November 18, 2014
Tonight we got to go see Newbery Winner/our hero Jon Klassen at Little Island Comics. He’s on tour promoting his new book with Mac Barnett, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. He read us I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat, plus my beloved Extra Yarn (and he pointed out that Little Louie was intended to be a baby. Also that Mr. Crabtree was originally naked and hanging out outside the liquor store). He drew a turtle and gave the drawing to Harriet. Then was kind enough to sign our big huge stack of all his books, drawing a picture inside every one, so if we thought these books were priceless before…
November 12, 2014
With Harriet in school all day and Iris’s chief occupation being hurling books to the floor (save for Hand Hand Fingers Thumb, which she’s really into lately, and hurls at me when she’s demanding it read), I’m not quite as immersed in the land of picture books as I once was. But still, I’ve been keeping track of our stand-outs and making a list to share with you—perhaps you’ll find some ideas for Christmas gifts? Also recommended are the most recent winners of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards.
I’ve written already about Super Red Riding Hood by Claudia Davila, and since given about four copies away as gifts. “It’s about a little girl called Ruby who likes to fancy herself a defender of justice and imagine stories in which she gets to prove her super-hero mettle. While a trip through the woods to collect raspberries isn’t quite the mission she’s been fantasizing about, Ruby makes the most of it, rescuing small creatures and being brave in the face of weird woodland sounds. And so she’s totally ready when she stumbles into a situation requiring actual super-heroics, and has to stare down a ferocious wolf.”
We also love Dolphin SOS by Roy Miki and Slavia Miki, with illustrations by our beloved Julie Flett. It’s from the perspective of a young girl in a community on the coast of Newfoundland rattled by three dolphins trapped in ice in their bay. The girl’s older brothers play a part in the rescue, which ends in triumph. It’s a terrific story, based on true events, and Julie Flett’s illustrations are oh, so beautiful. Is it weird to be crazy about a kids’ book because you covet the wallpaper patterns in the character’s house?
When I heard tell of a collaboration between Kyo MacLear and Julie Morstad, I almost had a heart attack. I love Kyo MacLear’s picture books, which are strange, absorbing, curious and delightful, and then there’s Julie Morstad, whose illustrations are so beloved I buy her prints and hang them on my wall. Julia, Child did not disappoint, this story loosely based on Julia Child’s friendship with collaborator Simca Beck. Two girls, inexplicably wearing roller skates, delight in fine cooking, and decide to cater a party to remind grown-ups about the good things in life. Plans go awry a bit, but it all gets sorted out, and the guests remember it’s best to remain a child at heart. The book is delicious and will make you hungry.
We like Fire Pie Trout by Melanie Mosher and Renne Benoit, published by Aboriginal Publishers, Fifth House. I like it because I have memories of going “fishing” with my grandfather when I was little, the fishing rods he made me out of sticks and fishing line. Grace is on a similar excursion, but it’s serious—early morning darkness, actual worms for bait. She’s nervous, but then finds a creative way to overcome her fears and actually hook her very own fish. It’s a lovely book about family connections, with appealing illustrations.
It is possible that with Goodnight, You, the fourth of her Piggy and Bunny books, Genevieve Cote has written (and illustrated!) her finest yet. It’s a clever book in which the two friends on a camping trip confront their very different fears, and find helpful ways to support each other. I am particularly impressed with how Cote uses the friends’ tent as a shadow backdrop, the shapes they make essential to the stories they tell one another, providing an extra layer of meaning to the illustrations and text.
Spic and Span: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen by Monica Kulling is the latest in the “Great Ideas” series of picture book biographies, and my favourite yet. Gilbreth is well-known as the mother of eleven children in the family celebrated in the book and films, Cheaper by the Dozen. But she was also a psychologist, a leading efficiency expert, industrial engineer, an author, a professor, and an inventor. Her inventions included the electric mixer, and the compartments you use every day in the door of your fridge, and Kulling depicts her life in wonderful detail here. You can read my interview with Monica Kulling at 49th Shelf.
Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen is so weird and so fantastic. Confession: I have a knack for missing the essential details in Klassen’s illustrations, and therefore the point of the stories have to be pointed out me after the fact. Though the point itself is really a elusive here anyway, and no amount of rereading has brought us any closer (it’s as mysterious as whatever woke up Mickey in The Night Kitchen and gave him cause to holler, “Quiet down there!”), but we keep reading anyway, because of the little jokes in Klassen’s pictures, and because of the dog and the cat and their sideways glances. I don’t love this one quite as much as I loved their previous collaboration, Extra Yarn, but that’s a tall order, and this book does something very different, which is admirable too.
Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke: You already know that we’re Zita-mad, so when we learned that her creator was publishing his first picture book, we pre-ordered it immediately. And we loved it when we finally got it—it has all the mystery, magic and power of Zita. It’s a story whose illustrations show tiny doors in the wall to mysterious places, and the story itself comes with similar mystery. Like Zita too, this story of a girl with a house of her own (on a turtle’s back, no less) is about female empowerment, friendship and finding one’s way home.
November 6, 2014
Such a wonderful celebration of books tonight at the Carlu in Toronto as we celebrated some of the best in Canadian children’s books. Obviously, I am thrilled because Julie Morstad’s How To won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, and I am a Julie Morstad disciple.As I wrote in my review last year, “The premise is unbelievably clever, but How To‘s genius lies in its simplicity. I love the substance behind its charm as well, that the text is posing and the illustrations are answering such fundamental questions. “How to be happy” is the book’s final statement, accompanied by a two-page spread of children dancing, moving and being together. It’s a lesson as perfect as it is profound.”
Another contender for the Marilyn Baillie Prize was Where Do You Look? by Marthe Jocelyn and Nell Jocelyn, which we have out of the library at the moment and I just keep renewing. A fabulous puzzle of a book that is, as with any book by M. Jocelyn, a visual treat, but which also points towards the puzzles of language and the complexity of the world, which is the lesson I want to teach my children before almost any other. This book does the trick, and it’s also fun. I think we’re going to have to pick up our own copy…
Another book we have out of the library that I’m not going to have to purchase is The Man With the Violin by Kathy Stinson and Dušan Petričić, because it took the top prize tonight and everybody in attendance received a copy to take home. And I’m thrilled, because I love this one, based on a true story about violin virtuoso Joshua Bell who played in a Washington DC subway one day, and nobody noticed. Stinson tells the story from the perspective of a small boy who longed to stop to listen, and the story’s amazing power lies in Petričić’s illustrations which really do draw sound, and also highlight the amazingly different ways that adults and children perceive the world. A most deserving winner for sure.
I was also pleased that my friend Andrew Larsen’s In the Tree House took the Readers’ Choice Award, in particular because I remember him once telling me how his son had told him that his books weren’t funny enough for kids to pick. And now Andrew can say, HA! I love In the Tree House, whose story touched me so much and continues to as I’ve read it over and over again. It’s a book for the ages. So wonderful to see it celebrated tonight. With so many others too—books by Isabelle Arsenault, Ruth Ohi, Erin Bow, and more! It was a really wonderful evening with triumph after triumph.
Canadian children’s publishing is a powerful force, and it’s an honour to be a small part of it.
October 12, 2014
I love Pat Hutchins’ illustrations, their slightly ugly 1970s aesthetic. (Her book Bumpity Bump was the very first Best Book of the Library Haul, way back in 2011). And apparently Titch was part of a series, though You’ll Soon Grow into Them, Titch is the first of it I’ve encountered. (Titch was also subject of a TV series in the UK with the most poorly sung theme song in the history of music—has one voice ever been so flat?).
From page one, this book delighted us, poor Titch with his pants so absurdly small, his father with the waving teacup, the knitting and the cat.
Titch’s siblings’ solution to his sartorial woes is to pass down their clothes, in which poor Titch is swimming. Any complaints are dismissed: “You’ll grow unto them, Titch!” Until the matter gets entirely ridiculous and Titch’s father consents to take him to a department store for some new clothes of his own—that actually fit.
It’s a good story, but my favourite thing about it is the story going on in the background, the trees, garden and mama’s belly all, little-by-little, burgeoning with new life, the narrative of one boy’s growth linked to the whole wide world.
It ends with a tidy, if slightly evil resolution. Titch decides to foist his own old clothes on the newborn baby who, of course, does not fit into them. But no matter, decides Titch, finally coming into his own, the baby of the family no more: “He’ll soon grow into them.”
October 3, 2014
The last time I read Anne of Green Gables was in 2008, when I came away struck by how much it’s actually Marilla’s story, her own transformation, the softening of her heart. All the things she feels about her adopted daughter but will not say, but she feels them—the narrative articulates the complexity of her emotions. Reading it again now, I laugh at the paragraph from Rachel Lynde’s perspective about Marilla’s definite ideas about how to bring up children, and how only people who’ve never had children can ever have these. I also notice how silly Anne is; with all her big words she gets so many wrong (though whether these are actually typos is hard to tell. My edition is appallingly edited)—she’s a more realistic version of a 12 year old precocious child than I’ve ever noticed before.
