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May 20, 2016

The Fox and the Star, by Coralie Bickford-Smith

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So obviously we didn’t end up buying The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown, and got The Fox and the Star, by Coralie Bickford-Smith, which I can’t say is a hardship. And really, that this book is by Coralie Bickford-Smith (world-renowned book designer) tells you everything you need to know about The Fox and the Star: visually, the book is stunning. But does being a book designer necessarily mean that a person can write a book? In the case of Bickford-Smith, it does, in particular because design is so integral to what makes a good picture book work. I’m thinking of an author/illustrator like Virginia Lee-Burton who, like Bickford-Smith, knows the limits of the page and uses those limits and the liminal spaces. There is no single part of the book that doesn’t matter, that doesn’t have attention to it.

Can in point? Endpapers.

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The Fox and the Star is the story of a fox who is small beneath the trees and the sky, but takes comfort in the constancy of a star above him.

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The forest is not the the place for constancy though, and one night the fox looks above him and the star isn’t there anymore.

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Bickford-Smith shows the life and movement of the forests, above ground, on the ground and underneath it. Her scurrying insects are amazing, as our the rabbits created of white space, and the ferns, and the orange of the leaves as the seasons change, and how she integrates the text into her illustrations. And gradually we begin to understand what has happened to the star.

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And as the leaves fall, the fox looks up to find the star again, high up in a sky that’s full of them: “Fox could not believe there were so many stars. His heart was full of happiness.”

This book is exquisite.

May 13, 2016

The Stone Thrower, by Jael Ealey Richardson and Matt James

Because this is the week that began with The Festival of Literary Diversity, it only seems fitting to end it with The Stone Thrower, a brand new picture book written by The FOLD’s executive director, Jael Ealey Richardson and illustrated by Matt James (of the award-winning I Know Here). Richardson has told the story before of how an impetus for the festival was her experience promoting her first book, a non-fiction biography of her father, CFL Quarterback Chuck Ealey, and having an indie bookstore owner decline her invitation to visit with the explanation, “This town is very white.”

“There are so many gatekeepers – publicists and sales reps, and bookstore owners, and all these people have to buy into the story in order for you to have any chance,” Richardson explained in her interview with Quill & Quire, and The FOLD emerged as part of an effort to find a way to change that. And now The Stone Thrower is the other creation that Richardson has brought into the world this spring, her father’s story told in picture book form, and it’s every bit as extraordinarily good.

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The first time I finished reading this book to my children, we closed the cover a little bit breathless.

“That was really good,” said my oldest daughter, and we made sure to read the book again at night before bedtime so that her dad could know just what we were talking about.

He was also very impressed.

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And what do I mean by the fact that this is a book that took our breath away? Because we read a lot of books. We know from good. But rare is the book like this one, with a moral tone as gripping as its story, full of suspense and ultimate triumph, spots of humour, rich and warm illustrations, and prose that feels wonderful in your mouth when you say it.

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It is the story of a boy called Chuck who grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, during the 1950s. “It’s a story about a kid who lived in hard times, a kind who had a big dream that seemed almost impossible.” And the odds are against Chuck, a Black kid growing up on what was literally the wrong side of tracks. James’ illustration shows Portsmouth’s white residents cooling off on summer days in a swimming pool, while the kids on the North End, like Chuck, played in the spray from opened-up fire hydrants. Chuck’s mom works hard, but she dropped out of school when she was young and makes very little money. She wants a different kind of life for her son.

“Those coal trains that come through, they don’t stop here,” she said. “I want you to be just like that. Do you remember where you’re going, son?”

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While walking down by the tracks, Chuck picks up a stone as the train comes by. Richardson makes her story rich with atmosphere: “The ground began to rumble, and the train tracks shook. The stones along the tracks jumped and bounced like hot kernels of popcorn.” Chuck aims for the N on the N&W on the boxcars (for Norfolk and Western), and throws. And misses. And misses again. But as the last car chugs by, he tries one more time: “BANG! Chuck smiled and raised his hands in victory.”

And this kind of persistence becomes emblematic of Chuck’s experience both in school and in football too, paving the way to his success as quarterback of the school football team. At games, he faces taunts from rival players because of the colour of his skin, but Chuck doesn’t let this break his focus from the object of the game, which is to connect with his teammates and win. And he does. The final words of the story: “Touchdown. Victory.”
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The story is made all the more poignant with Richardson’s author’s note at the end of the book, which explains that Chuck Ealey won every game as quarterback of his high school team, and received a scholarship to the University of Toledo, where he won every game there. But after graduating with his college degree (“the best of all his victories”) he finds himself unable to play professional football in America, because the idea of a Black quarterback was still unfathomable to the powers that be.

