• Posted on July 29, 2014

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 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!

  • Posted on June 18, 2014

Mister Bud Wears the Cone

Some books radiate charm. Often, it’s not any one factor, but a seamless blend of clever writing, exquisite illustration, and a third, more elusive ingredient – a goodness, for lack of a better word, superseding all. This is Carter Goodrich territory. With the release of Mister Bud Wears the Cone, the third book in his dog-centric series, I can state unequivocally (and with a great deal of affection), the man knows how to charm.

Mister Bud Wears the Cone further examines the sometimes fractious relationship between two dogs: Mister Bud, a generously snouted, routine-loving mutt, and Zorro, a tiny, goatee’d pug. In the first book of the series, Say Hello to Zorro, Mister Bud is introduced to Zorro, his new ‘sibling’, and is none too pleased to share his comfortable, predictable life with the eager young pup. In the second book, Zorro Gets an Outfit, it is the pug who is faced with an untenable situation, in this case an embarrassing piece of clothing, and like Mister Bud, his path toward resolution is both funny and sweet. In Mister Bud Wears the Cone, the bone is once again tossed to Mister Bud, who in this outing must deal with that most intrusive of protective pet care devices – the dreaded cone of shame.

Mister Bud Wears the Cone blue

As the story opens, Mister Bud has developed a hot spot on his flank, which he can’t stop bothering. His mother (who like all humans in this series is never fully depicted), comforts Mister Bud with ointment and hugs, which infuriates Zorro. Not only is he grabbing all the attention, his ailment is delaying their shared schedule of ‘biscuit then a walk time.’ It gets worse. Mister Bud must wear the cone. Mister Bud hates the cone. For awhile, he has an ally in Zorro, Mister Bud Wears the Cone cone onwho tries to help Mister Bud remove it, but when all attempts fail, Zorro loses interest. Like all similarly afflicted dogs, Mister Bud is a half-blind, stumbling disaster with the cumbersome cone. Like all siblings, Zorro can’t help teasing Mister Bud, laughing at his clumsiness while helping himself to the biscuits. When Zorro takes his favourite toy, Mister Bud runs after the pug and the cone knocks over a lamp, breaking it. Never let it be said dogs aren’t capable of schadenfreude. While Mister Bud cowers under a chair, consumed with guilt, Zorro eagerly awaits the inevitable parental reprimand. But…as anyone who has ever been around an animal wearing a cone knows, it is impossible to feel anything but sympathy, and in Mister Bud Wears the Cone, generosity of the heart, and of the treat, is a given.

The continuing adventures of Mister Bud and Zorro are meant to be funny and entertaining, and they most certainly are, but as an illustrator and dog lover, what I find particularly interesting is how Goodrich imbues his pooches with pure canine authenticity. They are the very personification of the complex emotional lives of dogs. This is no small feat. Goodrich is a master of comic characterization, and from schnozz to tiny paws, these dogs are hilarious. Their wildly expressive and beautifully exaggerated features might exclude them from the Westminster Dog Show, but Goodrich never loses Mister Bud Wears the Cone annoys Zorrosight of their essential dogness. It’s in their physicality – in the way they hold their bodies, the perkiness of their ears, how they lean in, how they nap – it’s all dog, and because of this, these tells, they radiate emotion. It’s easy to love these guys – to feel for them, to laugh at their predicaments, to sympathize not only with Mister Bud’s frustrations, but also Zorro’s. Anyone who has ever had a sibling, or is the parent of siblings, will recognize the rivalries, but also the companionship that forgives all. Anyone who has ever had a dog will see their own mutt in these comical canines, cone or no cone. And even if none of the above applies, Mister Bud Wears the Cone is just a darn good story, with heart-thumping emotion, loveable characters, and spectacular art.

Mister Bud Wears the Cone mom

My favourite doggy in the world underwent surgery several weeks ago for the removal of five lumps (all benign, thankfully.) When Maggie was released the day after surgery, she had two large shaved patches on both sides of her torso, another two on her neck, and multiple stitches. Doped up and disoriented, she emerged out of the back of the vet’s office wearing a comically large cone and a woeful, accusatory expression. In short, she looked miserable, very much like Mister Bud. The cone didn’t last beyond the car, the patient didn’t bother with her wounds (much), and once the daily schedule of biscuit-then-nap-time resumed, she relaxed. Like Mister Bud and Zorro, it’s all about the routine. And the snacks.

