• Posted on September 23, 2019

King Mouse

A few months ago, when I first saw an illustration from King Mouse, the new book by Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling, I knew it would be one of the most beautiful books published this, or any year. With that one illustration of a tiny, pointy-nosed mouse wearing a crown, I was immediately transported to a miniature, magical world, deeply resonant of classic children’s literature. Something about the delicacy of the line and the soothing gentleness of the story felt very old. I was, and am, in love with King Mouse.

It begins with a lost treasure.

A person, presumably a child, rides through a trail strewn with wildflowers, towing a wagon of crowns. Where is she going with her golden cargo? Several crowns fall off, and a mouse in search of a food finds one of these crowns, and places it on his head. Immediately he feels different – and special. A bear asks the mouse if he is a king, and after thinking about it for moment, the mouse answers yes. Soon, other forest dwellers arrive, offering their allegiance as well as a variety of gifts to the newly crowned King Mouse.

Eventually, the adulation grows tiresome and it doesn’t take long for King Mouse to become bored – and then jealous, after a snake also finds a crown and the kingdom gains a queen. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, especially if you can no longer claim preeminence. Soon, others start finding crowns, and in one of the funnier moments of the book, all the animals parade around shouting “hail to me!”

But…one creature, the bear, has failed to find a crown. He walks away, slump shouldered, feeling terrible.

King Mouse notices, and it rouses him out of his narcissistic trance. This may be overstating it – King Mouse is a kid’s book after all – but the creatures, once they don their crowns, become instantly focused on their heightened status. When the mouse is able to look beyond his own situation and notice someone who is in distress, it is profound and moving. Fagan and Seiferling bring great subtlety and sweetness to their storytelling, but it is never heavy-handed. The joy of this book is in the gentleness of it, but make no mistake, King Mouse is saying something about empathy – the ability, learned very young, to cast your paws into another creature’s shoes (even if they aren’t wearing any).

Seiferling’s exquisite illustrations are a joy all their own. Though her style is distinct, I am reminded of Beatrix Potter, and more recently, Peter McCarty and Chris Van Allsburg, for reasons that have something to do with how she applies her illustrative marks to the page, but mostly for the sensitivity she brings to each character. Her creatures, and the forest that surrounds them, are carefully observed but imaginative renderings that are full of elegant, unforced charm.

Like the crowns that suddenly appear in the forest, King Mouse is a rare treasure. It’s not easy to create a picture book this beautiful in a field rife with clunky, pandering efforts. And while Cary Fagan has written many wonderful children’s books, including Thing Thing, previously reviewed in this blog, King Mouse is Dena Sieferling’s first picture book. How can this be?

I first became acquainted with her work on Instagram, where she posts photos of her needle felting projects. This is a practice I’ve only recently discovered, by which I mean, I don’t do it – I just appreciate the beauty and delicacy of this unusual art form.

BEEautful! An example of Dena Seiferling’s needle-felt art

After graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design, Seiferling kept busy with commercial projects, in addition to working as an instructor at ACAD. She particularly enjoyed the initial pencil sketches that would precede each finished project, which is why she now focuses on graphite as her primary medium for illustration, as seen in King Mouse.

Following the birth of her first child, Seiferling was looking for ways to “switch things up” and began to explore other mediums. I talked to her about this, and King Mouse, which is being released on September 24.

“It was a very magical time in my life, full of new experiences and dealing with many “unknowns,” she says, from her home in Calgary, Alberta. “It brought back a longing for the imagination I had as a child, so I began something new – needle felted animal sculptures. I missed working with my hands (too much working on the computer!) so I was excited to evolve my drawings into three-dimensional, tactile forms – and from that point into many new directions including animation, puppets for film and gallery exhibitions. It has also greatly informed and influenced all of my illustration work, including the work that you see in King Mouse.”

Can you describe the experience of having your first picture book out in the world?

It feels wonderful! As a child, I would spend hours getting lost in the stories I read, submerged in a world where anything is possible and anxieties of navigating through my youth were calmed with laughter, amusement and wonder. My Aunt Faye was a Teacher Librarian and would give me the best children’s books for every occasion, books which I still covet today as an adult. The opportunity to illustrate a children’s book feels like a way to give children that sense of wonder and magic I experienced, and I couldn’t have asked for better way to start that with King Mouse. Serendipitous in timing and subject matter, it felt like the characters I developed were already there waiting to pair with Cary Fagan’s story.

How did you get matched with Cary?