So he moved to Canada, and played in the CFL, leading the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the Grey Cup in his very first year. “It’s an unbeatable story that amazes me,” writes Richardson, “even though I’ve heard it all before, because Chuck Ealey happens to be my father.”

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In Richardson’s Quill and Quire interview, Groundwood Books Publisher Sheila Barry underlines the need for more contemporary Black figures to inspire young kids: “We have Viola Desmond, but that was a long time ago.” Although obviously, this is a book that will appeal to readers regardless of the colour of their skin.

Together, Richardson and James have hit a target of their own: that of a really great story. And they totally nailed it.

May 6, 2016

If I Were a Zombie, by Kate Inglis and Eric Orchard

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True confession: I don’t really get zombies. Along with “Talk Like a Pirate Day” and Nutella, zombies are a wildly popular phenomena whose appeal I just don’t understand. (I also have no strong feelings about Prince or Shakespeare, which made last week kind of strange.) What I do like is a beautiful picture book though, a kid-friendly one that my children delight in as much as I do, and so to that end, the undead notwithstanding, Kate Inglis’ latest book, If I Were A Zombie, illustrated by Eric Orchard, totally delivers.

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The premise is this: the narrator explores the various possibilities for selfhood amidst the kinds of creatures with children tend to be most fascinated: fairies, giants, witches, pirates and vampires. And even actual ninjas! Plus the zombies, of course.

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The text is poetry, whose structure reminds me of Sleeping Dragons All Around, by Sheree Fitch (which is by the same publisher). Admittedly, rhyming couplets would have made for an easier read—sometimes the prose is tricky to say, and it’s hard to keep a rhythm—but I am not sure that such bounciness was ever Inglis’s intention. This is also a book that older children will read on their own which makes matters of rhythm irrelevant. And read it, they will. This is a book with zombies and ninjas after all. But there is more to it than that—this is a book about exploring all kinds of being, about possibilities, and adventure, and dreaming up stories for our lives. Teachers and other grown-ups will easily be able to encourage young readers to explore all kinds of “If I were….”s of their own, after trying out the various roles suggested in the book.

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My very favourite thing about If I Were a Zombie though is its treatment of gender, assuming boys and girls alike as its readership—and also that all possibilities in the story are open to both of them as well. For a boy to have fairies and mermaids in his story—and I love Orchard’s non-cutesy takes on these. For children to read a book in which the superhero is a girl, which is particularly appealing to my superhero-loving daughter too. I love how gender becomes completely irrelevant, and all possibilities are open to either.
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PS: If I Were a Zombie makes a very cool companion to Vikki VanSickle’s If I Had a Gryphon, but concerned with monsters and imagined creatures, as well as the conditional tense.

April 29, 2016

Pinny in Summer, by Joanne Schwartz and Isabelle Malenfant

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I owe the most enormous debt to Joanne Schwartz. I met Joanne five and a half years ago when I started attending toddler time at the Lillian H. Smith Library with Harriet, and not only did she introduce me to The Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak (which is one of the best things a person can do for anybody), and books by Eve Rice, and Marisabina Russo, and so many others, but she actually taught me how to read a story.

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Now I am really, really good at reading stories, but my secret confession is that it’s because I totally stole Joanne’s technique. Which involves talking to children like they’re humans instead of idiots, not employing silly voices, instead a clear voice just not loud enough so that you’ve got to be engaged in order to hear it, and (and this is key) that the voice be thoroughly infused with wonder. So that it’s soothing and animated at once—the most incredible balance.

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Joanne’s own books are not so different in approach from the way she reads. She is the author of Our Corner Grocery Store, a fantastic story about a family-run shop , and also of the books City Alphabet and City Numbers, with photographs by Matt Beam, and all of these are books that illuminate the extraordinary in ordinary sights and experiences.

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Her new book, Pinny in Summer, gorgeously illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant, fits nicely into that oeuvre, and manages that same balance of soothing and animated, rich with wonder. It’s four little stories in one book, all taking place over the course of a single day—similar in structure to Frog and Toad, or Little Bear. Pinny is a little girl with a whole lot of freedom and so her day contains multitudinous adventures: she finds a wishing stone; she enjoys a session of cloud watching with her friends, Annie and Lou, and then manages to pick a bucket of blueberries before getting caught in a rainstorm. She encounters seagull, then bakes a cake, and it’s around here that it all begins to go a bit wrong—but with a little bit of ingenuity the day is salvaged. And the best thing of all as the sun goes down (and “[t]he sky changed from blue, to a deeper blue, then to dark blue”): there is going to be a tomorrow.

