• Posted on April 30, 2015

Outstanding In The Rain

Originality in children’s picture book illustration is a rarity, so when it comes around, it knocks your socks off, or sandals, depending on the weather. Outstanding in the Rain, Frank Viva’s newest book and the fifth in four years by this Toronto-based designer and illustrator, already feels like a classic, with the visual pop of a beloved mid-century picture book, re-imagined and re-energized for modern tastes. It is zingy and a little loopy, and I guarantee there is nothing else like it on the shelves, unless you include Viva’s previous books, and even then, Outstanding in the Rain is still entirely its own wonderful thing.

Outstanding in the Rain slide

I think the word that best describes Outstanding in the Rain, and all of Viva’s work, is inventive. And then – pick your adverb: playfully, beautifully, delightfully, knee-slappingly, humourously, ridiculously…ETC. The inventiveness, in this particular case, is not in the story but in how the story is told. A boy and his family spend the day at an amusement park (Coney Island) celebrating his birthday, going on rides, eating junk food, playing on the beach, and getting caught in the rain. A typical carnival narrative, which is secondary to the wordplay evoked by the clever use of momentum-building die-cuts: ICE CREAM becomes OH NO I SCREAM on the next page (as a result of a toppled cone), followed by THOSE SANDWICHES THERE to ON THE SAND WHICH IS THERE, and so on. As each page is turned, the die-cut frames an image from the previous page, transforming it into an entirely new thing. To quote the book jacket, Outstanding in the Rain, itself a play on words, is ‘A Whole Story With Holes’.

Outstanding in the Rain scream

It is also a whole story with a whole lotta beautiful art. With relatively few words in the book, and an equally minimalistic (but definitely not subdued) palette, the story still feels big and boisterous. It is a cartoon without being cartoonish. Perhaps it is the highly stylized shapes – loosely human and loosely architectural – where nothing is detailed but a lot is going on and everything is recognizable (if not comically exaggerated). Or the graphic sensibility that underpins the design, even as it simultaneously plays with it. One thing is obvious: Frank Viva is a master of colour. His books vibrate. This is particularly true with Outstanding in the Rain, which has (I swear) an audible hum as the blocks of turquoise, umber and orange spark and bump up against each other on the page. For children and adults, the book demands multiple reads to take in all the narrative and visual mischief. Outstanding in the Rain is, in short, a carnival, and twice as much fun.

Outstanding in the Rain roller coaster

I have a theory. Outstanding in the Rain is either number three of a trilogy or part of an ongoing series. In Along a Long Road, the cyclist passes an ice cream truck (and, I should add, an amusement park). In A Long Way Away, there is an ice cream truck, perhaps the same truck, on a road. In Outstanding in the Rain, an ice cream shop is front and centre. Either it is intentional and this book is connected to the others by the appearance of ice cream in one form or another, or Frank is subconsciously controlled by frozen desserts. If it’s the former, bravo, if it’s the latter – Mr Viva…I can relate.

Outstanding in the Rain authorFrank Viva is an award-winning illustrator, designer, and presumed ice-cream lover. His brilliant work frequently graces the covers of The New Yorker, and other magazines. According to his website, Frank also likes bikes and public transit, and is the founder and managing director of Viva & Co.

Outstanding in the Rain by Frank Viva. Published by Tundra Books, 2015

Other reviews (click on links):

Young Frank Architect by Frank Viva (Museum of Modern Art, 2013)

A Long Way Away by Frank Viva (HarperCollins, 2013)

Along a Long Road by Frank Viva (HarperCollins, 2011)

Here’s a wonderful article from the New Yorker about the creation of Outstanding in the Rain

  • Posted on April 23, 2015


I am a dog person, and my attraction to those of the canine persuasion extends to my taste in picture books. Old dogs and pups, dogs in capes, stinky dogs, dogs who run curio museums, dogs named Plum, dog-like coyotes and wolves, and just plain old mutts; each in possession of some unique quality of dog captured and expressed by the best writers and illustrators around. I love ’em all, so why not run them in a pack? Gather all the reviews in one post, for my own amusement, yes, but also to provide a helpful list for fellow barkophiles in search of beautiful dog books. Of course, this is but a smattering of what is available, and there are still dog books on my shelves that have yet to make it to this blog, but for now I invite you to play ball with these titles, which are listed in no particular order. Click on the links for the original, and in most cases, much longer reviews.

