• 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 May 17, 2015

Sidewalk Flowers

This is it. Sidewalk Flowers is one of those books. A book that gets it right. All of it. The writing, the tone, the illustrations, and above all, the sentiment. At it’s core Sidewalk Flowers is a story about Sidewalk Flowers coverkindness, and radiating from that – gratitude and appreciation. It’s also about opening our eyes, seeing the small things that so often pass us by.

Author JonArno Lawson found the perfect illustrator in Sydney Smith and together they create a world that is decidedly urban, but not cold. It’s true there is little colour at the beginning of the story, but the scenes are rich with life – if you just know where to look.

Sidewalk Flowers picking dandelions

The fact that a young girl is able to find quiet beauty in her bustling surroundings is not surprising. Children are very good at noticing what we ignore; what we are too distracted or hurried to see. The wordless story is told in a series of panels, almost like a graphic novel. In an otherwise black & white setting, the only colour is the red of the girl’s hoodie as she walks hand in hand with her father through the city streets. This is a particularly good device, as the vivid colour draws us in, slows us down, until we see what she sees: a yellow flower growing in a crack in the sidewalk, a stand of fruit, a woman’s flowery dress, the little lives that are lost, the big lives that are equally lost. She places her flowers on the breast of a dead bird, picks more flowers – drinking in their scent. She hooks a purple flower into the shoe of man sleeping (sleeping it off?) on a park bench. In one of the loveliest scenes of the book she shakes the paw of a dog and then places a bouquet under his collar. Unlike her father who is busy with his errands and only passively attentive to her, the girl is engaging directly with her world, and in a quiet, childlike way, she is saying  – I SEE YOU. Sidewalk Flowers reminds us that at every moment, we have a chance to do something meaningful, even if it’s just acknowledging what, or who, is in front of us.

Sidewalk Flowers four panel

It’s important to note that the first flower she plucks from the sidewalk is not in fact a flower but a dandelion. A weed. To the girl, to any child, it is a beautiful flower, and she is right; dandelions are beautiful, but our ingrained adult prejudice prevents us from seeing a dandelion as anything but an annoyance, if we see it at all. In truth, dandelions are the first ‘flower’ of spring, dotting the landscape with bright colour and providing the first food for hungry bees, butterflies, and other insects. They are useful and deserving of our appreciation, if for nothing else than their ability to push though the meanest of circumstances, like a crack in the sidewalk, and thrive.

Sidewalk Flowers dog

The girl doesn’t know this, of course; she just thinks the weeds are pretty and that is enough, and when she feels moved, which is often, she shares her bouquets. These small acts of kindness go unseen by anyone except the recipients of her generosity and the reader, and in this way, the perspective is nicely played with, giving us a glimpse into her world, but also allowing us to watch her interact within this black & white urban setting, as if she herself is the flower. The vignettes gradually infuse with colour as the girl nears home; Lawson’s watercolours becoming softer and more saturated, particularly in the family scenes toward the end. And still, we see her – the little girl in the red hoodie, flower in her hair, surrounded by beauty wherever she goes. It’s all about the perspective, you see.

Sidewalk Flowers backyard

A three-time winner of the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Children’s Poetry, JonArno Lawson is the author of numerous books for children and adults, including Enjoy It While It Hurts, Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, and Think Again. He lives in Toronto with his wife and three children. Great interview HERE about writing a picture book without words.

Sydney Smith was born in rural Nova Scotia, and has been drawing since an early age. Since graduating from NSCAD University, he has illustrated multiple children’s books, including the wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers, and he has received awards for his illustrations, including the Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence in Illustration. He now lives in Toronto and works in a shared studio space in Chinatown where he eats too many banh mi sandwiches and goes to the library or the Art Gallery of Ontario on his breaks. Read how Smith created the illustrations for Sidewalk Flowers HERE.

Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, illustrations by Sydney Smith. Published by Groundwood Books, 2015

Sidewalk Flowers looking up