• Posted on December 24, 2014

And Now…Last But Not Least

And I mean that! As in previous years, I am at the end of 2014 without getting to the end of the to-be-reviewed books on my desk. Absolutely nothing to do with how I feel about these lovelies – I just ran out of time! Rather than carry them forward into the murky future, I would prefer to say a few words now, lest they be inexcusably ignored in favour of some pretty new thing in 2015. You know how that happens. Anyway, no order to this list, just deep appreciation and love. Longer reviews may follow…

Once Upon an Alphabet-Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, 2014) This book has been on many ‘best of’ lists this year for all the usual Jeffersonian superlatives: it’s beautiful, funny, and deeply endearing. Also stupidly, ridiculously, unbelievably brilliant. Each letter of the alphabet is given its own short story. My favourite is ‘W’ for the Whiraffe: “The ingenious inventor had a favourite invention of all-the Whiraffe. It had the head of a whisk and the body of a giraffe. They became great friends over the years and enjoyed strawberries and whipped cream. The Whiraffe, of course, whipped the cream.” All the stories are wonderful and the art is inexplicably retro and original. It would be my favourite picture book of the year, except that The Farmer and the Clown hit me in the feels in a way that no other book did in 2014.

Oliver Jeffers V

 Sam & Dave Dig a Hole cover2Sam & Dave Dig a Hole-Mac Barnett, illustrations by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press, 2014) Individually and collaboratively, these guys are redefining the children’s picture book genre in ways that haven’t been seen since Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith gave us The Stinky Cheese Man. Seriously, who writes a book about digging a hole? Don’t be fooled. Shoveling dirt may seem mundane, but Barnett and Klassen elevate the subject matter way beyond its assumed possibilities, turning Sam & Dave Dig a Hole into a great, boyish adventure with a delicious twist of wry, mind-bending humour. It also says something about the human condition: always striving, never quite achieving, up for anything.

Gustave-Rémy Simard, illustrations by Pierre Pratt (Groundwood Books, 2014) If you like odd, existential tales, steeped in grief, with a tinge of dark humour – or Gustave coverif you’re Russian, Gustave is the book for you. It begins with this: “He’s gone,” followed by a heart-wrenching illustration of a little mouse in tormented grief after Gustave, his brother, is killed by a cat. Gustave has sacrificed himself to save his brother, leaving his sibling with a whopping case of survivor’s guilt. The little mouse wanders the unfriendly streets fretting about what to tell his mother. To say the story ends in an unusual way would not be understating it; putting the Gustave detailbook in a different, decidedly comical light. Gustave is not about grief per se – it is entirely (and wonderfully) its own unique thing. I kinda love it. I love its courage and its strangeness. The illustrations by three-time Governor-General’s Award recipient Pierre Pratt are both beautiful and suitably tortured. Colours appear scraped and textured, dimly lit, brooding. The mice, however, are full of character and charm. Gustave is not for everyone, but I promise, it will be an experience.

Gustave's brother grieves

Mutts Diaries coverThe Mutts Diaries-Patrick McDonnell (Andrews McMeel, 2014) As the title suggests, this book is a collection of Mutts cartoons organized by character into diary entries. A great introduction for those who are new to this magnificent cartoon created by Patrick McDonnell. It is also perfect for the devotees (such as myself) who have favourite characters and wish to read their stories in concentrated form – in particular Guard Dog, the perpetually chained bulldog who is loveable and kind in spite of his cruel restraints. An excellent companion to the annual treasuries (for 2014: Living the Dream) and all the other Mutts related publications.

A Perfectly Messed-Up Story-Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown & Company, 2014) An unusual publication from my very favourite person Patrick McDonnell in that it does not contain any of his Mutts characters. It is a stand-alone picture book about rejecting perfectionism in favour of embracing life’s inevitable messiness. Literally, that is; the book is covered in jam and peanut butter stains, much to the frustration of the main character Louis, who is merely trying to tell his story. I’m not so sure I’d be happy about someone messing up my books either, but the point is well-taken. The book reminds me of the Daffy Duck cartoon where the cartoonist intrudes on Daffy’s personal space. A Perfectly Messed-Up Story, like all of McDonnell’s stories, is deceptively simple, subversively Zen, and full of charm (and a bit of strawberry jam).

