knows that Christmas is when artists come out to play~when the pencils are the pointiest, the colours the juiciest, and storytelling the most luminescent. Perhaps it’s the sparkling snow, or the spirited beverages. Maybe it’s the fruitcake. Whatever the reason, beautiful books abound.

Such as…

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  • Posted on November 30, 2012
This Moose Belongs to Me cover

This Moose Belongs to Me

This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers is like the shreddie in a bag of Nuts ‘n Bolts: impossible to resist, and so spectacular in flavour it makes the pretzels and cheesy things pale in comparison. I know. Could this metaphor be more strained? I will confess that I’m experiencing difficulty coming up with adjectives for the singular brilliance of artists like Oliver Jeffers, Jon Klassen, Lisbeth Zwerger, and the other illustrators who populate this blog (and elsewhere.) While these artists are few, they are without a doubt masters of their respective mediums, and at the core of what is arguably a highpoint in the history of illustration. A low-point as well, as there are many more bad books than good, and e-readers threaten to erase or at least diminish the sensual and visual pleasure of a truly great picture book. At this moment, however, the privilege still exists, and I would strongly recommend that you get your hands on This Moose Belongs to Me.

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  • Posted on November 14, 2012
Grimm Frog Prince.jpg

Lisbeth Zwerger and the Brothers Grimm

In my world, a new publication from Lisbeth Zwerger is an event. At the risk of veering into hyperbole, she is the Arthur Rackham of her generation and will be remembered well beyond her time on earth. Zwerger’s latest is Tales From the Brothers Grimm, a collection of previously published stories and a few new yarns, including The Frog King or Iron Henry, The Brave Little Tailor, Briar Rose, The Poor Millers’ Boy and the Little Cat, and Hans My Hedgehog. The stories chosen by Lisbeth Zwerger to illustrate and include in this book speak to her quirky sensibilities and unparalleled talent for visual storytelling. From beginning to end, Tales From the Brothers Grimm is an impressive and extraordinarily beautiful overview of an astonishing career.

Although Lisbeth Zwerger has a recognizable style, her work continues to evolve. Early in her career, she favoured the sepias and high contrast hues of her predecessors, in particular the aforementioned Arthur Rackham with whom she “…landed in a Rackham-vortex.”* His influence can be seen in Hansel and Gretel and The Seven Ravens, which are included in Tales From the Brothers Grimm. Although these stories and others from this period are lovely and possess the seeds of what was to come, they fall within the continuum of classic children’s illustration, rarely transcending it. As her colours brightened, so did her playfulness. The true genius of Lisbeth Zwerger emerged alongside a deeper, richer palette fully integrated with a wit and visual complexity well suited to the peculiar world and work of the Brothers Grimm.

One of the best examples of Zwerger’s mature style is The Frog King or Iron Henry. In the first illustration, the King’s youngest daughter moves swiftly down a hedgerow in an attempt to outrun the amorous frog. The hedge appears to be a slice of plant tissue as viewed from under a microscope. Beautiful of course, but unusual and strikingly inventive. Who would have thought to do this but her? The frog is persistent, and when he asks to join the young lady in bed (‘I want to sleep in as much comfort as you’), she responds by throwing him against the wall, where he turns into a handsome prince. If only it were that easy.

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  • Posted on November 04, 2012
Bear has a story to tell

Bear Has a Story to Tell

When I bought Bear Has a Story to Tell a few weeks ago, I had planned to write a review in a post about Autumn picture books. Since then it has snowed more than 30cm and Bing Crosby has had a play or two on my iPod. Autumn is a short season in the north. Early September looks like summer. Late September, all the leaves are yellow. By mid-October, the leaves have migrated south and snow has erased all evidence that we had any autumn at all. It’s no wonder that Halloween and Christmas vie for space on the shelves of department stores.

