• Posted on May 26, 2014

Winston & George

It is early May, and in the brown season of a northern spring, excruciatingly slow in its progression, colour is like an oasis in a desert: startling, and restorative. In the absence of anything resembling a flower in the garden, I look to books for visual nourishment. In the newly published Winston & George, by John Miller and Giuliano Cucco, every page is a feast for the eye, with colours so vibrant and wet, I was surprised that my fingers were not stained with green and orange paint when I closed the book. Even more surprising – the illustrations languished in an attic for almost 50 years before author John Miller and publisher Claudia Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books brought them into the light.

Winston & George cover In the early 1960’s, Miller, an American writer living in Rome, created four nature-themed picture books in collaboration with the Italian artist Giuliano Cucco. Though garnering interest from publishers, Cucco’s energetic, full-colour illustrations proved to be too costly to print (for that era), and so the project was shelved. Decades later, a fortuitous attic renovation revealed the long forgotten brown portfolio, and much to Miller’s surprise, Cucco’s illustrations retained their original brilliance. Enchanted Lion Books enthusiastically agreed to print Winston & George, as well as the other three picture books. Let the feast begin…

Winston & George relax

Winston & George have a mutually beneficial relationship. From his perch on Winston’s snout, George spots fish, Winston catches them, and both enjoy a nice dinner. Winston is an easy-going crocodile with a big, friendly smile and an abundance of patience for his pal. George is a prank-playing rascal. Although his usual target is Winston, he is not above ribbing an entire float of crocodiles, none of whom share Winston’s sufferance of the bird’s endless teasing. Not willing (perhaps unable) to let sleeping crocodiles lie, George yells DANGER, and then delights in their frantic splashes as the startled crocodiles plunge into the water. Demanding an explanation, George replies:

“I thought…I thought I saw a danger prowling through the jungle. A dangerous danger, a very scary dangerous danger.”


Winston & George Winston dives

The crocodiles are not amused, and in a fit of exasperation, suggest that Winston eat the bird, but the softhearted crocodile cannot imagine fishing alone without his friend, and so, the pranks continue. Winston understands that George is just spirited, not mean-spirited, and like all true besties, ignores the more irksome aspects of his pal’s personality in favour of companionship.

Even with the best of intentions, however, pranks can be carried too far, as happens when George makes Winston dive into a shoal of mud, and his snout gets irretrievably stuck. George is terrified, but his attempts to garner help from the other crocodiles and the hippos falls on deaf ears, until he agrees to one condition: he must stand inside Winston’s jaws and be gobbled up. In one of the more hilarious scenes in the book, the animals make a long chain, and successfully yank Winston out of the mud, flinging him across the water to the shore, where George awaits his fate. Apprised of the scheme, Winston clamps down on the bird, and announces his demise with a loud burp. But their buds, right? To the end. Once the crowd disperses, George pops out of Winston’s mouth, and offers not only his heartfelt gratitude, but a promise to never prank again. Interestingly, it is Winston, not George, who pulls off the biggest prank – making his aquatic community believe that he has dispensed with the pesky bird, when in reality, crocodile, and crocodile bird, continue on as before…with perhaps a deeper understanding of one another.

Winston & George George steps in

The initial impact of Winston & George is clearly visual. It is a stunning book, but while the illustrations are not meticulously detailed, they do demand thoughtful inspection of each quirk-filled page. In the burst of bright, primary colour it’s easy to focus on the overall exuberance of the art rather than the individual scenes, but make no mistake, there is a lot of personality in Cucco’s depiction of swamp life. This is especially evident in the wonderfully expressive faces of the characters, who possess a kind of relaxed goofiness which seem more in line with contemporary tastes than those of the mid-1960’s. Much like the illustrations, John Miller’s words have not mouldered with age, but are as fresh and good-humoured as if written months, not decades ago. In a funny way, maybe Winston & George needed to hang back a bit, and wait for us to catch up to it.

Winston and George Friends forever

Sadly, Giuliano Cucco (1929-2006) did not live to see the publication of Winston & George. However, thanks to the efforts of John Miller and the publisher, Winston & George will be followed by The Whirligig’s Story, The Red Spider Hero, and The Cicada and the Katydid.