Perfectly Messed Up Story cover

Kuma Kuma Chan coverKuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear-Kazue Takahashi (Museyon, 2014) Originally published in 2001 in Japan, Kuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear is newly translated into English, and it is surely one of the sweetest, most endearing books I’ve read this year. A tiny book about a tiny, puff-ball bear living in the mountains, Kuma-Kuma Chan is charm personified. An unseen narrator wonders what Kuma-Kuma Chan does all day, and so page by page we learn the habits of the inventively self-entertaining bear: what he eats, how he plays, and all the other simple rituals of home life. Some activities are a little quirky; for instance, lining up the trimmings from his nails and gazing at them. Other pursuits speak to Kuma-Kuma Chan’s appreciation of the simple pleasures of a solitary life, like listening to the rain, or taking naps. The illustrations are soft and childlike, beautifully mirroring the quiet, meditative tone of the book. With shelves of loud, intentionally ironic children’s books trying mightily to attain cross-generational appeal, it’s wonderful to read a book that is genuinely sweet and gentle – aimed specifically at young children. It’s easy to see why this book is so popular in Japan. Hopefully Kuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear will spark interest here in North America.

Winter Moon Song cover

Winter Moon Song-Martha Brooks, illustrations by Leticia Ruifernández (Groundwood Books, 2014) I’ve not read many folktales about rabbits. Certainly, rabbits figure prominently in children’s literature (and my backyard), but they tend toward the fuzzy side of things, less on the mythological. (The long ears lack gravitas, I guess.) In the lovely Winter Moon Song, Martha Brooks gives us an ethereal rabbit story that reads like an old folktale and is, in fact, distilled from various legends about mother rabbit and the rabbit moon. Rabbit moon? Yes, I suppose shadows falling across the face of the moon do, at times, resemble a rabbit, especially when brought to life by Spanish illustrator Leticia Ruifernández. Wishing to honour his ancestral past in a meaningful way, a young rabbit, ‘not so small as to be a still-doted-upon baby, yet not so big enough to be noticed’, sings the traditional Winter Moon Song on a violet-infused winter night ‘to lighten the darkest month of the year with a trail of magic.’ Winter Moon Song is a story simply, and exquisitely told.

Cats are Cats coverCats are Cats-Valeri Gorbachev (Holiday House, 2014) For all those who appreciate cats, of all stripes. Miss Bell brings home a kitty from a pet store, and discovers, rather late, that the cat is in fact, a tiger. She loves him anyway, even as he lays waste to her home. Frankly, an actual kitty will lay waste to your home. When it comes to cats, size does NOT matter. Miss Bell buys some fish for her cat, not as food, but as companions. One of the fish…well, as Miss Bell says, fish are fish (even when they’re sharks). The illustrations by Ukraine emigre Valeri Gorbachev are sweet and funny. This is one tiger I would definitely invite over for tea.

Cats are Cats detail

Mr Chicken Lands On London-Leigh Hobbs (Allen & Unwin, 2014) In September, I visited London, England – very briefly, to see Kate Bush perform and visit a few galleries. After many hours on planes, trains (but no automobiles), I wearily found my hotel in the centre of Hammersmith, and Mr Chicken Lands on Londonmuch to my surprise…shock, actually, I was presented with a package at the front desk. What it could be, or for that matter, who knew I was even in London, in that hotel? When I ripped open the package, it was a book – Mr Chicken Lands on London from my blogger friend Zoe at the brilliant Playing By the Book. How wonderful is that??? Though my touristy adventures in London over the next few days mirrored those of Mr Chicken, I do hope I was not as conspicuous as monsieur poulet, although I did spend an awful lot of time staring at oversized maps. It’s a terribly funny book, with lively, quirky art. Thanks again to Zoe for welcoming me to London in such brilliant fashion!

That’s it. Apologies to any books that have found their ways into the nooks and crannies of my bookshelves, too shy to be reviewed. I’ll find you, and I’ll be gentle. Until then, Merry Christmas (yes, I posted this hours before the blessed event), and my deepest, deepest, gratitude to the illustrators, authors, fellow bloggers, and readers who have made the 2014 reading year so grand. THANK YOU! XXOO

  • Posted on October 29, 2014

The Dark Art of Halloween (updated for 2014)

UPDATED for 2014: 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 this year~a few gorgeously ghoulish additions for your reading and visual pleasure, along with the ghosts of Halloween’s past (click on the links for longer reviews.)