Mister Bud Wears the Cone coverI am a long-time fan of Carter Goodrich, having been an illustration junkie for many years. Particular favourites are his numerous New Yorker covers, and his character designs for Despicable Me, Ratatouille, The Croods, and Finding Nemo, among others. A Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Mr Goodrich has illustrated a number of children’s picture books, including A Creature Was Stirring, The Hermit Crab, and the aforementioned Say Hello to Zorro and Zorro Gets an Outfit. Fingers (and paws) crossed, Mister Bud Wears the Cone will not be the last in this brilliant, and beautifully imagined series.

MISTER BUD WEARS THE CONE by Carter Goodrich. Simon and Schuster, 2014

Previously reviewed (click on the title):

Zorro Gets and Outfit by Carter Goodrich. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2012

Say Hello to Zorro by Carter Goodrich. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2011

– See more at: http://32pages.ca/2012/06/17/zorro-gets-an-outfit/#sthash.XDdNpc7c.dpuf

Zorro Gets and Outfit by Carter Goodrich. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2012

Say Hello to Zorro by Carter Goodrich. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2011

– See more at: http://32pages.ca/2012/06/17/zorro-gets-an-outfit/#sthash.XDdNpc7c.dpuf

ZORRO GETS AN OUTFIT by Carter Goodrich. Simon and Schuster, 2012

SAY HELLO TO ZORRO! by Carter Goodrich. Simon and Schuster, 2011

Zorro Gets an OutfitSay Hello to Zorro!



  • Posted on May 26, 2014

Winston & George

It is early May, and in the brown season of a northern spring, excruciatingly slow in its progression, colour is like an oasis in a desert: startling, and restorative. In the absence of anything resembling a flower in the garden, I look to books for visual nourishment. In the newly published Winston & George, by John Miller and Giuliano Cucco, every page is a feast for the eye, with colours so vibrant and wet, I was surprised that my fingers were not stained with green and orange paint when I closed the book. Even more surprising – the illustrations languished in an attic for almost 50 years before author John Miller and publisher Claudia Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books brought them into the light.

Winston & George cover In the early 1960’s, Miller, an American writer living in Rome, created four nature-themed picture books in collaboration with the Italian artist Giuliano Cucco. Though garnering interest from publishers, Cucco’s energetic, full-colour illustrations proved to be too costly to print (for that era), and so the project was shelved. Decades later, a fortuitous attic renovation revealed the long forgotten brown portfolio, and much to Miller’s surprise, Cucco’s illustrations retained their original brilliance. Enchanted Lion Books enthusiastically agreed to print Winston & George, as well as the other three picture books. Let the feast begin…

Winston & George relax

Winston & George have a mutually beneficial relationship. From his perch on Winston’s snout, George spots fish, Winston catches them, and both enjoy a nice dinner. Winston is an easy-going crocodile with a big, friendly smile and an abundance of patience for his pal. George is a prank-playing rascal. Although his usual target is Winston, he is not above ribbing an entire float of crocodiles, none of whom share Winston’s sufferance of the bird’s endless teasing. Not willing (perhaps unable) to let sleeping crocodiles lie, George yells DANGER, and then delights in their frantic splashes as the startled crocodiles plunge into the water. Demanding an explanation, George replies:

“I thought…I thought I saw a danger prowling through the jungle. A dangerous danger, a very scary dangerous danger.”


Winston & George Winston dives

The crocodiles are not amused, and in a fit of exasperation, suggest that Winston eat the bird, but the softhearted crocodile cannot imagine fishing alone without his friend, and so, the pranks continue. Winston understands that George is just spirited, not mean-spirited, and like all true besties, ignores the more irksome aspects of his pal’s personality in favour of companionship.

Even with the best of intentions, however, pranks can be carried too far, as happens when George makes Winston dive into a shoal of mud, and his snout gets irretrievably stuck. George is terrified, but his attempts to garner help from the other crocodiles and the hippos falls on deaf ears, until he agrees to one condition: he must stand inside Winston’s jaws and be gobbled up. In one of the more hilarious scenes in the book, the animals make a long chain, and successfully yank Winston out of the mud, flinging him across the water to the shore, where George awaits his fate. Apprised of the scheme, Winston clamps down on the bird, and announces his demise with a loud burp. But their buds, right? To the end. Once the crowd disperses, George pops out of Winston’s mouth, and offers not only his heartfelt gratitude, but a promise to never prank again. Interestingly, it is Winston, not George, who pulls off the biggest prank – making his aquatic community believe that he has dispensed with the pesky bird, when in reality, crocodile, and crocodile bird, continue on as before…with perhaps a deeper understanding of one another.