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Schwarz’s prose is wonderful—”the sun was shining again, making everything as warm as toast”—and so nice to put your mouth around. Pinny’s adventures are simple but lovely, and are certainly the kind that will inspire a child to dream of similar things. And the story is beautifully bought to life with Malenfant’s illustrations, with shades of blue and violet, simple drawings enlivened by wonderful texture, shadows and darkness at the edges that keep things interesting.

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And of course, Pinny in Summer inspired us too. Because I dare you not to read it and want to bake a wild blueberry cake like Pinny does. And so we did, even though our wild blueberries were not picked in buckets on blueberry hill, alas, but came from a bag in the freezer.

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All the same though, once we dumped the berries in the mix, the batter turned the same shade of purple as the pictures, which was perfect (and seeing the table set in the image above, you can probably get a good idea of why I love this book so).

The cake was delicious. We froze half for later. And we look forward to spending this summer reading about Pinny again and again.

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April 22, 2016

Little Red, by Bethan Woollvin

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My big girl blew my mind this week with her “persuasive writing assignment,” about why the book Super Red Riding Hood should win the Blue Spruce Award through the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Award. “Firstly, it is a feminist book because it has a has a superhero who is a girl,” she wrote in her piece. “Secondly, it is cool and interesting because it has a great superhero. Finally, it is based on a fairy tale and full of suspense.” And of course because the best thing about fairy tales is one can never have too many versions of one, this week we were overjoyed to welcome Bethan Woollvin’s Little Red into the feminist Red Riding canon, a book that won the Macmillan Prize in 2014.

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Woollvin’s illustrations reminded of Jon Klassen’s because while her style is very different, her approach is similar in its spareness, and also in how she uses her character’s eyes to provide emphasis to the understated text (which reminded me a lot in terms of rhythm and sentence structure of Mac Barnett’s in Extra Yarn).

And never ever has an illustrator put side-eye to such incredible use—Red Riding Hood’s facial expressions are magnificent.

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In the author’s biography, we learn that this story was born out of Woollvin’s own problem with the Red Riding Hood Story when she encountered it in childhood: what kind of a moron would be taken in by a wolf in a nightdress? Surely Red Riding Hood was smarter than that?

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And in this story, we see that she is. Red Riding Hood catches onto the Wolf’s preposterous posing as soon as any other smart, courageous girl does, and she comes up with a plan to deal with it on her own terms, no huntsman required. What transpires exactly between them is left up in the air, but we see Red Riding Home afterwards heading home in a wolf-suit—a most terrific homage of Sendak’s Max, I thought. It seems that girls can indeed be superheroes—and they can channel the ferocity of a wild thing too when it suits them.

Girl Power.

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April 15, 2016

Happy Birthday, Alice Babette, by Monica Kulling and Qin Leng

If you loved Julia, Child, by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad (and who didn’t?) then you must feast your eyes on Happy Birthday, Alice Babette, by Monica Kulling and Qin Leng. Here is another autobiographical picture book about an admirable American in Paris, as Kulling tells the story of the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Monica Kulling’s picture books always come with a sweet subversive bent, and this one is no exception. Because it’s huge to see a lesbian couple depicted in a picture book, to see a female character who looks like a man and can’t be arsed in the kitchen (and when she is, it all goes wrong because she forgets to check the oven because she’s consumed by the composition of a poem), to see this example of a family (two women, no kids) because this is what Gertrude and Alice are, how they care for one another, each complementing the other’s strengths (though it’s true that Alice seems to have the patience of a saint).

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Although young readers will only pick up on all this subliminally. The children who pick up this book will be delighted by Qin Leng’s whimsical stylings (which we know from works like A Flock of Shoes) and this story of a woman named Gertrude and her friend Alice, whose birthday Gertrude becomes determined to mark in an extra-special way.

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Although Gertrude says nothing of this in the morning as they eat their breakfast together, Alice announcing she’s going to spend the day walking around Paris, Gertrude with her own tricks up her sleeve.

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Alice has an eventful day just walking about, riding a carousel, watching a puppet show, and even diverting a would-be jewel thief as he attempts his getaway.

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While Gertrude tries to execute her plan of making Alice a special dinner, and writing her a birthday poem. The latter’s inspiration comes easily enough as Gertrude buys a bouquet of roses from a flower seller and the ideas start flowing. Dinner, however, proves to be more of a challenge.