Liniers coverNew For 2014, the truly scary WHAT THERE IS BEFORE THERE IS ANYTHING THERE by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers. This beautifully illustrated book is wildly funny, and surprisingly disturbing. As a former scaredy-cat kid, I can relate to the boys’ nightmarish visitations when the lights go out. Liniers balances humour with creeptastic (and yet somehow affable) creatures that do nothing but stare at the boy – until the thing that is there before there is anything there arrives. Yikes!

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  • Posted on August 22, 2014

Shelf Landings

Funny…I honestly expected to have few, if any, books for my next Shelf Landings post. And where did they come from anyway? It’s a familiar feeling – the one where I think I can’t possibly be gobsmacked by one more book. Surely the well of creativity and invention has been sucked dry. Nope. That well is infinite. (Too bad my pockets aren’t as deep.) Nevertheless, it was and IS my intention to make Shelf Landings brief and frequent, a quick post whenever a new book wanders into my life, but as the kids say, #epicfail. Ah well, I tried. Here are the books that have smacked me in the gob this last month.

Wild Things coverWild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Candlewick Press, 2014) arrived a week ago, and it looks…delicious. Written by fellow bloggers Julie Danielson, Betsy Bird, and the late Peter Sieruta, the book “offers untold (and often very amusing) stories behind many beloved children’s books and their creators and is a bracing antidote to the sentimentality that often surrounds the genre.” Oh wow! I couldn’t be more excited. As a former bookseller and life-long collector of children’s books, I am frustrated by the “fluffy bunny” dreck served to children on a daily basis, but like these three authors, I am also uplifted by the beauty and intelligence of a well-crafted children’s book. Wild Things promises to be an elucidating and wickedly fun read.

The Slug and the Rat covers

Newly published this month, The Slug and The Rat (Tundra Books, 2014) join their ‘Disgusting Critters’ brethren, The Fly and The Worm in this crazy wonderful series by Elise Gravel. I cannot say enough about this Canadian author/illustrator, and her funny, gorgeously illustrated, and yes, educational books. I plan to get down and dirty with these disgusting critters and write a longer review at a later date, but for now, I will leave you with the covers. Gotta admit though…I have a hard time finding rats or even slugs disgusting, especially when Gravel makes them so darned affable.

God Got a Dog coverGod Got a Dog (Beach Lane, 2013) is the just the sweetest collection of poetically arranged prose and exquisite art! I bought in on the spot when I saw the word ‘dog’ and the name ‘Marla Frazee.’ (And of course, author Cynthia Rylant is no slouch.) God Got a Dog is a dreamy, beautiful book that belongs in everyone’s library. Each page is an ode to some ordinary aspect of human life, like taking a bath, or…getting arrested. I am particularly fond of ‘God Woke Up’, where God is seen sitting under an apple tree in his pajamas, drinking coffee, quietly pondering the beauty around him –

“The birds were singing and He was at peace. Buddha told Him it could be this way, but He’d never really believed it until now. Life really was easier, sitting under a tree.”

God Got a Dog 2 tree

I am a HUGE fan of Marla Frazee’s illustration and cannot imagine a lovelier compliment to her art than the charming, evocative words of Cynthia Rylant. Protagonist notwithstanding, God Got a Dog is reverent, but not overtly religious. Most wonderfully, God is imagined as a man and as a woman, old, young, white, black, and as a lover of dogs. In pondering what it is to be human, imperfections and all, God Got a Dog is itself, a rare, perfect creation.

Henry's Freedom Box coverI have a fascination with the American Civil War. No surprise, as I am a white Canadian of the female persuasion. Seriously, I have no idea where this comes from, but I suspect it has something to do with Ken Burns and an early reading of Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter, a superb novel about abolitionist John Brown. Incidentally, I recently finished the fabulous The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, which is also about Brown’s sordid activities preceding (and precipitating) the Civil War, but written from the point of view of a young black boy.

There is no shortage of books about the Civil War and the history of slavery in the United States, and more than a few of these are written for children. One day I will do an overview of these books, but for now, I was pleased to find Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad (Scholastic Press) on the shelves of my local bookstore while I was still reading The Good Lord Bird. The picture book has been around since 2007, becoming a Caldecott Honor book the following year. No wonder – it’s beautiful. Ellen Levine’s biographical narrative of Henry Brown’s life from a young age (slaves were not allowed to know their birthdays) to adulthood is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Henry Brown was born a slave in Virginia, but later, when his own family is sold, he arranges his freedom by having himself mailed to awaiting abolitionist activists in Philadelphia, via the Underground Railroad. It is harrowing, but in Levine’s hands, it also reads like an adventure story (with a happyish ending.)