Winston & George George steps in

The initial impact of Winston & George is clearly visual. It is a stunning book, but while the illustrations are not meticulously detailed, they do demand thoughtful inspection of each quirk-filled page. In the burst of bright, primary colour it’s easy to focus on the overall exuberance of the art rather than the individual scenes, but make no mistake, there is a lot of personality in Cucco’s depiction of swamp life. This is especially evident in the wonderfully expressive faces of the characters, who possess a kind of relaxed goofiness which seem more in line with contemporary tastes than those of the mid-1960’s. Much like the illustrations, John Miller’s words have not mouldered with age, but are as fresh and good-humoured as if written months, not decades ago. In a funny way, maybe Winston & George needed to hang back a bit, and wait for us to catch up to it.

Winston and George Friends forever

Sadly, Giuliano Cucco (1929-2006) did not live to see the publication of Winston & George. However, thanks to the efforts of John Miller and the publisher, Winston & George will be followed by The Whirligig’s Story, The Red Spider Hero, and The Cicada and the Katydid.

John Miller’s youthful adventures in the natural world inspired his later work as a teacher and as a writer for The Audubon Society, The Natural History Museum, and the New York Times. Before I Grew Up, the story of Giuliano Cucco’s years as a young artist, recently written by Miller, will be published in May, 2015.

Winston & George by John Miller, illustrations by Giuliano Cucco, Enchanted Lion Books, 2014

Read more about the evolution of Winston & George  HERE.

  • Posted on April 08, 2014

I Wish I Were a…

I will go on record and state, unequivocally, that meerkats are my favourite animal – of the undomesticated variety. I fell in love with these quirky critters in the last century, in a nature documentary, and as if often the case, my esteem for this observant little mongoose now encompasses a small collection of  meerkat-related I Wish I Were a...coverknick-knackery and various forms of printed matter, including the new picture book,  I Wish I Were a… by Werner Holzwarth and Stefanie Jeschke.

With their flat foreheads and bulging eyes, meerkats border on the homely, but my admiration stems not from their physical beauty, though they are achingly sweet-faced, but from a cluster of qualities that are equal parts socially ingenious and endearing. It is their personality, in other words, that makes them truly loveable. With all this going for them, who would have thought a meerkat could be insecure?

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  • Posted on February 26, 2014

I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood

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.

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  • Posted on January 31, 2014


In the autumn of 2013, when I first learned of Henny by Elizabeth Rose Stanton, I was so struck by the premise – a chicken with human arms – I did not need to read further. It just seemed so funny, so completely absurd. And full of possibility. I immediately put in an order, and then followed the author on Twitter and Facebook for updates. In the months leading up to the January publication of the book, Elizabeth Stanton made me fall in love with Henny. I was not alone, and it was fascinating to watch a character generate so much goodwill and support via social media. Indeed, I was so excited about the publication, I mistakenly ordered it twice.

Henny coverThere is no doubt that having arms gives a chick certain advantages, especially on a busy farm. In addition to helping the farmer with his chores (including milking a very nervous cow), Henny can point, brush her teeth, and pick up little bugs with chopsticks. And yet, challenges exist. Long sleeve, or short sleeve? Left hand, or right? Without wings, will she ever fly? Young Henny suffers her worries alone, but along with arms she is also gifted with imagination, and she has big plans for her life. This perhaps, is her true advantage.

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  • Posted on January 15, 2014

Why I Didn’t Make a Best-Of 2013 List

I have a confession to make: I am a bookaholic. In a generous mood, I might call myself a ‘bibliophile’, but this self-reverential term is too polite to describe my affliction. Like a drunk, I am surrounded by the tumbling, stumbling evidence of my failure to abstain, or at the very least, moderate. I am a reader, yes, and an enthusiast, but superseding all is my need to possess. I am a collector. I cannot resist books. Not all books, of course, but even within my narrow fields of interest, the blooms are legion. I must pluck them all.

It’s just after Christmas and I’ve spent a fruitless week attempting to organize a fresh crop of books; those I bought, and those that were given to me in acts of sheer, if not well-meaning, recklessness. I am surrounded by enablers. It’s not their fault (such is the manipulative nature of addicts), and to be honest, I am so exacting in my predilections, none dare stray off a list, and most resort to gift cards. The result is the same: another stack of books. In 2013, I have acquired many such stacks of books, all vying for attention.

