• Posted on September 23, 2019

King Mouse

A few months ago, when I first saw an illustration from King Mouse, the new book by Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling, I knew it would be one of the most beautiful books published this, or any year. With that one illustration of a tiny, pointy-nosed mouse wearing a crown, I was immediately transported to a miniature, magical world, deeply resonant of classic children’s literature. Something about the delicacy of the line and the soothing gentleness of the story felt very old. I was, and am, in love with King Mouse.

It begins with a lost treasure.

A person, presumably a child, rides through a trail strewn with wildflowers, towing a wagon of crowns. Where is she going with her golden cargo? Several crowns fall off, and a mouse in search of a food finds one of these crowns, and places it on his head. Immediately he feels different – and special. A bear asks the mouse if he is a king, and after thinking about it for moment, the mouse answers yes. Soon, other forest dwellers arrive, offering their allegiance as well as a variety of gifts to the newly crowned King Mouse.

Eventually, the adulation grows tiresome and it doesn’t take long for King Mouse to become bored – and then jealous, after a snake also finds a crown and the kingdom gains a queen. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, especially if you can no longer claim preeminence. Soon, others start finding crowns, and in one of the funnier moments of the book, all the animals parade around shouting “hail to me!”

But…one creature, the bear, has failed to find a crown. He walks away, slump shouldered, feeling terrible.

King Mouse notices, and it rouses him out of his narcissistic trance. This may be overstating it – King Mouse is a kid’s book after all – but the creatures, once they don their crowns, become instantly focused on their heightened status. When the mouse is able to look beyond his own situation and notice someone who is in distress, it is profound and moving. Fagan and Seiferling bring great subtlety and sweetness to their storytelling, but it is never heavy-handed. The joy of this book is in the gentleness of it, but make no mistake, King Mouse is saying something about empathy – the ability, learned very young, to cast your paws into another creature’s shoes (even if they aren’t wearing any).

Seiferling’s exquisite illustrations are a joy all their own. Though her style is distinct, I am reminded of Beatrix Potter, and more recently, Peter McCarty and Chris Van Allsburg, for reasons that have something to do with how she applies her illustrative marks to the page, but mostly for the sensitivity she brings to each character. Her creatures, and the forest that surrounds them, are carefully observed but imaginative renderings that are full of elegant, unforced charm.

Like the crowns that suddenly appear in the forest, King Mouse is a rare treasure. It’s not easy to create a picture book this beautiful in a field rife with clunky, pandering efforts. And while Cary Fagan has written many wonderful children’s books, including Thing Thing, previously reviewed in this blog, King Mouse is Dena Sieferling’s first picture book. How can this be?

I first became acquainted with her work on Instagram, where she posts photos of her needle felting projects. This is a practice I’ve only recently discovered, by which I mean, I don’t do it – I just appreciate the beauty and delicacy of this unusual art form.

BEEautful! An example of Dena Seiferling’s needle-felt art

After graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design, Seiferling kept busy with commercial projects, in addition to working as an instructor at ACAD. She particularly enjoyed the initial pencil sketches that would precede each finished project, which is why she now focuses on graphite as her primary medium for illustration, as seen in King Mouse.

Following the birth of her first child, Seiferling was looking for ways to “switch things up” and began to explore other mediums. I talked to her about this, and King Mouse, which is being released on September 24.

“It was a very magical time in my life, full of new experiences and dealing with many “unknowns,” she says, from her home in Calgary, Alberta. “It brought back a longing for the imagination I had as a child, so I began something new – needle felted animal sculptures. I missed working with my hands (too much working on the computer!) so I was excited to evolve my drawings into three-dimensional, tactile forms – and from that point into many new directions including animation, puppets for film and gallery exhibitions. It has also greatly informed and influenced all of my illustration work, including the work that you see in King Mouse.”

Can you describe the experience of having your first picture book out in the world?

It feels wonderful! As a child, I would spend hours getting lost in the stories I read, submerged in a world where anything is possible and anxieties of navigating through my youth were calmed with laughter, amusement and wonder. My Aunt Faye was a Teacher Librarian and would give me the best children’s books for every occasion, books which I still covet today as an adult. The opportunity to illustrate a children’s book feels like a way to give children that sense of wonder and magic I experienced, and I couldn’t have asked for better way to start that with King Mouse. Serendipitous in timing and subject matter, it felt like the characters I developed were already there waiting to pair with Cary Fagan’s story.

How did you get matched with Cary?

Tara Walker, VP and Publisher at Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers [publisher of Tundra Books], contacted me after seeing the work I promoted on Instagram, proposing that I illustrate a children’s book. She happened to have a manuscript she thought might work well with my illustration style – Cary Fagan’s King Mouse. It was a perfect match as the story inspired me right from the beginning!

