• Posted on December 20, 2015
Marguerite's Christmas cover2

Marguerite’s Christmas


Marguerite’s Christmas isn’t for everyone.

The story of a fragile, elderly woman alone on Christmas Eve will leave some wondering if this is appropriate subject matter for children. Others will wonder if its appropriate subject matter for adults, given its juvenile format.

But it is a book for me, and anyone who sees storytelling as non-exclusionary. All stories have a place in children’s literature, as long as they are told well, told sensitively and honestly, and in the case of picture books, told with illustrative depth.

Marguerite’s Christmas is an extraordinary book. Written by Québecois author India Desjardins and illustrated by Pascal Blanchet (Trois-Rivières), Marguerite’s Christmas is one of the most beautiful books in recent memory, and it also deeply sad, because in Marguerite’s solitude we as readers want to reach out to her, even though her reality – being alone at Christmas – is not particularly unusual. The elderly are not always surrounded by family during the holidays like we see on TV, and some people, perhaps many people, are lonely at Christmas.

Marguerite's Christmas tv room

It’s difficult to know if I am ascribing feelings to Marguerite that she herself does not possess. She claims to be happy cocooning in her home, enjoying comforting rituals like watching her favourite holiday movies and not bothering with the tiresome fuss of Christmas. Many of her friends and family have died, and she is no longer interested in making new memories, just revisiting old. She repeatedly reassures her family that she is OK.

And yet, she is frequently startled by routine noises and fears going outside as if suffering from mild agoraphobia. She could probably use some company, but rejects it. Clearly, Marguerite is nearing the end, and at one point even imagines the grim reaper at her door. The scenes that follow give me pause. Is the episode with the car actually happening, or is it part of her ‘passage’ to the other side?

Marguerite's Christmas outside dark

Unlike some adults (or this adult), children will take Marguerite at face-value. The story will not make them uneasy. Instead they will be engaged by Marguerite’s predicament, by her haplessness and vivid imagination (stunningly expressed by the illustrator). Marguerite is a real character. She is endearingly quirky and fastidious. In the most transcendent moment of the book, her kind heart triumphs over her natural reticence when, in spite of her apprehension about venturing outdoors, she helps a stranded family in a broken-down car. It has been a very long time since she has been outside, and the stillness and chill of the winter night releases her fear.

Marguerite's Christmas looking outIt’s a brave and respectful move by India Desjardins to tell this unvarnished story of an elderly person’s winding-down life, and pitch it at children. For everyone, life is a journey, and each moment has its inherent pleasures and torments. And even when you least expect it, a moment of wonder.

The illustrations by Québec illustrator Pascal Blanchet elevate Marguerite’s Christmas into classic holiday fare, pulling out and intensifying the humour and poignancy of Desjardins words. The art is simply stunning, full of quiet, snow-dolloped streets and retro-heavy vignettes that draw from Marguerite’s life, past and present. The exaggerated angles, stylized imagery and flat colours are very much in the manner of Eyvind Earle, one of Disney’s finest background artists. Several years ago, I bought a book of his Christmas card illustrations (800 in total). Blanchet’s winterscapes seem plucked from that magnificent collection of cards Earle created over 60 years ago.

Marguerite's Christmas landscape

Marguerite's Christmas landscape CAR

Marguerite’s Christmas is perfection from the storytelling and illustration to the candy cane end-papers and placement of the type. It’s one of those books where everything works in exquisite balance, each element enhancing the expression of the other. Yes, it is at times an uneasy, layered read, but it is also deeply touching. I’ll not soon forget Marguerite. I feel like I’ve known her my whole life.

Marguerite’s Christmas by India Desjardins, illustrations by Pascal Blanchet. English edition, published by Enchanted Lion Books, 2015.

The original French edition of Marguerite’s Christmas, Le Noël de Marguerite (Les Éditions de la Pastèque, 2014) was shortlisted for the 2014 Governor General Literary Award in Canada for both text and illustration.

For more CHRISTMAS PICTURE BOOK REVIEWS, click HERE. Within that post, is a link to an even longer list of Christmas books!

Marguerite's Christmas fellow walking

  • Posted on May 26, 2014
Winston & George chillin

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 October 01, 2013


October has arrived, wind-swept and leaf-strewn; a seasonal reminder that it’s time to bone up on my ghosts. Like the would-be spectre dragging a ball and chain in Sonia Goldie and illustrator Marc Boutavant’s newly translated book Ghosts, I am poorly educated in the ectoplasmic sciences. No matter, with the help of this extraordinary (and extrasensory) book, I can now distinguish between the winter-loving ghost who lurks behind curtains drawing pictures on frosted window panes, the soot-covered Chimney Ghost, and of course, the oft-maligned Night Ghost. I’ve much to learn, and many preconceptions that barely scratch the surface of this delightful and diverse society of apparitions.

Ghosts coverOriginally published in 2001 in France, Ghosts is a whimsical introduction to the domestic variety of ghost populating the bedrooms and kitchens of our homes in (apparently) great multitude and variety. Leading the tour is a tiny bear-like ghost named Toasty, and his protege, an old-fashioned fellow from the ‘sheet’ and ‘boo’ era who may or may not be a real ghost. Wishing to dispel the myth that ghosts live only in old castles and haunted houses, Toasty invites his new friend to a party for all the household ghosts, who are introduced one by one. Turns out, we corporeal types are far from alone, and as I’d always suspected, not solely responsible for the mess and mayhem in our homes. There are mischief-makers in our midst.

