• Posted on November 30, 2013
On a Snowy Night cover

On a Snowy Night

I walk in the river valley and ravines of my city. It is my daily exercise, but more than that, it is my meditation. In the solitude and loveliness of nature, my cup runneth over. I’ve seen many miraculous things, but none that touched my heart more than an unlikely creature spotted one morning, nuzzling yellowed grass in the dead landscape of November. A small brown rabbit had taken up residence on a hill near the city’s centre. Large, sturdy-footed hares are ubiquitous in Edmonton, but this fellow was clearly domestic. Lost or abandoned, he had found a home beneath a set of stairs in full view of trail walkers like myself and the ever vigilant predatory wildlife who make their home in the river valley. I observed Brown Rabbit (pictured on the right) on numerous occasions, but after the first snow, I was surprised to find him Brown Rabbit by Donna McKinnonin his usual spot, nibbling a branch. After that, I began filling my pockets with vegetables and making strategic drops near the staircase. On good days, he would come out and feast on the bounty. Some days, usually cold days, he was nowhere to be found. I worried about Brown Rabbit, and I was not alone. Remnants of other ‘care packages’ were visible in the area, but calls to various wildlife rescue organizations proved fruitless. On the remote chance that he could be lured into a cage, no one was really interested in another abandoned domestic rabbit. “Best not to move him.” I was told.

On a blue-sky December afternoon near Christmas, I sat on the steps in the park and watched Brown Rabbit emerge from beneath the stairs, nearer to me than he’d ever previously dared. Perched on the steps just above the rabbit, the sun fiercely bright and cold on my face, I listened as he nibbled on vegetable tops and straws of timothy hay. In that moment it felt like I’d entered a state of grace with this little life. On some level, Brown Rabbit understood that I meant no harm. An animal’s trust is a gift. Once earned, it must be safeguarded.

On a Snowy Night abandonedOn a Snowy Night by Jean Little, with illustrations by Brian Deines, is the story of a broken trust. It is also a story of compassion, and unexpected friendships. When a young boy named Brandon is given a rabbit for his fifth birthday, he names her Rosa and proclaims her ‘perfect.’ For awhile, the boy is attentive, but as is often the case with children and pets, interest wanes, and Brandon begins to neglect Rosa, even forgetting to feed her. Excited by the freshly fallen snow on Christmas Eve, Brandon brings Rosa outside and inadvertently leaves her there when he runs inside to answer a call. Rosa tries to find her way back, but gets lost. The chickadees warm Rosa with their down feathers and a squirrel finds Brandon’s lost mitten (apparently this kid is easily distracted), and gently nudges the still shivering rabbit onto its woolen surface. A raccoon pops the nose off a snowman and offers Rosa the carrot. “I thought wild animals ate each other?” says Rosa. “Not on this night,” replies a hawk, who leads the rabbit back to her home, where an anxious Brandon is reunited with his lost bunny. Interestingly, Jean Little ends the story ambiguously. While Rosa is happy to be back home, she is a realist (if rabbits can be realists.) On a snowy night, on Christmas Eve, kindness and friendship may be found in unlikely places.

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  • Posted on November 23, 2013
Buchholz climbs through thick volumes

Im Land Der Bücher ~ In the Land of Books

*Reading is the dream through foreign hands* Fernando Pessoa

Buchholz In the Land of Books coverIm Land Der Bücher. In the Land of Books. As the title suggests, Im Land Der Bücher is a book about books; about the sometimes strange relationship we have with words, and the myriad states of being one assumes while lost in the pages of a good book. The illustrations in Im Land Der Bücher are not just extraordinarily evocative, they are also beautiful, and funny, and a little bit mournful; words that could describe virtually all paintings by Quint Buchholz, the German artist whose past subject matter includes elephants lumbering down the snowy streets of Canada, a quintet of musicians teetering on a rock, and a man playing a cello on a deserted field while a giant snail, his only audience, oozes by in the distance. In his newest book, Buchholz paints a woman in a bathtub, floating on the ocean. She is reading, and does not notice the beluga whale passing underneath. Where has this book taken her? Though not yet published in English (the author kindly provided a translation), Im Land Der Bücher is a fantastical journey worth taking in any language.

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  • Posted on November 12, 2013
Caribou Song cover copy

Caribou Song

The dual language Caribou Song by award-winning author and playwright Tomson Highway was first published in 2001 with illustrations by Brian Deines. The story is in print again, with stunning new illustrations by John Rombough, a Chipewyan Dene artist living in the Northwest Territories. Also new is the inclusion of a colloquial (Ateek Oonagamoon) dialect of Cree, replacing the original high Cree (Atihko Nikamon) translation.

