• Posted on September 03, 2015
Grant and Tillie Go Walking cover

Grant and Tillie Go Walking

“I realized that all the really good ideas I’d ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. So I went back to Iowa.”  Grant Wood

How delightfully strange that a Canadian author and illustrator would create a picture book about the American painter Grant Wood. It’s doubtful that young readers, regardless of their nationality, will have heard of Grant Wood, and as a subject matter, the artist famous for the dour portrait of a farm couple and their pitchfork is, to say the least, an unusual choice. However, Grant and Tillie Go Walking works because author Monica Kulling and illustrator Sydney Smith have found a way to tell a fictional story that is suggestive of the life and artistic legacy of Grant Wood but still recognizably biographical. In melding fact and fiction, the story takes off, becomes its own thing – reverent but also charmingly re-imagined as the story of a man who takes the long way around to find what truly matters, and a cow who knew it all along.

Grant and Tillie apple

Grant and Tillie Go Walking is about two characters – an artist (Grant) and his cow, Tillie. Grant is a restless soul, disenchanted with the pastoral landscapes and quiet lifestyle of his family’s Iowa farm. He longs to paint like the French artists in Paris, and so abandons the farm and Tillie for the City of Lights. Tillie is inconsolable (as only cows can be in children’s books), giving little milk and refusing to go for walks without her best pal, in spite of the tender care of Grant’s mother. On the other side of the world, Grant adopts the lifestyle of the French painters and even dons a beret, but it is an invention – convincing no one, especially the French who are dismissive of Grant’s depictions of rural America. His dreams of home reveal a truth that is undeniable.

“Grant looked different, but inside he was still a shy, quiet man, and a slow painter.”


Grant Tillie Paris large

Grant Wood American GothicIn actuality, Grant Wood visited Europe four times over a period of years, but like the character in the book, he returns to Iowa to paint what is authentically meaningful to him – the American landscape. As an artist, Wood was inextricably shaped and inspired by his mid-west experiences. His very personal and unique style of painting is emblematic of an American art movement known as Regionalism, and his painting, American Gothic (depicted in the book), would become as internationally revered and recognizable as the masterpieces he studied in Europe.

Grant and Tillie cow painting

Grant and Tillie Go Walking is a gentle and beautifully realized portrait of an artist in formation. The old adage, write (or paint) what you know is an obvious motif, but running parallel is a story about bonding and connection – with the land, with wherever you call home, and with the person you truly are. And if you’re lucky enough to have one, your cow.

Kudos to Monica Kulling and Sydney Smith for creating a picture book for children about this artist, or any artist. While illustrated picture books introduce art to children indirectly as a 32 page work of art, books about art and artists for children are rare. Fictionalized accounts even rarer. How do you walk that line between biography and fiction? Sydney Smith’s illustrations in Grant and Tillie Go Walking are an homage to Grant Wood but still stylistically original. Even more surprising is how much they differ from his previous book, the exquisite Sidewalk Flowers, which draws from the graphic novel sensibility of dark outlines and a palette of primary colours.

I recently talked to the incredibly talented Sydney Smith about his approach to creating Grant and Tillie Go Walking. Here’s an edited version of our chat:

32Pages: In the publication notes, it states that you used watercolour, ink, and a toothbrush to create the illustrations. Can you talk about the process?

SS: I used mostly a stenciling method for this book. I would draw the various shapes on bristol board and cut them out using the positive and negative as masking for application of watercolour or ink. The toothbrush was for the splatter. I have used a similar approach before digitally and thought that the effect would work well in this case because the result could have a similarity to Grant Wood’s style of painting. His hills and trees were so rounded and rich. The non-digital approach is much messier. I am still finding small paint-splattered cutouts of cows and houses in my studio!

32Pages: How do you decide on style for a particular book?

SS: The hardest part of Grant and Tillie was deciding the approach. I had just finished Sidewalk Flowers but it didn’t feel right to do the same thing. The dark shadows and thick ink lines made sense for the city but in Grant Wood’s rural Iowa the images needed to be softer and reflecting his own style of painting.

32Pages: Were you familiar with the work of Grant Wood before you started this project?

SS: Like most people, I was familiar with American Gothic and I recognized a few other paintings of his but I wasn’t familiar with his story. He found his Regionalist style after experimenting with other styles that were popular at the time and I can relate to that. Also, moving to a big city and being overwhelmed, that’s something I can relate to as well.

32Pages: Was creating Grant and Tillie Go Walking an enjoyable experience?

SS: The most gratifying part was trying something new and taking a risk and seeing it through. I was working in a way I never have before and although the process was slow, it was worth it. And Monica (Kulling) is wonderful and prolific. She has an excitement and talent that is infectious. She is unstoppable!

