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Pickle Me This

July 14, 2014

Comics Comics!


Harriet & I walking home from Little Island Comics yesterday.

I know that comics lovers are a territorial lot, so I’ll state that I’m in no way impinging upon their authority, but rather documenting my own discovery of passion for the form. I’m a comics newbie (years of Archie-reading aside) but panel by panel, I’m falling in love. We benefit greatly from having Little Island Comics around the corner from our house, but there is also a fine selection of comics available through the library. And as Harriet gets bigger and we don’t read together quite as often as we once did, sharing comics has been a terrific way for us to experience books together.

Yotsuba_vol1_coverYotsuba: This series was a discovery by my friend, Rebecca Rosenblum, via the five year old in her life. She thought that Harriet and I would enjoy the books too, and she was completely right. These books are a manga series about a little girl called Yotsuba (whose name translates as “Four Leaf Clover), a quirky five year old with a unique way of seeing the world. Yotsuba has a curious  if vague background–her adoptive father claims she is an orphan whom he picked up while travelling abroad. The series begins with her and her father settling into a new home in Japan, meeting their neighbours and discovering their new community. Yotsuba is more naive than most five year olds, resulting in amusing misunderstandings, and she is also just like five year olds everywhere in her emotional range and strong passions. She’s funny, gutsy and sweet as she takes part in everyday adventures. Her stories also give North American readers insight into children growing up in a culture different from theirs own.

wonderful world of lisaThe Wonderful World of Lisa Simpson: I wrote about this book already after we’d borrowed it from the library, and then we bought our own copy. I think Lisa Simpson is a great character, and this comic is a good introduction to her. In the first story, she imagines herself as ruler of an ancient utopia, but best intentions go awry. In the second story, Lisa signs up Santa’s Little Helper for a dog show, and realizes that neither of them are really the competitive type. And then the final story, in which Lisa opens up her own Little Free Library on the Simpson’s front lawn, but all those books are wasted on the philistines in her midst. I appreciate this collections because each story is written and illustrated by women, which I understand is pretty rare in comics, and also because each artist approaches the images in a slightly different way, giving us new ways to see these characters which have become so familiar. And because it’s a comic about a lending library… the BEST!

Incredibles_SecretsLies_TPBThe Incredibles: Secrets and Lies: I dislike cartoons and children’s movies, but The Incredibles is the exception that that rule. I’ve seen the movie many times and spent every more time discussing its plot lines and gender politics. Plus, it is funny, and I love that Harriet is a fan of Violet–there are worse role models. So we were happy to borrow The Incredibles: Secrets and Lies from the library. It’s a great story in which mother Helen gets a starring role, and then I started channelling Holly Hunter when I read her parts, which might have been irritating to listen to, but was exhilarating to experience. I do appreciate these characters, which so deftly meld my fascination with domestic fiction to Harriet’s with super heroes. There are other books in this series, and I look forward to reading them soon.

challengeWonder Woman: Challenge of the Gods: Wonder Woman was where our family’s comics love began. At Little Island Comics, they sell old comics for a dollar so we started reading Woman Woman issues randomly. Harriet adores them, though I’m not sure how much she understands, and the story lines are so interesting, involving elements of Greek mythology and Wonder Woman’s whole fascinating origin story. These are a bit dangerous though for two reasons: first, that Iris likes to tear the pages, whose flimsiness suits such an activity, and also that some of the story lines are a bit too adult—I kind of had to tiptoe around the Zeus/Wonder Woman rape plot line, but Harriet didn’t notice. It didn’t bother me enough to stop reading them though, mostly because I want to see what happens next. Which I have a feeling was what the series’ writer had precisely intended.