This time, I am rereading Anne of Green Gables (the book I’ve been reading and rereading for 30 years now) as I never have before—aloud. It’s our current chapter book for bed time, joining a canon that includes the Little House books, Ramona, The Willoughbys, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Through the Looking Glass, and so many more. When we started reading it, I was surprised to discover I wasn’t sure it would work—there is so much description, so many words, in particular huge ones that no five year old has ever heard of. As we read through the first couple of chapters, it dawned on me that I’d come to the book at age 6 or so (first reading an abridged version) after being familiar with the Kevin Sullivan film—all the characters in my mind are precisely as cast therein. Would the story “take” the same without the cinematic precedence, I wondered? But it was the evening that we opened the book and Harriet had remembered the exact title of the chapter we’d left off at that I knew the story was resonating just as I’d hoped it would.
Reading Anne of Green Gables aloud is such a pleasure. So many words, as I said, but I get to say them. I’ve never had such a feel for the strength of Montgomery’s prose, and how effectively she communicates Anne’s incessant chatter. Reading aloud too, I get to convey the humour, of which there is so much, and it thrills me when the best jokes are met by Stuart’s laughter. Because he’s listening too, this being his first time “reading” Anne of Green Gables, as well as Harriet’s. He grew up in England, where Anne would be even more foreign to boyhood than usual. So I love that he’s enjoying this very Canadian experience, and Harriet too. (Iris spends story time entering and leaving the room, scattering chaos in her wake.) There are so many wonderful parts of the book that I’ve forgotten about, and when I glimpse an episode to come, I tell them, “Oh, this is going to be a good one.” When Anne turned her hair green, and jumping on Aunt Josephine’s bed, getting Diana drunk and saving Minnie May Berry, the mouse in the pudding and the lineament cake. The puffed sleeves. She’s just about to reconcile with Gilbert, and I absolutely cannot wait. We are enjoying this book so very much.
There is something to this book, which is far more than childhood nostalgia or attraction to a cultural touchstone. Anne of Green Gables is so familiar to us all that it gets written off more often than not, but that’s such a mistake. It’s a good-enough kids’ book, but there is so much going on in the text that a reader doesn’t notice when she’s young, and even when she’s not young. It’s a book that’s worth a reread every decade or so, at least.
September 27, 2014
Here is a secret to living well in the city on a salary and a half—we buy all our children’s clothes at Value Village. Which is cheaper than even Wal-Mart, and this way we don’t have to go to Wal-Mart, plus my children get to wear clothes first purchased by people who valued quality, long-lasting, stylish children’s clothing (not Wal-Mart) as much as I do. Everybody wins, but us in particular (and with the money we saved, we go out and buy books).
So I was quite excited to encounter the picture book I Like Old Clothes by the wonderful Mary-Ann Hoberman, an reissued edition with gorgeous new illustrations by Patrice Barton. It’s a story about the delights of second-hand clothing and hand-me-downs, the treasures discovered and, most importantly, the stories these clothes carry in their threads about all the people who’ve ever worn them and all the places they’ve been.
“‘You lived in East Bend, / Blue Sweater,’ I say. / ‘Just think, you are living / in my town today.’”
It’s an empowering thrifter’s manifesto, a story that gets kids excited about the economical and ecologically sound practice of buying second-hand. A brilliant antidote to rampant messages of consumerism found elsewhere, and the just the thing to make parents and kids feel good about the choices their family makes.
September 15, 2014
This morning, Iris had a doctor’s appointment with a specialist at St. Michael’s Hospital (which is notable for being the birthplace of Harriet) in order for us to confirm that she does not in fact have an allergy to parmesan cheese, and the best part of our appointment (apart from her diagnosis) was that we got to stop in at the wonderful Ben McNally Books beforehand. Where I found this treasure, The Busy Bookshop by Marion Billet, part of a series of board books, but clearly this is the best one. It is a bookshop! With bunting! And if you can’t take your toddler to a bookshop every day, you can read this book on the days in between because it’s important to indoctrinate early. The book is utterly charming, delightfully bookish, and robust; unlike others that we like to call “rip the flap books”, this one comes with slidey pieces whose destruction would have to be really hard won. And with the slidey bits, books and their contents pop off the page (times two), making for a most engaging read. I love this one. Add it to the list for all your favourite book-loving babies.