Henry's Freedom Box detail

I love Kadir Nelson’s illustration on the cover depicting a young Henry ‘Box’ Brown, at that point still a slave, staring intently at the viewer. In this illustration especially, Nelson truly captures the self-possession and determination Brown must have possessed to embark on such a desperate, dangerous journey. Inspired by a lithograph of Henry ‘Box’ Brown by Samuel Rowse (created as a fundraiser in 1850 for the anti-slavery movement), Nelson uses crosshatched pencil lines, with applications of watercolour and oil to achieve the original feel of the lithograph. The illustrations are stunning, and like Levine’s words, deeply intimate.

Not a day goes by when I am often lurking about the Brain Pickings blog, which is a good place to feed your book lust, if you have one. Back in April I Drawn to Drawing coverread a post about John Vernon Lord, a British illustrator, and his illustrations for a special edition of Through the Looking-Glass. I love pen & ink illustration, having dabbled in it myself, and his work just BLEW MY MIND. A copy of Through the Looking-Glass proved too hard to find, and too expensive, so I ordered a copy of Drawn to Drawing: John Vernon Lord (Nobrow Press, 2014), a newly published, visual biography of his creative output over the last 50 years. It’s splendid! Makes me want to unpack my pens…so I can stab myself in the neck with them. I mean, why bother?

Henry Hudson's Curio Museum coverA longer review of Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum (Creative Editions, 2014) by Zack Rock will follow, but I cannot resist posting a small teaser. Incredibly, this is Rock’s first picture book, but it is, like one of the curio objects in Homer Henry Hudson’s museum, a treasure; revelatory, full of quirk, and exquisitely beautiful. That Homer Henry Hudson just happens to be a bulldog is but one of the many delightful oddities to be found within the pages of this book. Can’t wait to dive in paws first.

A book like The Forever Flowers (Creative Editions, 2014) elicits two responses: the first, damn. The second, double damn. Forever Flowers II coverMichael J Rosen and Sonja Danowski have created something very special with The Forever Flowers. A young grouse clings to summer, as manifested in the petals of a forever flower – the first to appear, the last to disappear – which she keeps in a small packet around her neck. The extra weight draws her down to a pond, and she misses the migration. Taken in by a kindly spaniel and his companion, the bird impatiently awaits the return of spring. There is more to it, much more, but I will reserve my thoughts until I can write a fuller review. But for now…damn.

The Mockingbird Next Door coverI’ve just finished re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and was struck anew by the brilliance of the story, and by extension – Harper Lee. I am very much looking forward to reading The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee (The Penguin Press, 2014), a new biography of sorts, written by Marja Mills. In some metaphysical twist of fate, Mills was given Lees’ blessing to move next door to the notoriously media shy author (who lives with her sister Alice Finch Lee), and was, over the span of several years, privy to the daily minutiae of Ms. Lee’s life. A timely publication, as I am not yet ready to leave Maycomb.

Lastly, I picked up Krazy Kat & The Art of George Herriman (Craig Yoe, Abrams, 2011) because I have immense respect for the history of comic art, and I Krazy Kat coverwanted to read the the essay by Bill Watterson. I’m not sure if this constitutes a good enough reason to purchase the book, especially as I am only peripherally aware of George Herriman via my other cartoonist obsessions (McDonnell, Watterson, etc.,), but, as it turns out, Krazy Kat is as lovely as it is interesting. Most definitely a book to be lingered over.

That’s it! For now. Stay tuned…

  • Posted on June 29, 2014

Shelf Landings

As I have so often mentioned in this blog, I buy and/or receive far too many books to review, in spite of my good (and astoundingly naive) intentions. In an effort to shine a spotlight on the new arrivals, and assuage my guilt, I am starting a new feature on 32 Pages – Shelf Landings – to briefly introduce the literary lovelies that have wandered, teased, coerced, and/or otherwise charmed their way into my life. It is also my intention to say a few words about the provenance of each book – how it came to my attention, especially in cases where my fellow crack addicts, I mean, children’s literature aficionado’s, have inspired my choices. Most will be picture books, but not all. Some will get full reviews another day, and others will inflict guilt as they languish on my shelves – loved, but unreviewed. Depending the number of bookstore visits, and the (highly variable) depths of my pockets, Shelf Landings will be posted several times each month, in addition to the regular full reviews, but brace yourself, this inaugural post is valued packed with fantastic new(ish) books not just from the last week, but the last six months. The first step is admitting it, right?

