• Posted on June 21, 2018

The Honeybee

I love bees.

I may have begun another bee book review this way, but the sentiment remains true. I love bees, and I love books about bees. The Honeybee by Kirsten Hall and Canadian illustrator Isabelle Arsenault would make me fall in love with bees even if – gasp – I hated bees. Instead, this joyous, beautiful book makes me fall in love all over again.

I didn’t start out that way. Like most, I feared bees, especially their array of stinger accessories, but the more trails I walked, the more flowers and gardens and fields I observed, the more my admiration grew for these tiny, gentle pollinators.

The Honeybee takes us on a journey through the life of a bee, and a bee colony, as pollen is collected and honey created. The story trajectory is familiar – we all kinda know what bees do – but in word and image, The Honeybee stands alone as a thing of absolute beauty. Kirsten Hall’s playful poetry tells the story simply and humourously, but with a kind of meandering lilt, as if the words are perched on the hum of a bee. Isabelle Arsenault continues her run of stunning picture books, finding new ways to visually charm, and at the same time, comfort, with a throw-back warmth reminiscent of classic children’s picture book fare.

As the story begins, the reader is invited over a hill to a field of wild flowers, where a bee makes her debut in a celebratory, double-page spread.


Yes, a bee, with an affable, smiling face and a pair of big friendly eyes. Perhaps not quite an accurate portrayal of Apis mellifera, but true to the jubilant spirit of the book. This bee is an absolute darling, buzzing and humming through the pages as she whirls around fields of wild flowers collecting pollen. Who better than Isabelle Arsenault to imagine this blossomed landscape? The three-time Governor General Award-winning illustrator makes yellow and black, and its variations, the dominant colours – a nod to the bees’ striped apparel. The pops of pink and blue in the flowers are all the more stunning against this honeyed backdrop.

Like a hive, every element – from Hall’s storytelling to Arsenault’s glorious illustrations, work in balanced harmony. The text, which has a lovely hand-drawn quality, uses a font designed by Arsenault, named Honeybee. This book lives and breathes…and buzzes…its subject matter.

The Honeybee does what most children’s books with a message fail to do. It charms, eliciting an appreciation in the reader not only for bees and the work they do, but for the natural environment that supports their livelihoods, and tangentially, ours. Author Kirsten Hall has a deft hand, lovingly and reverentially telling the story of the honeybee. In making us fall in love, we are much more apt to respond with love. As she states in the postscript: “I wrote this story for an important reason. The honeybee is one of our world’s most marvelous creatures. And sadly, it’s in danger. In writing this book, I was hoping you might grow a new appreciation for the honeybee – and that you’ll join me in caring about its future.” Mission accomplished.

Kirsten Hall is a former preschool and elementary school teacher who has authored more than a hundred learn-to-read stories for emergent readers. Today, she is the founder and owner of a boutique children’s book illustration and literary agency, Catbird Productions. Hall is the author of the picture books The Gold Leaf and The Jacket, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. Follow her at: hallwayskirsten.tumblr.com

Isabelle Arsenault is one of Canada’s – and the world’s – best and most celebrated illustrators. She studied graphic design at Universite du Quebec a Montreal, and in 2004 illustrated her first children’s book, Le Coeur de Monsieur Gauguin, for which she received Canada’s highest artistic honour, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Illustration. Following this, she was a finalist on three other occasions for the GG’s: My Letter to the World, Once Upon a Northern Night, and Migrant, which was also among The New York Times 10 best illustrated books of 2011. In 2012, Arsenault received her second Governor General’s Award for Virginia Wolf, and in 2013, she received her third Governor General’s Award for the French edition of the graphic novelesque picture book, Jane, the Fox and Me (Jane, le renard et moi). See more of her work here: isabellearsenault.com

The Honeybee by Kirsten Hall, with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault. Atheneum Books, 2018.

Other Isabelle Arsenault illustrated books reviewed in 32 Pages:

Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean Pendziwol

Migrant by Maxine Trottier

Jane, the Fox & Me by Fanny Britt (included in a roundup)

Other BEEautiful books reviewed in this blog: UnBEElievables by Douglas Florian (Beach Lane Books, 2012)

  • Posted on January 06, 2013

Extinct Boids

“Spring is sprung, the grass is riz. I wonder where the boidies is…”

It started out simply. Ceri Levy, a film-maker, inspired by the subjects of his most recent documentary, The Bird Effect, embarked on an exhibition of extinct and endangered birds, soliciting work from a number of artists, writers and musicians, including one Ralph Steadman. Asked to produce a single extinct bird illustration of his choosing, Steadman, a life-long balker of rules, created more than 100 avian masterpieces; birds of every species, including the newly ‘discovered’ Lousy Grudgian, the Humpbacked Blue Mult, and the Gob Swallow. A special room was dedicated to his illustrations for the duration of the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibit in 2011, and in 2012, in collaboration with Ceri Levy, Extinct Boids was hatched.

