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.
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.
Canadians 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
The province I call home is relatively catastrophe-free. Alberta is a land-locked northern city in Canada, not much is visited upon us by way of weather events, other than extreme, nostril-slamming cold and the occasional drought. However, when it hits, it hits big, like ‘Black Friday’ in 1987 when a tornado killed 27 people, or, two weeks ago, a devastating flood, which shut down a major city and most of southern Alberta for days, resulting in loss of life and several billion dollars worth of damage. Weather is unpredictable, and often deadly, but a good thunderstorm is a thing to behold. A thing many people, including myself, enjoy. A thing that would inspire any artist. Well, not just any artist.
Thunderstorm by the great Arthur Geisert is exactly the kind of book I would have loved as a kid, with imagery that would’ve stayed with me into adulthood. It’s in the details; the stuff going on in the corners, the fragments of story waiting for a turn at centre stage. A mid-west farming community in the midst of a stormy afternoon, full of scattering animals, busy humans shuttering down their belongings, and a panoramic landscape wide open to whatever is thrown at it. And pigs. There are always pigs in Geisert’s picture books.
Great illustration does not have a nationality. It can be found anywhere, and this blog is an appreciation of, and a testimony to, the pervasiveness of excellence. Illustrative genius may not be deep, but it is wide. Arguably, countries have a visual ‘flavour’, a stylistic predilection that shows up on the pages of picture books, but this can be difficult to identify without a thorough knowledge of its artists and writers, and anyway, who cares? Great art is great art. Nevertheless, as a Canadian, my heart thumps a little faster when I write about a homegrown picture book, and I have only scratched the surface of my country’s artistic depth.
Perpetually engaged in defining itself, Canada is a country rich in cultural influences. Personally, I’m OK with a definition that includes William Shatner and Tim Horton’s and excludes any comparison whatsoever tothatplacesouthofthe49thparallel, but others strive for something a little more, oh, I don’t know, comprehensive. What I do know is that a good place to start is with the artists, and apropos to this blog, the illustrators.
To that end, and in celebration of CANADA DAY on July 1, otherwise known as our 146th birthday, I would like to commend and thank Mulidzas Curtis Wilson for the beautiful Haida-inspired Canadian flag which adorns this post, and, in no particular order, send out this love letter to the Canadian authors and illustrators reviewed in 32 Pages.
Standing high above all is THE BOOK: Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books and Publishing , or everything you’ve always wanted to know about picture books in Canada, but we’re too reserved/passive/insecure to ask, eh? It’s very, very good. You can tell by the moose and the beaver on the cover.
Space does not interest me, unless Captain Kirk is commanding it or aliens are descending from it. There are many reasons, but primarily I blame David Bowie. I heard Space Oddity at a formative age, when my base level of fears was just settling in for a lifetime of anxiety. The idea of ‘floating in a tin can’, no longer tethered to the comforts of fresh fruit and gravity, terrifies me. Good thing the chances of this happening are slim. I’d probably have to redo grade 12 math.
What has caught my attention is the Canadian astronaut and social media star, Chris Hadfield. As commander of the International Space Station from December 21st, 2012 to May 13th, 2013, I was riveted by his Twitter feeds from space. Ironically, while the science of space travel via Hadfield’s comments and video demonstrations have been fascinating, it’s his celebration of Earth that has truly captured my attention. Bored by my growing obsession with all things Hadfieldian, my niece said, ‘space has always been cool Auntie.’ I suppose, but poor old Earth is fraught with buzz-kill issues, especially of late. Urgent environmental concerns have focused attention on the negative: the pollution, the extinctions, the catastrophic weather events. Hadield’s optimism and unfailing enthusiasm has done an amazing thing: showed us what’s right with the world. Stunning photographs of the earth, taken from space, have shifted our perspective, at least for a while. It is a beautiful world.
Thinking a lot about space these days. Not physical space~celestial space. The stuff above my head. My inspiration is Chris Hadfield, the Canadian commander of the International Space Station recently returned to Earth after six months in space. More about that in my next post. For now, I would like to direct your attention to the creatures who populate the space up there, way up there. I speak of aliens, of course, or one alien in particular, who, like Cmd Hadfield, has a taste for adventure.
In Frank Viva’s new book, A Long Way Away, we find an affable, jellyfish-like alien setting off on a journey, but it is up to the reader to decide if he is headed toward earth, or departing from it. Read one way, the alien is descending from space to earth in a tube-like yellow tunnel. Read the other, he is ascending through the same tunnel. This two-in-one story was created, like Viva’s previous book Along a Long Road, as a single, continuous 26 ft piece of art. In addition to myself and other picture book aficionados, it’s easy to imagine the young audience for A Long Way Away being completely enthralled by the format and possibility of this clever and beautiful book. With simple blocks of text and fantastically quirky, almost retro imagery, the narrative is wide open to interpretation, and yet what links this book to Along a Long Road is the pleasure of the journey.
Geez, it seems like I just finished writing about Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat and another book has appeared on the shelves. The guy is a machine, and I mean this in the nicest way possible. Just because he is prolific doesn’t mean his work is less than magnificent each time out. On the contrary, Klassen continues to show us unique facets of his creativity, which is boundless, if not a little warped. With The Dark, Klassen teams with fellow quirkmeister of children’s literature, Lemony Snicket for a singular unfortunate event, rather than a series. The monochromatic story is set in an old house, with a claw-foot tub and a lot of creaky wooden doors. Young pajama-wearing Laszlo is afraid of the dark, which is an actual thing in residence alongside Laszlo and his family. The dark hides in closets, behind shower curtains, or ‘pressed up against some old, damp boxes’, but mostly spends its time in the basement.
Slowly I am making my way through Poly Bernatene’s picture books. The Argentinian illustrator is astoundingly good, and very prolific. His latest book, Ribbit! is, like the others, a feat of illustration. Unlike the others, there is no blue, as in the colour blue. There are wonderful greens and pinks, but for anyone who has seen When Night Didn’t Come, The Tickle Tree, or The Santa Trap, they will understand, Bernatene immerses his illustrations in deep sapphires and lustrous periwinkles. Nevertheless, what Ribbit! lacks in blue, it more than makes up for in the number and quality of frogs, and a friendly, if slightly misunderstood pig.