John Miller’s youthful adventures in the natural world inspired his later work as a teacher and as a writer for The Audubon Society, The Natural History Museum, and the New York Times. Before I Grew Up, the story of Giuliano Cucco’s years as a young artist, recently written by Miller, will be published in May, 2015.

Winston & George by John Miller, illustrations by Giuliano Cucco, Enchanted Lion Books, 2014

Read more about the evolution of Winston & George  HERE.

  • Posted on April 08, 2014

I Wish I Were a…

I will go on record and state, unequivocally, that meerkats are my favourite animal – of the undomesticated variety. I fell in love with these quirky critters in the last century, in a nature documentary, and as if often the case, my esteem for this observant little mongoose now encompasses a small collection of  meerkat-related I Wish I Were a...coverknick-knackery and various forms of printed matter, including the new picture book,  I Wish I Were a… by Werner Holzwarth and Stefanie Jeschke.

With their flat foreheads and bulging eyes, meerkats border on the homely, but my admiration stems not from their physical beauty, though they are achingly sweet-faced, but from a cluster of qualities that are equal parts socially ingenious and endearing. It is their personality, in other words, that makes them truly loveable. With all this going for them, who would have thought a meerkat could be insecure?

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  • Posted on February 26, 2014

I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood

Well, OK then. The fact that the child is not wearing a red hood already differentiates one story from the other. And there’s the bear. Not a wolf, mind you, but a big, white bear. As the rosy-cheeked girl in Alessandra Lecis and Linda Wolfsgruber’s new book I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood is so keen to remind us, her story has nothing to do with the Grimm (or Perrault, depending on the translation) fairy tale. Yes, she has a red scarf, and she takes a basket into the woods, but that is the end of it. This is her story.

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  • Posted on January 31, 2014


In the autumn of 2013, when I first learned of Henny by Elizabeth Rose Stanton, I was so struck by the premise – a chicken with human arms – I did not need to read further. It just seemed so funny, so completely absurd. And full of possibility. I immediately put in an order, and then followed the author on Twitter and Facebook for updates. In the months leading up to the January publication of the book, Elizabeth Stanton made me fall in love with Henny. I was not alone, and it was fascinating to watch a character generate so much goodwill and support via social media. Indeed, I was so excited about the publication, I mistakenly ordered it twice.

Henny coverThere is no doubt that having arms gives a chick certain advantages, especially on a busy farm. In addition to helping the farmer with his chores (including milking a very nervous cow), Henny can point, brush her teeth, and pick up little bugs with chopsticks. And yet, challenges exist. Long sleeve, or short sleeve? Left hand, or right? Without wings, will she ever fly? Young Henny suffers her worries alone, but along with arms she is also gifted with imagination, and she has big plans for her life. This perhaps, is her true advantage.

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  • Posted on January 15, 2014

Why I Didn’t Make a Best-Of 2013 List

I have a confession to make: I am a bookaholic. In a generous mood, I might call myself a ‘bibliophile’, but this self-reverential term is too polite to describe my affliction. Like a drunk, I am surrounded by the tumbling, stumbling evidence of my failure to abstain, or at the very least, moderate. I am a reader, yes, and an enthusiast, but superseding all is my need to possess. I am a collector. I cannot resist books. Not all books, of course, but even within my narrow fields of interest, the blooms are legion. I must pluck them all.

It’s just after Christmas and I’ve spent a fruitless week attempting to organize a fresh crop of books; those I bought, and those that were given to me in acts of sheer, if not well-meaning, recklessness. I am surrounded by enablers. It’s not their fault (such is the manipulative nature of addicts), and to be honest, I am so exacting in my predilections, none dare stray off a list, and most resort to gift cards. The result is the same: another stack of books. In 2013, I have acquired many such stacks of books, all vying for attention.

I have another confession to make: sometimes I don’t read them. A year may pass before I lay eyes upon a spread of illustrations, that months ago, so entranced me. At the time, it was enough to bring the book home, but the joy of adoption is soon dampened by remorse. It’s not that I regret buying the book, it’s the knowledge that I am apt to treat it badly. Neglect. Pile upon pile.

