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January 27, 2015

Serendipity, Family Literacy and Animal Masquerade

animal-masqueradesI don’t know that a family can enforce literacy as much as create the space to let a love of reading just happen. Serendipity plays such a role in it all, as it does whenever anybody discovers a great book. I was thinking about this tonight as I was reading to Harriet from the big pile of books we signed out of the library this afternoon. I was reading Animal Masquerade by Marianne Dubuc, which has been lauded by the likes of Leonard Marcus AND Julie Booker. I’d never read it before, and was enjoying it, and so was Harriet, the animals in disguise quite funny and a twist every now and again but never quite where you’d expect it. And then Iris wandered in, and climbed up beside us, and Stuart followed soon after, intrigued by the sound of this strange book in which a starfish dresses up as a panther. And two thirds of the way in, we were all in love with the story, finding it wonderful and hilarious, all of us perhaps for very different reasons, but regardless, it worked. It’s hard to find a book that hooks 4 people whose ages range from 1 to 35, but this one did, and it was a wonderful moment. The perfect way to mark Family Literacy Day, and I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.

January 13, 2015

Reading Green Knowe

children-of-green-knowe-theThroughout November we were reading Tom’s Midnight Garden at bedtime, which is one of a handful of favourite books from my childhood that hold up just as well. We all enjoyed it, though perhaps Stuart the most because it was his first encounter with the book. I was pleased because I think Harriet mostly grasped the time travel storyline, or some of it. I had read her Margaret Laurence’s The Olden Days Coat two Christmases ago, and she didn’t understand it at all. “There’s this thing called the present,” I was trying to explain, and she was baffled. Interesting too because while she now understands the concept of time, she actually remembers none of that time—anything that happened when she was three and back is kind of lost to us. We reread My Father’s Dragon last week, which I read her when she was three, and she had no recollection. I wonder if you have to have your own history before you understand that there is such a thing as history, and if a prerequisite to having a history is having begun to lose it.

Anyway, Tom’s Midnight Garden was lovely, and meaningful not only because I loved it as a child, but because it was the second book I read after Harriet’s birth, so to bring back memories of that time with a girl who seems so big now was remarkable. That she’s getting the time travel thing also means that we will be able to read Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, which I am so looking forward to—I want to get the New York Review Edition. And at the back of Tom’s… was (in addition to an ad to join the Puffin Club, which I kept trying to join as a child, but I was sending in offers from the back of decades-old books so it never worked) listings of other Puffin books we might like. Including Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe.

I never read The Children of Green Knowe as a child, but received it as a gift about ten years ago, and read it then. I didn’t really get it. But I kept my copy of the book because it had been a gift, and because so many people are crazy about it—I decided there had to be more to it. It seemed in keeping with some of the themes of Tom’s Midnight Garden, the Puffin people thought we’d like it after all, and it’s a Christmas book and this was at the beginning of December. So I proposed we read it en-famille, post-Tom and we did, and it was a remarkable success. For me, in particular. For it seems a book that was meant to be read aloud, and in pieces, rather than plowed through like something with a plot. Reading it this way, I was able to appreciate its magic, its weirdness, and we were all quite struck by its atmosphere.

And it reminded me of the thing that children’s books have taught me about literature and books in general—that there is no such thing as “the text”. The text is ever changing, and its effects depend on myriad factors—the weather out the window, the plushness of a chair, whether or not the reader is awaiting test results. Children’s books, which we read over and over again like no other kind of book, have taught me to ever-undermine my (and any) literary authority. The number of times I’ve flipped through a picture book dismissively, and then sat down to read it with Harriet or Iris, and their appreciation has to directed me to what the book is all about, to what I may have missed the first time. There are bad books for sure, but so often there are great books but I’m just reading them wrong. So what a pleasure is rereading then, for the chance to finally get it right.

December 18, 2014

Unlikely Christmas: Graham Greene’s The Little Steamroller

I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a more unlikely Christmas tale than Graham Greene’s The Little Steamroller, his fourth and final picture book.