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  • Posted on July 11, 2012
Little Bird

Small Things Are Treasures

“May my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living.”*

~E.E. Cummings

Every so often a picture book comes across my desk that makes me weep. It’s not always because the story is sad. Roger Ebert said it’s not sadness in movies that make him cry, it’s kindness. Yes. Sometimes, it’s sheer gratitude that such a beautiful thing exists, or the quiet way an author or illustrator expresses the wonder of being alive. Little Bird by Germano Zullo and Albertine is such a book. It’s joy, kindness, wonder, sadness (but of the wistful sort), and beauty. In short, Little Bird is a treasure.

The story of Little Bird is minimalist, as are the illustrations. Although the artist is Swiss, the block of gold against a cloudless blue sky is like a flat, prairie landscape from western Canada. Perhaps it is canola, or wheat, but the details are few, and the only human activity is a red van, ambling down a narrow, winding road. When it stops at the edge of a crevasse, a peculiar-looking fellow in a plaid shirt and blue overalls departs the cab, walks around to the back, and opens the door.

A large bird flies out, followed by a flock of beautifully imagined fowl of varying design and colour. This is no ordinary delivery, and it will be no ordinary day. A small black bird, who for some reason has not followed the others into the sky, stares up at the man from the darkness of the van. The man flaps his arms, encouraging the tiny creature to take wing, but the bird doesn’t move. The man sits down next to the bird, offering part of his sandwich. The two of them eat their lunch in amiable silence, until the man makes an even more ridiculous attempt to lure the bird out of the truck. It works, and the black bird joins the flock. Mission accomplished, or so you might think, but as the text promises, some days are different. Little Bird soars in unexpected ways, and the final illustration is magical, but also funny, and deeply moving.

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  • Posted on June 25, 2012
Coppernickel searches for Mr Quickstep

Coppernickel Goes Mondrian

In a previous post, I discussed picture books that focus on painters. In some instances, the painter in question was a squirrel, or a dog, but all of the characters in one way or another made reference to the human artists who preceded them. None, however, attempted to deconstruct a concept. Coppernickel Goes Mondrian is both a celebration of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, and an ingenious exploration of the conceptual drive behind the modern art movement. Not an easy thing to do, but Wouter Van Reek has created a little masterpiece of art history in the guise of a children’s book.

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  • Posted on January 17, 2012
Ice by Arthur Geisert

Pigs On Ice

I know a little something about ice. This winter has made me an expert. Last year, Edmonton broke a record for the quantity and in some respects, quality of snow that descended upon its shovel weary citizens, ending a multi-year drought and sending our city council into a tizzy of snow removal that was not only inadequate to the task, but a spectacular (and occasionally entertaining) public relations fiasco. This year, unlike any year in recent memory, we’ve had very little snow, some rain, ice-polishing gales, and a months-long cycle of freeze-thaw temperature variations. The landscape is pock-marked with pools of hard, lethal ice waiting to catch my rubber soles in a moment of inattention. Nevertheless, in summer when it’s unbearably hot, I will think back to winter’s icy grip with fondness, for there is nothing worse than unrelieved heat.

Just ask the pigs.

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  • Posted on December 23, 2011
Kangaroo for Christmas

A Hoppy Christmas

And now…one final Christmas review~a lively and colourful book from 1962~Kangaroo For Christmas, by James Flora. I was beginning to despair that nothing would jump out at me this December, but not only does the book jump…it leaps off the shelves, across five decades and 32 snow-filled pages. The only thing better than a really cool Christmas picture book is a really cool retro-Christmas picture book, with fantastic sixties-style illustrations, a dad who smokes a pipe, and a kid who says, ‘oh my‘ and ‘we are dreadfully sorry‘. Thanks to Enchanted Lion Books of New York, Kangaroo For Christmas has been spirited out of Mad Men playrooms and digitally restored just in time for Christmas 2011.

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  • Posted on August 01, 2011
Fox and Hen Together

Chicken Love

A perfect picture book is a rare thing. So much of what gets published is forgettable; poorly illustrated, drearily unoriginal productions that pander  to popular tastes, however fleeting. Not to despair. There are children’s picture book illustrators, writers and publishers hell-bent on bringing excellence to the table with original stories, inventive language, gut-busting humour, and as I’ve said many times before, the most beautiful art to be found anywhere, in any venue. The current purveyer of picture book perfection is French illustrator Béatrice Rodriguez and her crew of animal adventurists, including a determined hen and the fox who sweeps her off her claws, a loyal but easily fatigued bear, his rabbit companion, and one mightily ticked-off rooster. Characters such as these cannot be contained to one book, and I am happy to report that Rodriguez has extended their adventures to two more rollicking tales, and the result is a trilogy of wordless picture books amongst the best to be published this, or any year. The Chicken Thief arrived first in 2010, followed by Fox and Hen Together in spring 2011 and finally, Rooster’s Revenge, to be hatched this September. I haven’t been this excited about a trilogy of books since Philip Pullman put armour on polar bears.

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