Book chaos

Since becoming a blogger in 2010, the situation – my addiction, has escalated. The entire world is my enabler, and my acquisitions have increased accordingly, in direct proportion to my indolence. More books, fewer reviews. Crippling guilt. It’s crazy. No one pays me for these reviews, there are no deadlines or hyperventilating bosses (or readers) breathing down my neck. And yet, I feel accountable to the books, these little gems, and to the authors and illustrators who created them. Out of sheer gratitude, I am compelled to play a role, however small, in the advocacy of their newly published work, and picture books in general. It is my pleasure and privilege to do so, but the numbers are overwhelming. Picture books may not be my only passion, but it is the one that distills my disparate interests into a single expression of joy. And lately, dread.

Some days are manageable, and I am able to focus on a single book. Other days, I despair at the never-ending lineup of new publications and dusty old favourites deserving their hour upon the stage (of my blog.) From every teetering stack, I hear their pleas. Yes, I do. Without a meticulously worded post, what are they but another book on the pile? If I were faster, my attentions less scattered, would I feel less paralyzed? Is it my aspirations that are out of whack, or my accumulations? How is it that my fellow bloggers are so prolific, many of whom have small children, while I, with no such draws on my attention, fail to post? Or, as is often the case in my life, am I just over-thinking it? However it shakes out, the bottom line is that in 2013, I did not review all the books I wanted to, and whether it makes sense or not, I feel really bad about that. The books deserve better. Now, instead of radiating joy on my bookshelves, they are little piles of judgement, which is no way to be a collector. In light of this, it seemed disingenuous to make a list of favourite books of 2013, as so few reviews were written, and some books in my possession were not even read.

To assuage my guilt –  I have read, and made a list of every picture book I’ve purchased or was given to me last year. I am not going to write full reviews, at least not at this time, and ultimately, not for every book, but I cannot go forward without acknowledging the beauty that came my way in 2013. The books on this list (24 and in no particular order) are as worthy as any other book on my blog; their exclusion merely a matter of quantity, not quality. More to the point, my talent for finding beautiful books exceeds my ability to write about them (in a timely fashion.) As for 2014, fewer books, more reviews. Maybe…

Bear's Song coverThe Bear’s Song (Benjamin Chaud-Chronicle Books, 2013) One of the best books of 2013, or any year. In style, tone, and content, The Bear’s Song screams vintage, but it’s a mere three years old (originally published in France in 2011.) Harkening back to the days of Richard Scarry, Benjamin Chaud’s oversized, detail-crammed book is exactly the kind of thing I loved as a kid: busy, colourful, and terribly funny. Chaud’s elaborate drawings of Papa Bear chasing Little Bear, who in turn is chasing a bee through the country, city, and backstage at the opera are pure delight. Finding himself on stage, Papa Bear tries to get Little Bear’s attention by singing a song, but it backfires. The look on Papa Bear’s face as the audience clears the hall is priceless. The Bear’s Song is a book to linger over, to absorb, to memorize over a lazy Saturday afternoon. It makes me wish I were a kid again.

Jane, the Fox, & Me (Fanny Britt/Isabelle Arsenault-Groundwood Books, 2013) A truly magnificent book. I do hope to write a longer review, but suffice to say, this graphic novel about bullying and a young girl’s achingly fragile journey toward self-acceptance is Jane, the Fox, and Me coversimply one of the most profoundly beautiful books I’ve ever read. Ridiculed at school, and ignored at home, young Helene finds salvation through books, specifically Jane Eyre. In cartoon panels and occasional full-page spreads, we learn of Helene’s chaotic life in sombre tones of grey and black. Moments of literary retreat are depicted in vibrant colour, as is the fox who shows up in a moment of grace. Isabelle Arsenault illustrated one of my favourite books of 2013 – Once Upon a Northern Night. Whether she is painting the face of a troubled girl or a snow-covered tree, Arsenault does it with exquisite sensitivity and skill. Jane, the Fox, & Me reminds me of another gut wrenching graphic novel from Quebec, Harvey (Herve Bouchard/Janice Nadeau.) Must be something about the longer format…or the province.

