July 25, 2013
We go to the library every week or so, and I wander the stacks plucking books off the shelves with never an idea of which will “take”. Most of them are good or okay, some of them we read once and never read again, and then once in a while (and we never know when) there is a book we fall in love with. Ellen’s Lion by Crockett Johnson was such a book, though we came close to missing it altogether. It was small, old battered, and text-heavy, so Harriet never picked it up from the pile. We only started reading it when we learned that someone else had requested the book and therefore we couldn’t renew it, but it quickly became apparent that Ellen’s Lion is a book we had to own.
Published in 1959 and written and illustrated by Johnson (of Harold and the Purple Crayon fame), Ellen’s Lion is a book it is impossible to imagine that Mo Willems hadn’t been thinking about when he created his wonderful Amanda and her Alligator. The books are so similar in approach and tone, the story of a sparky girl and her strangely animated stuffed toy, dealing with the peculiar power dynamics between them. Though Johnson’s book is a little bit darker, Ellen’s stuffed lion a more complex character than Amanda’s alligator (and not always altogether kind). Johnson also plays interestingly with the fact that the lion’s animatedness is fuelled by Ellen’s imagination only (or is it?). There is a marvelous depth here that recalls what I love best about Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad.
There are few illustrations in the book, so it’s not going to appeal to everybody, but we were drawn in by the remarkable character of Ellen herself (who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Harold). The book begins with the story “Conversation and Song”, whose opening is:
Ellen sat on the footstool and looked down thoughtfully at the lion. He lay on his stomach on the floor at her feet.
“Whenever you and I have a conversation I do all the talking, don’t I?” she said.
The lion remained silent.
“I never let you say a single word,” Ellen said.
The lion did not say a word…
Finally, the lion talks, and Ellen tries to persuade him to join her in singing a round. Oddly, it doesn’t work. It seems that Ellen and her lion are incapable to singing two different parts at once.
In the other stories, Lion rides on Ellen’s train set all the way to Arabia. Ellen phones the police to report a lion in her room, and then must hide her lion when the (imaginary?) policeman arrives. In “Two Pairs of Eyes”, Ellen uses her lion’s button eyes to look for the things in the dark she can’t see behind her. In “Doctor’s Orders”, Ellen plays doctor and tries to convince Lion that he’s a poor, ill little lion who just can’t stop smoking. Ellen tries to convince the lion that he should be a tiger when he grows up. Ellen’s acting in a play in “Five Pointed Star”, and Lion must resist her efforts to involve him in the performance. In “Sad Interlude”, Ellen tries to project great melancholy onto her lion, but he’s not playing. In “Fairy Tale”, Ellen goes from game to game, imagining she’s a fairy, then a knight, then a princess, without transitions even, all the while she is eating a muffin with raspberry jam. Her imagination is inexhaustible. And in the final story “The Last Squirrel”, a new toy threatens to displace Ellen’s Lion, but the history between girl and plush creature proves a bond too strong to sever.
There is one moment, or one word, only when this book shows its datedness. “I’m going to be a lady fireman,” Ellen shouts as she explains to lion that he’s going to be a tiger when he grows up, not her. But even the sentiment of this demonstrates the kind of book that Ellen’s Lion is, that Ellen is a strong, feisty and spirited heroine whose gender is incidental to her character (and that’s why I loved Willems’ Amanda too). I might declare that Ellen was ahead of her time, though the fact of the matter is merely that contemporary female picture book characters in general are undergoing a bit of a regression.
I love this book. We bought a used copy from Amazon for a very low price, though it’s also currently in “print” as an e-book. The really cool news, which we discovered yesterday, is that Johnson wrote a sequel to Ellen’s Lion, called The Lion’s Own Story. However this cool news takes a tragic turn–the book is not available at the library and used copies sell for $300. Has anybody read it?
May 26, 2013
Pete Seeger’s The Foolish Frog is our best book from the library haul this week, which is lots of fun to read and apparently quite nice to have read to you, and we were very excited to see that it’s also a short film that you can watch too. Oh, we do love Pete Seeger at our house…
January 30, 2013
I’ve been knitting a baby blanket this last while, its colour yellow as selected by Harriet for whom yellowness is a sacred thing. And perhaps it was my current knitting project that got me thinking about the CanLit/Knitting Connection recently, about knitting in books and knitting about books. Then I thought about it more yesterday when we took out Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen from the library. What a spectacular book, about a little girl whose magical yarn stash never seems to run-0ut (and I know a lot of knitters, actually, with a similar affliction). I don’t know that Jon Klassen has ever gone wrong, and we loved this story with its splashes of colour, amusing prose, and sinister archduke (plus, SPOILERS, happy ending). Of course, you probably know all about this book already, especially since it was selected as a Caldecott Honour Book on Monday. Which was a particularly good day for Jon Klassen who also won the Caldecott Medal proper for the wonderful This is Not My Hat. I imagine this exciting news has changed Klassen’s whole life a little bit, but it’s changed mine too, because now I get to say that my website features an interview with a Caldecott winner.
