• 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 November 30, 2013
On a Snowy Night cover

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 April 14, 2013
Ribbit! What is this strange frog?

Pig in a Pond

Slowly I am making my way through Poly Bernatene’s picture books. The Argentinian illustrator is astoundingly good, and very prolific. His latest book, Ribbit! is, like the others, a feat of illustration. Unlike the others, there is no blue, as in the colour blue. There are wonderful greens and pinks, but for anyone who has seen When Night Didn’t Come, The Tickle Tree, or The Santa Trap, they will understand, Bernatene immerses his illustrations in deep sapphires and lustrous periwinkles. Nevertheless, what Ribbit! lacks in blue, it more than makes up for in the number and quality of frogs, and a friendly, if slightly misunderstood pig.

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  • Posted on February 14, 2010

A Cool Glass of Water

Most of the picture books in my collection are feasts; pages overstuffed with visual delectables and sensory stimulants. Sometimes gluttony leads to bloat, and the only thing that will bring relief…other than the unfastening of the top two buttons of my jeans, is a cold glass of water.  Sylvia and Bird by Catherine Rayner is that cold glass of water, which is not to say it’s unemotional or without visual complexity. The ice blue illustrations in this book are restorative, a cool facecloth on a weary face. When I first flipped through the pages of Sylvia and Bird in the bookstore, it was like hitting the refresh button on my brain. If only I had a refresh button on my brain.

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  • Posted on February 10, 2010

When a Frog Loves a Fruit

Peach & Blue is a rare book.  Depending on your viewpoint, it’s a love story, a tale of friendship, or a chronicle of death. When I worked at the bookstore, it was the centre piece of my Valentine’s Day display. And no, I wasn’t being ironic. This book is not about death. It is one of the most romantic stories you will ever run across in the children’s book section of your local library or bookstore.

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