Bluebird coverBluebird (Bob Staake-Random House, 2013) A wordless counterpart to Jane, the Fox, & Me, Bluebird  addresses the subject of bullying, loneliness, and exclusion, as well as kindness and companionship, thanks to a little bluebird who enters the life of a solitary young lad, and saves it, in more ways than one. Oblivious at first, the boy eventually notices the bird following him everywhere he goes, and they become friends. His days are filled with joy and laughter, until the bullies show up again, as they always do. Although the ending is somewhat ambiguous, what is clear is the bird sacrifices himself for the boy. Staake handles these scenes with great sensitivity, although it is undeniably bittersweet. Was it not enough that the boy found solace and companionship in nature? The computer generated illustrations are lovely, with few colours save the birds and the lightly tinted, geometric cityscape.

Mattias Unfiltered coverMattias Unfiltered: the Sketchbook Art of Mattias Adolfsson (Boom! Town, 2013) Adolfsson is something of a revelation. The Swedish artist has elevated the doodle to a fine art. With little text, the sketch-filled pages are a visual expression of the artists’ unfettered imagination. In ink and watercolour, Adolfsson’s lightly satiric and incredibly funny drawings of robots, dogs, people (often the artist himself), potatoes, elaborate architecture and Rube Goldberg-esque machinery are so staggering in their breadth, they are (for me) mentally exhausting. How could one guy be so clever, so often, and so beautifully? It’s outrageous! There are hints of Terry Gilliam and Sergio Aragonés in Adolfsson’s work, but make no mistake, he is a complete original. He is also a genius.

The Second in Line: From the Sketchbooks of Mattias Adolfsson-Sanatorium Fortag, 2013) The pre-publication offer of an autographed book Second in Line Adolfsson(with personally designed button) was impossible to ignore, and so…not being one to deny myself (as I have so breathlessly outlined), I am pleased to be the owner of a beautiful, signed book. Like Mattias Unfiltered, Second in Line is a collection of Adolfsson’s most recent sketches. Wild stuff, and beautifully designed with a slipcase and poster.

Backstage Cat coverBackstage Cat (Harriet Ziefert/Jenni Desmond-Blue Apple Books, 2013) One of many books purchased on the spot; no thinking required. (Years of advanced picture book studies have so refined my tastes I can tell in an instant whether a book will be coming home with me.) Ostensibly a cat story, Ziefert is also celebrating theatre life, with all the backstage chaos and pre-show preparations, captured in gorgeous detail by London-based artist Jenni Desmond. Simon (the cat) is frightened up a prop tree after hearing a loud noise backstage. With help from the stagehands, and eventually, ‘his lady’, Simon is coerced down, but like all cats, Simon is a born scene stealer, once again ending up on stage later in the evening. It’s all about Simon, and Backstage Cat is all about the illustrations.

Rules of Summer cover

Rules of Summer (Shaun Tan-Lothian Children’s Books, 2013) I spirited this one out of England, as it is not yet published in North America. It is, of course, extraordinary, in the sense that there is nothing ordinary in Shaun Tan’s surrealist world. Rules of Summer is a template for those who wish to enjoy the summer, without the annoyance of giant rabbits, tornadoes, and strangely menacing steam engines. The rules are negotiated between two boys, and are entirely random: don’t leave a red sock on the clothesline, don’t be late for a parade, etc., It is like an OCD playlist in a post-apocalyptic landscape: do, or don’t do this, thus ‘preventing’ something unfortunate. The paintings are incredibly beautiful. Nightmarish, yet somehow affable. Shaun Tan has long known how to tap into the darkest corners of his imagination, but he never fails to amuse (while blowing our minds.)

Bird King coverThe Bird King: an Artist’s Notebook (Shaun Tan-Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010) I find artists’ notebooks endlessly fascinating, but calling the The Bird King a collection of sketches is vastly understating the issue, as many of the doodles, story ideas, observations, and stream of consciousness scribbles are themselves, works of art, able to stand side by side with the fully realized books these drawings were destined to inspire. In the introduction, Shaun Tan writes about artist’s block. Hard to imagine, given the breadth of his imagination. His solution is to just start drawing, which is what Paul Klee called ‘taking a line for a walk.’ As with all Shaun Tan books, especially one that is as spontaneous as The Bird King, you will be amazed at where this walk leads.