The Promise coverThe Promise (Nicola Davies, Laura Carlin/Candlewick Press) This book will be my next full review, and it’s a beauty. Kind of a Johnny Appleseed for the 21st Century, The Promise is set in a bleak, industrial landscape wiped of colour, where everyone is mean and ugly – a reflection of their environment. A young girl snatches a bag from an old woman, who makes her promise to plant the acorn seeds within. Initially disappointed that the bag did not contain money or food, the girl soon realizes the seeds are a gift of incomprehensible magnitude. “I held a forest in my arms, and my heart was changed.” I LOVE stories about the transformative power of nature, and this book delivers on every level. It is glorious. I’m looking forward to diving even deeper in the coming days.

The Fly coverAlso queued up for imminent (full) review, the delightful Disgusting Critters series by Governor General Award winning illustrator Elise Gravel (Tundra Books.) Currently, I have The Worm, and The Fly, but hope to add to my collection as each new title is published (upcoming, The The Worm coverSlug and The Rat.) Unfailingly cheerful and fabulously gross, these little books are absolute gems of fun facts and wonderfully quirky illustration. I wish I had these books when I was a kid. Not only do they educate, they do it in the most artful and interesting way. As players in their own story, the fly and the worm respectively comment on, or act out the information provided, as in a sequence where a young fly learns to regurgitate his food: “There’s a good boy!” Tons of fun.

Bugs in a Blanket coverKeeping with the theme of insects, or buggery to be more precise, I am fascinated by the fabric illustration of Beatrice Alemagna. Bugs in a Blanket (Phaidon, 2009) and Bugs in the Garden (Phaidon, 2011) are tremendously engaging books about a family of bed bugs living in a discarded mattress. Hard to imagine a more despised sub-category of insect, but in Alemagna’s hands, they are the sweetest, funniest, jolliest bunch of critters to ever infest a blanket.

In the original book of the series, Bugs in a Blanket, the bugs meet for the first time. Little Fat Bug is surprised to learn that none of the other bugs are fat, or white. Bringing diversity to the bug world is a great way of flexing Alemagna’s artistic skills while making a subtle point about acceptance. Using wool and felt, she creates fantastically original characters, all of whom share one feature – a pendulous nose. In Bugs in the Garden, the bugs move beyond the blanket and into Bugs in the Garden coverthe garden where they face their fears of the unknown and make new friends with a giant louse (among others.) I will admit that it is strange to read Alemagna’s books about bed bugs and think, if only briefly, how nice it would be to have these guys around! I attribute this, in part, to my pathological inclination toward anthropomorphism, but in fact it is about superb storytelling and the sort of illustration that puts exceedingly cute faces on tiny things. The other books in this series include The Bug Next Door, and Bugs at Christmas. More about her unusual illustration technique here.

Rabbityness coverSome covers are love at first sight. When I bought Rabbityness (Jo Empson/Child’s Play) a few months ago, we were in the middle of a dreary spring, and the Pollockesque spray of colour on the cover was like a summer day in March. Also, the title – Rabbityness? Wonderful. In the first few pages, we learn that Rabbit likes doing all the usual rabbity things, but he also likes to paint, and make music. Doing what comes naturally makes this creative rabbit very happy, and his wildly colourful forest paintings and didgeridoo musical compositions make all the other rabbits happy too. Alas, the Rabbit disappears, but leaves the tools of his artistic trade in his hole, inspiring those left behind. Rabbityness is lively, beautiful, and in some places a little sad, but ultimately, it is a celebration of individualism and creativity. As far as I know, there are no artsy fartsy rabbits in my neighbourhood (they’re mostly gardeners), but I’m gonna leave some paint out and see what happens. For other children’s picture books about art, check out Seasonal & Themed (under Books About Painting) on 32 Pages.