July 6, 2014

If I Wrote a Book About You by Stephany Aulenback

if-i-wrote-a-book-about-youI’ve been an admirer of Stephany Aulenback for at least a decade, since she was Maud Newton‘s Friday blogger and I would read her posts from my closet-sized apartment in Japan, loving the places her links pointed me to, dreaming of my faraway home back in Canada and the possibility that someday I might be a book blogger too. She started her own blog at Crooked House a few years later, which I always enjoyed, in particular her links about babies and motherhood, her thoughtfulness and curiosity about topics most other places on the internet (and elsewhere) reduce to consumerism and polarization. I love that for her, motherhood and literature have always been connected (or maybe it’s just that to read is to be alive, and mothering is something you can do concurrently).

Her second child was born a few weeks after my first, and I have appreciated her frank, funny and creative posts on living with children. Just off the top of my head, the list of wonderful things her blog has pointed me to include Sara O’Leary’s books, Christina Hardyment’s Dream Babies, and my first reading of Harriet the Spy (for which I named my firstborn—seriously, where would I be without Crooked House?). I have also appreciated her writing at places like McSweeneys, in particular, “Words That Would Make Nice Names for Babies, If It Weren’t For Their Unsuitable Meanings”. (I myself have always been partial to Tazer and Latrine.)

So of course, I have been looking forward to the publication of her first book, If I Wrote A Book About You, illustrated by Denise Holmes and published by the splendid Simply Read Books. When I saw an image of the book’s cover a few months ago, I suspected I would not be disappointed, and I wasn’t. Holmes’ illustrations are simply and stylish with a touch of the old-fashioned about them (blushing cheeks), complemented by the stripes and floral prints that offset them.

The book is a love letter from parent to child, a sweet and whimsical expression of affection. “If I wrote a book about you,” the story begins, “and how wonderful you are, I would write it everywhere.” Some of the expressions are more straightforward than others—”I would write that you are perfect in the sand on the beach,” the illustration showing her doing just that. Or “I would write that you are amazing with the telephone wires, and that you are fascinating with the yellow lines that run down the middle of the road,” this page featuring my favourite spread from the book, a homey streetscape (featuring a library!). She ends up writing with noodles, toys on the floor, raindrops on the window, and rays from the sun.

Aulenback’s playfulness with language is evident here, in that with beads on a bracelet, she writes, “charming”, and that her grammar bends in surprising ways that keep the ear attuned–”you are delicious with the noodles in your soup.” I also love the idea that one could write anything with cracker crumbs and toys on the floor, and if this were really the case, I’d be Karl Ove Knausgaard.

For me, the book is testament to the exuberance of love and the creative inspiration that parenthood can bring, though it’s a complicated inspiration. It’s significant, I think, that the book’s title is hypothetical after all. While motherhood might brings with it a whole new brilliant view upon the world, this doesn’t necessary entail sufficient energy or time with which that vision can be captured for all of eternity. (Or maybe it does? Karl Ove apparently has four children, though as yet, he hasn’t written a book about them.)

If I Wrote a Book About You is a book about the curious places in which we writing our stories on the world, about the power of words, a vocabulary lesson, an exercise in imagination, a record of lovely quotidian things, and the ridiculous extent of parental love. You can also take any of the adjectives that appear within the story–charming, beautiful, clever, precious and sweet—and, like magic, they seem to apply to the book that contains them.

July 3, 2014

Best Book of the Library Haul: Spectacles by Ellen Raskin

spectacles_coverEllen Raskin’s The Westing Game was on my foundational texts, one of the few books from my YA days that I still keep on my shelves. So it was a lovely surprise to discover her books in the picture book section once I started perusing the library with Harriet. Turns out that Raskin was a notable book designer and illustrator, in addition to being a writer. (She designed the first edition jacket for A Wrinkle in Time.) Her picture books are very visual, kind of psychedelic, whimsical and as tricky as The Westing Game. And this week we enjoyed reading Spectacles.


It is possibly true that we like Spectacles because it features a little girl called Iris. Who didn’t always have glasses, her poor eyesight having previously gotten her into a whole lot of trouble and causing misunderstandings.