Hansel & Gretel detail

Hansel & Gretel (Brothers Grimm/Sybille Schenker-Minedition, 2013) A couple of kids about to be cannibalized by an old witch is about as grim, I mean, Grimm as you can get, but in this instance, it Hansel & Gretel coveris tempered by Sybille Schenker’s intensely lovely illustrations. The title is die-cut on the black cover, and the pages within are equally unusual, incorporating opaque paper inlaid with silhouettes of various scenes, blocks of patterned colours, and stark, heavily outlined characters. Design is in the forefront, and the result is a very unique and darkly engaging interpretation of a well-known fairytale.

Fall Ball McCarty coverFall Ball (Peter McCarty-Henry Holt & Company, 2013) Long-time fan of McCarty’s exquisite work. His tube-shaped characters are always amusing, but it is his meticulous application of ink and watercolour that most impresses. Although this could be said of many of the artists on this list, there is truly no one like Peter McCarty. Not a single, beautiful line is wasted. Fall Ball is a celebration of seasonal pleasures, friends, and football. There’s a wistful hint of bygone days in story of kids playing in the leaf-strewn autumnal air as the after-school light dims. One by one, they are called for dinner. Who doesn’t have a memory of that? Lovely, funny, and nostalgic (not that I ever played football.)

You Are Stardust (Elin Kelsey/Soyeon Kim-Owl Kids, 2012) “We You are Stardust coverare all connected. We are all nature. We are all stardust.” An origin story encompassing the entire universe, from bits of exploded star to the single cell that is the core of all life on the planet, You are Stardust is a remarkable book. It is also subversive, in the sense that it conveys a sense of wonder without resorting to the supernatural. Soyeon Kim’s multimedia collages are interesting, but it is Kelsey’s poetic story of our interconnectedness that most captivates.

Hello My Name is Ruby coverHello, My Name is Ruby (Philip C Stead-Roaring Brook Press, 2013) A book that flew away with my heart after just a few pages, Hello, My Name is Ruby is the gentle story of a little yellow bird and her quest to find friends. Though not always successful, Ruby is unfailingly kind, meeting a number of wondrous creatures along the way. Although she does not appear to be lost, she is unlike all the other birds and animals she meets, until one friend (an ostrich) leads Ruby to her flock, and of course she brings all her new friends with her. The breezy, pastel-coloured illustrations are very fine indeed; a perfect compliment to Stead’s simple, warm-hearted story.

Ike's Incredible Ink detail

Ike’s Incredible Ink (Brianne Farley-Candlewick Press, 2013) I am a sucker for pen & ink, so a book about the creative process starring an actual ink blot is a slam-dunk. Ike the ink blot wants to write a story, but like all true artists, ink or otherwise, Ike gets stuck, and so he cleans his home, and chats with his friends. Ike's Incredible Ink coverProcrastination plagues us all, even characters in a picture book. Eventually, Ike has an epiphany: the key to finding something to write about is having ‘your very own ink’ (effectively taking procrastination to a whole new level.) Ike sets about collecting shadows, feathers, and something from the dark side of the moon to create his personalized ink, and in the end, he has both his ink and his story. Superb illustrations and clever, perhaps autobiographical story-telling. Though the publication details do not specify whether or not Ms Farley devised her own personalized ink, the fact that this book is on the shelves suggests that she was not (permanently) foiled by the blank page. Good for us.

Henri’s Walk to Paris (Leonore Klein/Saul Bass-Universe Publishing, 2012) Originally published in 1962, Henri’s Walk to Paris is a Saul Bass 101, incorporating his signature visual sensibilities within the framework of a simple story. A boy, enamoured with Paris, decides to leave his small town and walk to his favourite city. Henri's Walk to Paris coverThough he never quite makes it, along the way he learns to appreciate the small pleasures of family life in Reboul. Bass was a famous mid-century designer whose unmistakeable squared-off style touched everything from movie title sequences (The Man With the Golden Arm, Vertigo) to product design. He only published one picture book, but it’s a knock out. To further my education, I purchased Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design (Laurence King Publishing, 2011) which is a very comprehensive overview of his life and career. It’s a lovely book, but at 400 plus pages, I should have stuck with Henri.

Mr Leon’s Paris (Barroux-Phoenix Yard Books, 2012) Mr Leon has been Mr Leon's Paris covera cabdriver in Paris for many years. Throughout his career, he has seen many different parts of Paris, and in particular, makes many friends from every possible background. A perfect setting, in other words, for some imaginative arm-chair traveling. Barroux’s illustrations are absolutely stunning; much of it drawn in pencil and pen with blocks of off-centre colour. Though I would not use this book as any sort of travel guide (unless I wanted to get lost), the art is worth the trip.