Dream Dog by Lou Berger and David Catrow (Schwartz & Wade Book, 2013) is exactly that – a book about an imaginary dog, but try telling that to young Harry. More than anything, Harry wants a dog, but his father Dream Dog coverworks in a pepper factory which has made his nose sensitive, especially to dogs, so by way of appeasement, he gets his son a chameleon. I speak from experience when I say, if you want a Mars Bar, a carrot is a poor second cousin. Several dogless days later, Harry puts on his X-35 Infra-Rocket Imagination Helmet and conjures up a spectacular, cloud-like dog, who he names Waffle. Harry and Waffle become inseparable, until a change of paternal employment allows a real dog to come into Harry’s life. In Dream Dog, and in every other book by David Catrow, the illustrations are infused with kid energy: hyperactive, good humoured, and in every way, dazzling. Lou Berger’s lively and warm-hearted words are perfect jumping off points for Catrow’s wild artistic imagination. These two, like a dog and a kid, are made for each other. A longer review to follow.

Time for Bed, Fred coverTime For Bed, Fred! (Yasmeen Ismail/Bloomsbury, 2014) is also a book about a dog, but unlike Waffle, this one is playfully disobedient. With simple, repetitive phrases, Time For Bed, Fred! is clearly aimed at a younger audience, but the gorgeous illustrations will appeal to young and old alike. In fact, speaking as an oldy oldenstein, Time For Bed, Fred! is a throwback to older illustration styles, with loosely drawn, boldly placed imagery front and centre on the page. No background, nor is it needed. Fred is the star, and Yasmeen Ismail wastes no space on extraneous detail. I’m not entirely sure how I first became aware of this book, but I do know that a certain two-page illustration – a scene of Fred hiding in flowers, inspired an immediate purchase. “Fred? That’s not your bed, Fred!” It’s truly stunning. I can imagine a parent or teacher reading this book to a giggling child, while the beautiful images subtly imprint themselves, remembered later, with deep fondness.

Fred in flowers

This is how it happens. I saw Warning: Do Not Open This Book (Adam Lehrhaupt, Matthew Forsythe/Simon & Schuster) in a store. I was trying to be ‘good’, so I took a photo of the book, gave myself an imaginary pat on the back, Warning Do Not Open This Book coverand vowed to pick it up later. You know, months later, when the stacks of books in my home were not so high, and my bank account not so low. A few days passed, I saw the book in another store, and out came my wallet. This is how it happens.

I blame it on the monkeys. In Warning: Do Not Open This Book, the narrator talks directly to the reader. Of course, I paid him no heed and opened the book, and of course, the monkeys got out. From chimpanzee to madrill (and one fabulous guy with a long nose and grinning teeth), the monkeys spill on to the page, later joined by a flock of toucans. It’s not all monkey business, however. Sporting guitars and cans of paint, these pop-eyed fellows createWarning Do Not Open this Book monkeys their own world, painting the vines and trees on which to swing, sit, and play their guitars. And then an alligator shows up. In the ensuing chaos, the narrator suggests extreme measures, involving a banana. Warning: Do Not Open This Book is cover to cover hilarious, and Matthew Forsythe’s marvelous monkeys are irresistible (clearly.) In a highly kinetic story like this, it’s easy to lose sight of the details, but I would suggest you disobey the narrator’s plea, and open this book at least a few times, just for the art. Warning: Do Not Open This Book is beautifully illustrated and designed. Canadian illustrator Matthew Forsythe also works on the brilliantly weird animated series Adventure Time. Of course.

I love picture books that make me feel wistful. Not in some airy-fairy way, but in a way that changes how I see the world, if only fleetingly. Sometimes, it’s the art, other times it’s the way the author plays with words. Often it’s both, but however the alchemy is put together, the feeling is unmistakable. I was not the least bit surprised to learn that Coyote Run, the new book by Gaëtan Dorémus, is published by Enchanted Lion Books. No other publisher in North Coyote RunAmerica is as consistently brilliant in the selection and publication of this (self-proclaimed) category of picture book – the wistful beauty. And yes, while Coyote Run is thoughtful and thought-provoking, it is also funny, a little strange, and gorgeously drawn.

In a series of wordless scenes painted in a weave of overlapping line and colour, a coyote escapes jail and is pursued by the sheriff, who may be a donkey, or a crocodile. While standing off against one another, the coyote notices a ladybug, who may or may not be the same ladybug who hung around the window of his jail cell. This lovely distraction transforms the relationship between the coyote and the sheriff. They throw down their weapons and spend the night eating fish around a camp fire. The next day, a posse shows up, and in a scene reminiscent of Thelma & Louise, the unlikely twosome make a run for it – to the edge of a cliff. Unlike the ill-fated Thelma & Louise, the coyote and the sheriff are spirited off the precipice by a cloud of ladybugs. An old-timey western, re-imagined with unusual characters, a fantastical storyline, and a ladybug hero, Coyote Run is simply magical. And yes, a little wistful.