I welcome the snow, but I long for a more patient autumn, where leaves are not in such a hurry to change clothes and fly away. The lumbering bear in Philip and Erin Stead’s new book would agree, I think. Wandering through the woods in search of an audience for his story, Bear finds no takers; just a lot of busy creatures readying themselves for winter. Untroubled by the lack of receptiveness, this would-be storyteller instead offers to help each animal with their various preparations. Bear gathers seeds for a tiny mouse, checks the direction of the wind for a duck who is about to migrate south, and ever so gently, tucks a frog into a blanket of leaves and pine needles. This is a very kindly and patient bear, not to be confused with a real bear. Real bears don’t tell stories.

Once everyone is settled for the winter and the first snowflakes begin to fall, Bear snuggles into his den. His story will have to wait until the spring. But will he even remember what it is he wanted to say?

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  • Posted on October 21, 2012
Halloween Greg Couch illustration

The Dark Art of Halloween 2012/13

UPDATED for 2013: 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 2012~a few new gorgeously ghoulish additions for your reading and visual pleasure, along with the ghosts of Halloween’s past (click on the links for longer reviews.)

Here Be Monsters coverNew for 2013 and fresh off the high seas, the wickedly funny HERE BE MONSTERS by the great Argentinian illustrator Poly Bernatene (swashbuckling rhymes by Jonathan Emmett.) Previous conspirators on The Santa Trap, this brilliant twosome have created a pirate tale like no other. Beware of hidden treasure folks, this beautiful and deadly tale of Captain Cut-Throat and his unfortunate crew will leave you laughing (and running for shore.) Arrrrrrr…..

Also new for 2013, the deliciously witty GHOSTS (Sonia Goldie/Marc Boutavant.) Courtesy of a couple of affable spooks, the Ghosts coverrecord is finally set straight with regard to ghosts, specifically house ghosts. Apparently, we’ve been mislead. True ghosts inhabit every corner of our homes, and nary a one would be seen dead (well, you know) in a sheet, or utter a single ‘Boo.’ Boutavant’s gorgeously illustrated book is packed with every type of apparition; library ghosts, television ghosts, and of course, that big fellow who lives under your bed. Supernatural fun.

Creepy Carrots spiraling 400CREEPY CARROTS (Aaron Reynolds/Peter Brown, 2012)-Absolutely the best and most beautiful book on haunted root vegetables in print. Poor Jasper Rabbit, with his instatiable taste for carrots. Who will believe that he is being stalked and tormented by garden vegetables? Not his friends, not his parents. Jasper is forced to act alone, and his ingenious, and somewhat over the top solution may be the answer to more than one problem.

THE INSOMNIACS (The Brothers Hilts, 2012)-An amazing discovery on the shelves of my local bookstore, The Insomniacs is not so much a Halloween story as an appreciation of all things that go bump in the night. The Insomniacs are a strange little family, recently displaced, who just can’t get their circadian rhythms to play nice, until…they discover the dark secrets of the world at night. Lots of quirky touches, like the star-gazer mother, the upside-down Humpty Dumpty father, and all the odd, nocturnal creatures that populate this unnamed town on the ocean.

The Dead Family Diaz~P.J. Bracegirdle/Poly Bernatene (Dial, 2012)-No Halloween celebration is complete without at least one ghostly visitation from the great beyond, and in this sense, what could be more Halloween than El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead? Yes, it’s a Mexican festival, it’s celebrated on November 1, and no-one sits in a pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin, but in both traditions, skeletons and other assorted dead folk roam the streets in search of a party. In The Dead Family Diaz, young Angelito Diaz is about to walk among the Living for the first time in his life, I mean, death, and he’s a little frightened. The living have ‘big red tongues and bulging eyes,’ his sister teases. Angelito meets a boy (of the living variety) named Pablo, and even though he calls Angelito a popsicle and tries to remove his skeleton ‘mask’, the gruesome twosome strike up a friendship.