I have another confession to make: sometimes I don’t read them. A year may pass before I lay eyes upon a spread of illustrations, that months ago, so entranced me. At the time, it was enough to bring the book home, but the joy of adoption is soon dampened by remorse. It’s not that I regret buying the book, it’s the knowledge that I am apt to treat it badly. Neglect. Pile upon pile.

Book chaos

Since becoming a blogger in 2010, the situation – my addiction, has escalated. The entire world is my enabler, and my acquisitions have increased accordingly, in direct proportion to my indolence. More books, fewer reviews. Crippling guilt. It’s crazy. No one pays me for these reviews, there are no deadlines or hyperventilating bosses (or readers) breathing down my neck. And yet, I feel accountable to the books, these little gems, and to the authors and illustrators who created them. Out of sheer gratitude, I am compelled to play a role, however small, in the advocacy of their newly published work, and picture books in general. It is my pleasure and privilege to do so, but the numbers are overwhelming. Picture books may not be my only passion, but it is the one that distills my disparate interests into a single expression of joy. And lately, dread.

Some days are manageable, and I am able to focus on a single book. Other days, I despair at the never-ending lineup of new publications and dusty old favourites deserving their hour upon the stage (of my blog.) From every teetering stack, I hear their pleas. Yes, I do. Without a meticulously worded post, what are they but another book on the pile? If I were faster, my attentions less scattered, would I feel less paralyzed? Is it my aspirations that are out of whack, or my accumulations? How is it that my fellow bloggers are so prolific, many of whom have small children, while I, with no such draws on my attention, fail to post? Or, as is often the case in my life, am I just over-thinking it? However it shakes out, the bottom line is that in 2013, I did not review all the books I wanted to, and whether it makes sense or not, I feel really bad about that. The books deserve better. Now, instead of radiating joy on my bookshelves, they are little piles of judgement, which is no way to be a collector. In light of this, it seemed disingenuous to make a list of favourite books of 2013, as so few reviews were written, and some books in my possession were not even read.

To assuage my guilt –  I have read, and made a list of every picture book I’ve purchased or was given to me last year. I am not going to write full reviews, at least not at this time, and ultimately, not for every book, but I cannot go forward without acknowledging the beauty that came my way in 2013. The books on this list (24 and in no particular order) are as worthy as any other book on my blog; their exclusion merely a matter of quantity, not quality. More to the point, my talent for finding beautiful books exceeds my ability to write about them (in a timely fashion.) As for 2014, fewer books, more reviews. Maybe…

Bear's Song coverThe Bear’s Song (Benjamin Chaud-Chronicle Books, 2013) One of the best books of 2013, or any year. In style, tone, and content, The Bear’s Song screams vintage, but it’s a mere three years old (originally published in France in 2011.) Harkening back to the days of Richard Scarry, Benjamin Chaud’s oversized, detail-crammed book is exactly the kind of thing I loved as a kid: busy, colourful, and terribly funny. Chaud’s elaborate drawings of Papa Bear chasing Little Bear, who in turn is chasing a bee through the country, city, and backstage at the opera are pure delight. Finding himself on stage, Papa Bear tries to get Little Bear’s attention by singing a song, but it backfires. The look on Papa Bear’s face as the audience clears the hall is priceless. The Bear’s Song is a book to linger over, to absorb, to memorize over a lazy Saturday afternoon. It makes me wish I were a kid again.

Jane, the Fox, & Me (Fanny Britt/Isabelle Arsenault-Groundwood Books, 2013) A truly magnificent book. I do hope to write a longer review, but suffice to say, this graphic novel about bullying and a young girl’s achingly fragile journey toward self-acceptance is Jane, the Fox, and Me coversimply one of the most profoundly beautiful books I’ve ever read. Ridiculed at school, and ignored at home, young Helene finds salvation through books, specifically Jane Eyre. In cartoon panels and occasional full-page spreads, we learn of Helene’s chaotic life in sombre tones of grey and black. Moments of literary retreat are depicted in vibrant colour, as is the fox who shows up in a moment of grace. Isabelle Arsenault illustrated one of my favourite books of 2013 – Once Upon a Northern Night. Whether she is painting the face of a troubled girl or a snow-covered tree, Arsenault does it with exquisite sensitivity and skill. Jane, the Fox, & Me reminds me of another gut wrenching graphic novel from Quebec, Harvey (Herve Bouchard/Janice Nadeau.) Must be something about the longer format…or the province.