Dream Dog cover4I want to start with DREAM DOG by Lou Berger, with illustrations by David Catrow. Dogs display an infinite range of emotions, and not just on their faces. From a wave of a tail to the swivel of an ear, dogs radiate emotion with their entire body. Not only has David Catrow mastered the art of dog expressiveness, together Berger and Catrow have captured the joy so many of us feel in the presence of a dog. Dream Dog is a wondrous, funny book, full of kid energy and soaring hearts (mostly my own).

Dream Dog Waffle and Bumper

Frustratingly dogless, Harry uses his X-35 Infra-Rocket Imagination Helmet to conjure up a dream dog because his father, sensitized by his work in a pepper factory, sneezes around real dogs. Harry’s dog Waffle is big and friendly – an adorable mix of actual breeds and a boy’s sweet imagination. Eventually, Harry’s dad gets another job and buys Harry a real dog, who he names Bumper. All three become friends until one day Waffle races after a cloud and simply wafts away, “woofing happily” as Bumper and Harry play in the field below. Dream Dog will hit you in the feels in the best possible way.

Say Hello to Zorro!Speaking of books that drive straight to the heart, I cannot say enough about the Zorro and Mister Bud series about two unlikely housemutts who have (so far) starred in three books: SAY HELLO TO ZORRO, ZORRO GETS AN OUTFIT, and MISTER BUD WEARS THE CONE. Carter Goodrich has not only created funny and exceedingly loveable characters, he has also imbued them with the full range of dog emotion, from joy to shame, without losing sight of their essential dogginess. The ample-snouted Mister Bud and his energetic roomie Zorro (a pug) have the sort of localized adventures familiar to most dogs (and their people) and it is in these otherwise ‘normal’ situations that Goodrich finds the extraordinary: the moments of emotional truth, the humour, the pathos, and the beautifully observant way he expresses the body language of dogs.

Zorro Gets an Outfit stick

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  • Posted on April 16, 2015

Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear

Years ago, I used to work in an independent bookstore. Of the many customers who came my way, most have faded into the past. Sandy Muldrew is one of the memorable few. Not only have we remained friends, he shared, and continues to share, my passion for beautifully illustrated picture books. Although our (superb) tastes frequently overlap, our collections diverge, and so I thought – why not spread the passion around and invite him to write about one of his favourites? I am pleased to say, it worked! And so, I will turn this blog over to Sandy for the first, (and hopefully not the last), guest post:

When Donna asked me to write a guest blog for 32 Pages, I wasn’t sure if I had a worthy book that she had not yet touched upon. Recently, I have been relying solely on her excellent recommendations to add to my collection of illustrated treasures (and subtract from my bank account). But then I remembered a perfect candidate – it’s one of my seasonal favourites – Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear. While not exactly a children’s book, it is more of a charming poem illustrated with mirthful joy, written and illustrated by N.M. Bodecker in 1975 and then re-illustrated as a tribute by Erik Blegvad in 1997. They were two Danish expats and lifelong friends who shared an art studio in Connecticut. And this is where the poem itself takes place – on a farmhouse in New England – which is appropriate because the heroine of the piece embodies the pioneering spirit of Plymouth Rock. In fact, despite being thin as a rail, she is able to accomplish more in one day than the rest of us could hope to achieve in one year.

