• Posted on December 24, 2014

And Now…Last But Not Least

And I mean that! As in previous years, I am at the end of 2014 without getting to the end of the to-be-reviewed books on my desk. Absolutely nothing to do with how I feel about these lovelies – I just ran out of time! Rather than carry them forward into the murky future, I would prefer to say a few words now, lest they be inexcusably ignored in favour of some pretty new thing in 2015. You know how that happens. Anyway, no order to this list, just deep appreciation and love. Longer reviews may follow…

Once Upon an Alphabet-Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, 2014) This book has been on many ‘best of’ lists this year for all the usual Jeffersonian superlatives: it’s beautiful, funny, and deeply endearing. Also stupidly, ridiculously, unbelievably brilliant. Each letter of the alphabet is given its own short story. My favourite is ‘W’ for the Whiraffe: “The ingenious inventor had a favourite invention of all-the Whiraffe. It had the head of a whisk and the body of a giraffe. They became great friends over the years and enjoyed strawberries and whipped cream. The Whiraffe, of course, whipped the cream.” All the stories are wonderful and the art is inexplicably retro and original. It would be my favourite picture book of the year, except that The Farmer and the Clown hit me in the feels in a way that no other book did in 2014.

Oliver Jeffers V

 Sam & Dave Dig a Hole cover2Sam & Dave Dig a Hole-Mac Barnett, illustrations by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press, 2014) Individually and collaboratively, these guys are redefining the children’s picture book genre in ways that haven’t been seen since Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith gave us The Stinky Cheese Man. Seriously, who writes a book about digging a hole? Don’t be fooled. Shoveling dirt may seem mundane, but Barnett and Klassen elevate the subject matter way beyond its assumed possibilities, turning Sam & Dave Dig a Hole into a great, boyish adventure with a delicious twist of wry, mind-bending humour. It also says something about the human condition: always striving, never quite achieving, up for anything.

Gustave-Rémy Simard, illustrations by Pierre Pratt (Groundwood Books, 2014) If you like odd, existential tales, steeped in grief, with a tinge of dark humour – or Gustave coverif you’re Russian, Gustave is the book for you. It begins with this: “He’s gone,” followed by a heart-wrenching illustration of a little mouse in tormented grief after Gustave, his brother, is killed by a cat. Gustave has sacrificed himself to save his brother, leaving his sibling with a whopping case of survivor’s guilt. The little mouse wanders the unfriendly streets fretting about what to tell his mother. To say the story ends in an unusual way would not be understating it; putting the Gustave detailbook in a different, decidedly comical light. Gustave is not about grief per se – it is entirely (and wonderfully) its own unique thing. I kinda love it. I love its courage and its strangeness. The illustrations by three-time Governor-General’s Award recipient Pierre Pratt are both beautiful and suitably tortured. Colours appear scraped and textured, dimly lit, brooding. The mice, however, are full of character and charm. Gustave is not for everyone, but I promise, it will be an experience.

Gustave's brother grieves

Mutts Diaries coverThe Mutts Diaries-Patrick McDonnell (Andrews McMeel, 2014) As the title suggests, this book is a collection of Mutts cartoons organized by character into diary entries. A great introduction for those who are new to this magnificent cartoon created by Patrick McDonnell. It is also perfect for the devotees (such as myself) who have favourite characters and wish to read their stories in concentrated form – in particular Guard Dog, the perpetually chained bulldog who is loveable and kind in spite of his cruel restraints. An excellent companion to the annual treasuries (for 2014: Living the Dream) and all the other Mutts related publications.

A Perfectly Messed-Up Story-Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown & Company, 2014) An unusual publication from my very favourite person Patrick McDonnell in that it does not contain any of his Mutts characters. It is a stand-alone picture book about rejecting perfectionism in favour of embracing life’s inevitable messiness. Literally, that is; the book is covered in jam and peanut butter stains, much to the frustration of the main character Louis, who is merely trying to tell his story. I’m not so sure I’d be happy about someone messing up my books either, but the point is well-taken. The book reminds me of the Daffy Duck cartoon where the cartoonist intrudes on Daffy’s personal space. A Perfectly Messed-Up Story, like all of McDonnell’s stories, is deceptively simple, subversively Zen, and full of charm (and a bit of strawberry jam).