Bluebird coverBluebird (Bob Staake-Random House, 2013) A wordless counterpart to Jane, the Fox, & Me, Bluebird  addresses the subject of bullying, loneliness, and exclusion, as well as kindness and companionship, thanks to a little bluebird who enters the life of a solitary young lad, and saves it, in more ways than one. Oblivious at first, the boy eventually notices the bird following him everywhere he goes, and they become friends. His days are filled with joy and laughter, until the bullies show up again, as they always do. Although the ending is somewhat ambiguous, what is clear is the bird sacrifices himself for the boy. Staake handles these scenes with great sensitivity, although it is undeniably bittersweet. Was it not enough that the boy found solace and companionship in nature? The computer generated illustrations are lovely, with few colours save the birds and the lightly tinted, geometric cityscape.

Mattias Unfiltered coverMattias Unfiltered: the Sketchbook Art of Mattias Adolfsson (Boom! Town, 2013) Adolfsson is something of a revelation. The Swedish artist has elevated the doodle to a fine art. With little text, the sketch-filled pages are a visual expression of the artists’ unfettered imagination. In ink and watercolour, Adolfsson’s lightly satiric and incredibly funny drawings of robots, dogs, people (often the artist himself), potatoes, elaborate architecture and Rube Goldberg-esque machinery are so staggering in their breadth, they are (for me) mentally exhausting. How could one guy be so clever, so often, and so beautifully? It’s outrageous! There are hints of Terry Gilliam and Sergio Aragonés in Adolfsson’s work, but make no mistake, he is a complete original. He is also a genius.

The Second in Line: From the Sketchbooks of Mattias Adolfsson-Sanatorium Fortag, 2013) The pre-publication offer of an autographed book Second in Line Adolfsson(with personally designed button) was impossible to ignore, and so…not being one to deny myself (as I have so breathlessly outlined), I am pleased to be the owner of a beautiful, signed book. Like Mattias Unfiltered, Second in Line is a collection of Adolfsson’s most recent sketches. Wild stuff, and beautifully designed with a slipcase and poster.

Backstage Cat coverBackstage Cat (Harriet Ziefert/Jenni Desmond-Blue Apple Books, 2013) One of many books purchased on the spot; no thinking required. (Years of advanced picture book studies have so refined my tastes I can tell in an instant whether a book will be coming home with me.) Ostensibly a cat story, Ziefert is also celebrating theatre life, with all the backstage chaos and pre-show preparations, captured in gorgeous detail by London-based artist Jenni Desmond. Simon (the cat) is frightened up a prop tree after hearing a loud noise backstage. With help from the stagehands, and eventually, ‘his lady’, Simon is coerced down, but like all cats, Simon is a born scene stealer, once again ending up on stage later in the evening. It’s all about Simon, and Backstage Cat is all about the illustrations.

Rules of Summer cover

Rules of Summer (Shaun Tan-Lothian Children’s Books, 2013) I spirited this one out of England, as it is not yet published in North America. It is, of course, extraordinary, in the sense that there is nothing ordinary in Shaun Tan’s surrealist world. Rules of Summer is a template for those who wish to enjoy the summer, without the annoyance of giant rabbits, tornadoes, and strangely menacing steam engines. The rules are negotiated between two boys, and are entirely random: don’t leave a red sock on the clothesline, don’t be late for a parade, etc., It is like an OCD playlist in a post-apocalyptic landscape: do, or don’t do this, thus ‘preventing’ something unfortunate. The paintings are incredibly beautiful. Nightmarish, yet somehow affable. Shaun Tan has long known how to tap into the darkest corners of his imagination, but he never fails to amuse (while blowing our minds.)

Bird King coverThe Bird King: an Artist’s Notebook (Shaun Tan-Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010) I find artists’ notebooks endlessly fascinating, but calling the The Bird King a collection of sketches is vastly understating the issue, as many of the doodles, story ideas, observations, and stream of consciousness scribbles are themselves, works of art, able to stand side by side with the fully realized books these drawings were destined to inspire. In the introduction, Shaun Tan writes about artist’s block. Hard to imagine, given the breadth of his imagination. His solution is to just start drawing, which is what Paul Klee called ‘taking a line for a walk.’ As with all Shaun Tan books, especially one that is as spontaneous as The Bird King, you will be amazed at where this walk leads.