Harriet was a big fan of The Little Horse Bus awhile back, and she liked The Little Train too, but it’s true that The Little Steamroller is perhaps the least inspired of the lot. It’s worth reading for its absolute strangeness though, for being a distilled version of a Graham Greene novel. The Little Steamroller works clearing the snow at London Airport, and ends up foiling a diamond smuggling plot by The Black Hand Gang, a nefarious pack of smugglers operating out of Africa. All this takes place over Christmas, which the Steamroller is looking forward to, because he gets very few holidays (one of which is the August Bank Holiday, and it always rained on August Bank Holiday) and because Bill Driver will wrap up his nuggets of coal in Christmas paper.

steamrollerGreene’s picture books were originally published in the 1940s and 1950s, illustrated by his mistress Dorothy Glover (the projects were intended to provide her with an income, which I think makes these books delightfully unwholesome in origin; Glover would later end it with him when she discovered there was a third woman in the mix). Our copy is one of the 1970s’ reissues, with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, but even with this “update”, the book has a decidedly vintage feel. I don’t suppose it helps any that our copy was purchased at a yard sale, and appears to have been stored for a time in a flooded basement.

Learn more about The Little Steamroller and other Graham Greene picture books at Ariel S. Winter’s blog, “We Too Were Children, Mr Barrie,” where an important question is raised but left unanswered: why ever was a steamroller being used to clear snow anyway?

December 16, 2014

Our Favourite Picture Books of 2014

if-i-wrote-a-book-about-youIf I Wrote a Book About You by Stephany Aulenback and Denise Holmes

I love this book, whose prose is as whimsical and delightful as its illustrations. Its chief appeal is that it’s about love, and even comes close to describing that indescribable love we have for our children, but not before getting silly before it gets saccharine. The silliness is so good, and so is the word play, and the pleasure the book takes with words in general. Plus, Harriet is fascinated by this being a book about a hypothetical book, because she adores books in books. Of course she does.

sam-and-dave-dig-a-holeSam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

We have a huge stack of Jon Klassen’s books at our house, and his latest with Mac Barnett is beloved for its weirdness, its humour, its dog and its cat. It’s fun to read in the same deadpan voice as I Want My Hat Back, and it cleverly situates the reader as an omniscient force in the narrative, which is really empowering…until the very end when nobody knows what’s going on. Which is kind of amazing.

jacket_medMusic is for Everyone by Jill Barber and Sydney Smith

Iris is chief music lover (and singer and drummer and bum shaker) in our household, and so she’s getting this book for Christmas, just so it can do some preaching to the choir. Smith (whom we know from Sheree Fitch’s books ) is a fabulous illustrator, and musician Barber knows what she’s talking about, so I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with this book, which explores the world of music and how all of us can play.

goodnight-youGoodnight You by Genevieve Cote

The fourth book in Cote’s Piggy and Bunny series is her best yet. In it, the two friends go camping and find that courage and fear are relative things, and both friends can be a comfort to the other. It’s a good story with a surprise twist at the end, but I am really fond of how Cote creates a second canvas (ha) with the friends’ tent, on which they create shadow puppets to add tension and a whole other layer to the story. It’s a clever device, and the book is sweet and fun.

toronto-abcToronto ABC by Paul Covello

We are all besotted with Covello’s Toronto ABC, from which Iris has learned that there is indeed a tower on her horizon, and she points to it every time she goes outside. It’s a beautiful book, up to the moment, and a gorgeous celebration of our city and all our favourite places—the ROM, the Islands, streetcars, High Park, the AGO, and more. This kind of book is a perfect lesson for kids about how books connect with the world.

the-silver-buttonThe Silver Button by Bob Graham

And speaking of cities, no one else writes cities in picture books quite like Bob Graham does, including the graffiti and the homeless woman pushing a shopping carts, because he wants his books to be as beautiful and complex as the world is. His latest is really wonderful, about the whole wide world and how it hinges on a single moment in which a baby takes his very first step. And I don’t just love it because I read it while I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, and the connection between the two books was just uncanny.