The Dead Family Diaz is another stunning example of the genius of Poly Bernatene, the Argentinian artist at the heart of When Night Didn’t Come, The Santa Trap, and 60+ other children’s books. Working digitally, his colours seem newly invented, with an inner luminescence that makes each page glow. In The Dead Family Diaz, the candy-coloured swirl of cars, buildings, skeletons and sombreros mirrors the exuberance of the festival both in real life (or so I understand), and as written by P.J. Bracegirdle. While Bernatene takes us to a darker, stranger place in The Dead Family Diaz, the vividness of his palette remains, as does his ability to turn a visually chaotic scene into a beautifully balanced illustration. This is not to suggest that some of the artwork, especially the close-ups of the skeletal Angelito, are not disturbing; they are, but not overly so. In word and image, The Dead Family Diaz is a celebration.

THE MONSTERS’ MONSTER (Patrick McDonnell, 2012)-A sweet treat for Halloween. Don’t let the presence of Frankenstein fool you, this book is more about gratitude and friendship than terrorizing hapless villagers. As Grouch, Grump and little Doom & Gloom discover, monsters do not always act as planned. From the artist who brought us the cartoon strip Mutts, and the perennial Christmas favourite-The Gift of Nothing, comes a most unusual, and funny tale of a kindly monster in search of…jelly doughnuts.

Scary Poems for Rotten Kids (Sean O’Huigin/Anthony LeBaron)-They don’t make kids books like this anymore, at least not without warning labels. This collection of deliciously creepy poems is trying very hard to scare kids, and according to the friend who brought this book to my attention, it was fantastically successful in this regard. A truly warped sense of humour is behind The Day the Mosquitoes ate Angela Jane, Acid Rain (hello 1982), Bye Bye (about a spider…a really, really big spider), and my particular favourite, The Body-a boneless beast who lives behind the walls and eats the flesh of little kids~

“…so don’t in darkness close the lids upon your eyes or you might find your body’s just ‘the body’s’ kind.”

Hmm. The newer edition of Scary Poems for Rotten Kids has a friendlier cover and interior illustrations that are far less sinister than the original black & white artwork by Anthony LeBaron. Presumably, this is an attempt on the part of the publisher to make O’Huigin’s nightmarish words more palatable to the modern child who is perhaps less rotten and a tad more sensitive than kids 25 years ago. The cartoonish drawings are no match for LeBaron’s ink-stained malevolence. Wonderful.

Jeremy Draws a Monster-Peter McCarty (Henry Holt 2009)-Like The Monsters’ Monster, there is nothing scary about this book, other than McCarty’s genius with a bit of ink and a coloured pencil. His finely detailed illustrations are so exquisite, I find myself staring at them in a (failed) attempt to decipher the secrets of his paintbox. In Jeremy Draws a Monster, an isolated and lonely kid draws himself a blue, horned beast for company. To Jeremy’s frustration, his new buddy is a bit of a nightmare, demanding all sorts of drawings to fufill his escalating list of monster comforts, including sandwiches, hotdogs, a soft chair, and finally, a big pink hat to wear ‘out on the town.’ When the monster returns, and takes over Jeremy’s bed, the worn out kid draws a bus and a bus ticket and bids farewell to his friend. While waving goodbye, Jeremy strikes up a conversation with the neighbour kids, who invite him over to play. Not particularly Halloweeny, but a beautifully illustrated paean to the power of imagination.

The Monster Returns-Peter McCarty (Henry Holt, 2012) Uh oh, he’s baaack! This time, however, Jeremy is prepared. Our little artist enlists his friends to draw their own monsters as c0mpanions for his monster. Very clever, Jeremy. Incredibly, with all the colourful new beasts, this sequel to Jeremy Draws a Monster is even more beautiful than the original. Lest you think Peter McCarty capable of only one style of illustration, check out Hondo and Fabian, one of my all-time favourite picture books. McCarty has a very elegant touch, with an eye for detail that is nonpareil.

On a related note, I picked up The Monster Returns on September 15th, 2012. It is the last book I will ever purchase from Greenwood’s Bookshoppe, a local independent bookstore in the city that closed two weeks ago. Heartbreaking. Such a great kids section, and many of books reviewed in this blog have come from Greenwood’s. You will be missed, and thanks for all the great books!

