• Posted on June 30, 2015
Home cover

Home

A very important person in my life once said that if at all possible, when writing, try to avoid cliché. I do my best. However, I can’t help expecting cliché from the children’s section in a bookstore. According to the American Library Association, there are 21,878 children’s books published every year, and I would guess that 21,700 of those are cliché. It’s endemic. Also, most authors have not met my very important person (unfortunately for them), and so have not been given this useful piece of advice.

The reason I am talking about cliché is that the recently published Home, which admittedly does tread over familiar territory, could have lapsed into cliché, but Carson Ellis takes the subject matter and twists it on its end. Her interpretation of the word home, and its depiction, is inventive and thoughtful. As one would expect of a Carson Ellis book (her first as author), the art is beautiful. The over-size pages allow the gouache & ink illustrations to breath in perfect balance with the white space. Home is an immersive book. Once you enter, you’ll never want to leave.

Home Shoe

There is no storyline in Home. Each page or double-page spread is a type of home. Sometimes the home is an actual abode, sometimes it is of no fixed address:

Home is a house in the country.

And some folks live on the road.

This is the home of a Kenyan blacksmith.

Sea homes. Bee homes. Hollow tree homes.

Home Norse

And so on. The narrative is in the illustrations, each of which invite further investigation. Why is that kid mooning his family on top of the shoe where they presumably live? Is that the artist herself, down below, drawing on the shoe? And are there really people, or something, living on the moon? There are a lot of laughs, some hidden, some obvious, in Home, but the best is the appearance of The Grateful Dead riding in their home – a tour bus, with Jerry Garcia visible in one of the windows. Then again, maybe it’s a bunch of hippie Deadheads following the band, or maybe it isn’t the Dead at all. I know that Ellis designs album covers for The Decemberists, so perhaps it’s them on the bus. This amusing detail will be lost on children, but even without knowing the character’s true identities, the illustration would still be funny and engaging.

Interestingly, the second last page is reserved for the artist in her studio, and on the wall are trinkets and references from the previous pages, including an ‘all-access pass’ lanyard. To the Dead? To the Decemberists? By giving just enough detail, visually and narratively, Ellis leaves room for additional storytelling. She poses interesting questions and answers a few, but for the most part, Home is a place of imagination. Home could be anything, or anywhere.

Home Grateful Dead

My favourite journey is the one home. I’m an introvert. A homebody. It’s not that I don’t like to travel, but when I do, a part of me can’t wait for it to be over so that I can relive it. At home. I am predisposed to love a book that celebrates my favourite place, but I think I would love anything by Carson Ellis. I first became aware of her art with the 2010 publication of Dillweed’s Revenge: A Deadly Dose of Magic, written by Florence Parry Heide. This book in particular has a comically macabre, Goreyesque flavour, probably because of the subject matter, but I don’t see this in Home. It is comic, but Home is also a flat-out work of art – stunning, culturally diverse, and beautifully imagined. It is one of the most exquisite books published this year (or any year), and I expect to see it on many best-of lists at the end of 2015, including mine.

Home In StudioCARSON ELLIS was born in 1975 in Vancouver, Canada. She was raised in suburban New York and college-educated at the University of Montana in Missoula, where she earned a BFA in Painting in 1998. She received a 2010 Silver Medal from the Society of Illustrators for her art in Dillweed’s Revenge. She is the illustrator of The Composer is Dead by Lemony Snicket, and has collaborated with her husband Colin Meloy on the best-selling Wildwood series. Carson lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and sons, and according to her website, an unfathomable multitude of tree frogs.
HOME by Carson Ellis. Published by Candlewick Press, 2015
 Watch Carson Ellis introduce HOME

  • Posted on September 24, 2012
This is Not My Hat little fish

This Is Not My Hat

…and this is not a sequel to I Want My Hat Back, although the parallels are striking, especially as both books are hat-centric larks drenched in the dry humour and exquisite art of Jon Klassen. Not since Andy Warhol walked through the canned goods aisle has an artist squeezed so much out of a single object. Yes, every artist needs his muse, and Jon Klassen has found his in headgear. I’m being facetious of course; neither book is about the hat, per se…it could have been something else entirely. Nevertheless, it is the incongruity of such an object in an unlikely setting, on an unlikely head, and in particular, the lengths animals (and fish) will go to find, keep, steal, and display such a prized possession that makes a hat the perfect muse for Jon Klassen. This is Not My Hat does not begin where I Want My Hat Back ends, but it is an alternative expression of a similar concept.

Fish, meet hat.

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  • Posted on June 07, 2012
Art and Max paint

Painting 101

At first I was just going to write about My Dog Thinks I’m a Genius. It’s a brilliant book (with a great title), and certainly worth a stand-alone review. But then I started thinking about other books in my collection where painting is the focus, and four came to mind, although I’m sure there are many more that have escaped my memory (or awareness.) By definition, a picture book about painting double-serves the subject in that it is a work of art about the creation of art, assuming, of course, the illustrations are actually works of art, which is not always the case. However, with these five books (and the other titles listed at the end of this post), the exquisiteness of the art is indisputable, as is the quality (and sheer number) of apes, dogs, squirrels, and lizards populating the text. But then, what is a kids book, even a kids book about art, without a dog, or a lizard?