juliaJulia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke

If you know Zita the Space Girl, that you’ll be thrilled to know that its creator has published his first picture book, which is as weird, wonderful and full of mystery as the Zita books. It’s about a girl called Julia whose house is on a turtle’s back, and when she settles down by the sea, she finds it all a bit too quiet. And so she opens her doors to various creatures requiring homes of their own, which brings its own complications. Being an awesome, enterprising young person, however, she figures out a way to solve her problem, and to make her house a proper home for everyone—including herself.

alphabetOnce Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

This one is wrapped up and waiting under the Christmas tree, but I can’t wait to read it with Harriet. Jeffers explores the alphabet, letter by letter, imbuing each letter with a personality and life of its own. For those of us who can’t get enough of abecedarian things, the book will be sure to delight, and young readers will find it a quirky twist on their usual ABCs.

spic-and-spanSpic and Span by Monica Kulling

Kulling’s biography of Lillian Gilbreth (who was mother of the family from Cheaper by the Dozen, not to mention a psychologist, efficiency engineer, an inventor, author and eventually a single mother to 11 children) is fascinating and Gilbreth is a great example to boys and girls that there is no limits to what a smart girl can become. Plus, she invented the shelves in your fridge door, and check out that checkerboard floor. Whoever said the domestic was dull?

mr-frankMr Frank by Irene Luxbacher

I love Luxbacher’s gorgeous collage illustrations, and the sense of cultural history revealed by the story of the clothes a tailor has sewn over time—army uniforms, psychedelic mini-skirts, ripped jeans in the ’80s. But now Mr. Frank is about to sew the creation of his life—a caped ensemble that will impress those readers who are particularly enamoured with all things super-heroic. This is a super-hero story of a different sort, and a great celebration of grandparents.

julia, child

Julia, Child by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

Out of one kitchen and into another with this acclaimed book by a children’s literature dream team. Loosely based on the life of Julia Child and her friendship with Simca Beck (though a note advises readers to take the whole thing with a grain of salt), the story is one about the pleasures of cooking, and butter, and friendship. And to the importance of never forgetting what it is to be a child—the recipe for a happy life, perhaps?

peachgirlPeach Girl by Raymond Nakamura and Rebecca Bender

In Peach Girl, Nakamura turns the Japanese Momotaro folktale into a feminist celebration of feisty girldom. Momoko hatches from a peach, and then sets up to defeat an ogre in her quest to make the world a better place. She’s gutsy, unflappable, and inspires her companions. Spoilers: the ogre is just misunderstood, and they all partake in tea. Rebecca Bender’s illustrations of the Japanese countryside are stunning.

squirrelsThe Secret Life of Squirrels by Nancy Rose

Iris is still pretty choosy about books, but we have a feeling she’ll be into this one, another Christmas present. Rose’s photos of squirrels doing human things are pretty hilarious, and she’s created a fun narrative from them all. But it’s most impressive when you look in the back of the book and learn how Rose set up these photos in her own backyard (mostly by hiding nuts in her set-pieces). Iris won’t really get it though, and she’ll just like it the same way she likes the squirrels in our backyard, which she points to while shouting, “Meow!”

the-most-magnificent-thingThe Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

This one is pretty much my ideal picture book: great images, empowered heroine who makes things, who wields a hammer, who dares to express her rage, and it all turns out okay. The takeaway too is invaluable: sometimes you have to fail in order to get anywhere. It is okay to mess up. Hard work is hard work. Perfectionism is anathema to creation. I don’t know if there is anything else I really care if my children ever learn. I love this book: the most magnificent thing indeed.

fisherman-throughFisherman Through and Through by Colleen Sydor and Brooke Kerrigan

It’s not often I read a picture book with a line of prose that bowls me over, but I was really struck by “…until the sun got snoozey and settled down, down on an orange cloud, toward the lip of the sea.” I love that Fisherman Through and Through is so literary—the fishermen are called Ahab, Peter and Santiago. Though the kids won’t notice that, but they’ll be compelled by this story of wishing and dreaming, and extraordinary miracles thrown up by the sea. Um, plus there is kind of a string of bunting on the cover.