Tara Walker, VP and Publisher at Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers [publisher of Tundra Books], contacted me after seeing the work I promoted on Instagram, proposing that I illustrate a children’s book. She happened to have a manuscript she thought might work well with my illustration style – Cary Fagan’s King Mouse. It was a perfect match as the story inspired me right from the beginning!

What is your artistic process?

I start with many rough sketches which are then refined towards a final draft. The final artwork is graphite on cotton paper with colour added digitally in Photoshop. Sometimes I create three-dimensional versions of the characters that I’m developing in addition to my drawings.

Your quote, “I enjoy hybridizing hypothetical human and animal experiences, drawing parallels between the two, triggering empathy for animals as well as creating a connection to the viewer in a very personal way,” very much gets to the heart of your illustrations and needle-felt work. Can you talk about that?

Foremost, I strive to create a connection between my characters and the audience through anthropomorphism. I realize that there is debate over whether anthropomorphizing animals is damaging or productive, but I think the positives win when the belief that animals have emotion and feelings similar to our own results in valuing and protecting them. Especially as we are losing animal species at astronomical rates. On another note, I think that by drawing ridiculously silly parallels from perceived scary animals to humans, there is a fear being addressed, an anxiety being eased and a tolerance being practised through empathy.

Have you always created art?

Well, the story goes that from the time I was two, I always had a pencil in hand! As I got older, observing character and capturing the underlying personality and soul of a subject is something that specifically gripped my imagination. I spent a lot of my free time drawing portraits during my elementary and high school years, then I would adorn my bedroom walls with the drawings. I was influenced by a mother who appreciates handmade objects with a historical context (antique collecting) and my father’s zest for building anything he set his mind to (ranges from airplanes to fuzz pedals for electric guitars) and I think that because of this, I wasn’t afraid to try my hand at making new things.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on my largest body of sculpture work yet for a solo exhibition in May 2020 at the Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles. I will be posting more information about this on my Instagram profile as it progresses. I also just completed the illustration work for a book written by Helaine Becker, published by Owl Books, to be released in the fall of 2020 and soon I will begin working on a new children’s book written by Cary Fagan, published by Tundra, to be released Spring 2021.

King Mouse by Cary Fagan with illustrations by Dena Seiferling is published by Tundra Books, 2019.

Read my review of Thing Thing by Cary Fagan here.

To purchase King Mouse in Edmonton, please contact The Prints and the Paper for this book and other personally curated and always amazing children’s picture books.   

Dena Seiferling:
Website: pickleandfrancois.com
Instagram: @pickleandfrancois

  • Posted on August 25, 2019

Nobody Hugs a Cactus

Many years ago, a former boss gave everyone on her team a cactus just before the Christmas break. It was an unusually pointy gift, and my suspicion about its inherent symbolism was confirmed a year later, when we all received knock-off Swiss army knives. Stay away – I am prickly. The fact that we already knew this about her was not the point, no pun intended. For some reason, she wanted to give us tiny versions of herself. We got the message, and we obliged.

In Nobody Hugs a Cactus by Carter Goodrich, the main character – Hank, the aforementioned succulent, is indeed, very prickly, and boy oh boy he does not want anyone or anything to come near. He is content to sit in his window perch, alone, staring out into the “hot, dry, peaceful and quiet” desert landscape.  

Hank watches suspiciously as a parade of well-meaning critters of the animal, reptile, human and tumbleweed variety pass by, all of whom try to woo Hank out of his self-imposed isolation. They are rebuffed, one by one.  

It’s a cowboy, striding in on hilariously long legs, who first suggests to Hank that he might need a hug, but then adds, “Too bad nobody hugs a cactus.”

One gets the impression that Hank may not know what a hug is, but whatever it is, he doesn’t want it, and so he doubles down on his next insult to a skittering lizard. “Just in case you’re wondering, I don’t want a hug.” The lizard is only too happy to comply. “That’s good, because I don’t want to give you one.” The tables have now turned, and it’s the visitors who reject Hank. A little hurt by the lizard’s remark, he begrudgingly offers to hug an owl, who abruptly turns him down.

For the first time, Hank feels lonely.  

We don’t always know what we need, or we do and we fear asking for it. In choosing a cactus with all its barbs and pointy spines to convey vulnerability, Goodrich is suggesting that underneath even the strongest, most impenetrable armour, there is always something soft. Something that needs attention. Lucky for Hank, in a moment of distress – amusing to the reader but not so much for Hank – he is rescued, literally and figuratively, by Rosie, a cheerful tumbleweed.