Sydney Smith was born in rural Nova Scotia and graduated with a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax. He has illustrated multiple children’s books, including the wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers. Sydney lives in Toronto.

According to her website, Monica Kulling “lived the life of a free-range kid” in British Columbia. She studied creative writing at the University of Victoria, and is the author of many books for young readers, including The Tweedles Go Electric and The Tweedles Go Online.

Grant and Tillie Go Walking by Monica Kulling, illustrations by Sydney Smith. Groundwood Books, 2015.

Previously reviewed – Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith.

An Educator’s Guide to Grant and Tillie Go Walking HERE

Sydney Smith Sketchbook at Sydney Draws

  • Posted on May 17, 2015
Sidewalk Flowers little girl

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 necessarily 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

  • Posted on December 10, 2014
Any Questions Marie-Louise Gay

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 October 28, 2014
What There Is Before-the bed

What There Is Before There Is Anything There

I spent most of my childhood scared stiff. As the youngest in a family of seven, I was first to bed. There were no bedtime stories. I don’t recall being tucked in. It was ‘get to bed’ and that was it. Light on in the hallway. Door open. Once I was under the covers, I did not move a muscle or shift a single finger, for fear that I would disturb whatever or whomever was Liniers coverlurking in the shadows. It didn’t help that I would often smell boloney being fried in the kitchen downstairs, as if the party started once I went to bed. Otherwise innocuous early 70’s television theme songs like Mission Impossible wafting up the stairs deepened my anxiety, becoming synonymous with my banishment. Forty years later I no longer remember what I was afraid of, just a vague recall of the anguish bedtime represented.

Liniers umbrella guy

What There is Before There is Anything There, the newly translated book by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers, is a perfect reflection of that nameless fear. The boy in this story, like every similarly afflicted kid, knows that once the lights are turned out and ‘the ceiling disappears’, the dark is not empty. Indeed, as he lay in bed, the first in a series of strange little creatures descends from above – on an umbrella. It stands at the foot of his bed, staring and silent, and yet its lips are pursed, as if whistling. One by one, the rest of the creatures appear, surrounding the boy’s bed. None of these ghouls are particularly scary, and in fact are rather whimsical, but their wordless vigil is incredibly unnerving. Once all the creatures have gathered, the dark void takes shape, transforming the bedroom into a nightmarish wood. Gorey-esque branches surge toward the child, and a face appears in the murk.

Liniers black monster

Liniers I Am What There Is

The boy runs to his parents’ bedroom, where he is the recipient of that time-honoured parental admonishment – it’s just your imagination. When you’re a kid, there is no room for subtlety. It’s all real. Unlike so many ‘scary’ kids books, Liniers does not rationalize, dismiss, or even resolve the boy’s fear. It is what it is. Indeed, when the boy is allowed to sleep with his parents ‘for the last time’, the creatures follow him (or at least the little guy with the umbrella) to bed. It is a devilishly mischievous ending, and it made me giggle.

Liniers surrounded

Individually, these nightly visitors are not particularly threatening, and in a less menacing context they could be the boy’s imaginary playmates (with the exception of that, um, bit of weirdness in the dark). Liniers is, after all, a cartoonist, and while the story may be nightmarish, his gorgeous watercolour and pen illustrations (in particular his characterizations of the boy and his bedtime crew) are little gems of wicked humour and expert draftsmanship. What There is Before There is Anything There is a validation of the imaginative mind, regardless of where it leads. As the title suggests, making something out of nothing, literally pulling it out of the darkness, is the very essence of imagination.

Some children (and adults) might think this book too scary, but others will find the boy’s predicament familiar (as I did), and therefore reassuring. Most will appreciate the humour. As Liniers is keenly aware – it’s fun to be scared, and What There is Before There is Anything There is a lot of fun.

Liniers (full name Ricardo Siri Liniers) is an internationally well-known Buenos Aires-based cartoonist, whose daily comic strip Macanudo has run for over ten years in Argentina’s La Nación. His work has appeared in newspapers, books, Liniers detailand magazines, including The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Liniers’ first North American picture book, The Big Wet Balloon was named a Parents Best Book of the Year. On the dedication page of What There is Before There is Anything There, Liniers states, “…to my parents, who turned out my light and lit up my imagination.” Perhaps, just perhaps, What There is Before There is Anything There is not just a quirky picture book, it is also an autobiographical story of a kid who grew up to be a brilliant artist.

