• Posted on October 22, 2013
Here Be Monsters swashbuckling

Here Be Monsters

The title of Jonathan Emmett and Poly Bernatene’s new book Here Be Monsters is a play on Here Be Dragons, an admonishment printed in the corners of medieval maps to prevent seafaring types from wandering into uncharted territory. Ascribing evil to the unknown is common enough even today, but back then, it seemed reasonable to personify fear as a fire-breathing dragon. We now know these fears were unfounded. There are no dragons, no monsters. Good news if you’re a pirate, and an island of giant gemstones lay concealed in the murky mist of a faraway, uncharted land. Here be monsters, indeed.

Here Be Monsters coverCaptain Cut-Throat is the ‘meanest mariner to sail the Seven Seas’, guilty of ‘countless crimes of downright dastardliness and despicable dishonesty’, or so the Wanted Dead or Alive poster tells us. The peg-legged, pointy-nosed fox leads a crew of equally unsavoury characters, all of whom are wanted for various crimes, including ‘mean misconduct and monstrous mischief’ (Blue-Bottomed Bart, a mandrill), and ‘reprehensible rudeness and repulsive roguery’ (Quilly Von Squint, a raven), among other alliterative (and hilarious) misdeeds. As befitting a pirate of the highest order, Captain Cut-Throat likes treasure. Loves it in fact, refusing to heed his crew’s misgivings as he sets sail for the mysterious island of gems. Calm seas prevail until the ship enters the mist, where strange noises can be heard. One after the other, the crew plead with the captain, only to be plucked off the ship in spectacular fashion by, in turn, a giant, teeth-baring parrot and a multi-eyed serpent. Thinking his ‘yellow-bellied’ crew have abandoned ship, the captain remains steadfast in his goal, oblivious to what actually transpired on his ship. The bejeweled island emerges out of the mist, and Captain Cut-Throat greedily sets paw and peg on land to claim his reward. And he gets it. Boy, does he get it. These gems don’t just sparkle, they bite.

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  • Posted on October 01, 2013
DSCF2394

Ghosts

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 October 21, 2012
Halloween Greg Couch illustration

The Dark Art of Halloween 2012/13

UPDATED for 2013: Beautiful, chilly, fattening October. Here again, and happily so. Along with the usual waterfall of dead leaves, fun-sized chocolate bars by the bagful, and if the drop in temperature is any indication, snow, I bring you my annual celebration of Halloween books. Yes, this is a re-hash of previous Halloween posts, but for 2012~a few new gorgeously ghoulish additions for your reading and visual pleasure, along with the ghosts of Halloween’s past (click on the links for longer reviews.)

Here Be Monsters coverNew for 2013 and fresh off the high seas, the wickedly funny HERE BE MONSTERS by the great Argentinian illustrator Poly Bernatene (swashbuckling rhymes by Jonathan Emmett.) Previous conspirators on The Santa Trap, this brilliant twosome have created a pirate tale like no other. Beware of hidden treasure folks, this beautiful and deadly tale of Captain Cut-Throat and his unfortunate crew will leave you laughing (and running for shore.) Arrrrrrr…..

Also new for 2013, the deliciously witty GHOSTS (Sonia Goldie/Marc Boutavant.) Courtesy of a couple of affable spooks, the Ghosts coverrecord is finally set straight with regard to ghosts, specifically house ghosts. Apparently, we’ve been mislead. True ghosts inhabit every corner of our homes, and nary a one would be seen dead (well, you know) in a sheet, or utter a single ‘Boo.’ Boutavant’s gorgeously illustrated book is packed with every type of apparition; library ghosts, television ghosts, and of course, that big fellow who lives under your bed. Supernatural fun.

Creepy Carrots spiraling 400CREEPY CARROTS (Aaron Reynolds/Peter Brown, 2012)-Absolutely the best and most beautiful book on haunted root vegetables in print. Poor Jasper Rabbit, with his instatiable taste for carrots. Who will believe that he is being stalked and tormented by garden vegetables? Not his friends, not his parents. Jasper is forced to act alone, and his ingenious, and somewhat over the top solution may be the answer to more than one problem.

THE INSOMNIACS (The Brothers Hilts, 2012)-An amazing discovery on the shelves of my local bookstore, The Insomniacs is not so much a Halloween story as an appreciation of all things that go bump in the night. The Insomniacs are a strange little family, recently displaced, who just can’t get their circadian rhythms to play nice, until…they discover the dark secrets of the world at night. Lots of quirky touches, like the star-gazer mother, the upside-down Humpty Dumpty father, and all the odd, nocturnal creatures that populate this unnamed town on the ocean.

