• Posted on July 01, 2013
Canadian Flag-Mulidzas-Curtis Wilson

Canada Day

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.

Picturing Canada coverTo 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.

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  • Posted on June 07, 2013
Mousetronaut

Good Morning Earth

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.

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  • Posted on May 18, 2013
Viva A Long Way Away cover

A Long Way Away

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.

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  • Posted on May 05, 2013
The Dark basement

Darkness Visible

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.

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  • Posted on April 14, 2013
Ribbit! What is this strange frog?

Pig in a Pond

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.

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  • Posted on March 30, 2013
Harris Finds His Feet

Hares & Bunnies & Rabbits oh my!

Easter means many things to many people. It is a Christian celebration, a pagan rite, an excuse to sport a frilly bonnet, and for me, a time to dismember a chocolate bunny, starting with the head. Yes, it’s all about the rabbits, regardless of what anyone tells you.

Lovely picture books about rabbits abound, and I could easily pen a few words at any time of the year. However, Easter is when my brain is at its most bunny-filled and hare-focused, and while these internal images are of a similar breed (chocolate), I am willing to direct my thoughts to rabbits of the illustrated variety for the purposes of giving further exposure to a few bunny-centric picture books.

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  • Posted on March 23, 2013
Darwin's Frog

Frog Song

Spring is a fraught subject in this part of the world. In celebration of the first day of spring, the sky unfurled a massive, white party favour, dropping 30cm of snow over an already thickly blanketed landscape. It was an extravagant display of spring’s absence, in other words, and it will be another month before the ground clears and the grass begins to blush a tentative green. What to do in weather like this? Pour a cup of coffee and read about frogs.

Following in the steps of their previous collaboration-Life in The Boreal Forest, Brenda Guiberson and Gennady Spirin have created the magnificent Frog Song, a paean to the beauty of the natural world, our precarious ecosystem, and spring’s noisiest amphibian.

Frog Song Spanish toad

In onomatopoeic prose (“mwa”, “fwish”, “swee swee”, etc.,), Brenda Guiberson introduces the reader to an international cast of frogs, from the scarlet-sided pobblebonk of northeastern Australia to the European midwife toad, whose eggs are carried by the male on his exterior. In Spirin’s hands, the eggs are a treasure of shimmering amber pearls heaped on the back end of the frog (who appears to be quite proud of his hoard.) I was pleased to see the Canadian wood frog, a pillar of endurance and adaptability in its ability to transform itself into a frogsicle in winter, included in the book. Once thawed, the wood frogs’ eggs are deposited along stream beds before the ice has completely melted. In Frog Song-Canadian Wood Frogmy city, a bog located in a ravine I frequent bubbles to life in the spring, and the surface activity is accompanied by a soundtrack unlike anything I’ve ever heard, as if someone were pushing a stroller across gravel. Initially, I couldn’t place the source, but later discovered the strange sound was the mating song of the boreal chorus frog, a relative of the wood frog. No stereotypical ‘ribbit’ from this crowd, just rhythmic ‘craaacks’. It is something I look forward to every spring, although judging by the amount of snow outside, it will be awhile before the woods are filled with love-sick frog songs.

The illustration of the Costa Rican strawberry poison dart frog on the cover of Frog Song is so extraordinarily moist and life-like, it looks like a photograph, which is misleading. Frog Song is a work of imagination. It is a work of art. The cropped image is part of a much larger, two-page illustration. Not shown (on the cover) is the gently scalloped leaf the frog sits upon, and the brocade background of periwinkle blues and tropical greens woven together with such sensitivity, the effect is breathtaking. The art is realistic in the sense that the amphibians are scientifically identifiable (if not slightly more expressive), but the visual depiction of frogs and frog life within their natural habitat is as exquisite as a Renaissance painting. Swamp life has never been so richly detailed, with gorgeous insects, plants, and daubs of brilliant colour illuminating the background. Even more mind boggling is Spirin’s prolificity (he illustrates two or three books a year) given that each illustration in tempera, pencil, and watercolour has the sort of time-consuming, layered detail one would expect of a much older painter. Centuries older.

As in Life in the Boreal Forest, Guiberson includes a very useful synopsis of the text and some additional facts and websites at the back of the book, along with a plea for ecological stewardship. Frogs all over the world are in trouble, but there is nothing heavy-handed in the message. Frog Song is a celebration; a stunningly beautiful overview of international frog life from one of the greatest illustrators of our time. This frogopedia is not to be missed.

Four Lined Tree Frog-Borneo

If you do decide to purchase or borrow Frog Song, and I insist that you do, have a look under the front cover. There is a frog not depicted anywhere else in the book; one entirely of Gennady Spirin’s imagination. He appears to be some sort of frog prince, with a lily for a crown and a small gathering of adoring froggy subjects. As any good bibliophile Frog Princeknows, especially one who collects children’s picture books, the boards beneath the cover often hold surprises, and even if they don’t, it’s all part of the experience.

