Well, OK then. The fact that the child is not wearing a red hood already differentiates one story from the other. And there’s the bear. Not a wolf, mind you, but a big, white bear. As the rosy-cheeked girl in Alessandra Lecis and Linda Wolfsgruber’s new book I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood is so keen to remind us, her story has nothing to do with the Grimm (or Perrault, depending on the translation) fairy tale. Yes, she has a red scarf, and she takes a basket into the woods, but that is the end of it. This is her story.
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 in 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 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.
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.
The snow is piled along the driveway, my breath freezes into cartoon bubbles when I exhale, and I’ve heard Santa Baby-that excruciatingly awful song, about a thousand times on the radio. Must be Christmas, and time for an updated list of festively-oriented books for 2012. Building on an original list compiled in 2010, I am pleased to add a couple of new publications to the scroll of Xmas excellence, and a few from years past. As I said in 2010, anyone who collects illustrated picture books knows that Christmas is when artists come out to play~when the pencils are the pointiest, the colours the juiciest, and storytelling the most luminescent. Perhaps it’s the sparkling snow, or the spirited beverages. Maybe it’s the fruitcake. Whatever the reason, beautiful books abound.