• Posted on November 15, 2015
Most Amazing open mouth

The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea

When Brenda Z. Guiberson met Gennady Spirin, the picture book gods and godettes smiled. Since their original collaboration Life in the Boreal Forest, the talented twosome have been creating THE Most Amazing covermost beautiful, non-fiction picture books around. It’s not possible to pick a favourite, although I will admit to a strong affinity for the frogs in Frog Song, and as a resident of the north, how could I not love the moose in Life in the Boreal Forest?

Nevertheless, their newest venture The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea is truly amazing, as the title suggests. It’s so strangely beautiful, in fact, it could be a collection of alien creatures as imagined by some unfathomably inspired and slightly demented dreamer.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a fan of the sea. I respect it, I worry about it, and I’ve enjoyed dipping my toes in it, but aesthetically – I prefer a nice tree over a squid. For reasons that I don’t quite understand, fish creep me out.

The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea will not endear the squeamish, like me, but it will beguile. The creatures range from Box Jellyfish (and its millions of stinging toxic cells) to the truly bizarre Barreleye Fish, also known as the spook fish – for good reason: it’s got a transparent head. There are other non-orifice-clenching sea dwellers represented in the book, like sharks and leatherback sea turtles, but each in their own particular and often peculiar way, are vying for the title of the most amazing creature in the sea.

Most Amazing Barreleye Fish

It’s a great premise. Each creature makes its case, and each one is stranger, in an evolutionary sense, than the next. One wonders what selection pressures created this little horror:

“I am an ANGLEFISH. As a female, I lure prey close to my mouth with the light that dangles from my dorsal spine. Smaller males join their bodies to mine, latching on with their teeth until their skin fuses into mine. I eat for us all, sharing the nutrients from my bloodstream. I see for us all when each male attached to me loses his eyes. That’s why I’m the most amazing creature in the sea!”

Amazing, for sure. Also horrific, nightmarish and spectacularly homicidal. Guiberson and Spirin show us a fantastical world that stuns the intellect, astonishes the eye, and confronts our deepest fears.

And don’t even get me started on Hagfish (aka ‘the snot fish’).

Most Amazing Vampire Squid

The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea is a thing of wonder. I may not ever want to meet one of these creatures outside of a Stephen King novel, but I marvel at their very creation. In compelling, but simple detail, Guiberson conveys the individual quality of each creature while making a case for their growing endangerment. As with Life in the Boreal Forest and Frog Song, the author’s notes include additional information about the environmental pressures faced by these and other creatures of the sea, as well as links to conservation organizations.

It is Gennady Spirin’s illustrations that elevate the book from an interesting and informative read to a work of art. How beautifully he imagines this undersea world! It’s as if someone has opened a long buried treasure chest and all the gold and jewels have wafted out, setting the sea alight. I try very hard not to draw a distinction between fine art and illustration, but as I have said before in other posts about this Russian illustrator, Spirin’s paintings are true masterpieces. They would be at home in a museum.

Most Amazing Box Jellyfish

In countless publications, most of them re-tellings of traditional folk and fairy tales, Spirin pulls out exquisite detail in tempera, watercolour and pencil, creating illustrations that appear torn from a 500 year old illuminated bible. They are luminescent, flecked with gold, delicately and richly coloured.

Most Amazing Mimic Octopus

The virtuosity of the illustrations suggest (or perhaps demand) a leisurely pace, but Spirin is prolific, which is great news for those of us who are greedy for each new publication. Interestingly, he does not discriminate – whether its Chekhov, Hans Christian Andersen or Brenda Guiberson – every illustration gig gets the full Spirin treatment. It’s not a stretch to think he (and Guiberson) reveled in the peculiar, almost supernatural details of these creatures, imbuing them with character in spite of their utter lack of charm. I’m sure they’re fine fellows in their own right, but as I have already mentioned, I’m not drawn to the ocean, but in the hands of a brilliant illustrator like Gennady Spirin, I find its creatures admirable, if only for the sheer weirdness of their existence.