What is your artistic process?

I start with many rough sketches which are then refined towards a final draft. The final artwork is graphite on cotton paper with colour added digitally in Photoshop. Sometimes I create three-dimensional versions of the characters that I’m developing in addition to my drawings.

Your quote, “I enjoy hybridizing hypothetical human and animal experiences, drawing parallels between the two, triggering empathy for animals as well as creating a connection to the viewer in a very personal way,” very much gets to the heart of your illustrations and needle-felt work. Can you talk about that?

Foremost, I strive to create a connection between my characters and the audience through anthropomorphism. I realize that there is debate over whether anthropomorphizing animals is damaging or productive, but I think the positives win when the belief that animals have emotion and feelings similar to our own results in valuing and protecting them. Especially as we are losing animal species at astronomical rates. On another note, I think that by drawing ridiculously silly parallels from perceived scary animals to humans, there is a fear being addressed, an anxiety being eased and a tolerance being practised through empathy.

Have you always created art?

Well, the story goes that from the time I was two, I always had a pencil in hand! As I got older, observing character and capturing the underlying personality and soul of a subject is something that specifically gripped my imagination. I spent a lot of my free time drawing portraits during my elementary and high school years, then I would adorn my bedroom walls with the drawings. I was influenced by a mother who appreciates handmade objects with a historical context (antique collecting) and my father’s zest for building anything he set his mind to (ranges from airplanes to fuzz pedals for electric guitars) and I think that because of this, I wasn’t afraid to try my hand at making new things.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on my largest body of sculpture work yet for a solo exhibition in May 2020 at the Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles. I will be posting more information about this on my Instagram profile as it progresses. I also just completed the illustration work for a book written by Helaine Becker, published by Owl Books, to be released in the fall of 2020 and soon I will begin working on a new children’s book written by Cary Fagan, published by Tundra, to be released Spring 2021.

King Mouse by Cary Fagan with illustrations by Dena Seiferling is published by Tundra Books, 2019.

Read my review of Thing Thing by Cary Fagan here.

To purchase King Mouse in Edmonton, please contact The Prints and the Paper for this book and other personally curated and always amazing children’s picture books.   

Dena Seiferling:
Website: pickleandfrancois.com
Instagram: @pickleandfrancois

  • Posted on June 21, 2018

The Honeybee

I love bees.

I may have begun another bee book review this way, but the sentiment remains true. I love bees, and I love books about bees. The Honeybee by Kirsten Hall and Canadian illustrator Isabelle Arsenault would make me fall in love with bees even if – gasp – I hated bees. Instead, this joyous, beautiful book makes me fall in love all over again.

I didn’t start out that way. Like most, I feared bees, especially their array of stinger accessories, but the more trails I walked, the more flowers and gardens and fields I observed, the more my admiration grew for these tiny, gentle pollinators.

The Honeybee takes us on a journey through the life of a bee, and a bee colony, as pollen is collected and honey created. The story trajectory is familiar – we all kinda know what bees do – but in word and image, The Honeybee stands alone as a thing of absolute beauty. Kirsten Hall’s playful poetry tells the story simply and humourously, but with a kind of meandering lilt, as if the words are perched on the hum of a bee. Isabelle Arsenault continues her run of stunning picture books, finding new ways to visually charm, and at the same time, comfort, with a throw-back warmth reminiscent of classic children’s picture book fare.

As the story begins, the reader is invited over a hill to a field of wild flowers, where a bee makes her debut in a celebratory, double-page spread.

A BEE!

Yes, a bee, with an affable, smiling face and a pair of big friendly eyes. Perhaps not quite an accurate portrayal of Apis mellifera, but true to the jubilant spirit of the book. This bee is an absolute darling, buzzing and humming through the pages as she whirls around fields of wild flowers collecting pollen. Who better than Isabelle Arsenault to imagine this blossomed landscape? The three-time Governor General Award-winning illustrator makes yellow and black, and its variations, the dominant colours – a nod to the bees’ striped apparel. The pops of pink and blue in the flowers are all the more stunning against this honeyed backdrop.

Like a hive, every element – from Hall’s storytelling to Arsenault’s glorious illustrations, work in balanced harmony. The text, which has a lovely hand-drawn quality, uses a font designed by Arsenault, named Honeybee. This book lives and breathes…and buzzes…its subject matter.