December 11, 2014

Alfie’s Christmas


“And then I knew, Tom, that the garden was changing all the time, because nothing stands still, except in our memory.” –from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, which we just finished reading tonight

Alfie never gets older. We’ve been reading his books since Harriet was baby, and I love them impossibly. Their stories are as familiar to me as stories from my own family. I know the corners of their house so intimately—the teapots, and the toy teapots, and Flumbo the elephant, and Willesden the consolation prize, and I’ve speculated aplenty about Maureen McNally, whom I suspect is actually a cat-burgler. And speaking of cats, I know that Alfie’s is called Chessie, and I remember when he comforted his friend at Bernard’s birthday party, and how he likes to play This Little Piggie with his baby sister’s pink toes.

Stuart’s aunt gave Harriet and Iris a book voucher for Christmas, and I ordered them a copy of Alfie’s Christmas, which came out last year. And it arrived today and I opened it at once, because this is one Christmas present we’re going to enjoy before Christmas. It’s a lovely simple story of the countdown to Christmas in Alfie’s house, and all his preparations—his advent calendar, and drawings of stars, and songs at school, baking cookies and putting up the tree. Iris is drawn to the book for the cats in the pictures, and as we were reading the book, we’re realized that she’s probably the age of Annie-Rose, precisely (and she similarly gets into boatloads of mischief).

Harriet liked the book too, which I was relieved about, because I’ve been sensing lately that she feels a bit too old for Alfie and his tales. “Isn’t he in nursery school?” she asked me the other day at the library when I’d proposed taking out one of his books. As a Senior Kindergartener, I think she regards consorting with nursery schoolers, even in literature, as kind of insulting. But I think she still does like these books as much as I do—they really are our foundational texts. And the Christmas in this particular volume won her over, so she was totally game.

It makes me sad though to think that someday Alfie might really be outgrown. It’s inevitable, of course, but it’s also kind of lonely—this wonderful world I’ve discovered through her that we won’t get to share anymore.

I feel as though Aflie’s Christmas might be one that lasts though, having taken up residence in our Christmas book box. A book that will be pulled out again every year, a process whose very appeal is nostalgia. And one day we’ll be telling a wholly different version of Iris, pointing at Annie-Rose, “Once upon a time this was you.”

December 6, 2014

Songs of the Sea

I got some books to talk about before I sum up my (as always, very good) picture book year, and for no very good reason, all the books I have for this post are all about fish. Which delights me.

fisherman-throughThe first one is Fishermen Through and Through by Colleen Sydor and Brooke Kerrigan, which is just brand new (and has a string of bunting on its cover). It’s a storied story, rich with allusion, but in the most unostentatious way. It’s about three fisherman called Peter, Santiago, and Ahab who “were rough and weathered as a twisted stick of driftwood… Which is not to say that they didn’t sometimes dream of things other than fish, knotted nets, and saltwater.” The three fisherman dream their dreams of a different kind of life, and while under influence of dreaming, they come across a bright white lobster in one of their nets. The men decide to share the wonder with other people, so they bring the lobster to shore, where it creates a media furor. For the lobster, they’re offered enough money to make all their dreams come true. So what are they going to do, these friends, who are fishermen through and through?

