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Pickle Me This

February 28, 2020

The Bug Girl, by Sophia Spencer

The Bug Girl, by Sophia Spencer, with Margaret McNamara, has a very cool backstory—when a young girl with a passion for insects finds herself bullied by peers, her mother reached out to professional entomologists to offer support for the girl, which went viral. And this is how Sophia Spencer became a debut picture book author at the age of 9, but even knowing none of this, there is a lot to love about The Bug Girl. It’s a book about unabashedly being yourself, about pursuing your own avenues and fascinations, and about defying other people who might hold those fascinations against you. The book is sweet and fun, but also an inspiring call to resist peer pressure, and to understand just how great and wondrous the world is—beyond the limits of one’s own community, and also right down to the smallest creatures on earth.

February 4, 2020

Discovering Emily

“Everybody loves Anne, but I like Emily. She’s dark.” —Russian Doll

It was a year ago now that I was swept along in the enthusiasm for the Netflix series Russian Doll, starring Natasha Lyonne, a strange and enigmatic show in which the novel Emily of New Moon featured as a major plot point. Which was just as weird and curious as everything about the show, and it put Emily on my radar for the first time in years. Emily, a second-tier Anne of Green Gables, I’d always supposed, the case not helped by the cover of the Seal paperback that featured prominently in my childhood, which is basically just Anne with different coloured braids.

This specific copy is stolen from the library of the school where I attended Grade 7 and 8. I am not sure exactly if I was the thief, but somehow this ended up in a box in my mom’s basement and I brought it home not long ago, because of Russian Doll.

In childhood, Emily was wasted on me. I know that I read the whole series because I’m now just one chapter away from rereading Emily of New Moon (have been reading it aloud to my family for the past couple of months) and remember parts of the story from when Emily is a bit older, which is mainly her totally gross relationship with the much-older Dean Priest. I know I read the whole series, because I was an L.M. Montgomery completist, but it mostly just left me with questions. Like what was up with Dean Priest? (Upon reread, I still don’t know the answer to this.) Where exactly was Stovepipe Town? And “the flash.” I didn’t understand “the flash.” Emily of New Moon was Anne of Green Gables, but weirder. Emily is dark—Russian Doll was right. And as a young reader, I didn’t have the understanding to appreciate that, or to appreciate the novel properly at all.

But it’s so good. The takeaway from our family read is this. The number of times I’ve come to the end of a paragraph and stopped reading, and everybody starts yelling at me, “No, no. Come on! Keep going! What happens next?” The story itself a bit overwrought and melodramatic, but not to the detriment of the reader’s enjoyment. And not without a sense of humour either—when Emily eats the poisoned apple! The ghost in the walls at Nancy Priest’s house! A cast of characters so firmly realized that when the narrative notes that Perry Miler would be the leader of Canada one day, my children asked me if this had actually transpired. And I don’t want to knock Anne, but Emily’s friends are so much more interesting that Diana. Foul-mouthed Ilse Burnley (and the mystery of her runaway mother), and Perry (who in one scene hangs naked from the kitchen ceiling), and Teddy Kent with his suffocating mother who drowns his cats because she can’t bear that he loves anything but her.

Emily is a fantastic character, up there with Harriet M. Welch as a person whose boldness and will I’d like to channel. Where Anne Shirley was desperate for love and to be liked, Emily has spent most of her childhood in the care of a doting father who gave her a remarkable inheritance, an indelible sense of herself. She knows her worth and her value, and when others don’t, she sees it more as a reflection on them than on her. Even when she arrives at New Moon, where she is an outsider (her mother years ago had run away from her family there to marry her father), she is able to draw on the traditions of her mother’s family and their heritage to further shape her own identity. She knows who she is, and where she came from, which gives her an impressively strong foundation to build her self upon.

Her steadfastness is so admirable, and curious in a child. There is an uncannyness to her character that makes even the most sensible grown-ups uncomfortable, and this tension makes for fascinating reading. And so does the action—Montgomery channels the same gothic darkness here that made her The Blue Castle so delicious, but the novel is also filled with light and the pleasures of everyday. I love the chatty and mundane letters Emily has written to her late father, which reminded me of my favourite parts of another Montgomery novel I loved, The Road to Yesterday (in fact The Golden Road! The LM Montgomery Society kindly corrected me on Twitter) in which a group of cousins put together a newspaper. And I think Aunt Elizabeth might be my favourite Montgomery character since Marilla Cuthbert.