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Gertrude does her best, even attempting to top it all off with a pineapple upside-down cake, but composing the poem turns out to be quite the distraction. So much so that she leaves the kitchen unattended, everything burnt to a crisp, Alice discovers, as she returns home from her “day of marvels.” And by this point Gertrude is lost altogether, busy at her desk turning her cooking misadventure into a story. Fortunately when their friends arrive for the party, they’ve got some food in tow and so Alice’s birthday can be properly celebrated after all—and Alice has made brownies for dessert (though it’s not clear whether these are her special ones).

It’s not a fair story, with poor Alice being left to clean up Gertrude’s mess, but then so often love really isn’t. Instead, this is a truer story about love and togetherness, and the myriad ways that two people can build a life together.

April 8, 2016

The Not-So-Faraway Adventure, by Andrew Larsen and Irene Luxbacher

Guess what? I’ve got an extra copy of this book to give to one of you. Anyone who signs up for my newsletter and/or leaves a comment on this post by midnight Friday April 17 will be entered in a random draw to win The Not-So-Far-Away Adventure, and I’ll mail it to the winner. Good luck! 

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I’ve been looking forward to The Not-So-Faraway Adventure, written by Andrew Larsen and illustrated by Irene Luxbacher, partly because it follows up on the story of Theo and her grandfather from The Imaginary Garden, a book I first read (and loved) in 2011. At that point, I’d known Andrew lived in my neighbourhood, and I’d met him once at our local library (which is where he reconnected with kids’ books as an adult, attending library children’s programs when his son was young), but it was through my review of his book that we connected online and actually became friends. And in the years since, I’ve loved his books one after another (see last year’s See You Next Year), plus our children go to the same school now, so it’s always a good day when I run into him on the way to pick-up. I like his company just as much as I like his books.

And The Not-So-Faraway Adventure is no exception. It’s a story that takes as its premise one of the undercurrents of The Imaginary Garden, which was about a little girl and her grandfather who make peace with the small apartment he moves to after selling his family home. And implicit in the story was that Theo’s poppa had led a rich life—we see family pictures on his walls, and when he leaves part way through the story to take a trip (i.e. he has a life outside these pages) he packs his clothes in a suitcase covered in stickers showing all the places he has been.

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“Theo’s Poppa was an explorer,” begins The Not-So-Faraway Adventure. “He had been everywhere.” We learn a little bit more about him as Theo tells the reader about the contents of his trunk, which was packed with memories: “pictures, postcards, maps and menus that he had collected on his adventures.” Photos from Paris, maps of New York City, and “a menu from the Italian restaurant where he discovered zeppole.”

Inspired by the trunk, Theo decides to make a new adventure for her Poppa’s upcoming birthday. Together they devise a plan: a trip on the streetcar out to the beach. “There’s even a restaurant,” Theo tells him as they sketch a map of the places they plan to go. Theo is expanding her horizons as she plots their way out into the world, and Poppa delighting in connecting with his granddaughter as his own world has become a little smaller—but no less amazing, as their ensuing adventure proves.

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In addition to celebrating intergenerational ties, The Not-So-Faraway Adventures delights in city streets and city life, public transit and the sidewalk ballet. Luxbacher—whose work I love; see my review of her recent Malaika’s Costume—depicts a streetscape thrumming with people who wave back when Theo greets them from the streetcar. She passes “bookstores, bakeries, restaurants and schools,” which seems especially poignant to me as my local bookshop turns into a Chipotle and there’s one generic hipster pizza joint after another instead of stores that sell actual things. As always, I love the texture of Luxbacher’s illustration, her use of textiles and prints mixed with paints, all the florals, and I love her city’s architecture with its European bent.

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Finally Theo and Poppa arrive at the beach, where the water ignites their imaginations, they revel in the warmth of the sand on their feet, and order lunch on a patio and have the best gazpacho ever. ‘”And we discovered it together!” said Theo,’ which is my favourite part of the book, that they’re on the same level, the respect accorded to Theo by her grandfather, that he genuinely respects her as an individual, is never patronizing, is willing to follow her lead despite the years between them, and how she certainly loves him all the more for all of this. The mutuality of their experience, and the generosity on both these characters’ part: how much they want to give each other and how much they actually do (which manages to be even more).

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Theo and Poppa arrive home from their adventure to find a party waiting for them, cake and balloons and celebrations, but we know that this will not be the part of the story that either of them will remember. And to affirm this, Theo places the map of their journey inside Poppa’s trunk, finding a way to make his long-ago adventures seem less far away, a connection between past and present—and to insert herself into his fabled history as well.

As Larsen’s stories always do, this one celebrates the magic inherent in ordinary experience if you just have wonder enough to look for it. One never has to travel too far.