The Dead Family Diaz~P.J. Bracegirdle/Poly Bernatene (Dial, 2012)-No Halloween celebration is complete without at least one ghostly visitation from the great beyond, and in this sense, what could be more Halloween than El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead? Yes, it’s a Mexican festival, it’s celebrated on November 1, and no-one sits in a pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin, but in both traditions, skeletons and other assorted dead folk roam the streets in search of a party. In The Dead Family Diaz, young Angelito Diaz is about to walk among the Living for the first time in his life, I mean, death, and he’s a little frightened. The living have ‘big red tongues and bulging eyes,’ his sister teases. Angelito meets a boy (of the living variety) named Pablo, and even though he calls Angelito a popsicle and tries to remove his skeleton ‘mask’, the gruesome twosome strike up a friendship.

The Dead Family Diaz is another stunning example of the genius of Poly Bernatene, the Argentinian artist at the heart of When Night Didn’t Come, The Santa Trap, and 60+ other children’s books. Working digitally, his colours seem newly invented, with an inner luminescence that makes each page glow. In The Dead Family Diaz, the candy-coloured swirl of cars, buildings, skeletons and sombreros mirrors the exuberance of the festival both in real life (or so I understand), and as written by P.J. Bracegirdle. While Bernatene takes us to a darker, stranger place in The Dead Family Diaz, the vividness of his palette remains, as does his ability to turn a visually chaotic scene into a beautifully balanced illustration. This is not to suggest that some of the artwork, especially the close-ups of the skeletal Angelito, are not disturbing; they are, but not overly so. In word and image, The Dead Family Diaz is a celebration.

THE MONSTERS’ MONSTER (Patrick McDonnell, 2012)-A sweet treat for Halloween. Don’t let the presence of Frankenstein fool you, this book is more about gratitude and friendship than terrorizing hapless villagers. As Grouch, Grump and little Doom & Gloom discover, monsters do not always act as planned. From the artist who brought us the cartoon strip Mutts, and the perennial Christmas favourite-The Gift of Nothing, comes a most unusual, and funny tale of a kindly monster in search of…jelly doughnuts.

Scary Poems for Rotten Kids (Sean O’Huigin/Anthony LeBaron)-They don’t make kids books like this anymore, at least not without warning labels. This collection of deliciously creepy poems is trying very hard to scare kids, and according to the friend who brought this book to my attention, it was fantastically successful in this regard. A truly warped sense of humour is behind The Day the Mosquitoes ate Angela Jane, Acid Rain (hello 1982), Bye Bye (about a spider…a really, really big spider), and my particular favourite, The Body-a boneless beast who lives behind the walls and eats the flesh of little kids~

“…so don’t in darkness close the lids upon your eyes or you might find your body’s just ‘the body’s’ kind.”

Hmm. The newer edition of Scary Poems for Rotten Kids has a friendlier cover and interior illustrations that are far less sinister than the original black & white artwork by Anthony LeBaron. Presumably, this is an attempt on the part of the publisher to make O’Huigin’s nightmarish words more palatable to the modern child who is perhaps less rotten and a tad more sensitive than kids 25 years ago. The cartoonish drawings are no match for LeBaron’s ink-stained malevolence. Wonderful.

Jeremy Draws a Monster-Peter McCarty (Henry Holt 2009)-Like The Monsters’ Monster, there is nothing scary about this book, other than McCarty’s genius with a bit of ink and a coloured pencil. His finely detailed illustrations are so exquisite, I find myself staring at them in a (failed) attempt to decipher the secrets of his paintbox. In Jeremy Draws a Monster, an isolated and lonely kid draws himself a blue, horned beast for company. To Jeremy’s frustration, his new buddy is a bit of a nightmare, demanding all sorts of drawings to fufill his escalating list of monster comforts, including sandwiches, hotdogs, a soft chair, and finally, a big pink hat to wear ‘out on the town.’ When the monster returns, and takes over Jeremy’s bed, the worn out kid draws a bus and a bus ticket and bids farewell to his friend. While waving goodbye, Jeremy strikes up a conversation with the neighbour kids, who invite him over to play. Not particularly Halloweeny, but a beautifully illustrated paean to the power of imagination.