December 6, 2019

The Shortest Day, by Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis

“So the shortest day came, and the year died…” begins The Shortest Day, an extraordinary picture book by Susan Cooper, with illustrations by Carson Ellis, a celebration of solstice, Yuletide, and rituals that light up the darkness. “And everywhere down the centuries/ of the snow-white world/ Came people singing, dancing,/ To drive the dark away.” In her illustrations, Ellis shows those centuries progressing in Northern European cultures, as people move from the Neolithic era, carrying spears, and then “down the centuries” to the contemporary moment, children revelling in a warm and cozy home decorated with an evergreen tree and boughs, candles and a menorah, traditions that connect us to our ancestors and to the earth. This is one of the loveliest “Christmas” books that I’ve ever come across, a book that celebrates what, to me, are the most sacred parts of the season.

October 25, 2019

The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle, by Anne Renaud and Milan Pavlovic

For some reason, unless they happen to encyclopedic catalogues fun to flip through but with no overarching narrative, non-fiction gets short shrift with the young readers in my house. We’ve got a whole stack of titles about history and animals, dinosaurs, guides to crafting and science experiments, none of them appreciated as well as they should be, and my children read Archie comics to tatters instead.

But The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle, by Anne Renaud and Milan Pavlovic, is the exception to that rule, primarily because it’s a fabulous hybrid of a book—a great story that’s fun to read aloud; a biography based on Frank Epperson who really did invent the Popsicle; a gorgeous book with great design (endpapers to die for!); and it’s got science experiments—on mixing oil and water, how to make fizzy drinks, how to lower the freezing point of water—each one connected to the narrative, which is not only engaging, but also demonstrates the experiments’ real-world implications.

One of my favourite picture book biographies ever is Monica Kulling’s Spic-and-Span!: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen, and The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle is kind of a companion, a story that blends the scientific and domestic realms, that shows how having children can inspire an inventor’s ideas, a story that makes the familiar extraordinary by taking an every day item (the popsicle!) back to its origins. It also shows how childhood dreams can transform into reality, and how curiosity and an insistence on asking questions can serve a person throughout his life.

October 10, 2019

The Girl Who Rode a Shark, by Ailsa Ross and Amy Blackwell

I’m not yet bored of stories of brave and uncommon women, and this is not even a genre that began with Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Virginia Woolf published several biographical essay throughout her career—it was from “Lives of the Obscure,” in The Common Reader, that I learned about the Victoria entomologist Eleanor Ormerod, for example, and without Woolf we wouldn’t even know about Shakespeare’s Sister at all. Truth be told, I actually found Good Night Stories... a bit wanting…but that’s because I’d read Rad Women Worldwide before it, and liked it so much better.

But another similar book, The Girl Who Rode a Shark, by Ailsa Ross (who lives in Alberta!) and Amy Blackwell, has managed to live up to my expectations. My favourite bit is the Canadian content—we’re almost at the Roberta Bondar essay. And Indigenous hero Shannon Koostachin is included in “The Activists” chapter.

The women profiled in the book come from places all over the world, include many women of colour, and also women with disabilities. Even better—while many of the profiles are of historical figures, just as many are contemporary, young women who are out there doing brave and groundbreaking things as we’re reading. A few of these figures are familiar, but more are new to us, and their stories are made vivid and compelling through the book’s beautiful artwork and smart and engaging prose.

October 2, 2019

It Began With a Page, by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

It Began With a Page, the new picture book collaboration by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad—who are already known for their picture book biographies(ish) of Julia Child, Elsa Schiaparelli, Anna Pavlova (illustrated by Morstad, written by Laurel Snyder), and Virginia Woolf (written by Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault)—has everything. And to have Kyo Maclear, a leading Asian-Canadian author writing about THE pioneering Asian-American children’s author/illustrator, with illustrations by Julie Morstad who does such justice to her source material. Which is, of course, Gyo Fujikawa’s babies, an adorable array of little people from different ethnic backgrounds, all playing together—Fujikawa has clearly been an inspiration to Morstad since the beginning of her career. But what contemporary readers might not appreciate until reading It Began With a Page—which tells Fujikawa’s life story—is that it wasn’t long ago that picture book illustrations of children with different skin colours all playing together was revolutionary, and before that even not condoned.