The illustrations are gorgeous and dreamy, in particular the subtle shades of the sky. And the prose: lines like, “Man and crustacean sailed this way, admiring one another until the sun got snoozey and settled down, down on an orange cloud, toward the lip of the sea.” I loved this one, and Harriet did too, for it’s a story full of magic and meaning.

glubIt immediately put me in mind of A Fish Named Glub by Dan Bar-El and Josee Bisaillon, which came out in the Spring. Which was a book I didn’t first know what to make of—it’s really weird, more like a Wes Anderson film than a picture book. It deals with big existential things in a manner that struck me as a bit twee the first time I encountered the story, but it’s grown on me, and Harriet likes it. Similar to Fisherman Through and Through, it’s a story about dreams and friendship and lessons learned from those confined to an aquarium, and it’s got more than a little magic too.

jim-longs-stageAnother book that’s new to us but is familiar to lots of other readers is Down By Jim Long’s Stage by Al Pittman, with illustrations by Pam Hall, subtitled, “Rhymes for children and young fish.” It’s a Newfoundland classic, a wonderful and silly accounting of the subaquatic social scene, with rhymes like, “A lobster named Larry/ so wanted to marry/ Lila the lobster next door./ That when he proposed/ and she turned up her nose/ he wept all over the floor.” Such pathos! Such rhyme! Many times since we picked up our copy, we’ve read it cover to cover.

sailorAnd finally, There Was an Old Sailor by Claire Saxby and Cassandra Allen, which I’ve rounded up before, and most certainly deserves a place in this mix. It’s a quite preposterous redux of “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” (which is pretty preposterous in itself, but come on, it’s not like she swallowed a whale, for pity’s sake…), with a maritime theme. We love to sing this one, and tickle our children with the line about the jelly “that wriggled and wriggled and jiggled his belly” and then to revert to all serious when we come back to the same line each time: “I don’t know why he swallowed the krill—It’ll make him ill.”

Plus the illustrations are so so wonderful. Check out the squid to find out precisely what I mean:


December 5, 2014

There comes a time…

IMG_20141106_165935There comes a time in every family’s life when their copy of Janet and Alan Ahlberg’s The Baby’s Catalogue needs replacing. “Uh oh,” said Iris, pointing to where the book had split in two, on the “Accidents” page, no less. Though we’d seen it coming—this was the book I took care to always have in my bag when Harriet was a baby, so that when Iris was born, the spine was already shredded, and she took great pleasure in furthering the damage herself. Until the whole thing had come to pieces.

It’s a turning point, and we’ve been encountering a lot of these lately. Iris turns 18 months old exactly today, and I’d forgotten what a huge turning point this age is. Her words are coming fast (and often furious): car, and truck, and yuck, and cheese, and banana, and please, and Mommy and Daddy and Hatty, and her grandmothers’ names, and shoes, and book, and most curiously of all is “hockey”. We have no idea where she learned that one. She loves cats and dogs and babies. I take her to the library baby program, where she ignores all programming and instead walks around the circle tickling the other babies’ feet.

irisShe sees the whole world as a series of climbable objects, and while her compulsive climbing instills fear in all those who love her, it’s true that she rarely ever falls. She knows the right techniques for capturing out attention: teetering on tabletops, screaming in quiet restaurants, and placing tiny objects inside her mouth with a defiant gleam in her eye. She gives excellent hugs, is a champion napper, has her teeth coming in in all the wrong order, and usually tries to give gentle touches instead of hitting and biting (though she doesn’t always succeed). She gets less bald with every passing day. She is at that age at which sitting at the table for more than three minutes at a time is impossible, so she comes and and goes. She just recently learned to jump. We adore her, and are blown away by how smart she is and her insistence on doing everything herself—well, even. But we’re never having another child, because our children seem to get increasingly Iris-ish with every one, and an Iris who out-Iris’d Iris might kill us. So we’re just content to love this one madly.

ADSC_0452nd then there is her very patient sister, who turned 5 and a half last week (which is 66 months old, for those of you keeping count). She continues to be excellent with just the right amount of naughtiness that we’re sure she’s a real child. She likes school and watching her learn to read is so exciting (and it’s also so exciting to see how useful Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books are in this process. We’ve enjoyed these books for years, and that such good books can also be the best reading tools is amazing). We’re reading Tom’s Midnight Garden at bedtime now, which is exciting because there’s a literary Harriet in it, and also because it’s the second book I read right after she was born, a time I was thinking about last night as Tom and his Uncle discussed there not being just one time but instead all different kinds of time (and his Aunt pointing out that it all leads to indigestion—it’s such a good book!). Harriet has reached this marvellous age where she wants to be helpful, and she actually is. I like her so very much, and adore her company. It’s not a lie when I tell her that picking her up at kindergarten is the very best part of my day. (Well, after bedtime, of course).