For example, what she’d assumed to be a chestnut mare in the parlour (but of course!)…


…turns out to be her babysitter.


These visual tricks constitute most of the book, and does include a racist image of an Native American stereotype. Which is the point at which I point out to Harriet what racism and stereotypes are, and why I’m not comfortable with that page, so all is not lost, and we move on to chestnut mares.

spectaclesAt the end of the story, it all becomes clear, and Iris has a wide variety of frames to choose from on her visit to the opticians. “Would you like to look younger or older, sweeter or smarter, like a scholar or a movie star?”

It is unfortunate that Raskin’s picture books are out of print and that most of them are unavailable in our public library system (though they are kept in the archives of the Osborne Collection for Children’s Literature). Definitely books worth keeping an eye out for when cruising garage sales or second-hand bookshops.

*And by the way, I’m excited to welcome back the Best of the Library Haul feature, now that school is out and we once again have time for regular library visits. I’ve missed them. This is going to be fun.

June 26, 2014

Peach Girl by Raymond Nakamura & Rebecca Bender

peachgirlI had the pleasure of reviewing Peach Girl by Raymond Nakamura and Rebecca Bender for Quill & Quire. It’s a story about a feisty girl that depicts the gorgeous countryside of Japan, a country that was once my home. I definitely recommend it.

“In his engaging debut, author Raymond Nakamura puts a feminist bent on the Japanese folk tale Momotaro (Peach Boy).

In Nakamura’s version, a young girl emerges from a giant peach discovered on the doorstep of an elderly couple (who are, notably, a farmer and her husband). Momoko, which translates as “Peach Girl,” is a feisty creature determined to make the world a better place, a mission that involves ridding it of a child-eating ogre. Gently shrugging off her adoptive parents’ concerns for her safety, Momoko embarks on her quest with peach-pit armour for protection, plus a bundle of peach dumplings to eat on the way.”

You can read the whole review here.

June 17, 2014

Hipster Picture Books

pantoneBy “Hipster Picture Books”, of course, I mean books with a focus on design over content, I mean the board book as status symbol. The kind of book a child might not necessarily choose on her own, but her parent will buy it for her as sort of an aspirational thing. To aspire to have a child who lusts for a Pantone colour book. And the great thing about these books’ smart design and vibrant colours is the child will like it after all, will eventually be seen at Brunch clutching said book, and then you get to be the kind of parent you always always dreamed of being. Post it on Facebook, and rest on your laurels after that. Undoubtedly, a Sunday well spent.

I am only half-kidding.

I bought Iris Pantone: Colors for her birthday, and she likes it. It’s visually appealing, and I appreciate its overall message–that there are many shades of grey, and red, and green, and every colour, for that matter. We live in a complicated world, but it’s beautiful. Facing each page of shades is an object in said colour–red wagon, brown teddy bear, blue teapot etc. And then at the end, we’re faced with a rainbow of objects, and this page is an exercise in naming–pickle, monster, kangaroo, bow tie.

workI am also pretty in love with Work: An Occupational ABC by Kellen Hatanaka (out in August). The minimalist illustrations still reveal vital details and are smart and dynamic. I love the way that each letter of the alphabet is embedded into the illustrations in clever ways (i.e. I is for “Ice Cream Vendor” the ice cream is being vended from the I itself’; the A in “Aviator” is part of the mountain range; the P for “Postal Worker” is a cumbrous package on the postie’s back). Points for some very cool jobs I wouldn’t have considered: O is for Oceanographer, N is for Naval Architect (none of them thriving industries, I am sure, but still…). And then an amusing glossary of terms at the end: “Zookeeping might be the only job that encourages monkey business.” Fun.

hungry monkeysThe exuberance of 100 Hungry Monkeys doesn’t really qualify it as a hipster picture book (hipsters are not allowed to get excited, except about drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon on a park bench, or riding a unicycle, but in either case, would never show it). But its visual appeal puts this book in the mix, and it is definitely a good one. Author-illustrator Masayuki Sebe has created a fun story about the concept of the number 100, one whose prompts urge readers to examine the illustration for details and clues in a Where’s Waldo fashion. This is another run one for early readers and their parents to read together, reminding both that books and reading are fun.