The Monster Returns-Peter McCarty (Henry Holt, 2012) Uh oh, he’s baaack! This time, however, Jeremy is prepared. Our little artist enlists his friends to draw their own monsters as c0mpanions for his monster. Very clever, Jeremy. Incredibly, with all the colourful new beasts, this sequel to Jeremy Draws a Monster is even more beautiful than the original. Lest you think Peter McCarty capable of only one style of illustration, check out Hondo and Fabian, one of my all-time favourite picture books. McCarty has a very elegant touch, with an eye for detail that is nonpareil.

On a related note, I picked up The Monster Returns on September 15th, 2012. It is the last book I will ever purchase from Greenwood’s Bookshoppe, a local independent bookstore in the city that closed two weeks ago. Heartbreaking. Such a great kids section, and many of books reviewed in this blog have come from Greenwood’s. You will be missed, and thanks for all the great books!

And now…HALLOWEEN treats (excluding those horrible molasses things) from the archives~

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  • Posted on October 08, 2012
The Monsters' Monster cover2

The Monsters’ Monster

I bring you greetings from the Patrick McDonnell fan club, and by ‘fan’ I mean rampant (but respectful) follower, admirer, and student. I am in awe of this man, and my heart swells when he publishes another book. Just in time for Halloween, Mr McDonnell has given us The Monsters’ Monster, a terrifying tale of science gone awry. Um, no. More Zen than Karloff, this Frankensteinian monster is the epitome of reverence, kindness and gratitude, a philosophy McDonnell has been quietly and humourously articulating through his art for many years.

“He’s alive, ALIVE!”

And isn’t that…just great?

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  • Posted on October 01, 2012
Insomniacs night walk

Blue Moon

And there it was. Tucked between the banal and the forgettable on the shelves of my local bookstore. The Insomniacs, by Karina Wolf, with illustrations by The Brothers Hilts. The Brothers Hilts? Never heard of ‘em. My first impression? Wow. My second impression, well, I didn’t have second impression. I was too busy walking up to the till. When I see a book like this, even just a few pages, it’s like stumbling upon a box of jewels. There is no question I’m taking it home with me. And so, I did.

The Insomniacs is a story of jet-lag gone awry. When Mrs Insomniac gets a job as an astronomer, she and her somewhat oddly-constructed family set sail on a ship to their new home ’12 time zones’ away, and subsequently experience great difficulty adjusting to the shift in daylight hours. With bags under their eyes and slumped shoulders, mother, father (who looks like Humpty-Dumpty with an upside down face), and daughter Mika shuffle through their daily routines, unable to sleep at night in spite of the hot baths, numerous cups of milk, and meditation. In a last desperate attempt to find a way out of their predicament, the family go in search of hibernating bears to learn the secret of their season-long slumber. Wandering through the dark woods at night, they discover an entire world of nocturnal activity, and a light goes on, figuratively and literally.

Yes, The Insomniacs is indeed a box of jewels, but this night-time story is all sapphire.

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  • Posted on September 16, 2012
Crazy Carrots cover

Creepy Carrots

One does not usually think of carrots in the same breath as ‘scary’ or ‘unsettling’, unless they are cooked English-style, which is to say, boiled until they are mush. Tasty, yes, but boring. Bereft of personality, you would think, but…you’d be wrong. In Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown’s new book Creepy Carrots, we are introduced to the other side of this most unassuming of vegetables, the side that is capable of all sorts of mayhem. Tread carefully in your garden, folks. The carrots are watching.

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  • Posted on October 13, 2011
widowsbroom feature

The Dark Art of Halloween

Ah…Halloween again. As mentioned in a previous post, October is one of my favourite months. Autumn colours and bags of fun-sized chocolate bars make me happy in a very, very deep place. As a picturebook aficionado, I love the months that bring out the seasonal collections. Christmas, Easter…even within this narrow field, it’s fascinating to see how many picturebook variations there are on Jesus (well, not that many), a Christmas tree, or a gourd. Some are better than others, and in that spirit, I will be making recommendations for Halloween based on previous posts in this blog. But first…a little Halloween treat from my youth. While this blog is devoted to picture books, occasionally a novel bubbles to the surface, or in the particular case of this novel, boils and bubbles to the surface, demanding inclusion in spite of the dearth of illustrations. Such is The Little Leftover Witch, by Florence Laughlin.