Also from Enchanted Lion Books, the exquisite The Lion And The Bird by French Canadian writer and illustrator The Lion and the Bird coverMarianne Dubuc. Even if I hadn’t heard such great things about this book, the cover, depicting an immaculately coiffed lion in overalls with a rosy cheeked bird on his shoulder, would have been enough to warrant a second look. The Lion and the Bird is a quietly triumphant story about a solitary lion who rescues an injured bird moments before it’s journey south. The two become friends, spending the winter in each others company – tobogganing, ice fishing, and many companionable nights by a warm fire in the lion’s cozy cabin. As spring arrives, the bird returns to his flock, and the lion continues on with his life, tending the garden, watching the skies – purposeful, but sad. When the leaves turn colour, the bird chooses not to migrate, and instead joins his friend for another winter. The Lion and the Bird is longer than 32 pages, the typical length of a picture book, making it feel almost meditative in tone and allowing the reader time to enjoy the many transcendent moments of this story, not least of which Dubuc’s extraordinary art.

Some books are intended for the here and now – a passing pleasure, an amusing distraction, and others, like The Lion and the Bird, are lifers. As is so often the case with these books, they speak with a soft voice, and in their gentleness the truth is revealed. The Lion and the Bird is about kindness. It gets me every time. Other ‘lifers’ in a similar vein, the beautiful Little Bird by Germano Zullo/Albertine and South by Patrick McDonnell.

Leonce and Lena coverLisbeth Zwerger is the best, and most celebrated illustrator of her generation, particularly in the realm of fairy tales. A talent as immense as hers cannot be limited to one genre however, and in Leonce and Lena, Zwerger brings her enchanted paintbox to the pages of a 19th century German play by Georg Büchner. Ostensibly, Leonce and Lena is a comic tale of mistaken identities, but there is another, more compelling (and contemporary) thread running through the story – a crisis of personal identity. Two young royals are preordained to marry, and yet neither is interested in marrying a stranger. In protest, they flee not only their upcoming nuptials, but a whole lot of broody inner turmoil. Dissatisfaction with the self…in an Oprah-less era. Interesting!

It’s an odd, rather flowery play, but Zwerger is on it, finding bits of otherwise innocuous dialogue and using it as inspiration for the most unusual and beautiful illustrations. For example, as the servants crowd around a window, one of them remarks, “I can see something! It’s a sort of projection, a bit like a nose – the rest of it hasn’t crossed the border yet.” The illustration is a literal interpretation of the words – a giant nose, just over the horizon. Zwerger has been increasingly experimental with her watercolours, flawlessly blending blocks of gorgeously designed pattern within her typically delicate compositions. Beautifully realized in The Tales of the Brothers Grimm, this unique style of illustration continues with Leonce and Lena, to even greater effect. The characters in Leonce and Lena may not know who they are, but Lisbeth Zwerger keeps showing us her brilliant, wondrous self.

Leonce and Lena nose

I don’t read as many children’s novels and YA as I used to (or would like to), but occasionally one finds its way to me, True (...sort of) coverand sometimes I seek out the author. More than 10 years ago, when I was still working in the bookstore, I read Ida B. by Katherine Hannigan, and fell instantly in love with the spunky and imaginative girl at the centre of the story. True (…sort of) was published in 2011 (Greenwillow Books), but the book only found me last month…on the shelves of a local bookstore. Haven’t read the book yet, but it looks terrific. Here’s a short clip of Ms Hannigan discussing True (…sort of).

Anything is Possible coverA bird-watching sheep thinks to himself, “How lucky they are! They can choose how they look at things: from far away, from up close, or from somewhere in between.” This is an unusual way of looking not only at birds, but at the idea of possibility. Theoretically, all of us can choose our perspective, but as if often the case, we are overwhelmed by self-limiting thoughts. In Anything is Possible (Giulia Belloni/Marco Trevisan, Owl Kids 2013) a determined sheep is prepared to do anything to make his dream of flying come true. Wolf, on the other hand, is full of doubt, but eventually helps the sheep devise a plan, actually many plans, for his flying machine. When it finally works, it is a marvel of design and kid-like imagination. Italian illustrator Marco Trevisan takes a multimedia-collage approach to the illustration, using scraps of mathematical figures, fabrics, and newspaper clippings to build the machine, while relying on paint and pen for the characters. Anything is Possible humourously celebrates imagination, perseverance, and the courage to dream big. Listen to the sheep (but definitely get help from the wolf.) Just a note, the translator of Anything is Possible is William Anselmi, a fellow Edmontonian and a Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Alberta. Yay homey!