Caribou Song dancingSet in Manitoba ‘too far north for most trees’, Caribou Song is the story of two brothers, Joe and Cody, who follow the year-long caribou migration with their parents. They live a traditional, nomadic life of dog sleds, bannock, and rather unexpectedly, accordion music. To engage the caribou and draw them out of the forest into the open, Joe plays the accordion, called kitoochigan in Cree, while his brother Cody dances ‘with his arms up like antlers.’ Music, as they say, soothes the savage ungulate.

One day in late spring, the caribou heed the boys’ musical call in an exhilarating and dangerous way. ‘Faster than lightening’, ten thousand caribou fill the meadow. As a sea of antlers roars by, Cody takes Joe by the hand and ‘swims’ to a big rock, where they hear the spirit voice of the caribou rising above the din of the herd. The boys lift their arms in exultation, embracing the spirit. Fearing the worst, the parents are relieved to see Joe and Cody laughing on the rock as the herd dissipates.

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  • Posted on October 22, 2013
Here Be Monsters swashbuckling

Here Be Monsters

The title of Jonathan Emmett and Poly Bernatene’s new book Here Be Monsters is a play on Here Be Dragons, an admonishment printed in the corners of medieval maps to prevent seafaring types from wandering into uncharted territory. Ascribing evil to the unknown is common enough even today, but back then, it seemed reasonable to personify fear as a fire-breathing dragon. We now know these fears were unfounded. There are no dragons, no monsters. Good news if you’re a pirate, and an island of giant gemstones lay concealed in the murky mist of a faraway, uncharted land. Here be monsters, indeed.

Here Be Monsters coverCaptain Cut-Throat is the ‘meanest mariner to sail the Seven Seas’, guilty of ‘countless crimes of downright dastardliness and despicable dishonesty’, or so the Wanted Dead or Alive poster tells us. The peg-legged, pointy-nosed fox leads a crew of equally unsavoury characters, all of whom are wanted for various crimes, including ‘mean misconduct and monstrous mischief’ (Blue-Bottomed Bart, a mandrill), and ‘reprehensible rudeness and repulsive roguery’ (Quilly Von Squint, a raven), among other alliterative (and hilarious) misdeeds. As befitting a pirate of the highest order, Captain Cut-Throat likes treasure. Loves it in fact, refusing to heed his crew’s misgivings as he sets sail for the mysterious island of gems. Calm seas prevail until the ship enters the mist, where strange noises can be heard. One after the other, the crew plead with the captain, only to be plucked off the ship in spectacular fashion by, in turn, a giant, teeth-baring parrot and a multi-eyed serpent. Thinking his ‘yellow-bellied’ crew have abandoned ship, the captain remains steadfast in his goal, oblivious to what actually transpired on his ship. The bejeweled island emerges out of the mist, and Captain Cut-Throat greedily sets paw and peg on land to claim his reward. And he gets it. Boy, does he get it. These gems don’t just sparkle, they bite.

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  • Posted on October 15, 2013
Young Frank Architect cover detail

Young Frank Architect

“Youth is a quality, not a matter of circumstances.”  Frank Lloyd Wright

So begins Frank Viva’s new book, Young Frank Architect, and this reassuring adage plays out in the inspiring story of passion and artistic vision as embodied by a young boy, his grandfather, and a host of famous architects and designers. Young Frank Architect is also an homage to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, a place I have not yet visited but whose breadth of genius has long been a draw, if an elusive one. With the publication of Young Frank Architect, a trip to MoMA is in order, and though contained within the pages of a picture book, it is no less an adventure.

Young Frank Architect book buildingYoung Frank is a creative soul with a very broad idea of what it means to be an architect. Old Frank, his grandfather, is an actual architect whose views have, perhaps, narrowed over the years. The boy aspires to be like his grandfather in more ways than one, even adopting his straw boater hat and comically round glasses. The grandfather watches his grandson build twisty skyscrapers out of piles of books and a chair of toilet paper rolls, and attempts to educate the boy on the rules of his profession. “I don’t think architects make chairs. And you really can’t sit in this one, can you?”, a statement which only deflates the young boy’s exuberance. Bewildered by his grandson’s unorthodox architectural creations, Old Frank takes the boy to the Museum of Modern Art “…to see the work of some REAL architects.’

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  • Posted on October 01, 2013
DSCF2394

Ghosts

October has arrived, wind-swept and leaf-strewn; a seasonal reminder that it’s time to bone up on my ghosts. Like the would-be spectre dragging a ball and chain in Sonia Goldie and illustrator Marc Boutavant’s newly translated book Ghosts, I am poorly educated in the ectoplasmic sciences. No matter, with the help of this extraordinary (and extrasensory) book, I can now distinguish between the winter-loving ghost who lurks behind curtains drawing pictures on frosted window panes, the soot-covered Chimney Ghost, and of course, the oft-maligned Night Ghost. I’ve much to learn, and many preconceptions that barely scratch the surface of this delightful and diverse society of apparitions.