Hansel & Gretel detail

Hansel & Gretel (Brothers Grimm/Sybille Schenker-Minedition, 2013) A couple of kids about to be cannibalized by an old witch is about as grim, I mean, Grimm as you can get, but in this instance, it Hansel & Gretel coveris tempered by Sybille Schenker’s intensely lovely illustrations. The title is die-cut on the black cover, and the pages within are equally unusual, incorporating opaque paper inlaid with silhouettes of various scenes, blocks of patterned colours, and stark, heavily outlined characters. Design is in the forefront, and the result is a very unique and darkly engaging interpretation of a well-known fairytale.

Fall Ball McCarty coverFall Ball (Peter McCarty-Henry Holt & Company, 2013) Long-time fan of McCarty’s exquisite work. His tube-shaped characters are always amusing, but it is his meticulous application of ink and watercolour that most impresses. Although this could be said of many of the artists on this list, there is truly no one like Peter McCarty. Not a single, beautiful line is wasted. Fall Ball is a celebration of seasonal pleasures, friends, and football. There’s a wistful hint of bygone days in story of kids playing in the leaf-strewn autumnal air as the after-school light dims. One by one, they are called for dinner. Who doesn’t have a memory of that? Lovely, funny, and nostalgic (not that I ever played football.)

You Are Stardust (Elin Kelsey/Soyeon Kim-Owl Kids, 2012) “We You are Stardust coverare all connected. We are all nature. We are all stardust.” An origin story encompassing the entire universe, from bits of exploded star to the single cell that is the core of all life on the planet, You are Stardust is a remarkable book. It is also subversive, in the sense that it conveys a sense of wonder without resorting to the supernatural. Soyeon Kim’s multimedia collages are interesting, but it is Kelsey’s poetic story of our interconnectedness that most captivates.

Hello My Name is Ruby coverHello, My Name is Ruby (Philip C Stead-Roaring Brook Press, 2013) A book that flew away with my heart after just a few pages, Hello, My Name is Ruby is the gentle story of a little yellow bird and her quest to find friends. Though not always successful, Ruby is unfailingly kind, meeting a number of wondrous creatures along the way. Although she does not appear to be lost, she is unlike all the other birds and animals she meets, until one friend (an ostrich) leads Ruby to her flock, and of course she brings all her new friends with her. The breezy, pastel-coloured illustrations are very fine indeed; a perfect compliment to Stead’s simple, warm-hearted story.

Ike's Incredible Ink detail

Ike’s Incredible Ink (Brianne Farley-Candlewick Press, 2013) I am a sucker for pen & ink, so a book about the creative process starring an actual ink blot is a slam-dunk. Ike the ink blot wants to write a story, but like all true artists, ink or otherwise, Ike gets stuck, and so he cleans his home, and chats with his friends. Ike's Incredible Ink coverProcrastination plagues us all, even characters in a picture book. Eventually, Ike has an epiphany: the key to finding something to write about is having ‘your very own ink’ (effectively taking procrastination to a whole new level.) Ike sets about collecting shadows, feathers, and something from the dark side of the moon to create his personalized ink, and in the end, he has both his ink and his story. Superb illustrations and clever, perhaps autobiographical story-telling. Though the publication details do not specify whether or not Ms Farley devised her own personalized ink, the fact that this book is on the shelves suggests that she was not (permanently) foiled by the blank page. Good for us.

Henri’s Walk to Paris (Leonore Klein/Saul Bass-Universe Publishing, 2012) Originally published in 1962, Henri’s Walk to Paris is a Saul Bass 101, incorporating his signature visual sensibilities within the framework of a simple story. A boy, enamoured with Paris, decides to leave his small town and walk to his favourite city. Henri's Walk to Paris coverThough he never quite makes it, along the way he learns to appreciate the small pleasures of family life in Reboul. Bass was a famous mid-century designer whose unmistakeable squared-off style touched everything from movie title sequences (The Man With the Golden Arm, Vertigo) to product design. He only published one picture book, but it’s a knock out. To further my education, I purchased Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design (Laurence King Publishing, 2011) which is a very comprehensive overview of his life and career. It’s a lovely book, but at 400 plus pages, I should have stuck with Henri.