The way he thanks his new friend, by growing a flower for her, is the reason I bought this book. This illustration is so hopeful, so beautiful, so full of heart. The posture of his arm, outstretched, with “the best flower he could grow” is Goodrich at his best. He is able to convey feeling without being cloying or manipulative. His illustrations often make me laugh – and one with a jackrabbit made me laugh out loud in the bookstore – but they also make me love. Deeply. When he unveils this flower, I love Hank. And readers will love Hank. He is trying, very, very hard to make a connection. In opening up to kindness, Hank himself becomes kind.

This is not the end of the story, but suffice to say, Hank is a changed cactus.

In Nobody Hugs a Cactus, Goodrich paints the desert background in golden watercolour washes, the details diffuse, focusing instead on the wild array of characters who populate the otherwise sparse landscape. Expression, posture, emotion – this is Goodrich territory. With a deft hand and an empathetic heart, he imbues his characters, even a small, ornery cactus, with such lovableness, it is impossible not to care. This succulent may be prickly, but as Goodrich knows, it’s all surface. Bring it in, Hank.

I have long been a fan of Carter Goodrich. My entry drug was his beautiful and often politically barbed covers for the New Yorker, but it’s his trilogy of books featuring two dogs, Mister Bud and Zorro, that made me fall in love with this two-time Society of Illustrators gold medal winning illustrator. No surprise, Goodrich is also a character designer for such films as Brave, Despicable Me and Ratatouille, for which won the International Animated Film Society’s Annie Award for character design.

Nobody Hugs a Cactus by Carter Goodrich. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Check out Carter Goodrich’s website here.

Read my review of Mister Bud Wears the Cone

Read my review of Zorro Gets an Outfit

Read my review of Say Hello to Zorro!

  • Posted on March 09, 2011

My Plant, My Pet

I have a fern that is about 15 years old. Maybe 20. It’s not particularly attractive, at least in comparison to my other plants, and because it is rarely moved, the plant is lopsided; lush on one side (the public side) and bald on the other. I’ve named it Sideshow Bob because it sprouts dreads like Krusty’s infamous sidekick on the Simpson’s, but unlike the cartoon character, my Sideshow Bob possesses few, if any, homicidal inclinations. I should have turfed this plant a long time ago, but I have grown rather fond of ol’ Bob. My point? Anything can engender love — including plants, and books about plants.

From the moment I first laid eyes on the dirt-trailing, long-snouted stump of green foliage walking across the cover of Plantpet, I was in love. Like Bertie, the solitary, never-out-of-his-slippers human with the Don King hair in Elise Primavera’s story of unexpected friendship, I could not resist the charm of this tiny sprout, abandoned in a cage amongst Bertie’s junk. But is it a plant, or a pet? And is there a name (or treatment) for this type of love?

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  • Posted on February 04, 2010

The Illustrated Word in 32 Pages

Why start a blog about children’s picture books?

As a former bookseller (off and on for 12 years) and sometime illustrator, I have amassed a large collection of illustrated books and half-finished book projects. It is my passion, or the one that edges me ever closer to bankruptcy.

Most people don’t want to discuss picture books beyond the level of their entertainment or educational value. (What am I saying? Most people don’t want to discuss picture books period.) For them, the illustration comes second. As long as the book is pleasing to the eye and sufficiently conveys the gist of the story, it is a success. There are many ‘successes’ on the bookshelf at your local bookstore. These are not the sort of book I collect. These are not the books I will be writing about.

I love beautifully illustrated picture books. It’s wonderful if the story is well told, and if it happens to be entertaining, educational and pleasing to the eye of a child, great, but this is not my concern or my focus. I don’t care if the illustrations are too complicated, obtuse, or perhaps inappropriate for a kid. (And if they are inappropriate for a kid, they’re probably worth a second look.) I really don’t care if the book is written by an underemployed and drearily didactic celebrity or Governor General’s Award-winning author.

What I truly care about is whether the illustrations make me ‘suck wind’, as my former colleague in the book biz used to say. I want my knees to buckle, I want my heart to grow two sizes, I want to be filled with appreciation and awe… and awes’ constant companion, excruciating and debilitating jealousy. I want that moment in a bookstore, when I pick up a book for the first time, I am so gobsmacked by the illustrations, I can only say, in a sincere but slightly fretful voice, “I wonder how much my cat would sell for on ebay?”

Picture books are expensive.

And so…I am writing this blog for people who collect and admire children’s picture books, not because they are the necessary accoutrements of successful child-rearing (which they are), but because we know, the most beautiful, virtuoso art being produced these days is for the picture book.