Ghosts coverOriginally published in 2001 in France, Ghosts is a whimsical introduction to the domestic variety of ghost populating the bedrooms and kitchens of our homes in (apparently) great multitude and variety. Leading the tour is a tiny bear-like ghost named Toasty, and his protege, an old-fashioned fellow from the ‘sheet’ and ‘boo’ era who may or may not be a real ghost. Wishing to dispel the myth that ghosts live only in old castles and haunted houses, Toasty invites his new friend to a party for all the household ghosts, who are introduced one by one. Turns out, we corporeal types are far from alone, and as I’d always suspected, not solely responsible for the mess and mayhem in our homes. There are mischief-makers in our midst.

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  • Posted on September 28, 2013
Mr Tiger Goes Wild

Tiger Goes Tiger

The most rewarding, and the most difficult journey in life is to become who we are. For a lucky few, it’s no journey at all, for others, it takes years if not decades to shed the layers that mask our true selves. There are many pressures to conform, to fit in, and we adapt our personalities in ways which can often feel fraudulent. In Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, Peter Brown masks his protagonist in a waistcoat and top hat. He also makes him a tiger; a very proper, and very bored tiger.

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  • Posted on September 14, 2013
Northwest Passage cover

A Land So Wide and Savage

On a hill more than thirty years ago, I first heard the unmistakeable voice of Stan Rogers. It was the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in 1982. As the hot August sun beat down my haltered back, the bearded balladeer’s muscular baritone percussed through the grounds like a drumbeat, tossing flimsy-voiced folksingers in its wake, demanding that we pay attention to the stories of our country, that we be upstanding for the narrative of Canada. And so I stood.

Northwest Passage Stan RogersCanadians love to talk about what it means to be Canadian. That we have yet to reach a consensus is proof that we are a diverse people. Diverse, and indecisive. Still, there is common ground: a national predilection for caffeinated beverages in the name of a deceased hockey player, doughnuts from said deceased hockey player, hockey, snow, and, for a lot of us, the music of Stan Rogers.

I knew him through my music-loving sister, who wept the day he died in 1983 at the age of 33. “Who will sing about us?”, she said. Indeed. Folksingers abound, but few tell stories that enrich a nation’s perception of itself, and even fewer take on the lead-lined pages of a failed northern expedition and turn it into a song that endures. Northwest Passage by Governor General award nominee Matt James is not only a celebration of the Stan Roger’s most famous song, it is also a glimpse into an historical event that still resonates into the 21st century.

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  • Posted on August 30, 2013
Once Upon a Northern Night blue forest

Once Upon a Northern Night

On rare occasions, a picture book comes my way that is so evocative, it feels like a lost memory from childhood, revealing itself page after page. Once Upon a Northern Night is a such a book. Oddly out of time, and yet timeless, Once Upon a Northern Night is a breathsucker, a gust of cold winter air awakening the senses. After several readings, I am still amazed that this glorious book has been in existence for a mere few months, not fifty years. The gentle poetry of Jean Pendziwol has the lilt and reverence of an old bedtime story, the kind without irony or guile. Like Pendziwol’s words, Isabelle Arsenault’s luminous illustrations belong to a bygone era of limited palettes and charmingly stylized imagery. If books have souls, then Once Upon a Northern Night is an old soul.

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  • Posted on August 20, 2013
Little Red Hood

Little Red Hood

Sometimes magnificent little confections appear before me in bookshops. I am powerless to resist, and really, I have no interest in resistance, as my teetering bookshelves can attest. If it’s good, I’ll buy it. Little Red Hood by Marjolaine Leray is such a book. Modest in size and colour (red, white, black), it is the very embodiment of simplicity, and yet Little Red Hood packs a punch in several unexpected ways.

Little Red Hood Wolf looming over girlThe story of the red-hooded waif and the trickster wolf with the insatiable appetite for little girls and grannies is a familiar one, although the resolution varies greatly between the various translations. In the Perreault version, the grandmother outwits the wolf. In Grimm’s Little Red Cap, the wolf is split open by the huntsman. In Bugs Bunny, Little Red Riding Hood is so obnoxious, Bugs and the wolf conspire to end their misery. And so on. Very rarely does the wolf triumph, but then, neither does the girl, other than having her life spared. She is always (with the exception of Bugs) rescued. In Little Red Hood, the girl is her own hero, outwitting the wolf, thus saving her self from his exceptionally long and toothy snout. Commenting on his bad breath, the girl offers the wolf a sweet, but not just any sweet. Suffice to say, there is no end to this girls’ resourcefulness.

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