And now…HALLOWEEN treats (excluding those horrible molasses things) from the archives~

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  • Posted on October 15, 2012

Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure~Revealed!

Welcome to a new feature of 32 Pages-the Art Reveal, where an about-to-be-published book is introduced in all its awesomeness. Kicking off this new feature is Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure, book 4 in a series of culinary mysteries by Kevin Sylvester, starring Neil Flambé~a 14 year old ‘wunderchef’ not unlike Gordon Ramsey-if Gordon Ramsey was a ginger with a talent for solving crimes. Like Mr Ramsey, Neil can cook anything, and he can do it better than anyone else. Maybe he’s a bit cocky, but patrons pay top dollar and wait months for reservations at his tiny, boutique restaurant. Child labour laws aside, what those around him don’t know is that his talents do not stop at crème brûlée. With an extraordinary sense of smell, and the help of police inspector Sean Nakamura, this budding young detective is as good at cracking crimes as he is at cracking eggs.

And here’s what our young master chef is up to now…

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  • Posted on October 08, 2012
The Monsters' Monster cover2

The Monsters’ Monster

I bring you greetings from the Patrick McDonnell fan club, and by ‘fan’ I mean rampant (but respectful) follower, admirer, and student. I am in awe of this man, and my heart swells when he publishes another book. Just in time for Halloween, Mr McDonnell has given us The Monsters’ Monster, a terrifying tale of science gone awry. Um, no. More Zen than Karloff, this Frankensteinian monster is the epitome of reverence, kindness and gratitude, a philosophy McDonnell has been quietly and humourously articulating through his art for many years.

“He’s alive, ALIVE!”

And isn’t that…just great?

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  • Posted on October 01, 2012
Insomniacs night walk

Blue Moon

And there it was. Tucked between the banal and the forgettable on the shelves of my local bookstore. The Insomniacs, by Karina Wolf, with illustrations by The Brothers Hilts. The Brothers Hilts? Never heard of ‘em. My first impression? Wow. My second impression, well, I didn’t have second impression. I was too busy walking up to the till. When I see a book like this, even just a few pages, it’s like stumbling upon a box of jewels. There is no question I’m taking it home with me. And so, I did.

The Insomniacs is a story of jet-lag gone awry. When Mrs Insomniac gets a job as an astronomer, she and her somewhat oddly-constructed family set sail on a ship to their new home ’12 time zones’ away, and subsequently experience great difficulty adjusting to the shift in daylight hours. With bags under their eyes and slumped shoulders, mother, father (who looks like Humpty-Dumpty with an upside down face), and daughter Mika shuffle through their daily routines, unable to sleep at night in spite of the hot baths, numerous cups of milk, and meditation. In a last desperate attempt to find a way out of their predicament, the family go in search of hibernating bears to learn the secret of their season-long slumber. Wandering through the dark woods at night, they discover an entire world of nocturnal activity, and a light goes on, figuratively and literally.

Yes, The Insomniacs is indeed a box of jewels, but this night-time story is all sapphire.

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  • Posted on September 24, 2012
This is Not My Hat little fish

This Is Not My Hat

…and this is not a sequel to I Want My Hat Back, although the parallels are striking, especially as both books are hat-centric larks drenched in the dry humour and exquisite art of Jon Klassen. Not since Andy Warhol walked through the canned goods aisle has an artist squeezed so much out of a single object. Yes, every artist needs his muse, and Jon Klassen has found his in headgear. I’m being facetious of course; neither book is about the hat, per se…it could have been something else entirely. Nevertheless, it is the incongruity of such an object in an unlikely setting, on an unlikely head, and in particular, the lengths animals (and fish) will go to find, keep, steal, and display such a prized possession that makes a hat the perfect muse for Jon Klassen. This is Not My Hat does not begin where I Want My Hat Back ends, but it is an alternative expression of a similar concept.

Fish, meet hat.

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