monsters-under-bridgesAnd finally, Monsters Under Bridges by Rachel Roellke Coddington and Jolby is not really a hipster picture book, but it is geographically situated in the Pacific Northwest, so there you go. It is a concept I wasn’t entirely sure about at first–a travel guide featuring notable bridges and describing the fabled creatures who live under them, their lives and habits. Perhaps its a regional thing, I wondered? But then Harriet, who has never once been to Seattle, loved this book, and had me reading it to her over and over again, her mind expanded by the crazy creatures imagined within. And through her (which happens often), I discovered just what this book was all about. BONUS CANCON: Ronoh who lives under the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge in Vancouver BC, who smells like seaweed and wisdom. Plus Margot the Maripolo, beneath the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Sherman who lives under North Arm Bridge in Richmond BC (who likes to strap himself to the front of the SkyTrain).

June 12, 2014

Reminder: One Week Until This

The M Word at PArent Books

May 29, 2014

Kids Books We’ve Been Enjoying

9781406305623Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by Marcia Williams: We received this book after Harriet’s classmate’s Knights and Castles birthday party. (This classmate happens to have a notoriously bookish Mum who seems to be making a serious return to book-blogging–yay!). Harriet is comics-mad, loves a good story about knights, plus she’d been told that there was lots of farting in these stories. With her richly illustrated panels, Marcia Williams has made the Canterbury Tales fun and accessible to modern readers, and they were as bawdy as promised. These adaptations serve as an excellent introduction to the original tales, and keep these timeless stories in our collective consciousness.

underworldUnderworld: Exploring the Secret World Beneath Your Feet by Jane Price and James Gulliver Hancock: One day, Harriet and I spent ages lying on the carpet reading this book, whose every new page revealed something else to fascinate us. Egyptian tombs, Paris catacombs. the Tokyo subway, volcanoes, buried treasure, WW1 trenches, bomb shelters in the London Blitz, and underground cities in Turkey. Has a book ever so contained everything? It was pleasure to read a book from which both of us learned so much, and the design and illustrations of this one are really well done.

WhenEmilyCarrMetWoo_RGB-282x300When Emily Carr Met Woo by Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths: The creative team behind Lumpito (a picture book about Pablo Picasso) gets together again for this story about the eccentric Canadian painter Carr and her messy, extraordinary life, a part of which was the monkey, Woo. There is a bit of peril when said monkey devours a tube of yellow paint, but (spoilers!) disasters are averted. This is a fun take on an unconventional and important life.

charlie cookCharlie Cook’s Favourite Book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler: On Monday when we were all sick on Harriet’s birthday, this gift arrived from Harriet’s great-aunt and it was such a bright spot in a difficult day. This book thrilled us first because no one ever gives us books–we are an intimidating prospect owning so many books already. But we’d never heard of this one, and we love Julia Donaldson, and this one is so so good–a story of a book reading a book about a boy who’s reading a book about a book who’s reading about a book about a… A book within a book within a book! So great! So it’s a bit like that, but even better.

today-we-have-no-plansToday We Have No Plans by Jane Godwin and Anna Walker: I sometimes am so grateful that we don’t have a lot of extra money and no car because it means we’re ineligible for the hyper-scheduling that some families happily choose for themselves but which would never ever work for me. The one thing I’m glad to be rich in is time, and this book (which I bought at our playschool book sale for a dollar) celebrates such wealth, what it means after a busy week on the hamster wheel of piano lessons, carpooling, soccer practice, hurried breakfasts, rinse, repeat, etc, to be able to have a day with nothing in it (yet). To linger in your pjs over pancakes (and the paper). The very best days, plus it rhymes, so this book and I were always going to get along.