a leftover girl and her cat

One of the most memorable books of my childhood, The Little Leftover Witch is a short novel about a seven year old witch named Felina who breaks her broom on Halloween night and is unable to fly. In spite of her protests, the stubborn and disheveled girl is taken in by a family, where she is gradually made to feel at home in a non-magical world. What I remember most is the way she is cared for by the mother. Her long hair is brushed and brushed until it is shiny and all the knots are gone, her dirty black dress is washed and ironed, she has a bubble bath for the first time in her life, and instead of bat soup and jibbers’ gizzards, she is fed chicken and dumplings, peach cobbler, ice cream, and big glasses of ice-cold milk. Felina resists the kindness of the family, but eventually succumbs. The Little Leftover Witch resonated with me as a child. As the fifth girl in a family of limited means, the nurturing was a little thin, but I did have my school library, where I found this book, and many others. Coincidentally, I found it again the first day I started working in the children’s section of a bookstore. Different cover, same book. The simple, pen & ink illustrations are just as evocative as they were decades ago, as is the story of a lost little girl. The jaded adult in me wonders why Felina wasn’t allowed to retain her true witchy self and is instead persuaded to follow the conservative values of her adopted family. Luckily, a good story and pretty pictures never fail to knock me off my portable soapbox. The Little Leftover Witch is a book about love and transformation, and on that level, it succeeds beautifully. And what could be more ‘Halloween’ than a story of transformation…from summer to autumn, light to dark, jibbers’ gizzards to chicken dumplings. Although I believe the book is currently out of print, I was more than a little surprised to read that Chris Colfer from Glee is making a movie out of The Little Leftover Witch for the Disney Channel. Looks like the book is about to undergo…a transformation.

And now…a few more Halloween treats (excluding those horrible molasses things) from the archives~

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  • Posted on October 09, 2011
Dillweed feature image

A Dish of Revenge

In spite of many hours trolling bookstores and online websites, new and beautifully illustrated Halloween books are bone thin this year. Not that they have to be about Halloween per se; no gourds required. What is required is subject matter brewed in mayhem and mystery, with a soupçon of the supernatural. Checking out Lane Smith’s Curious Pages blog, I ran across Dillweed’s Revenge: A Deadly Dose of Magic, which looked suitably dark. I summoned the book to my doorstep, and found a story that is indeed dark, and funny, and deliciously bent. Perfect.

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  • Posted on October 30, 2010

Headless in New York

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

It is also universally acknowledged that a single man, in want of a wife, may run afoul of a headless horseman, if he’s not careful.

Such is the fate of Ichabod Crane, gangly bachelor and school teacher, lover of ripe repasts and an even riper Dutch damsel. A victim not only of his own appetites and superstitions, but quite possibly the terrifying prank of his rival.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an old American ghost story, based on a German fairy tale. It is familiar to many, but unread by most, due in part to the proliferation of knockoffs, cartoons and most recently, a pale cinematic adaptation by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp. This is a shame. In re-reading Sleepy Hollow, I was mightily impressed by the languid elegance and humour of Irving’s writing. Yes, a headless horseman, in any context, will steal the show, but equally compelling are the lush descriptions of the Hudson River Valley in Autumn, and in particular the sequestered glen known as Sleepy Hollow:

“If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.”

You see, not every ghost story is takes place in a haunted house.

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  • Posted on October 18, 2010

A Haunted Alphabet

The storyline is thus: A through Z inclusive, with poetry (of a most delightful sort), and some outstanding illustrations by the great Lane Smith. Done.

Well, not quite. Spooky ABC is, as one might conclude, an ABC book. And, as one might also conclude, it starts with A is for Apple. Except, this is a spooky apple, and it is the last thing you would want to find in your lunchbox:

Apple, sweet apple, what do you hide?

Wormy and squirmy, rotten inside.

Apple, sweet apple, so shiny and red, taste it, don’t waste it, come and be fed.

Delicious, malicious; one bite and you’re dead.

Think I’ll have banana.

An ABC book is the equivalent of Hamlet for illustrators. It’s a right of passage. A challenge to those possessed of a superior talent and the creative cajone’s capable not only of re-imagining the alphabet, but also surprising and entertaining an audience over 26 ‘acts.’ And to stretch this metaphor even further, Spooky ABC, like Hamlet, is a ghost story.

To B or not to B, that is the question.

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