October 18, 2012
We haven’t had a best book from the library haul in ages, not because the book are no good but because they generally all are, and because life is whirling along at a frenzied pace here so that library books are not what our days hinge about as they once did. But then we picked up Quentin Blake’s The Green Ship from a display at the library about sea and boat books. What a strange, mysterious, magical book about a brother and sister on holiday with an aunt who scramble over a wall to find themselves in a secret garden that is more like a jungle. And in the centre of the garden, they discover a ship except it is not a ship. It’s a strange fixture designed to look like a ship, built from pruned trees, and two tall trees which function as masts. A kind of garden shed is near the front, and inside the brother and sister discover a ship’s wheel, and then they’re discovered themselves.
They discovered by an older woman and the man she calls Bosun (“boatswain”, and actually he resembles a gardener). Stowaways, the boy and girl are made to scrub the deck, which is really to sweep away leaves, and then they all take tea and have madeira cake. The man and woman are all too happy to have the boy and girl join their crew, and so for the rest of the children’s holiday, they all partake in the ship life together.
I love this book for the same reason I love most of my favourite children’s books: because there is another story going on beneath the surface but we’re not privy to its details. In this video, Blake suggests that the old woman had lost her husband at sea, that he’s the “captain” she references, and that the green ship is a memorial to him. The story is viewed through the children’s eyes only who never stop and wonder at the circumstances around this wondrous thing they’ve found, and I actually like that the woman’s story is left untold. I like that it might not occur to children to wonder why grown-ups do any of the inexplicable things they do.
I loved the story’s climax, when the green ship is taken by a storm and it is though the ship is really a ship at sea as the rain pounds and the wind blows, and the old woman steers the ship and remembers what the Captain would have advised her: “Steer into the eye of the storm”. I have no idea if that’s really good advice, but it’s a line I love, and I imagine that it’s applicable somewhere.
July 18, 2012
Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan and Sophie Blackall is the story of a young girl who is eager to fit at school, but who must also conform to her mother’s cultural expectations. When Rubina is invited to a birthday party, her mother sees no reason why her younger sister Sana can’t go too, even though Rubina protests that everyone will think it’s strange her sister comes. And she’s right, they do. When a while later, Sana is invited to a birthday party of her own and is expected to take along their smallest sister, Rubina overcomes the temptation for revenge and steps in to set their mother right
I’ve read this book five times today, at Harriet’s request, and I’m not sure what draws her to it exactly– she’s a bit too young to get it, and I think she’s mostly entranced by the idea of lollipops. And perhaps there is some attraction to the power struggles between the sisters in the book, the squabbling over sharing that she engages in herself with her own friends. I think both of us are also in love with Sophie Blackall’s illustrations, and the fact that two spreads are maps on which we trace our fingers to follow Rubina’s walk home from school, and the sisters’ dash around the furniture.
Big Red Lollipop defies picture book convention in so many ways. Significant time passes in this book, a good year or so. There are clear instances of injustice taking place in the text, no matter how petty, and it’s frustrating to encounter this as a reader. The characters are of an Asian-immigrant background, but the background is not the point of the story. Here is a book in which an Asian-Canadian child can see herself reflected, and in which my daughter can see people who look different than she is–a reflection of the community we live in. In which the parent is both honoured, but also shown as a person who can learn from her children. It is a picture book with the depth of a novel.
May 3, 2012
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has read this book at least twice daily all week long, but still, the experience has granted me a certain authority to say that it’s one of the finest train books out there– even better than Virginia Lee Burton’s Choo Choo and Don Freeman’s Chuggy. The Caboose Who Got Loose by Bill Peet is about a delightful red caboose called Katy who longs for quiet and stability, for the end of a life of rumbling, smoke, and dark tunnels. Her wish comes true in the most surprising way, but not until the very end of the story. Before it does, there is plenty of train track adventures, rumbling through field and town, passing houses with faces as charming as Katy’s own, and perilous pulls around mountain ledges. Our resident train fiend loved this one, and I did too, mostly because I’m a sucker for rhyming couplets every time. If there is a book I have to read twice daily for a week, it always goes down so much better in verse.