Mr Leon’s Paris (Barroux-Phoenix Yard Books, 2012) Mr Leon has been Mr Leon's Paris covera cabdriver in Paris for many years. Throughout his career, he has seen many different parts of Paris, and in particular, makes many friends from every possible background. A perfect setting, in other words, for some imaginative arm-chair traveling. Barroux’s illustrations are absolutely stunning; much of it drawn in pencil and pen with blocks of off-centre colour. Though I would not use this book as any sort of travel guide (unless I wanted to get lost), the art is worth the trip.

The Day the Crayons Quit (Drew Daywalt/Oliver Jeffers-Philomel Books, 2013) This book has everything going for it, including the title. Any book with illustrations by Oliver Jeffers is bound to be stupendous, and a story about crayons on strike is, as far as I know, completely virgin Day the Crayons Quit coverterritory in children’s literature. Duncan just wants to colour, but when he opens his box of crayons, what he finds is a stack of letters from every crayon in the box. The list of grievances is long: Red crayon is used too much and never has Christmas & Valentine’s Day off. Pink is suffering from neglect because it’s a ‘girl’ colour, and Beige has an inferiority complex (in comparison to brown.) Who knew crayons lived such complex emotional lives? Daywalt and Jeffers (who I imagine is very familiar with crayon conflict resolution), creates a sympathetic and rather jolly group of characters. I will never look at my crayons the same way again.

One Gorilla coverOne Gorilla: A Counting Book (Anthony Browne-Candlewick Press, 2012) One for the collection, and you must collect Anthony Browne. Like haystacks were to Monet, so primates are to Browne. In his realist-with-an-edge hands, our brothers from another mother are painted with great affection and breath-taking attention to detail. These primates are beautiful and cheeky, some mugging for the ‘camera’, others in full command of their majesty. Orangutans, chimpanzees, macaques, and Browne himself (#10) are arranged in group portraits, each page a wonder of artistic brilliance and familial love. ‘All primates. All one family.’ And one gorgeous book.

The Voyage (Veronica Salinas/Camilla Engman-Groundwood Books, 2012) The Voyage is like Shaun Tan’s Arrival, but for a much younger (and less visually sophisticated) audience. What both books share is the sense of dislocation and disorientation one experiences when moving to unfamiliar surroundings. The protagonist in Voyage coverthis book is a duckling ‘blown so far away, he forgets who he is and where he comes from.’ Many creatures come to his aid, but it is not until he meets a duck with big feet that he is finds out who he is: “You are who you are”, answers the big-footed mallard. What a relief! Eventually, the duck learns to understand his new home. Swedish illustrator Camilla Engman’s menagerie of animals (and a fantastically cheery fly) are minimalist in style, a bit goofy, and extraordinarily likeable. The Voyage exudes warmth as it addresses complex issues like self-awareness and inclusion.

Girl of the Wish Garden coverThe Girl of the Wish Garden: a Thumbelina Story (Uma Krishnaswami/Nasrin Khosravi-Groundwood Books, 2013) Absolutely stunning. Even the story of how this book came to be is remarkable. India-born author Uma Krishnaswami adapted the words of Hans Christian Andersen to the paintings of Irainian-Canadian Nasrin Khosravi’s Farsi interpretation of Thumbelina, who in this version is called Lina. The story is familiar: a tiny girl, a languishing swallow, but in Krishnaswami’s poetic hands, a more hopeful ending. “…she ran instead into the map of her own life spread out like a carpet – all of it, birdsong and lonely fear, wind-chime and mouse-fret and illuminations of what was yet to come.” Khosravi’s illustrations soar off the page, with hints of Chagall and Gennady Spirin in the wildly imaginative and vibrantly coloured imagery. Though Khosravi died before the two could meet, it’s as if the words and art were created in unison, line by line. Magnificent.

Sowa CoverSowa: Meister der komischen Kunst (Verlag Antje Kunstmann, 2013) Entirely in German, but for connoisseurs of all things Sowa, there are many new illustrations, making the text somewhat irrelevant (although I do hope an English edition is eventually published.) As the title (in translation) suggests, Sowa is the master of comic art, and every illustration in this book confirms his mastery. I was very pleased (and surprised) to see the inclusion of a photograph of Sowa in his studio. There is very little about this brilliant painter in English (or anywhere, I think), and photographs are especially rare. Nice to put a face on the man who brought us Esterhazy, Little King December, and a succession of adventurous pigs and pensive dogs.