Perfectly Messed Up Story cover

Kuma Kuma Chan coverKuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear-Kazue Takahashi (Museyon, 2014) Originally published in 2001 in Japan, Kuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear is newly translated into English, and it is surely one of the sweetest, most endearing books I’ve read this year. A tiny book about a tiny, puff-ball bear living in the mountains, Kuma-Kuma Chan is charm personified. An unseen narrator wonders what Kuma-Kuma Chan does all day, and so page by page we learn the habits of the inventively self-entertaining bear: what he eats, how he plays, and all the other simple rituals of home life. Some activities are a little quirky; for instance, lining up the trimmings from his nails and gazing at them. Other pursuits speak to Kuma-Kuma Chan’s appreciation of the simple pleasures of a solitary life, like listening to the rain, or taking naps. The illustrations are soft and childlike, beautifully mirroring the quiet, meditative tone of the book. With shelves of loud, intentionally ironic children’s books trying mightily to attain cross-generational appeal, it’s wonderful to read a book that is genuinely sweet and gentle – aimed specifically at young children. It’s easy to see why this book is so popular in Japan. Hopefully Kuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear will spark interest here in North America.

Winter Moon Song cover

Winter Moon Song-Martha Brooks, illustrations by Leticia Ruifernández (Groundwood Books, 2014) I’ve not read many folktales about rabbits. Certainly, rabbits figure prominently in children’s literature (and my backyard), but they tend toward the fuzzy side of things, less on the mythological. (The long ears lack gravitas, I guess.) In the lovely Winter Moon Song, Martha Brooks gives us an ethereal rabbit story that reads like an old folktale and is, in fact, distilled from various legends about mother rabbit and the rabbit moon. Rabbit moon? Yes, I suppose shadows falling across the face of the moon do, at times, resemble a rabbit, especially when brought to life by Spanish illustrator Leticia Ruifernández. Wishing to honour his ancestral past in a meaningful way, a young rabbit, ‘not so small as to be a still-doted-upon baby, yet not so big enough to be noticed’, sings the traditional Winter Moon Song on a violet-infused winter night ‘to lighten the darkest month of the year with a trail of magic.’ Winter Moon Song is a story simply, and exquisitely told.

Cats are Cats coverCats are Cats-Valeri Gorbachev (Holiday House, 2014) For all those who appreciate cats, of all stripes. Miss Bell brings home a kitty from a pet store, and discovers, rather late, that the cat is in fact, a tiger. She loves him anyway, even as he lays waste to her home. Frankly, an actual kitty will lay waste to your home. When it comes to cats, size does NOT matter. Miss Bell buys some fish for her cat, not as food, but as companions. One of the fish…well, as Miss Bell says, fish are fish (even when they’re sharks). The illustrations by Ukraine emigre Valeri Gorbachev are sweet and funny. This is one tiger I would definitely invite over for tea.

Cats are Cats detail

Mr Chicken Lands On London-Leigh Hobbs (Allen & Unwin, 2014) In September, I visited London, England – very briefly, to see Kate Bush perform and visit a few galleries. After many hours on planes, trains (but no automobiles), I wearily found my hotel in the centre of Hammersmith, and Mr Chicken Lands on Londonmuch to my surprise…shock, actually, I was presented with a package at the front desk. What it could be, or for that matter, who knew I was even in London, in that hotel? When I ripped open the package, it was a book – Mr Chicken Lands on London from my blogger friend Zoe at the brilliant Playing By the Book. How wonderful is that??? Though my touristy adventures in London over the next few days mirrored those of Mr Chicken, I do hope I was not as conspicuous as monsieur poulet, although I did spend an awful lot of time staring at oversized maps. It’s a terribly funny book, with lively, quirky art. Thanks again to Zoe for welcoming me to London in such brilliant fashion!

That’s it. Apologies to any books that have found their ways into the nooks and crannies of my bookshelves, too shy to be reviewed. I’ll find you, and I’ll be gentle. Until then, Merry Christmas (yes, I posted this hours before the blessed event), and my deepest, deepest, gratitude to the illustrators, authors, fellow bloggers, and readers who have made the 2014 reading year so grand. THANK YOU! XXOO

  • Posted on December 15, 2014

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.


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?

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