The Honeybee does what most children’s books with a message fail to do. It charms, eliciting an appreciation in the reader not only for bees and the work they do, but for the natural environment that supports their livelihoods, and tangentially, ours. Author Kirsten Hall has a deft hand, lovingly and reverentially telling the story of the honeybee. In making us fall in love, we are much more apt to respond with love. As she states in the postscript: “I wrote this story for an important reason. The honeybee is one of our world’s most marvelous creatures. And sadly, it’s in danger. In writing this book, I was hoping you might grow a new appreciation for the honeybee – and that you’ll join me in caring about its future.” Mission accomplished.

Kirsten Hall is a former preschool and elementary school teacher who has authored more than a hundred learn-to-read stories for emergent readers. Today, she is the founder and owner of a boutique children’s book illustration and literary agency, Catbird Productions. Hall is the author of the picture books The Gold Leaf and The Jacket, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. Follow her at: hallwayskirsten.tumblr.com

Isabelle Arsenault is one of Canada’s – and the world’s – best and most celebrated illustrators. She studied graphic design at Universite du Quebec a Montreal, and in 2004 illustrated her first children’s book, Le Coeur de Monsieur Gauguin, for which she received Canada’s highest artistic honour, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Illustration. Following this, she was a finalist on three other occasions for the GG’s: My Letter to the World, Once Upon a Northern Night, and Migrant, which was also among The New York Times 10 best illustrated books of 2011. In 2012, Arsenault received her second Governor General’s Award for Virginia Wolf, and in 2013, she received her third Governor General’s Award for the French edition of the graphic novelesque picture book, Jane, the Fox and Me (Jane, le renard et moi). See more of her work here: isabellearsenault.com

The Honeybee by Kirsten Hall, with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault. Atheneum Books, 2018.

Other Isabelle Arsenault illustrated books reviewed in 32 Pages:

Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean Pendziwol

Migrant by Maxine Trottier

Jane, the Fox & Me by Fanny Britt (included in a roundup)

Other BEEautiful books reviewed in this blog: UnBEElievables by Douglas Florian (Beach Lane Books, 2012)

  • Posted on July 29, 2015

The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston

Few Canadian icons are as beloved as Lynn Johnston. Most everyone has read her Pulitzer Prize nominated comic strip For Better or For Worse, finding their own lives reflected in the everyday activities of the Patterson family. Unlike most comic strips, however, the characters aged and faced real-world issues that other popular forms of entertainment ignored. People, and I include myself here, were (and still are) emotionally invested in the characters and its creator Lynn Johnston. Now we have For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, and with it, a much richer portrait of the artist and woman behind the comic strip.

Published to coincide with an international touring exhibition of Lynn Johnston’s work (organized by the Art Gallery of Sudbury), For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston is a retrospective of her best-loved strips, but beyond that, we are treated to her artistic development as a cartoonist and comic writer, or as Lynn puts it, “Fifty years of drawings, doodles, sketches, and scrawls”.

Lynn Johnston FarleyIt was an education that began almost at birth. Lynn’s aunt and mother were artists, and comic books and the ‘funny pages’ were not only encouraged they were preferred reading material.

Johnston’s father was a mild-mannered student of comedy, especially the slapstick shenanigans of the silent comedy era.

“We didn’t watch these films like an ordinary audience; we studied them. He would run scenes back and forth to show us how gags were set up, how everything was choreographed exactly to look spontaneous or to look like an accident. He wanted to see how comedy was created. If there was a formula to ‘funny’, he wanted to find out what that was.”

Nothing in the Ridgeway household was taboo, other than the expression of serious emotion and MAD Magazine, which her mother thought was crude. (Lynn read it anyway.) And still, growing up Ridgway had its challenges. Though generally supportive of her daughter’s early artistic explorations, her mother withheld praise and affection, and in combination with episodes of physical abuse, instilled a deep sense of insecurity and a combative, authority-averse impulsivity. An eccentric household steeped in the opposing forces of a passivity and dominance was the incubator of a great, if troubled artist, but as Lynn states, “If you can’t say it right out, joke about it.”

Of her early life and career, so much of it reads like the evolution of a woman destined to become a comedic artist: class clown, obsessive doodler, observant, irreverent, socially aware, outsider, genetically inclined to laugh at life. All of it poured into the comic strip that would make her famous, For Better or For Worse, which debuted in September, 1979.

Art Gallery of Sudbury 2

When For Better or For Worse first appeared in the newspapers, I read it not just as someone invested in the life of the Patterson family, but as an artist, enthralled (and more than a little jealous) of the beauty and fluidity of her line. The nuances and quirks of body language revealed at least as much (and usually much more) about the character’s emotional state as did the dialogue, deepening the humour and adding a layer of relatability unusual for a cartoon family.

The complex narratives captured in a few panels and a swish of her pen seemed effortless, but it’s a style that evolved over years of personal and professional illustration, samples of which are happily included in this book (and in the exhibition). As a Canadian, I was particularly pleased to see homegrown locations and place names show up in For Better or For Worse, which is a bold move for a Canadian comic strip with international aspirations.