Most Amazing Anglerfish

Gennady Spirin studied at the Moscow Art School and the Academy of Arts, as well as the Moscow Stroganov Institute, and currently lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Together with Guiberson, he has published three other books: The Greatest Dinosaur Ever, Frog Song and Life in the Boreal Forest. Beyond this, however, Spirin has created dozens of books, all of which are little masterpieces of illustration.

Brenda Z. Guiberson is an author and illustrator who has had a life-long interest in science. Hailing from Washington state, Guiberson has written many books for children, including Cactus Hotel, Spoonbill Swamp, Moon Bear and Disasters.

I am very happy to report that a sort of sequel to this book will be published in 2016 called The Deadliest Creature in the World. Here’s a sneak preview.

The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin. Henry Holt and Company, 2015

I have also reviewed these other Gennady Spirin gems (click on link for reviews):Frog Song, Life in the Boreal Forest, Martha,various Christmas titles (short reviews)

Most Amazing Sea Dragon

  • 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 July 29, 2014
The Promise Davies Carlin

The Promise

Be the change that you wish to see in the world ~ Mahatma Gandhi

If I had to name the theme I am most drawn to in children’s literature, it would be the transformational power of nature. It must have started with a youthful reading of The Secret Garden, or perhaps it’s a Canadian thing, but whatever the source, a walk in the woods can do wonders, figuratively of course, and also metaphorically, in books. But what if there are no woods? Arguably, children’s books that reflect (and celebrate) the urban experience are growing in frequency and popularity, but few deal directly with the other side of city life – the concrete wastelands that are the byproduct of urban decay and our ever growing estrangement from the natural world.

The Promise cover

Most children’s books tend toward the utopian, especially in terms of setting. In The Promise, Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin hold up a mirror to our dying, degraded cities, and then, with a simple gesture, present us with a most beautiful and transformational resolution.

It is unclear whether The Promise is set in the present, or in a dystopian future, but the initial pages suggest a parched world where nothing grows. Carlin’s illustrations, stunning in their cool, abstract beauty, depict scenes bereft of colour: bleak, industrial, and entirely cheerless. The patchwork of buildings, distinguished only by the number of blackened windows, seem lifeless. The are streets empty, but for a few dogs and a scattering of people, all of whom reflect the broken connections of a town that has lost its way. There are many types of disconnection in Davies’ evocative tale, but threading through all is the disconnect from nature. In a harsh and ungiving environment, the people have lost the ability to find fellowship with each other. The young girl at the centre of the story does not distinguish herself from the ‘mean, hard and ugly’ people of her community. Indeed, she will even steal a bag from an old woman.

This is where The Promise takes flight. After a struggle, the old woman promises to let the bag go if the girl promises to plant what is within. Dismissing her words, the girl makes the promise, and is surprised to find neither food nor money in the bag, but acorns.

“I stared at them, so green, so perfect, and so many, and I understood the promise I had made. I held a forest in my arms, and my heart was changed.”

The Promise seeds grow

Like a Johnny Appleseed for the 21st century, she sets off on her journey, planting the acorns along roadways, train tracks, apartment buildings, abandoned parks; anywhere, and everywhere. When the trees begin to sprout, the people are curious. Curiosity soon gives way to wonder. Wonder gives way to joy. As life returns to the city, a community is reborn, and the pages of The Promise fill with breathtaking, transcendent colour.

The Promise colourful trees

Green spread through the city like a song, breathing to the sky, drawing down the rain like a blessing.”

Her mission continues, to other ‘sad and sorry’ cities, until she has, in turn, become an old woman with a bag of acorns. It is at this point she begins to narrate her story.

What is most profound about The Promise is that Nicola Davies takes a complex issue like urban decay, and shows us in simple, elegant prose the human cost – in a state of nature deficit, we cannot thrive. We may not even be able to live. More importantly, she places the responsibility for change on individual acts of stewardship. An important lesson not just for kids, but for everyone.