The Day the Crayons Quit (Drew Daywalt/Oliver Jeffers-Philomel Books, 2013) This book has everything going for it, including the title. Any book with illustrations by Oliver Jeffers is bound to be stupendous, and a story about crayons on strike is, as far as I know, completely virgin Day the Crayons Quit coverterritory in children’s literature. Duncan just wants to colour, but when he opens his box of crayons, what he finds is a stack of letters from every crayon in the box. The list of grievances is long: Red crayon is used too much and never has Christmas & Valentine’s Day off. Pink is suffering from neglect because it’s a ‘girl’ colour, and Beige has an inferiority complex (in comparison to brown.) Who knew crayons lived such complex emotional lives? Daywalt and Jeffers (who I imagine is very familiar with crayon conflict resolution), creates a sympathetic and rather jolly group of characters. I will never look at my crayons the same way again.

One Gorilla coverOne Gorilla: A Counting Book (Anthony Browne-Candlewick Press, 2012) One for the collection, and you must collect Anthony Browne. Like haystacks were to Monet, so primates are to Browne. In his realist-with-an-edge hands, our brothers from another mother are painted with great affection and breath-taking attention to detail. These primates are beautiful and cheeky, some mugging for the ‘camera’, others in full command of their majesty. Orangutans, chimpanzees, macaques, and Browne himself (#10) are arranged in group portraits, each page a wonder of artistic brilliance and familial love. ‘All primates. All one family.’ And one gorgeous book.

The Voyage (Veronica Salinas/Camilla Engman-Groundwood Books, 2012) The Voyage is like Shaun Tan’s Arrival, but for a much younger (and less visually sophisticated) audience. What both books share is the sense of dislocation and disorientation one experiences when moving to unfamiliar surroundings. The protagonist in Voyage coverthis book is a duckling ‘blown so far away, he forgets who he is and where he comes from.’ Many creatures come to his aid, but it is not until he meets a duck with big feet that he is finds out who he is: “You are who you are”, answers the big-footed mallard. What a relief! Eventually, the duck learns to understand his new home. Swedish illustrator Camilla Engman’s menagerie of animals (and a fantastically cheery fly) are minimalist in style, a bit goofy, and extraordinarily likeable. The Voyage exudes warmth as it addresses complex issues like self-awareness and inclusion.

Girl of the Wish Garden coverThe Girl of the Wish Garden: a Thumbelina Story (Uma Krishnaswami/Nasrin Khosravi-Groundwood Books, 2013) Absolutely stunning. Even the story of how this book came to be is remarkable. India-born author Uma Krishnaswami adapted the words of Hans Christian Andersen to the paintings of Irainian-Canadian Nasrin Khosravi’s Farsi interpretation of Thumbelina, who in this version is called Lina. The story is familiar: a tiny girl, a languishing swallow, but in Krishnaswami’s poetic hands, a more hopeful ending. “…she ran instead into the map of her own life spread out like a carpet – all of it, birdsong and lonely fear, wind-chime and mouse-fret and illuminations of what was yet to come.” Khosravi’s illustrations soar off the page, with hints of Chagall and Gennady Spirin in the wildly imaginative and vibrantly coloured imagery. Though Khosravi died before the two could meet, it’s as if the words and art were created in unison, line by line. Magnificent.

Sowa CoverSowa: Meister der komischen Kunst (Verlag Antje Kunstmann, 2013) Entirely in German, but for connoisseurs of all things Sowa, there are many new illustrations, making the text somewhat irrelevant (although I do hope an English edition is eventually published.) As the title (in translation) suggests, Sowa is the master of comic art, and every illustration in this book confirms his mastery. I was very pleased (and surprised) to see the inclusion of a photograph of Sowa in his studio. There is very little about this brilliant painter in English (or anywhere, I think), and photographs are especially rare. Nice to put a face on the man who brought us Esterhazy, Little King December, and a succession of adventurous pigs and pensive dogs.