Anthing is possible sheep and wolf fly

The RiverAnother gorgeous book from Enchanted Lion Books, The River (Alessandro Sanna, 2014) is a paean to the passage of time and the quiet observation of nature. Painted in washes of translucent watercolour, Sanna captures the changing light of a landscape in transition. While there is some narrative, from awakening spring to winter’s slumber, it is the illustrations that tell the story. Painted in four-panel vignettes, every scene of this exceptional and expansive book has the plein air immediacy of an Impressionist, but with respectful allowances for the interactions between paper and watercolour. “The images flow out of me without a precise order in mind and every time a new page appeared I felt as if I had brought an already formed image into the world.”  The River is an artist’s sketchbook, a naturalist’s diary, and a writer’s journal. It must be seen, and treasured.

Judith Kerr wrote a famous book 35 years ago that I had never read, or barely heard of, until very recently. The Tiger Who Came to Tea somehow passed me by, in spite of my many years as a bookseller and lifelong collector of picture books. I know. BIG. HOLE. (I have a few of them.) Kerr is much better known in the UK, I believe, than in North America, but nevertheless it’s a darn Tiger Who Came to Tea covershame it took so long to meet this incredibly presumptuous, and loveable tiger. With the approach of her 90th birthday last year, there was a lot of press about Ms Kerr, whose parents spirited her and her brother out of Germany on the eve of Hitler’s election in 1933. It was in these articles that I became acquainted, and to a lesser extent, reacquainted with her life and work. Enthralled, I purchased Judith Kerr’s Creatures: A Celebration of Her Life and Work (HarperCollins, 2013) at the same time I brought home the special gift edition of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It is impossible to not to love Kerr’s friendly and funny illustrations, especially the oversized tiger, helping himself to EVERYTHING in the house. No one questions the presence of the tiger, or the fact that he can talk. On the contrary, there is a very casual acceptance of the fantastic, and certainly Judith Kerr had a fantastical, and at times, very dangerous childhood. Kerr went on to write many other books, including When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, about her actual experiences in Nazi Germany, which I will soon read, but for now, I am basking in the charm of a teatotalling tiger. Better late than never.

Millions of Cats coverAlso in the retro vein, I picked up a copy of Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats (Putnam, 1928.) I love her work, and like Judith Kerr, Wanda Gag led a fascinating life. I did read this book when I was a kid but had largely forgotten it until the publication of The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, which included Gag’s illustrations for The Fisherman and His Wife, piqued my appetite for more of her distinctive, black and white illustrations. In fact, I plan to collect all of the Gag oeuvre some day, but for now, the story of one cat out of millions will do.

Lastly, The Mischievians (Antheneum Books, 2013) by the great William Joyce. In recent years, Joyce has devoted his talents to unraveling the back stories of childhood mythological figures, including the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and The Man in the Moon in a series called The Guardians of Childhood. With The Mischievians, Joyce looks not at the heroes, but the rascals – the tiny mayhem makers of a kid’s life, such as the Homework Eater, the Giggler, and my personal favourite, the booger Dangler. Told in the form of a Q & A with Dr. Maximilian Fortisque Robinson Zooper (a typical Joycean invention), The Mischievians is a blast, with loads of humour and wonderful, cheeky art. I will admit to a preference for vintage Joyce, but this imaginative new direction in Joyce’s Moonbotian empire is still thrillingly original. (And beautiful, of course.)

Mischievans cover 2

That’s the last of the books that have come my way since January, although it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed a few. The next posting of Shelf Landings will have far fewer books, which is not only a statement of fact but also a wimpery sort of command. I’ve got to slow down! This collection of 19 books represents the books that are physically in my possession and does not include all the books that have tempted me these last few months, nor does it include the books I actually did review. The wish list is long, and for that I thank the authors, illustrators, publishers, bookstores, and fellow bloggers who continue to inspire me with their creative passions. For gods sake, stop it!