goldilocks variationsThe Goldilocks Variations by Allen Ahlberg and Jessica Ahlberg: This book is weird and wonderful and full of pop-ups and silly jokes–is there anything better? Ahlberg (with his daughter doing the illustrations) riffs on the familiar Goldilocks tale in true Ahlbergian style–plus, there’s a book within a book. Of course! See Goldlilocks as she steals into the 3 bears’ house, and then the 33 bears’ (really tall) house, and then into an alien spaceship, and the one where she is thwarted by the furniture and a sheet called James. (Why don’t more sheets have names?) Stuff and nonsense. We love it.

sailorThere Was An Old Sailor by Claire Saxby and Cassandra Allen: Forget the old woman who swallowed a fly! This sailor ends up swallowing a whale, but not before a jellyfish, a squid, a krill. It’s a delightful twist on a  familiar song, and perfectly complemented with vivid, striking illustrations that please the eye and give a modern twist to traditional maritime images. It ends with a belch, which will never not prove amusing, and then the reader will encounter some fun facts about the sea creatures in this book (like a squid has a beak–who knew?).

jackandboxkay10HJack and the Box by Art Spiegelman: After reading Michael Barclay’s piece on Toon Books, I was inspired to read Jeet Heer’s biography of their founder and editor Francoise Mouly, and also to buy a copy of Jack and the Box. Mostly because I loved this panel. It’s a wacky, startling and funny story of a boy and his unconventional Jack in the Box. The silliness is the best part. There is also a physicality necessary to the story which the comic form so perfectly expresses.

 101 htings101 Things to Do With Baby by Jan Ormerod: Seriously, is there anything that can’t be expressed in a series of illustrated panels? Lately in our house, we think: no. Clearly, the folks at Groundwood Books agree, which is why they’ve reissued Ormerod’s classic after 30 years. And I love this book, whose first image of a mom reading to her small daughter while breastfeeding a new baby was pretty much how I spent my whole last summer. Showing the moments–funny, tender and mundane–which make up a day, Ormerod shows the trials and joys of being a big sister, and gives a wonderful child’s-eye view of the world.

May 8, 2014

Unexpected Mad Men read: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

Don and Bobby DraperI wasn’t expecting a Mad Men read when we started Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing a couple of weeks ago (which is significant for being Harriet’s first Judy Blume). I remembered the stories in the book so well, but I’d forgotten the details, or maybe I just hadn’t noticed at the time. Like how its backdrop was 1970s’ New York City, and how Peter is allowed to walk to Central Park alone to play with his friends when the weather is good, but he’s wary of muggers. “I’ve never been mugged. But sooner or later, I probably will be. My father’s told me what to do. Give the muggers what they want and try not to get hit on the head.” His parents are concerned about dope-smokers who hang out in the park. “But taking dope is even dumber than smoking, so nobody’s going to hook me!”

Tales-of-a-Fourth-Grade-Nothing1Warren Hatcher is totally Don Draper, though I suspect not as dashing and probably not so lucky with the ladies. He works for an advertising agency and, like Don in his more domestic days, is expected to use his status as family man to further himself professionally and win accounts. Because of the antics of his youngest son, he ends up losing the Juicy-O account. When his wife goes out of town for a few days, he brings the kids to the office and leaves them in the care of his secretary, Janet, who seems fine with the amusement of small children being part of her job description. While at the office, Peter and Fudge stumble onto auditions for the Toddle Bike commercial, and Fudge captures the heart of the company’s president. As ever, disaster ensues, but Fudge gets to be on TV. The next day, Warren/Don takes the kids to the movies, even though Fudge is only just three, and he sits Fudge on the end of the row. Unsurprisingly, he goes missing. And even without the disaster, it would have been a very Don Draper parenting move.

He even makes omelettes, which I remember as a Don Draper speciality! His children can’t believe he knows how to cook at all, and he actually doesn’t, because the omelettes are inedible. We finished the book amused by the Don Draper-ness, but a bit disappointed in the gender roles reinforced in the book. But then it was first published in 1972, so what do you expect?