The Fox in the Library (Lorenz Pauli/Kathrin Schärer -NorthSouth Books, 2013) A celebration of libraries, books, and (with the help of the former) outsmarting your enemy. A Fox in the Library coverfox follows a mouse into a library. The mouse gives the fox a book about chickens, and the fox forgets about eating the mouse. Again in the library, the newly acquired chicken (in the mouth of the fox) sees the farmer with a poultry recipe book, and the chicken offers to teach the fox how to read if the fox digs a tunnel under the chicken coop. Everyone’s happy for the price of a few books. German artist Kathrin Schärer’s lovely pastel and coloured pencil illustrations are excellent. Especially if you like foxes. And libraries.

Once Upon a Memory coverOnce Upon a Memory (Nina Laden/Renata Liwska, Little, Brown, 2013) Ever since The Quiet Book, and especially, The Christmas Quiet Book, I have been a fan of Renata Liwska’s gentle, utterly charming illustrative style. In Once Upon a Memory, Liwska has found the perfect compliment in author Nina Laden’s sweetly evocative tale. A feather drifts in through a window, initiating a series of questions: does the feather remember it was once a bird? Does work remember it was once play? Does an island remember it was once unknown? Once Upon a Memory is thought-provoking, and it is also reverential, with a core of stillness. Be observant. Everything, everyone, has a story. Beautiful.

Battle Bunny coverBattle Bunny (Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett/Matthew Myers-Simon & Schuster, 2013) I will write a longer review (in the near future), simply because I love the premise of this sly and hilarious story. A young boy gets a sickly sweet present from his grandmother called the Birthday Bunny. Like many books written for children, it is cloying, condescending, and terribly unimaginative. The writing is bad. The illustrations are bad. Alexander is so bored, he creates his own story, crossing out words, adding his own, and ‘re-drawing’ the art to his own tastes. Taken at face value, the book is deliciously funny, but Scieszka, Barnett and Myers are making a much-needed point about the dreck that is endemic in children’s publishing: generic, unimaginative books that fail to engage, and in fact, fail on every level. Happily, though these books are everywhere, there are plenty of children’s books that engage, challenge, and entertain, like Birthday Bunny (the Alexander version.)

Boot & Shoe (Marla Frazee-Beach Lane Books, 2013) Absolutely wonderful on every level, from the clever Boot & Shoe coverwriting to the whimsical illustration. Two identical, be-whiskered pups are born into the same litter, live in the same house, and do everything together, except Boot spends his days on the back porch, and Shoe spends his on the front. Enter chaos in the form of a squirrel, getting ‘all up in’ Boot and Shoe’s business. The dogs chase the squirrel around the house until they find themselves on opposite porches, wondering where the other has gone. Boot and Shoe are confused and spend a long night without food or sleep, quietly (and rather poignantly) worrying about each other. Luckily, they meet the next morning at their favourite pee tree. Brilliant. The soft prismacolour and gouache illustrations capture both the lazily content, pre-squirrel existence of Boot and Shoe, as well their post-squirrel troubles. The whole thing seems effortless; there is not a single, wasted line or moment. In tone, voice, and illustration, Boot & Shoe is in perfect balance. I feel nothing but love (and a little jealousy) for this book.

There may be a few more books lurking in my collection that deserve an airing, but this list represents the bulk of my 2013 acquisitions (in addition to the reviews already posted.) THANK YOU books for being beautiful, and for being in my life. Now, please stop yelling at me.

  • Posted on December 10, 2013

Christmas 2013

For the past few years, I’ve updated my list of favourite CHRISTMAS picture books, which itself is built upon a comprehensive list of all the books in my collection that are in some way related to Christmas (49 and counting.) In my house, Christmas encompasses a very Eyvind Earle christmas cardbroad range of experiences, from sprinkles to snow, family, friends, all the Who’s down in Whoville, chocolate gingerbread, fancy exterior lighting, Boney M, and of course, books. Some years are lean, illustratively speaking, while others offer a jolly good selection of festively inclined picture books, as is the case this year. And so, I am pleased to add seven new titles to the list, though only three were published in 2013. The neverending search for outstanding picture books, Christmas or otherwise, is an exercise in time travel. Some books hide in the past, others hide in plain sight. The only criteria: they must knock my chestnuts off.

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  • Posted on November 30, 2013

On a Snowy Night

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 Brown Rabbit by Donna McKinnonin 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 abandonedOn 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.

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