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April 1, 2016

You Are One, by Sara O’Leary and Karen Klaassen

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If you’re a friend of mine with a baby turning one this year, do NOT buy your wee one You Are One, by Sara O’Leary and Karen Klassen. Do not buy a copy of this delicious new book, because I’m going to be buying it for you. It’s the latest from O’Leary, who we fell in love with via the Henry books (When You Were Small) and last year’s This Is Sadie.
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It’s the most perfect celebration of the milestones that mark that mind-blowing phenomenon that is a baby’s first year. A year in which a person starts out like a “pickled piglet” (in the words of Lorrie Moore) and is transformed into an actual human being with a personality, likes and dislikes, a sense of humour and sense of fun.
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O’Leary has zeroed in on perfect details: babies liking to put things in things (and hiding the keys); the appeal of an empty box, not to mention that baby in the mirror; and talking in sentences (but not necessarily with words).

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Klassen’s illustrations are stylish. interestedly textured, and feature a variety of images guaranteed to delight babies and the people who love them (i.e. check out the pudgy hands up above—and I love the racial diversity too). This book really will make the perfect for one-year-olds and their parents, and here’s the best thing: it’s the first in a series. Watch for You Are Two and You Are Three in the months ahead.

March 24, 2016

The Night Gardener and If I Had a Gryphon

IMG_20160324_133043I wasn’t supposed to get a book at all, but then I ended up with two. These are the kinds of things that happen when one is me. The plan was to buy a book at Bakka Phoenix Books for Harriet’s friend who was moving away, but then I saw The Night Gardener by The Fan Brothers and also If I Had a Gryphon, by Vikki VanSickle and Cale Atkinson, and I had to have both of them.

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I have a weakness for books featuring Toronto-style houses (like Sidewalk Flowers, and another recent one I’ve seen is A Boy Asked the Wind), which is what drew me to The Night Gardener. Although I will admit to being confused to the story’s individual components: that the boy in the books lives in an orphanage, that the story exists outside of time that’s part Dickens, part contemporary; and there is something slightly sinister about the boy receiving a gift of a pair of secateurs. A lot of these concerns can be written off to magic, but it doesn’t seem entirely realized. What are realized, however, are the illustrations, ordinary trees reborn as creatures of all kinds, thanks to the work of a secret gardener who comes and goes in the night.

IMG_20160324_133127Anyway, the dragon in the above illustration brings me to If I Had a Gryphon, in which a small girl laments the mundanity of having a hamster for a pet. The book is written in rhyming verse featuring fun and playful illustrations, and we were immediately hooked.

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If I Had a Gryphon is a primer for future nerds, featuring allusions to a wide range of fictional creatures from myth and legend. Obviously, the little girl at its centre is a bookish one, and when she imagines alternatives to the hamster life, she’s not thinking ponies or cuddly kittens, but instead hippogriffs, sasquatches, or manticores.

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Thinking through her supposings, however, she realizes that mythical pets would actually be a lot of trouble (and that caring for them would probably cut into her time for reading).

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Clearly I’m not well read enough because many of the creatures in the book weren’t familiar to me: what is a kraken, after all, or a kiran, or a basilisk? Although such questions are the point I think, and this book serves as the perfect jumping off point for further exploration (as well as imaginary brand new, never-before-thought-of creatures). I don’t say this very often, but I think Gryphon might have benefited from a glossary to bring some of us up to mythical speed, although the internet will certainly suffice.

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This book reminded of Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, by Ben Hatke, another picture book in which a tenacious girl has to contend with managing fictional beasts of all kinds. We love If I Had a Gryphon just as much, and every time we’ve read it, our delight in its final image has been absolutely. Just wait for it, and you’ll see what I mean.

March 21, 2016

Malaika’s Costume and Maya

malaikas-costumeI recently had the pleasure of reviewing two absolutely beautiful picture books for Quill and Quire. Malaika’s Costume, by Nadia L. Holm and Irene Luxbacher, and Maya, by Mahakj Jain and Elly MacKay, are each exceptional books in their own right in terms of story and artwork, but when viewed together, all kinds of amazing connections occur, deepening the texture of both of them.

*****
From my review:

maya“It takes considerable talent for an illustrator to do justice to the peacock, to come even close to matching nature in rendering its most exquisite bird. With their textured and evocative illustrations in Malaika’s Costume and Maya, Irene Luxbacher and Elly MacKay, respectively, give nature a run for its money. Their images are the perfect backdrop for these deep and engaging stories about characters grappling with a parent’s absence…”

I hope you’ll read the whole thing here. This piece was such a joy to write.

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