There are many great things about Ralph Steadman, not least of which is the fruitfulness of his imagination. No sooner had I ordered Ralph Steadman’s Cats (to be reviewed), Extinct Boids showed up on his website, and shortly thereafter, under my Christmas tree. It’s a hefty book. The long, rectangular shape is perhaps a nod to the over-sized John James Audubon Birds of America portfolio produced in the late 1800’s, minus the field guide accuracy (and ornithological death count.) Most of the birds in this tome are extinct or endangered birds, like the Great Auk, whose last surviving member supposedly caused a great storm off the coast of Scotland and was therefore killed as a witch, but not all. Attention is also paid to the long suffering residents of Toadstool Island, accessible only by the HMS Steadmanitania, where a ‘confusion of boids’ have lived relatively unobserved, until now…

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  • Posted on June 26, 2011

Planet of the Chimps

This post is part four in my continuing love letter to Patrick McDonnell: artist, writer, and from what I have observed thus far, the kindest man on earth. In addition to fathering comic strip characters Mooch and Earl, Patrick is the author and illustrator of several picture books, three of which have been profiled in this blog. No surprise that his latest non-Mutts outing, Me…Jane, is about Jane Goodall, a fellow champion of the environment, especially where animals are concerned. It seems inevitable that McDonnell would find a kindred soul in Jane Goodall, just as Jane found hers in the shorter and hairier inhabitants of the Gombe Stream in Tanzania.

Me…Jane is a story of the awakening passion of Jane Goodall, before she was the renowned chimpologist and animal advocate. The beautifully illustrated biographical picture book introduces us to Jane as a young, inquisitive girl with an adventurous heart and a stuffed chimp named Jubilee. We see her climbing trees, reading Tarzan of the Apes, and taking note of all the living things around her. Other than a brief postscript at the back of the book, Me…Jane concentrates solely on her childhood years, and includes some of Jane’s own drawings from the Alligator Society, a nature club she founded at the age of 12.

Throughout the book, there are faint prints of ornamental engravings from the 19th and 20th centuries, ‘collectively evoking Jane’s lifelong passion for detailed, scientific observations of nature.’ The biographical elements of Jane’s young life are conveyed in a few well-chosen words, leaving the rest of the narrative to the colourful strokes and daubs of McDonnell’s paintbrush. As with all of his books, the watercolour illustrations are the very essence of sweet simplicity and gentle humour. Even the paper has an aged patina, as if these were pages from an old scrapbook. In every way, Me…Jane is a celebration of a extraordinary girl and woman, but it is also a paean to the natural world, to quiet observation, and to being outdoors, an increasingly endangered activity. This is beautifully captured in a double spread of Jane and Jubilee, lying in the grass amongst the chicks and the butterflies:

“It was a magical world full of joy and wonder, and Jane felt very much a part of it.

Me...Jane chimp and Jane 2

Kinda makes me want to find some grass. And a monkey.

Jane Goodall was born in London, England in 1934. Dreaming of a life in Africa, and finally arriving in 1957, she met with famed anthropologist Louis Leakey shortly thereafter and began working with chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Game Reserve.

As I lay laying

Goodall’s work became the foundation of primatological research and helped to redefine the relationship between humans, chimpanzees, and every creature in between. Some primatologists have called into question Goodall’s methodology, specifically her practice of naming the chimps rather than numbering them. It was thought, and perhaps still is thought that the number system allows for greater objectivity and prevents emotional attachment. I get it. Sort of. Much harder to fall for chimp #62 than a ‘David Greybeard’ or a ‘Humphrey’, two of the names chosen by Goodall. Anthromorphism holds little truck in the monkey business, which is why I’m not welcome at their parties. Nevetheless, Ms Goodall’s chimpanzee research abides, and her organizations, www.rootsandshoots.org and www.janegoodall.org continue to raise awareness of the plight of chimpanzees and environmental conservation. Jubilee, Jane’s stuffed monkey, still sits on her dresser in London.

Jane Goodall and chimp

Patrick McDonnell was born in 1956. Throughout his life he has been both an advocate of comic book art and artists, as well as an animal lover and protector. McDonnell has written and illustrated a pawful of picture books, including collections from his cartoon strip Mutts, the newest of which is Earl and Mooch (Andrews McMeel, 2010.) He sits on the board of the American Humane Society, and lives with his wife, dog and cat in New Jersey.

The creatures of this earth have no greater or more tireless friends than Ms Goodall and Mr McDonnell. I continue to be inspired…

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell, published by Little, Brown and Company, 2011

(Please note, my scanner doesn’t read watercolours very well, hence the loss of vibrancy. Buy the book.)

Other appreciations of Mr McDonnell:

South (Little, Brown 2008)

Hug Time (Little, Brown 2007)

Guardians of Being (New World Library, 2009)

Also HIGHLY recommended, Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell (Abrams, 2003)