Gennady Spirin was born in the small town of Orekhove-Zuyevo, near Moscow, on Christmas Day, 1948. He graduated from Surikov School of Fine Art at the Academy of Arts in Moscow and Moscow Stroganov Institute of Art. Mr Spirin has received five gold medals from the Society of Illustrators, and has been chosen four times for the New York Times Best Illustrated Books list. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Brenda Guiberson is the author of many books, including Life in the Boreal Forest, Ice Bears, and Cactus Hotel. She lives near Seattle, Washington.

Frog Song coverFrog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson, with illustrations by Gennady Spirin. Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2013

Other reviews: Life in the Boreal Forest by Guiberson & Spirin, Martha by Gennady Spirin

Teacher’s Guide and a few more froggy pictures here

  • Posted on March 02, 2013
My Brother's Book-His Poor Nose Froze

My Brother’s Book

A sad riddle is best for me…

I will confess the first time I read My Brother’s Book, I was confused. Also the second, third, and fourth time. I am still confused, but enthralled. As with all Sendak creations, the mystery beckons. The writing is obtuse, referencing Sendak’s own life, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and other works of literature (even Chicken Soup with Rice, Sendak’s 1962 publication.) The art is beautiful, in a watery, unformed way, like a dream, or a painting from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Melancholia permeates his last completed book, and yet, there is a kind (and kind of) resolution to the story. My Brother’s Book is a paean to love, loss, and literature. It is a conundrum. It is a treasure.

On a bleak midwinter’s night, a comet rends the earth in two, catapulting Jack to the continent of ice, and Guy to Bohemia, to the lair of a great white bear. Jack and Guy are brothers, perhaps the homeless brothers from We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy, Sendak’s 1993 picture book. Most certainly, they are Maurice and his older brother Jack, and very likely Maurice and his partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn. Whatever the true nature of Jack and Guy, they are wretched without one another, and Guy in particular longs to be reunited with the brother he ‘loves more than his own self.’  Trouble is, Jack is encased in ice, ‘his poor nose froze’, and Guy is facing down a bear.

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  • Posted on February 25, 2013
Abe Lincoln's Dream rose garden

Abe Lincoln’s Dream

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m in the tank for Abraham Lincoln. I love the guy. I really do. I’ve read stacks of books and visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC twice. I’ve made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg (where I stole a rock), and watched Ken Burns’ The Civil War more times than I care to admit. I’ve not yet seen Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, or Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, but when I do, I’m sure they’ll be welcome additions to my reference library of Lincolnalia.

I am also in the tank for Lane Smith, the brilliant illustrator of The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, The Stinky Cheese Man, Spooky ABC, It’s a Book, and Grandpa Green, among many other contemporary classics of children’s literature.

Abe Lincoln's Dream coverIt goes without saying, that a book about Abraham Lincoln by Lane Smith is a slam-dunk, and yet Abe Lincoln’s Dream is not really about Lincoln the man, but the fruits he laid seed to more than 100 years ago in the United States. My sister picked up this book for me on a recent trip to Arizona. She was peripherally aware of my fondness for Lincoln, and not at all familiar with my illustrative infatuation with Smith. Hats off to her. Stove-pipe hat off to her, I mean. It’s not easy to please my persnickety tastes, but Abe Lincoln’s Dream satiates in every way, from the inventive layouts and old-timey typefaces (thanks to Molly Leach, Smith’s long-time collaborator and partner), to the conception of Lincoln himself, a worry of a man built of vertical lines and furrowed brow. Smith’s books are increasingly atypical, at least in the illustrative sense, but the virtuosity and visual playfulness abide. His illustrations always amuse, always elevate, and Abe Lincoln’s Dream is nothing less than a book about elevation; of a people, there is no doubt, but also of the reader, and a couple of characters who travel the winding paths of history all the way to the moon and back.

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  • Posted on January 06, 2013
Pallas's Cormorant

Extinct Boids

“Spring is sprung, the grass is riz. I wonder where the boidies is…”

It started out simply. Ceri Levy, a film-maker, inspired by the subjects of his most recent documentary, The Bird Effect, embarked on an exhibition of extinct and endangered birds, soliciting work from a number of artists, writers and musicians, including one Ralph Steadman. Asked to produce a single extinct bird illustration of his choosing, Steadman, a life-long balker of rules, created more than 100 avian masterpieces; birds of every species, including the newly ‘discovered’ Lousy Grudgian, the Humpbacked Blue Mult, and the Gob Swallow. A special room was dedicated to his illustrations for the duration of the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibit in 2011, and in 2012, in collaboration with Ceri Levy, Extinct Boids was hatched.

There are many great things about Ralph Steadman, not least of which is the fruitfulness of his imagination. No sooner had I ordered Ralph Steadman’s Cats (to be reviewed), Extinct Boids showed up on his website, and shortly thereafter, under my Christmas tree. It’s a hefty book. The long, rectangular shape is perhaps a nod to the over-sized John James Audubon Birds of America portfolio produced in the late 1800′s, minus the field guide accuracy (and ornithological death count.) Most of the birds in this tome are extinct or endangered birds, like the Great Auk, whose last surviving member supposedly caused a great storm off the coast of Scotland and was therefore killed as a witch, but not all. Attention is also paid to the long suffering residents of Toadstool Island, accessible only by the HMS Steadmanitania, where a ‘confusion of boids’ have lived relatively unobserved, until now…

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