Which is a convenient metaphor with which to tell a story of a society in which, just say, people from a certain ethnicity have their land and belongings confiscated and are sent to concentration camps. Although Maclear eschews metaphor altogether here, and sticks with the facts: “In early 1942, terrible things were happening. Bombs and gunfire rocked the world. America was at war with Japan. Kyo was shocked to discover that anyone who looked Japanese or had a Japanese name was no suspected of being the enemy… Gyo’s family was sent to a prison camp far, far away from their home.”

But first: “It began with a page, bright and beckoning.” A five-year-old girl with a pencil in her hand. “The dance and glide of a line. How a new colour could change everything: a bright splash of yellow, a sleep stroke of blue.” The girl fills her pages with drawings, and as she grows older, her talent is natured by a supportive teacher who pays for her art lessons Gyo Fujikawa is one of the few girls, let alone Asian-American girls, who goes to college in 1926. She travels to Japan, her ancestral homeland, to learn about the tradition of Japanese brush painting, and after she returns to America gets a temporary job designing books at Walt Disney’s studio in New York. Which means she is far away from her family when the Japanese internment takes place, but the distance only increases her heartbreak at what is happening in her country.

After the war, Fujikawa continues to work as an artist, and Maclear shows her awareness of the dawning civil rights movement. “Still, there was so much that hadn’t changed. At the library and bookshop, it was the same old stories—mothers in aprons and fathers with pipes and a world of only white children.”

But when Fujikawa submits her manuscript featuring “Babies! Chubby cheeked, squat-legged, bouncy-bottomed babies,” the book is rejected. “No to mixing white babies and black babies. It was not done in early 1960s America, a country with laws that separated people by skin colour.”

Fujikawa, however, does not give up on her vision. And eventually, the book is accepted, and is a huge success, the beginning of an incredible career for this illustrator whose drawings would create “a bigger, better world.”

The story includes a timeline of Gyo Fujikawa’s life, and photographs, and a note from Maclear and Morstad to readers about Fujikawa’s legacy (“Gyo as a TRAILBLAZER…and a RULE BREAKER”) was and how her family supported this book (Fujikawa died in 1998), providing access to stories, photos and archival materials.

June 14, 2019

Ruby’s Birds, by Mya Thompson and Claudia Dávila

Having recently read and loved Ariel Gordon’s celebration of urban forests, not to mention still coming off a recent trip to New York City, Ruby’s Birds, by Mya Thompson and Canadian illustrator Claudia Dávila (we’re big fans of hers) is high up on our list at the moment. It’s the story of Ruby, a young girl with too much energy—so much so that she’s driving her family batty as they’re cooped up in their apartment. And so when a neighbour offers to take Ruby on an adventure to Central Park, she’s totally game, and brings her usual merrymaking self—which is a bit of a problem. Because they’ve gone birding, for which a person must necessarily be quiet, and be patient. Which does not come easy to Ruby at all, but then her patience is rewarded at the sight of a golden-winged warbler.

“We move carefully. We’re serious. We pay attention. We watch for tiny movements in the leaves. We try and try.”

Ruby’s Birds is published by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, whose mission is advancing the understanding and protection of the natural world. The story is fun, the illustrations interesting and dynamic, and the book concludes with information about city birds, the Cornell Lab’s Celebrate Urban Birds project, a list of 14 different species that can be located in the pages of the book and even in the reader’s own city, plus a list of inspiring tips for nature walks. It’s a great book to inspire readers to get outside and get exploring, and perfect for spring.

May 17, 2019

A Little House in a Big Place, by Alison Acheson and Valériane Leblond

We are in love with A Little House in a Big Place, by Alison Acheson and Valériane Leblond, a picture that manages to combine an old-fashioned sensibility with a storyline that’s utterly surprising. It’s the story of a young girl who lives in a house on the edge of a small prairie town, and every day she stands at her window and wave that the train engineer who goes past. “…[A]nd she wondered. About where he came from and where he went. And if she might go away too, someday.”