In the aforementioned, My Dog Thinks I’m a Genius, Harriet Ziefert tells the story of an eight year old boy and his dog, Louie. The boy loves to paint, and Louie loves to watch~and critique. As the story opens, the boy is working on a picture of a tall building, methodically adding each element until he believes the painting is done, but Louie’s barks suggest otherwise. Something is missing. The boy adds Louie to the painting and voilà, it is finished. (Hard to argue with Louie’s logic. Most things are improved with the addition of a dog.) However, as it turns out, Louie isn’t just a connoisseur of art, he may also be a budding canine Cézanne. Now who’s the genius?

My Dog Thinks I’m a Genius is absolute stunner. The illustrations by French artist Barroux are a mixed palette of watercolour and pencil, scrawled, splashed, and (when it comes to the characters) meticulously drawn over thick, sometimes lined pages. The boy states, “I must draw and paint everyday”, and Barroux’s exuberant illustrations express the character’s love of painting in bright candy colours, shifting perspectives, and a very inventive use of space. Not unlike Cézanne, in other words, who is given a wonderful homage at the conclusion of the book. My Dog Thinks I’m a Genius celebrates the creative process as a messy, and often collaborative effort. It also slyly hints at the reality that there is always someone better than you, even if it’s your dog, but in the end the only thing that matters is that you love what you do. Suggested sequel: My Cat Thinks I’m an Idiot.

According to three-time Caldecott winner David Wiesner, Art & Max was born out of the creative process itself, and in particular, the inherent possibilities of various mediums. If a character’s top coat of paint is ‘cracked’ to reveal a pastel drawing below, and then in succession, all of the layers are exposed, what remains of the original line drawing? What if it collapses into a single line? Can the character be restored? In yet another display of Wiesnerian logic, he dumps the early drafts of ‘cuddly creatures’ in favour of the stylistically more interesting lizard to answer these, and other, self-imposed questions. I mean, why not?

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  • Posted on April 11, 2012
House Held Up By Trees Klassen

Held Up By Trees

Another book by Jon Klassen. This time, it is Pulitzer Prize winning poet Ted Kooser providing the words, but visually, House Held Up by Trees is classic Klassen. The 60’s flavoured, flat-toned illustrative style is reminiscent of the much-lauded I Want My Hat Back (minus the bear), while the story is firmly planted in the urban, or suburban, experience. Conveniently, the subject matter is apropos to my previous post on the apparent abandonment of nature and natural imagery in picture books. In a House Held Up By Trees, people do indeed abandon nature (although the illustrations remain gloriously tree-infused), but the great thing about this book, and about nature in general~it finds a way. Trees find a way. Life, in all its exuberance, finds a way, and Kooser & Klassen find a way to make this heroic story of nature exerting itself a stirring, beautiful thing.

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  • Posted on March 18, 2012
Old Coyote by Nancy Wood

Old Coyote

Old Coyote had me with the cover, surely one of the most poignant, and beautifully observed illustrations of an animal I’ve ever seen. It’s in the eyes; heavy with sleep, closing in on one world, peaceful. They are like my 17 year old cat’s eyes, no longer round with anticipation, but tired and soft, resonant of a life lived, perhaps a life that is close to the end. I could not help but think of her as I read Old Coyote. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure she would not appreciate being compared to an old dog. Not even a little bit.

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  • Posted on February 26, 2012
A House in the Woods

A House in the Woods

At some point during winter, when the landscape is daubed in grey and Spring is still in the abstract, I turn to the golf channel, not because I have a fondness for rich, white men (or at least not the married ones), but because I crave the green. And when the inevitable boredom hits (approximately 15 minutes in), I turn to picture books- a dose of bibliotherapy to soothe my seasonal affective disordered brain. Of course, this only works with the really colourful books, such as A House in the Woods by Inga Moore. The snow is piling up in drifts outside, but it doesn’t matter. I am following moose, bear, and two little pigs through an autumnal wood as they gather building materials for their project, a cozy house where all four will eventually live. The illustrations are so vibrant, I can almost smell the spotted mushrooms, and the thick undergrowth of the forest. Say what you want about golf, other than the green of the grass, it just doesn’t have the sensual impact of a great picture book.

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  • Posted on September 30, 2011
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

I Want My Hat Back

I Want My Hat Back by Governor General Award Winner Jon Klassen is my favourite book of the year. Yes, there are still three months left in 2011, and yes, I have lost my heart to several wonderful books in the last nine months, but I stand by by my statement. A book about a bear looking for his lost hat, with simple yet breathtakingly lovely illustrations, and even simpler (but hilarious) text is a perfect creation. And I kinda knew it would be just from the cover. Some books, like some people, have a charisma that precedes them. Maybe it’s the bear, who looks like a beaver, all alone on the cover, with a slightly accusatory expression on his face. Bears already hold an esteemed place in children’s literature. Who doesn’t love Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle, or the perpetually troubled Berenstains? We may fear bears in the woods, but in picture books, a bear is a slam dunk, and in I Want My Hat Back, the bear is a star in the making.

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