• Posted on July 19, 2012
Dwarf Nose cover

Dwarf Nose

This morning, while reading Dwarf Nose, the German fairytale by Wilhelm Hauff and Lisbeth Zwerger, I was reminded of Karen Klein, the New York grandmother and bus monitor who was severely taunted by a group of boys on their way to school. Like everyone else who viewed the youtube video (one of the little creeps filmed the dreadful thing), I longed for retribution equivalent to the emotional abuse heaped on the poor woman, but how do you answer such shamefulness? In fairy tales, wickedness is punished, usually in some completely excessive and often spectacularly lethal way, which is not really appropriate (or possible) in the real world. Nevertheless, actions had consequences. In Dwarf Nose, a young boy, described as a ‘fine, handsome son, well built and quite tall for his age’, scolds an old crone for saying nasty things about his mother’s cabbages. Granted, she started it, but when the boy is cursed with the physical attributes he cruelly ridiculed in the old woman, I thought to myself, serves you right, ya little git.

However, I am certain 19th century delinquency is not the point of Dwarf Nose. Indeed, this unusually long tale by Wilhelm Hauff, a contemporary of the Brothers Grimm, is rather nuanced in spite of the mêlée at the vegetable stand. It is also the inspiration for a beautiful series of illustrations by the great Lisbeth Zwerger, who wields her own brand of enchantment, albeit across a modern and considerably less flinty land.

Typical of many fairy tales of the era, Dwarf Nose begins with a family of modest means whose suffering is made infinitely more acute by an unfortunate encounter with the supernatural. To help make ends meet, the cobbler’s wife sells fruits and vegetables at the town market, and her ‘handsome’ son Jacob encourages the local housewives and cooks to buy her wares, often carrying their purchases home for them. He is rewarded well for his efforts, returning to his mother with small coins, or pieces of cake. An old woman in tattered clothes approaches the stand, and proceeds to berate the quality of the herbs and vegetables on display. Wishing to defend his mother, the boy calls the woman a few choice names, casting aspersions on everything from her appearance to her overall filth. The crone ends up buying six cabbages, and upon his mother’s insistence, the boy carries the bags to her cottage. Let the weirdness begin…

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  • Posted on July 11, 2012
Little Bird

Small Things Are Treasures

“May my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living.”*

~E.E. Cummings

Every so often a picture book comes across my desk that makes me weep. It’s not always because the story is sad. Roger Ebert said it’s not sadness in movies that make him cry, it’s kindness. Yes. Sometimes, it’s sheer gratitude that such a beautiful thing exists, or the quiet way an author or illustrator expresses the wonder of being alive. Little Bird by Germano Zullo and Albertine is such a book. It’s joy, kindness, wonder, sadness (but of the wistful sort), and beauty. In short, Little Bird is a treasure.

The story of Little Bird is minimalist, as are the illustrations. Although the artist is Swiss, the block of gold against a cloudless blue sky is like a flat, prairie landscape from western Canada. Perhaps it is canola, or wheat, but the details are few, and the only human activity is a red van, ambling down a narrow, winding road. When it stops at the edge of a crevasse, a peculiar-looking fellow in a plaid shirt and blue overalls departs the cab, walks around to the back, and opens the door.

A large bird flies out, followed by a flock of beautifully imagined fowl of varying design and colour. This is no ordinary delivery, and it will be no ordinary day. A small black bird, who for some reason has not followed the others into the sky, stares up at the man from the darkness of the van. The man flaps his arms, encouraging the tiny creature to take wing, but the bird doesn’t move. The man sits down next to the bird, offering part of his sandwich. The two of them eat their lunch in amiable silence, until the man makes an even more ridiculous attempt to lure the bird out of the truck. It works, and the black bird joins the flock. Mission accomplished, or so you might think, but as the text promises, some days are different. Little Bird soars in unexpected ways, and the final illustration is magical, but also funny, and deeply moving.

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