On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of meeting Lynn Johnston on multiple occasions as a employee of a large, independent bookstore in Edmonton. She was always gracious and funny, easy to talk to, with large, beautiful blue eyes. She gave me a great piece of artistic advice which I adhere to – keep your originals. I sent her a personal thank you letter after one of her visits, and she replied – in her unmistakable handwriting. For several years we exchanged Christmas cards. Above my drafting table hangs a framed, personalized autograph with all the Patterson family. It is no word of a lie to say that Lynn Johnston is one of my artistic heroes, but with For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, she has become something better – a brilliant, messy, complex, and entirely original human being.

The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston

The first woman and the first Canadian to win the National Cartoonist Society’s Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, retired from creating new cartoons for the strip in 2010, but For Better or For Worse continues on in syndication, revisiting the early days of the strip for a new generation. In 1992, Lynn Johnston was made a Member of the Order of Canada, our country’s highest civilian honour

For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston by Lynn Johnston and Katherine Hadway, published by Goose Lane Editions and the Art Gallery of Sudbury, 2015

  • 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 December 10, 2014

Any Questions?

Yes. I have one. How do you do it? When I opened Marie-Louise Gay’s newly published Any Questions? for the first time, it was like being handed a bouquet of freshly plucked wildflowers. As I progressed through the book, the room filled with light. I felt uplifted. This is what happens, what always happens, when I read her books. Any Questions? is her most adventurous picture book to date, and certainly her most beautiful. Gay centres the story around her own real-life experience as an author – in particular the many hundreds of questions she is asked (by children) about her books and especially, her creative process:

“How did you learn to draw?”

Where does a story start?

Do you put a cat in every book?

Any Questions purple beast

The inquiring minds are represented by Gay’s typical menagerie of whimsically drawn children (no one is better at this), cats, rabbits, and  ever-present snails; this time, however, they are not so much characters in the story as the inspiration. Their questions balloon out from the page in one continuous (and utterly charming) conversation, each illustration richly infused with Gay’s luminous watercolour palette. As questions are answered (on the page and in an appendix), Gay invites further participation from her acolytes as she creates a brand new picture book, The Shy Young Giant, itself a thing of sweet wonder in a wonder-filled story. Visually and narratively, there is a lot of bang for your buck in Any Questions. At it’s core, however, is a profound message about valuing curiosity and imagination.

Any Questions Shy Giant spread

There is a mini-trend this year in children’s books in which the writer directly engages with the characters, and sometimes even the reader, thus breaking the picture book equivalent of the fourth wall. Specifically, The Battle Bunny Book (Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett) and A Perfectly Messed-Up Story (Patrick McDonnell) bear the marks of having been ‘interfered with’ in the form of scribbles and jam stains courtesy of the ‘reader’. Like these two publications, Marie-Louise Gay plays with the typical format of a picture book, presenting it as an interactive enterprise (albeit with fictional characters), and in doing so, giving us a glimpse into her own creative process. As one might imagine, it’s starts with a blank page, and a question. A lot of questions.

Any Questions yellow

And yet, with the publication of each new book, Gay is becoming more and more playful with her answers. There is a fluidity to her illustrations that is almost dream-like, as if each scene, characters and all, comes tumbling straight from her imagination to the awaiting page – issues resolved, compositions exquisitely realized. As with Gay’s recent books, in Any Questions?, some illustrations are watercolour only, while others take a more multi-media approach, incorporating found paper and bits of text. One senses that Marie-Louise Gay’s internal conversation with an in-progress illustration is loose and chatty. She is open to wherever the story wants to go, and the result, as expressed so beautifully in Any Questions?, is pure joy.

Any Questions coverMarie-Louise Gay is a world-renowned author and illustrator of more than 60 children’s books. She has won many prestigious honours, including two Governor General’s awards and the Marilynn Baillie Picture Book Award. She has also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Hans Christian Andersen Award, both of which she will surely win one day. Educated at the Institut des arts graphiques in Montreal where she studied graphic design, Gay moved on to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School where she majored in animation, followed by illustration studies at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. Marie-Louise Gay currently lives and works in Montreal when she’s not out and about answering questions.

ANY QUESTIONS? by Marie-Louise Gay. Published by Groundwood Books, 2014

Previously reviewed (click on the link):

Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth

Caramba and Henry

  • 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 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 15, 2013

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. With the publication of Young Frank Architect, a trip to MoMA is in order, and though contained within the pages of a picture book, the famous museum 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 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?” says Frank, which of course, 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 September 14, 2013

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 July 01, 2013

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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