Except that we started reading Superfudge, and it seems that Don Draper is evolving. He’s taking a year’s leave from the agency to try writing a book about the history of advertising and its effect on the American people. The idea is especially appealing to him because he’s looking forward to staying home with his family, to experiencing his daughter’s babyhood when he’d been absent for the other two. He’s even started changing diapers!  No word if he’s cut down on the smoking or the drinking though, or of what Roger Sterling thinks of the sea change.

April 22, 2014

#MakeSomething: The Most Magnificent Book

It is always a good day when we get a package in the mail from Kids Can Press. In particular, when that package has to do with a book that we’ve loved as much as we continue to love Ashley Spires The Most Magnificent Thing.


Remember that book? The book of which I wrote, “ It’s got everything. It’s got a dog, a girl who builds things, appealing illustrations that stand out against simple line drawings of an urban street-scape. It will appeal to both sexes. It’s got words, so many words, terrific verbs employed in the act of construction. It’s about coming up short, making mistakes and getting angry–the acknowledgement of such experiences is incredibly profound and has echoes of Sendak.” 


So it was so cool to get this kit in the mail full of stuff for making, including a modified version of the book for us to “hack” and include in our creation. Harriet quickly set to work making blueprints, and was determined that her magnificent thing would be a monster.


The project came together fast. Harriet’s dad worked alongside her.


She cut, she stuck, she modified, she erred and tried again, and came up with something even better than her blueprints.


Like her mother, Harriet is blessed with not being a perfectionist, and so her final vision seemed more than satisfying. We hooked our guy up with the book, because monsters like reading just as much as anybody does.


What fun fun fun, and just an example of the creativity this fantastic book will inspire. Thanks, Kids Can Press! So happy to spread the word about a book we love as much as this one.

Read my review of The Most Magnificent Thing

March 25, 2014

How Little Lori Visited Times Square


The best thing about the Lillian H. Smith Library is that its collection was born out of the Toronto Library’s Boys and Girls House, which opened in 1923, and therefore a trip through the stacks reveals all kinds of vintage gems. Our favourite fruit of Saturday’s visit is How Little Lori Visited Times Square by Amos Vogel and illustrated my Maurice Sendak (which I came across whilst browsing for Viorst).

It’s a book with a warning label: “This is a very funny book and should not be read while drinking orange juice, or you will spill it!” 


This is the only picture book by Vogel, who was known for his work in cinema and as author of the book, Film as a Subversive Art. Maurice Sendak is, of course, Maurice Sendak. And oh, this book is weird and terrific.

times square 4

It’s about a little boy called Lori whose bedroom decor suggests a strong affinity for vehicles of all kinds. He decides one day to go to Times Square, but every route he takes brings him to somewhere different. This is a frustrating process for him–a helicopter delivers him to Idlewild Airport; the elevates subway to his Uncle’s house in Queens. The city in the background is a crowded place, populated by curious characters and decorated with billboards and signs whose words add a marvellous subtext and might be some kind of comment on consumerism but I can’t quite decide which. Potato Chip stores and Peanut butter stores, signs exclaiming, “Buy Now!”, and an ad on the side of the bus: “Don’t walk on the pigeons.”

times square 3

He ends up crying on the 25th floor of Macy’s (after a trip up the elevator), but then is rescued by a slow-talking turtle who offers Lori a ride on his back. Lori agrees and off they go. But, um, that was four months ago.

“And nobody has heard from them since.”

The warning label is not unjustified then.

Another best thing? The book has been brought back into print where it remains. Because it’s totally totally brilliant.

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The M Word
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Now available where good books are sold!

"If Life Gave Me Lemons" (short story) at Joyland

"Helter Skelter" (short story) in TNQ 130

"Rereading Fear of Flying" (personal essay) in The Toronto Review of Books

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