April 3, 2012
The great news is that the library workers have been back to work since Friday, and that we’re off to the library tomorrow to freshen this haul that’s been kicking around for a while. But this haul has been a good one, and it’s sustained us while the library workers had to go and stand up for what’s owed to them. And we have been particularly enamoured of the Zoom trilogy by Tim Wynne-Jones and Eric Beddows (who is also illustrator of Night Cars. It’s possible that I’m genetically predisposed to fall in love with any book his nib has touched).
Zoom is all the elements of the fantastic, but without the dragon and gauntlet cliches. That Zoom is a small white cat is incidental to these stories, in which other worlds are accessed via strange tall stairways and bookcases in a rather curious house. Zoom’s adventures all involve his sea-faring Uncle Roy and a woman called Maria who explains nothing, and it never occurs to Zoom to ask anyway as he travels down an underground Nile to ancient Egypt, or follows a tiny corridor in pursuit of the North Pole.
March 21, 2012
Well, this blog feature is going to have a cramp in its style because our public library workers have gone on strike. The only bright spot in all this is that we got 20 books out of the library last week, and that most of them have turned out to be really good, and let’s hope I don’t have to feature them all one-by-one until our librarians are back at work and our haul can be replenished.
In the meantime, there is Rex Parkin’s The Red Carpet, first published in 1948. When the doorman at the Hotel Bellevue rolls out the carpet in preparation for a visit from the Duke of Sultana, something bizarre happens. Turns out that carpet’s length is infinite and it just keeps going and going in a whimsical tale of causality and chaos than puts me in mind of Curious George Gets a Medal and Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo (and illustrations with a touch of the wonderful Virginia Lee Burton).
We are slaves to rhyming couplets over here, which we never tire of reading over and over again, so this book suits our tendencies. Though I do delight in the story’s one week point, at which “Kobe” and “globe” are meant to rhyme, and I make a point of pronouncing “globe” as “glow-bay”.
March 2, 2012
I must confess to not understanding very much about the spiritual nature of Zen Ties by Jon J. Muth, but still the book was immediately appealing. My impression is that it’s structured around several Zen koans, woven into a story of a group of children coming to know and appreciate an elderly neighbour. Presiding over this lesson is Stillwater, a giant panda whose nephew Koo has come to visit for the summer. Koo won my heart by speaking in haiku. It’s a lovely, calm, meditative story with gorgeous illustrations, and Harriet, for whom it’s just “the panda book” has been requesting to hear it over and over again. Though for her, Zen Ties is the second-best book of the library haul because she’s awfully stuck on a book called Air Show written by the actor Treat Williams (which, although lacking the depth of Zen Ties, is unterrible in an astonishing number of ways).
February 10, 2012
I love picture books that show the passage of time, the largeness of history and our relative smallness (but our place nonetheless) in the scheme. And of course, I also love house books, so Emma and Paul Rogers’ Our House, which is illustrated by Priscilla Lamont, was inevitably going to be a delight. The illustrations are very Ahlberg-meets-Shirley Hughes, and the sense of place and history in the text is similar to Virginia Lee Burton’s in The Little House and Life Story. The book is made up of four pretty ordinary domestic stories taking place in 1780, 1840, 1910, and 1990, each showing subtle changes in the house and surrounding area, and also the lifestyles of its changing inhabitants. The final story shows an awareness of the people who’d lived in the house before, as the family, whilst searching for an errant pet mouse, finds bits of history under floorboards and in backs of cupboards. (“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those left behind.”– Tom Stoppard, Arcadia.) There is no supernatural element at work here, but the connection between the child in the first story and the child at the end reminded me of my favourite time out of time novels like Tom’s Midnight Garden, Charlotte Sometimes, and A Handful of Time. And of course, we love the pictures where the house’s fourth wall has come away and we can see its skeleton, under its floorboard, plumbing, all the rooms and the people who make their lives inside them.
Bonus: Our best short film of the library haul appeared on the very excellent Harry the Dirty Dog DVD by Scholastic, and is the excellent “I Want a Dog” by Sheldon Cohen. Based on the book by Dayal Kaur Khalsa, narrated by Marnie McPhail (who was Annie Edison!!), and with a soundtrack by Neko Case, it’s absolutely wonderful AND you can watch it on the National Film Board of Canada website!