• Posted on March 30, 2013

Hares & Bunnies & Rabbits oh my!

Easter means many things to many people. It is a Christian celebration, a pagan rite, an excuse to sport a frilly bonnet, and for me, a time to dismember a chocolate bunny, starting with the head. Yes, it’s all about the rabbits, regardless of what anyone tells you.

Lovely picture books about rabbits abound, and I could easily pen a few words at any time of the year. However, Easter is when my brain is at its most bunny-filled and hare-focused, and while these internal images are of a similar breed (chocolate), I am willing to direct my thoughts to rabbits of the illustrated variety for the purposes of giving further exposure to a few bunny-centric picture books.

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  • Posted on March 23, 2013

Frog Song

Spring is a fraught subject in this part of the world. In celebration of the first day of spring, the sky unfurled a massive, white party favour, dropping 30cm of snow over an already thickly blanketed landscape. It was an extravagant display of spring’s absence, in other words, and it will be another month before the ground clears and the grass begins to blush a tentative green. What to do in weather like this? Pour a cup of coffee and read about frogs.

Following in the steps of their previous collaboration-Life in The Boreal Forest, Brenda Guiberson and Gennady Spirin have created the magnificent Frog Song, a paean to the beauty of the natural world, our precarious ecosystem, and spring’s noisiest amphibian.

Frog Song Spanish toad

In onomatopoeic prose (“mwa”, “fwish”, “swee swee”, etc.,), Brenda Guiberson introduces the reader to an international cast of frogs, from the scarlet-sided pobblebonk of northeastern Australia to the European midwife toad, whose eggs are carried by the male on his exterior. In Spirin’s hands, the eggs are a treasure of shimmering amber pearls heaped on the back end of the frog (who appears to be quite proud of his hoard.) I was pleased to see the Canadian wood frog, a pillar of endurance and adaptability in its ability to transform itself into a frogsicle in winter, included in the book. Once thawed, the wood frogs’ eggs are deposited along stream beds before the ice has completely melted. In Frog Song-Canadian Wood Frogmy city, a bog located in a ravine I frequent bubbles to life in the spring, and the surface activity is accompanied by a soundtrack unlike anything I’ve ever heard, as if someone were pushing a stroller across gravel. Initially, I couldn’t place the source, but later discovered the strange sound was the mating song of the boreal chorus frog, a relative of the wood frog. No stereotypical ‘ribbit’ from this crowd, just rhythmic ‘craaacks’. It is something I look forward to every spring, although judging by the amount of snow outside, it will be awhile before the woods are filled with love-sick frog songs.

The illustration of the Costa Rican strawberry poison dart frog on the cover of Frog Song is so extraordinarily moist and life-like, it looks like a photograph, which is misleading. Frog Song is a work of imagination. It is a work of art. The cropped image is part of a much larger, two-page illustration. Not shown (on the cover) is the gently scalloped leaf the frog sits upon, and the brocade background of periwinkle blues and tropical greens woven together with such sensitivity, the effect is breathtaking. The art is realistic in the sense that the amphibians are scientifically identifiable (if not slightly more expressive), but the visual depiction of frogs and frog life within their natural habitat is as exquisite as a Renaissance painting. Swamp life has never been so richly detailed, with gorgeous insects, plants, and daubs of brilliant colour illuminating the background. Even more mind boggling is Spirin’s prolificity (he illustrates two or three books a year) given that each illustration in tempera, pencil, and watercolour has the sort of time-consuming, layered detail one would expect of a much older painter. Centuries older.

As in Life in the Boreal Forest, Guiberson includes a very useful synopsis of the text and some additional facts and websites at the back of the book, along with a plea for ecological stewardship. Frogs all over the world are in trouble, but there is nothing heavy-handed in the message. Frog Song is a celebration; a stunningly beautiful overview of international frog life from one of the greatest illustrators of our time. This frogopedia is not to be missed.

Four Lined Tree Frog-Borneo

If you do decide to purchase or borrow Frog Song, and I insist that you do, have a look under the front cover. There is a frog not depicted anywhere else in the book; one entirely of Gennady Spirin’s imagination. He appears to be some sort of frog prince, with a lily for a crown and a small gathering of adoring froggy subjects. As any good bibliophile Frog Princeknows, especially one who collects children’s picture books, the boards beneath the cover often hold surprises, and even if they don’t, it’s all part of the experience.

Gennady Spirin was born in the small town of Orekhove-Zuyevo, near Moscow, on Christmas Day, 1948. He graduated from Surikov School of Fine Art at the Academy of Arts in Moscow and Moscow Stroganov Institute of Art. Mr Spirin has received five gold medals from the Society of Illustrators, and has been chosen four times for the New York Times Best Illustrated Books list. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Brenda Guiberson is the author of many books, including Life in the Boreal Forest, Ice Bears, and Cactus Hotel. She lives near Seattle, Washington.

Frog Song coverFrog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson, with illustrations by Gennady Spirin. Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2013

Other reviews: Life in the Boreal Forest by Guiberson & Spirin, Martha by Gennady Spirin

Teacher’s Guide and a few more froggy pictures here

  • Posted on March 02, 2013

My Brother’s Book

A sad riddle is best for me…

I will confess the first time I read My Brother’s Book, I was confused. Also the second, third, and fourth time. I am still confused, but enthralled. As with all Sendak creations, the mystery beckons. The writing is obtuse, referencing Sendak’s own life, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and other works of literature (even Chicken Soup with Rice, Sendak’s 1962 publication.) The art is beautiful, in a watery, unformed way, like a dream, or a painting from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Melancholia permeates his last completed book, and yet, there is a kind (and kind of) resolution to the story. My Brother’s Book is a paean to love, loss, and literature. It is a conundrum. It is a treasure.

On a bleak midwinter’s night, a comet rends the earth in two, catapulting Jack to the continent of ice, and Guy to Bohemia, to the lair of a great white bear. Jack and Guy are brothers, perhaps the homeless brothers from We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy, Sendak’s 1993 picture book. Most certainly, they are Maurice and his older brother Jack, and very likely Maurice and his partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn. Whatever the true nature of Jack and Guy, they are wretched without one another, and Guy in particular longs to be reunited with the brother he ‘loves more than his own self.’  Trouble is, Jack is encased in ice, ‘his poor nose froze’, and Guy is facing down a bear.

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