And we hear the story too from the point of view of the engineer, who waves to the girl everyday. The prairie landscape informing the narrative’s perspective: “His train came over the horizon every morning. One moment there was only sky, and the next moment there would be a dot/ that got bigger/ and bigger/ and bigger [the text getting larger with each line] and the dot would become the train.” And the train rushes away until it becomes a dot again. “But his wave and her wave together made a home in [the girl’s] heart.”

The girl wonders about the engineer, as he no doubt wonders about the girl in the window of the small house on the prairie, and they’re connected to each other, though neither knows the other at all. The girl has no idea that one day will be the train engineer’s last day on the job—but then he throws something from his window that she runs through the fields to find. And he will never know it, but the girl will carry it with her through her life.

I have a theory that this book is a secret ode to Joni Mitchell, because the end of the story finds that small girl who grew up in a prairie town living in a place far eastward, strumming her guitar in a coffee shop. But there is a universality about the story too, about the anonymous people who touch our lives, and about the places where we come from, which set us on the road towards where we’re meant to be.

May 3, 2019

Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden, by Andrew Larsen and Anne Villeneuve

Everything I’m hungry for in the world right now I can find within the pages of my friend Andrew Larsen’s new picture book, Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden, illustrated by Anne Villeneuve. It’s a book about cities and concrete, about connections and community. It’s about the beautiful things we grow by accident, and how small changes can have huge ramifications. But it’s also a story about two kids throwing balls of dirt over a fence, about meaningless fun, and my children like it too, compelled by the wonderful details in Villeneuve’s illustrations and also Larsen’s winsome narrative voice, which is my favourite thing about all his books. He writes voices that really sound like kids, kids who aren’t quite aware that their stories are bigger than the story they think they’re telling. There are lessons and morals in this book, but you’ve got to read between the lines to find them, which is what makes Larsen’s books—beloved by children—especially rich for adult readers as well.

April 12, 2019

Seaside Treasures, by Sarah Grindler

This week has been aggravating for all kinds of reasons, macro and micro, and not least among the troubles is that people kept waking me up at 4am, and thereafter I’d lie awake in bed taking inventory of all the items that are weighing on my mind, which is no way to fall back to sleep, I tell you. So finally I came up with a plan, the night after I first read Seaside Treasures, by Sarah Grindler. My worries, I imagined, put away in a drawstring bag in the place where I was in my mind, which was the beach at Humber Bay Shores, a beach where the beach glass tends to be yellow, which fascinates me because out in the east end of the city it’s mostly green, and I wonder why the distinction. I would leave the bag behind me as I went to explore the beach instead, picking up mussel shells, slate perfect for skipping, round stones to hurl, and others with stripes to admire, the sun sparkling on the surface.

It’s possible I’m just dreaming of summer anyway, mid-April with snowflakes, but Seaside Treasures is a portal to there, and I love it so much. We’re beach treasure enthusiasts in our family, collectors of two glass jars of beach glass so far (and counting), with purple being ever elusive, but the odd fragment of painted china has made up for it in the meantime. And even though our beach is not a seaside, instead by a lake (but still, a GREAT lake) and we will never find a sand dollar or an urchin shell, this book is still right up our street, and makes us excited and inspired to go exploring local beaches again.

Grindler’s realistic painted illustrations are beautiful, a different hue for every page—blue sea glass, then purple—both rare. “Other hard-to-find sea glass colours are red, orange, and yellow You can find pieces of green, brown, and white glass more easily. What is your favourite colour of sea glass?” she asks, in text as engaging as the pictures are. She shows glass fishing floats, arrowheads from the Indigenous people who lived on these lands long before we did, seashells, and also pieces of china. “Do you wonder who might have used them? Perhaps sailors, merchants, or pirates!”

And then there’s garbage, which washes up among the rest of it, which led to a really interesting discussion (and a general consensus that cigarette butts are disgusting). Isn’t it funny that some garbage gets to be treasure and other isn’t? A marble on the beach is treasure indeed, but what about the toy car with its wheels missing? Grindler writes, “When I find garbage, I collect it to help keep our oceans and beaches clean.”

The final spreads invite the reader to search specific objects on a crowded page of beachy treasures, and then to imagine what kinds of art and objects could be made from these objects as well. Ending with a question: “What will you find?”

(Hopefully serenity.)

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