 What There is Before There is Anything There by Liniers (translated by Elisa Amado). Published by Groundwood Books, 2014

  • Posted on September 14, 2013
Northwest Passage cover

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 August 30, 2013
Once Upon a Northern Night blue forest

Once Upon a Northern Night

On rare occasions, a picture book comes my way that is so evocative, it feels like a lost memory from childhood, revealing itself page after page. Once Upon a Northern Night is a such a book. Oddly out of time, and yet timeless, Once Upon a Northern Night is a breathsucker, a gust of cold winter air awakening the senses. After several readings, I am still amazed that this glorious book has been in existence for a mere few months, not fifty years. The gentle poetry of Jean Pendziwol has the lilt and reverence of an old bedtime story, the kind without irony or guile. Like Pendziwol’s words, Isabelle Arsenault’s luminous illustrations belong to a bygone era of limited palettes and charmingly stylized imagery. If books have souls, then Once Upon a Northern Night is an old soul.

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  • Posted on April 29, 2012
Caramba and Henry

Ay Caramba

My cat has a few skills. She is a master of food procurement, especially the hunting and gathering of fish-flavoured snacks. The white expanse of her impressive belly absorbs the heat of the sun, keeping the house cool in summer. The vibrational pitch of her purrs make fly swatters and wasp repellants entirely unnessary.

Nevertheless, in spite of her talents (and pretty face), my cat cannot fly-a fate shared by Caramba, the star of Marie-Louise Gay’s Caramba and Henry, the second in her series of picture books about a plump, flightless cat. In Caramba’s world, all cats can fly. They are also very colourfully attired, but then…every creature in Marie-Louise Gay’s impressive list of publications, feline or otherwise, sports a crayola-hued pair of trousers, or some other equally bright fashion accessory. And that’s just the clothing. The story is important, and so are the characterizations, but first…always first…is the glorious application of paint to paper. Flying cats are just the bonus.

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  • Posted on November 01, 2011
A Brave Soldier

Remembrance Day

Of all the days in the year in Canada that we celebrate or commemorate, Remembrance Day is the one that means the most to me. Other seasonal occasions, like Christmas, hold fond places in my heart, filled as they are with memories of friends and family, and my unnatural love of winter, twinkle lights, and all the Who’s down in Whoville. Remembrance Day, on the other hand, engages me emotionally and spiritually like no other day of the calendar. No cards or presents are exchanged, no fireworks, no hollowed-out pumpkins. It is the one day set aside for quiet reflection, not on our lives but the lives of others who participated in the wars of the 20th century and beyond, who even now are buried in fields where poppies blow. I have no direct experience with war, other than through my brother-in-law whose mother was taken from her Polish village and brought to Germany as a labourer, and his father, who fought with the exiled Polish army all over Europe and the Middle East. I am not a war nut; the specificities of battles and campaigns do not interest me, but I do wonder why people do the things they do. How decisions, large and small, play out through time.

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  • Posted on September 23, 2011
Griselda cover

Mirror, Mirror

Beautiful Griselda is a fairy tale about the perils of narcissism and the difficulty of keeping your wits about you, especially the parts of your anatomy containing your wits, when confronted by the object of your desire. I think we can all relate…to a degree.

Princess Griselda is beautiful. Really, gobsmackingly beautiful. Everyone who casts their eyes upon her lovely visage falls head over heels in love with her. Literally. Their heads pop off like corks. Griselda is greatly amused by this, and makes a collection of her admirers, varnishing their heads and placing them under glass or on the walls like stuffed trout. Yes, grisly Griselda is a bit of a monster, more interested in perfecting her lethal form of beauty and growing her ‘collection’ than finding a nice little froggie to kiss. Lucky froggies.

To keep the princely heads rolling, Griselda’s daily beauty ablutions include bathing in cold spring water, slurping juice from sour Tasmanian fruit, posing in crystal shoes, and of course, stray hair removal, courtesy of her ladies in waiting (to have their heads pop off.) And, like all narcissists of the royal persuasion, Griselda takes more than a little pleasure in knowing that people throughout the land are obsessed by her beauty, misinterpreting fear for admiration.

And yet…a mirror makes for poor conversation, and even the self-absorbed get bored…

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  • Posted on June 16, 2011

Border Crossings

There has been a lot of discussion in the news of late regarding the pervasiveness of dystopian young adult literature, and whether or not it’s appropriate to expose kids to the darker aspects of life, real or imagined. I think we are kidding ourselves if we believe that children and young adults exist in bubbles, and are not in some way already exposed to the full spectrum of humanity.*

When I was a young girl, maybe 13 or 14, I abandoned what was ‘appropriate’ for my age and fell headfirst into the novels of Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut and even Margaret Laurence because what I was reading did not reflect the unpredictability and to a degree, the harshness of my life at that time. Nevertheless, most of us in Canada and elsewhere in the developed world lead a comparatively pampered life. Some more pampered than others, but the bulk of us grow up with a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and if we’re lucky, a sense of permanency, all of which is taken for granted because it is the rule, not the exception. Migrant is the story of a girl who lives the exception, but in the most poetic way, brings a beauty to the unpredictable life around her and to the world she imagines for herself and her family.

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