The Fox in the Library (Lorenz Pauli/Kathrin Schärer -NorthSouth Books, 2013) A celebration of libraries, books, and (with the help of the former) outsmarting your enemy. A Fox in the Library coverfox follows a mouse into a library. The mouse gives the fox a book about chickens, and the fox forgets about eating the mouse. Again in the library, the newly acquired chicken (in the mouth of the fox) sees the farmer with a poultry recipe book, and the chicken offers to teach the fox how to read if the fox digs a tunnel under the chicken coop. Everyone’s happy for the price of a few books. German artist Kathrin Schärer’s lovely pastel and coloured pencil illustrations are excellent. Especially if you like foxes. And libraries.

Once Upon a Memory coverOnce Upon a Memory (Nina Laden/Renata Liwska, Little, Brown, 2013) Ever since The Quiet Book, and especially, The Christmas Quiet Book, I have been a fan of Renata Liwska’s gentle, utterly charming illustrative style. In Once Upon a Memory, Liwska has found the perfect compliment in author Nina Laden’s sweetly evocative tale. A feather drifts in through a window, initiating a series of questions: does the feather remember it was once a bird? Does work remember it was once play? Does an island remember it was once unknown? Once Upon a Memory is thought-provoking, and it is also reverential, with a core of stillness. Be observant. Everything, everyone, has a story. Beautiful.

Battle Bunny coverBattle Bunny (Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett/Matthew Myers-Simon & Schuster, 2013) I will write a longer review (in the near future), simply because I love the premise of this sly and hilarious story. A young boy gets a sickly sweet present from his grandmother called the Birthday Bunny. Like many books written for children, it is cloying, condescending, and terribly unimaginative. The writing is bad. The illustrations are bad. Alexander is so bored, he creates his own story, crossing out words, adding his own, and ‘re-drawing’ the art to his own tastes. Taken at face value, the book is deliciously funny, but Scieszka, Barnett and Myers are making a much-needed point about the dreck that is endemic in children’s publishing: generic, unimaginative books that fail to engage, and in fact, fail on every level. Happily, though these books are everywhere, there are plenty of children’s books that engage, challenge, and entertain, like Birthday Bunny (the Alexander version.)

Boot & Shoe (Marla Frazee-Beach Lane Books, 2013) Absolutely wonderful on every level, from the clever Boot & Shoe coverwriting to the whimsical illustration. Two identical, be-whiskered pups are born into the same litter, live in the same house, and do everything together, except Boot spends his days on the back porch, and Shoe spends his on the front. Enter chaos in the form of a squirrel, getting ‘all up in’ Boot and Shoe’s business. The dogs chase the squirrel around the house until they find themselves on opposite porches, wondering where the other has gone. Boot and Shoe are confused and spend a long night without food or sleep, quietly (and rather poignantly) worrying about each other. Luckily, they meet the next morning at their favourite pee tree. Brilliant. The soft prismacolour and gouache illustrations capture both the lazily content, pre-squirrel existence of Boot and Shoe, as well their post-squirrel troubles. The whole thing seems effortless; there is not a single, wasted line or moment. In tone, voice, and illustration, Boot & Shoe is in perfect balance. I feel nothing but love (and a little jealousy) for this book.

There may be a few more books lurking in my collection that deserve an airing, but this list represents the bulk of my 2013 acquisitions (in addition to the reviews already posted.) THANK YOU books for being beautiful, and for being in my life. Now, please stop yelling at me.

  • Posted on December 10, 2013

Christmas 2013

For the past few years, I’ve updated my list of favourite CHRISTMAS picture books, which itself is built upon a comprehensive list of all the books in my collection that are in some way related to Christmas (49 and counting.) In my house, Christmas encompasses a very Eyvind Earle christmas cardbroad range of experiences, from sprinkles to snow, family, friends, all the Who’s down in Whoville, chocolate gingerbread, fancy exterior lighting, Boney M, and of course, books. Some years are lean, illustratively speaking, while others offer a jolly good selection of festively inclined picture books, as is the case this year. And so, I am pleased to add seven new titles to the list, though only three were published in 2013. The neverending search for outstanding picture books, Christmas or otherwise, is an exercise in time travel. Some books hide in the past, others hide in plain sight. The only criteria: they must knock my chestnuts off.

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  • Posted on November 30, 2013

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

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

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

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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