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear dill the pickles

The poem begins innocently enough with Mary’s layabout husband issuing the first of his many edicts: “Hurry, hurry, Mary dear, fall is over, winter’s here,” he yawns from the comfort of his warm bed. “Not a moment to be lost, in a minute we get frost! In an hour we get snow! Drifts like houses! Ten below!” At this, from dawn’s early light to dusk and night, we witness Mary’s super-human endurance as she completes one impossible task after another. All the while, she shows the patience of a saint as she is put through the paces by the constant commandments issued by her unseen spouse (supposedly from somewhere deep within the warm house – far, far away from draughts). “Pick the apples, dill the pickles, chop down trees for wooden nickels. Dig the turnips, split the peas, cook molasses, curdle cheese.” As the harvesting becomes increasingly ridiculous (cook molasses??), it is all offset by the wonderfully humourous illustrations of the scrawny Mary with her sharp nose, tiny feet, and ever-present apron and black stockings. She wields her axes and shovels like Hercules taking on the Hydra and Cerberus.

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear chop3

“Churn the butter, smoke the hams, can tomatoes, put up jams. Stack the stove wood, string the beans, up the storms and down the screens.”

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear molasses

Through all of this – as the wind picks up, the leaves fall, the trees bend, and snowflakes appear – our poor Mary, flushed and frazzled, seems to age twenty years. Her nose reddens, her hair becomes disheveled, and her back bends like an exhausted hunchback. As day turns to night, the impending snowstorm descends upon the house with it’s full fury. Mary finally retreats indoors but her day is far from done.

“Pull the curtains, close the shutters. Dreadfully the wild wind mutters. Oil the snowshoes, stoke the fires. Soon the roads are hopeless mires. Mend the mittens, knit the sweaters, bring my glasses, mail my letters.”

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear kitchen

Dutifully she scurries about and obeys the offscreen patriarch who we finally see again – stuffed into his rocker with slippered feet, pillow and pipe. “Toast the muffins, hot and sweet and good for me. Bake me doughnuts, plain and frosted…What, my dear? You feel exhausted? Yes, these winters are severe! Hurry, hurry…” With that, like the tea, she finally reaches her boiling point and dumps it all over his head “…Mary dear.” Perfect!

I love this poem not only for it’s humour but also for it’s comforting notion of winter hibernation. Thankfully none of us have to go through the Herculean efforts of Mary, but, still, there is always autumnal work to be done to ready one’s house for the season’s first snowfall. Is there anything more comforting than getting all the leaves raked, the hoses put away, the garden dug, and the windows washed before the first flakes fly? As the furnace kicks in and you get that whiff of singed dust from it’s summer disuse, you can’t help but feel snug and smug. Sporting slippers and sweater, you survey your realm with satisfaction (from the warmth of your indoor sanctuary). You brew a pot of tea, nibble on some biscuits, settle into your corner wingback, and open up a good book. And, all the while, the wild wind mutters. There is a primitive pleasure in this. It Hurry Hurry Mary Dear wind muttershearkens back to the first time we crawled into a cave to escape the elements. Despite the absence of biscuits (not yet invented), we, nevertheless, overcame the cold and the wet by lighting a fire, huddling together, and telling stories. Then, as now, we are still lulled to sleep as the muffled storm rages outside. While, today, it is much easier to keep warm and dry, the sense of satisfaction persists. We still take great comfort in retreating indoors and shutting the door on the cold – and that is wonderfully conveyed in a poem like Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear. Every fall, I reread it to experience, once again, that feeling of gezelligheid. I hope you will seek out this book and when the snows arrive next November (or possibly October…), you too, will be entertained and warmed by it.
(P.S. Watch for Mary’s constant companion – the ever-present black cat. It appears in every scene – sometimes in the foreground, often in the background, and once in shadow only.)

Review by Sandy Muldrew

Hurry, Hurry Mary Dear written by N.M. Bodecker, illustrations by Erik Blegvad. This edition published by Margaret K. McElderry, 1998