The Promise is a deeply moving and gloriously illustrated book that does not shy away from scenes of despair, nor does it suffer from a failure of the imagination, like so many other stories with an environmental message. On the contrary, Davies and Carlin envision a brighter, more communal, and nature-abundant future, in the actionable now.

The Promise birds

Nicola Davies is a zoologist and an award winning author of many nature-centric books for children. Clearly, she is a woman who has taken a walk or two in the woods. A woman, in other words, after my own heart.

The Promise is Laura Carlin’s first picture book, which is rather astounding. A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, Ms Carlin has recently illustrated The Iron Man by Ted Hughes.

The Promise by Nicola Davies, illustrations by Laura Carlin. Candlewick Press, 2014

For additional reading along a similar vein, I would suggest The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, which is based on the guerrilla gardening movement on Manhattan’s abandoned High Line.

On a related note, I love this Ted Talk by Amanda Burden, former city planner for New York, on how public spaces make cities work.

  • 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 11, 2012
House Held Up By Trees Klassen

Held Up By Trees

Another book by Jon Klassen. This time, it is Pulitzer Prize winning poet Ted Kooser providing the words, but visually, House Held Up by Trees is classic Klassen. The 60’s flavoured, flat-toned illustrative style is reminiscent of the much-lauded I Want My Hat Back (minus the bear), while the story is firmly planted in the urban, or suburban, experience. Conveniently, the subject matter is apropos to my previous post on the apparent abandonment of nature and natural imagery in picture books. In a House Held Up By Trees, people do indeed abandon nature (although the illustrations remain gloriously tree-infused), but the great thing about this book, and about nature in general~it finds a way. Trees find a way. Life, in all its exuberance, finds a way, and Kooser & Klassen find a way to make this heroic story of nature exerting itself a stirring, beautiful thing.

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  • Posted on April 03, 2012
Along a Long Road Frank Viva

Nurturing Nature

This blog is exclusively for the review of new and older picture books, and yet I feel compelled to comment on an article I read a few weeks ago on the interwebs. It’s not for lack of opinions on other topics, but the findings in this study seemed contrary to my observations as a former bookseller and as a long-time collector of picture books. One proviso: I am fairly focused in my picture book predilections. It’s all about the illustration, in other words, although to be fair, great writing usually goes hand in hand with great art. Also, up to this point I had not made particular note of setting, at least within a sociological context. As a result, there is a lot of stuff I simply don’t see, because the visuals of most books do not resonate (for me.) It is therefore possible, and perhaps probable, that I’ve missed patterns and trends in my multi-national, multi-genre search for illustration excellence. Trust me, it wouldn’t be the first time a trend has passed me by…

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  • Posted on February 26, 2012
A House in the Woods

A House in the Woods

At some point during winter, when the landscape is daubed in grey and Spring is still in the abstract, I turn to the golf channel, not because I have a fondness for rich, white men (or at least not the married ones), but because I crave the green. And when the inevitable boredom hits (approximately 15 minutes in), I turn to picture books- a dose of bibliotherapy to soothe my seasonal affective disordered brain. Of course, this only works with the really colourful books, such as A House in the Woods by Inga Moore. The snow is piling up in drifts outside, but it doesn’t matter. I am following moose, bear, and two little pigs through an autumnal wood as they gather building materials for their project, a cozy house where all four will eventually live. The illustrations are so vibrant, I can almost smell the spotted mushrooms, and the thick undergrowth of the forest. Say what you want about golf, other than the green of the grass, it just doesn’t have the sensual impact of a great picture book.

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  • Posted on April 27, 2010

When Gardens Go Rogue

There are many things I love: picture books, walking, weevils, ketchup, Hoarders (the TV show), large foreheads, anthropomorphism. Yeah, about that last one…it’s virtually impossible for me to look at a tree, a magpie, a spider, or my 22 pound cat and not see human emotion pooling in their eyes…or branches. I cheer when a plant sprouts a new leaf. My library is a living, breathing thing, and I would never, ever intentionally break the spine of a book. Whenever I am in a garden, I send my love to the bees. It seems rude not to do these things.

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