September 7, 2014
As mother of a child who loves any hero in a cape (particularly if she is female, and sporting Wonder Woman-esque motifs), I knew that Claudia Dávila’s Super Red Riding Hood would be right up our street. Dávila is the former art director for Chirp and Chickadee magazines, a seasoned book designer and illustrator, plus author/illustrator of the The Future According to Luz graphic novels series, but Super Red Riding Hood is her first picture book. It’s about a little girl called Ruby who likes to fancy herself a defender of justice and imagine stories in which she gets to prove her super-hero mettle. While a trip through the woods to collect raspberries isn’t quite the mission she’s been fantasizing about, Ruby makes the most of it, rescuing small creatures and being brave in the face of weird woodland sounds. And so she’s totally ready when she stumbles into a situation requiring actual super-heroics, and has to stare down a ferocious wolf.
Turns out all that Super-Hero practice has paid off—Ruby stands up for herself, and learns that all her Wolf prejudices aren’t exactly accurate. And the wolf’s impressions of little girls are transformed by his encounter in the woods with Ruby—indeed, little girls can be Super Heroes after all. Which is a lesson that Harriet was already well aware of, but it was awfully nice to have it affirmed.
We turned up at Claudia Dávila’s launch yesterday at Little Island Comics, because the store is around the corner from our house, and we were fans of Super Red Riding Hood already. Harriet brought her own red cape, because we assured her that this was a cape-friendly event, though she was apprehensive about its lack of hood.Turned out this was not a problem, and she had fun posing in the big dark woods (with not a big bad wolf in sight, thank goodness).
Harriet and Iris enjoyed colouring Super Red Riding Hood, and Harriet made her own Big Bad Wolf puppet, while Iris was chased around the store in circles. Later, we all settled down to listen to Dávila read to us from her book, and she was wonderful, and Harriet had a good time reading along to the parts she knew off by heart already.
We have two birthday parties to attend this weekend, and both friends will be receiving their own copy of Super Red. Dávila’s fantastic illustrations are matched by a fun and inspiring story that never gets too scary, and reminds boys and girls of all ages that caped crusaders come in all kinds of excellent packages.
August 28, 2014
While it’s true that the summer of 2014 will be remembered (by us) for all sorts of things—the summer we listened to the Frozen soundtrack every time we went in the car; the summer we read Farmer Boy and were bowled over by the force of Almanzo Wilder’s appetite; the summer Harriet watched Annie every day for weeks and weeks; the summer we once ate 36 Creamsicles in six days—it all really comes down to that this is the summer we fell in love with Zita the Spacegirl. Whom we discovered when I was stopping into Bakka Phoenix Books (because we are still spoiled for bookstore choice in this neighbourhood, even after the closing of my beloved Book City) to pick up a copy of Jo Walton’s My Real Children to give to my mom for my birthday (and you already know how much I love this book, right?).
There was a fetching comic book displayed at the cash, and it caught my eye and Harriet’s. “That’s Zita,” we were told. “She’s wonderful.”** And so we came back a few weeks later to buy a copy of the first book in the trilogy. We’re already mad for comic books, and space travel is cool, plus she’s a female superhero—nothing could be more perfect. And the books turned out to be as great as we were promised, with vivid colour illustrations, great writing, delightful and surprising characters, enough robots and aliens to keep things interesting, and the indomitable Zita herself, who is so brave, honourable, fallible, spunky and real. She is a champion of so many things, but first and foremost, a champion of friendship. I love that.
In the first book, Zita and her friend, Joseph, are playing around and discover a strange device with a bright red button. Being Zita, she presses it, opening a portal to space into which Joseph is taken. After some despairing at what she’s done to her friend, Zita goes in after him, and sets about saving her friend, who’s been captured on this strange planet which is due to be hit with a meteor in due course. She makes unlikely friends, fights foes, and is mistakenly given credit for saving the planet, becoming celebrated as a hero. She manages to get Joseph back to earth, but is not able to get back herself, which she’s not entirely unhappy about, looking forward to adventure as she gets ready to “take the long way home.”
The next two books are just as terrific, Zita getting herself out of difficult situations, standing up for justice and the downtrodden, overcoming odds, and staying loyal to her pals. Things settle down nicely by the end of the third book, though it’s just open-ended enough for us to dare to hope that we’ve not seen the last of Zita yet.
Though even if we have, her creator, Ben Hatke, is up to cool things. His latest project is the picture book, Julia’s Home for Lost Creatures, which is out next month. We ordered our copy today.
**And please note that this is the magic of bookstores, such connections happening. No algorithm could have ever ever done that.
July 14, 2014
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: 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.
The 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!
The 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.
Wonder 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.