IMG_20141120_165025Technically, now that Iris is 18 months old, there’s no resident baby at our house anymore (though I don’t believe this, of course, and Iris’s baldness is permitting the illusion to be sustained). Just because we’re running low on babies though doesn’t mean we don’t still need a copy of The Baby’s Catalogue, so we bought another one, a pristine edition that is sure to get a bit battered, but probably not as battered as its predecessor. This wonderful book is full of the ordinary moments—all the incidents and accidents—of ordinary family life, and it’s such a part of ours.

I hope it always will be.

December 3, 2014

Toronto ABC by Paul Covello

toronto-abcMy personal belief is that a household can never have too many ABC books, and so certainly there’s room in a city for more than one. I’ve long been zealous in my devotion to Allan Moak’s A Big City Alphabet as the definitive Toronto ABC, but now Paul Covello’s new book has arrived and won me over. Because it’s gorgeous, and so meticulously detailed that it reminds me of Patrick Cummins’ and Shawn Micallef’s Full Frontal TO in its devotion to documenting Torontoniana.

Case in point is the windows on the far left and right buildings from “K is for Kensington Market,” windows which are instantly recognizable as Toronto windows, essential to its architecture:


Scan 2I also love the amazing design, best typified in U is for Union Station in which the U is the bottom of the University/Spadina subway line:

This is a book that will appeal to children, who are the biggest transit nerds of us all, with its trans and taxis and busses, and Covello caters to this audience in particular with images of TTC tokens and transfers. This same audience will also delight in the image of the dinosaur skeleton on R is for ROM, alongside the mommy and some residents of the museum’s famous Bat Cave (plus a couple of school busses parked outside the museum itself, natch).

3vPLV_TorontoABC_H1007_ContentIt’s a more updated version of the city than Allan Moak’s, though some consistencies remain—X is still for the Ex, and Z is probably always going to be for zoo, and so it should be. But Covello makes D for the Distillery District, which didn’t exist when Moak created his book 30 years ago, and neither did Y for Yonge Dundas Square, and J is for the Junction, which wasn’t so celebrated back in the day.

kensingtonCovello’s is also much more specific in its locations, with parks and markets identified. He dares to show fish jumping in the Don River in V is for Valley (with a subway going by overhead on the Bloor Viaduct), the city at its most beautiful. He also skips the nude beach on I is for Islands, but gets points for including the tiny cottages on Wards’ and Algonquin Islands.

“I love TO” is the banner being towed by an airplane on the T is for Tower page (on which the book must be turned sideways to take in the full 553 metres of the CN Tower, once upon a time and forever in my heart the world’s tallest freestanding structure), and the reader will not be able to avoid a similar emotion as she flips through the cardboard pages in this durable, beautiful book, which proves as much fun to explore as the city itself is.

November 26, 2014

Let’s all dance with Julie Flett


I am so pleased with, proud of, and excited by my 49th Shelf interview with the brilliantly talent illustrator, Julie Flett, who is behind the images in a few of our family’s most beloved picture books (including Little You, which I’ve written about before). The post is gorgeous, first because it’s packed with Flett’s beautiful illustrations and book covers, but also because her responses to my questions are so fresh and thoughtful, with so many excellent book recommendations. Plus, we talk about holey socks, wallpaper patterns, big suns, and all the exciting things happening in First Nations Children’s Literature in Canada today. It’s so good.

Please check it out! 

November 18, 2014

We meet Jon Klassen

B2wmq9ACcAASpfL.jpg-largeTonight 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 HoleHe 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…

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