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February 27, 2015

Home by Carson Ellis

home-coverWhile Carson Ellis’ Home is a beautiful book, it first appealed to me conceptually for its similarity to one of my favourite picture books, A House is a House for Me by Mary-Ann Hoberman and Betty Fraser, published in 1978. Both books—with whimsy, strange and gorgeous illustrations (plus a Duchess)—explore the variousness of dwellings, and the curiousness too; from the Hoberman book, “A box is a house for a teabag. A teapot’s a house for some tea. If you pour me a cup and I drink it all up, Then the teahouse will turn into me.” All this to the point where I opened by Ellis’ book, and wondered where were the rhyming couplets.

But Ellis’ project with Home is something that’s different, more art-focused than text-focused, and the text itself seeking to open up the book rather than nailing it down, asking questions like, “But whose home is this?” of a home on the edge of a cliff, “And what about this?” of a tiny home underneath a mushroom—a vaguely Alice-ish reference (which gives this book another point in common with Hoberman’s, in addition to a thing for teacups).

homeSo I sat down with my children and we started to look at the book, delighting in the illustrations (which will appeal to anyone who likes Jon Klassen’s work, which is everyone), and the oddities. Sure, homes are boats and wigwams, but what IS going on in that underground lair, and how strange to have “French homes” on a page with the inhabitants of Atlantis (whose homes are, naturally, underwater).

Homes on the moon, in a geodesic dome in space, the home of a Norse god, a castle in a fish bowl (with the knights riding sea-horses), “A babushka lives here,” “A raccoon lives here.” The strange juxtaposition of the bizarre and familiar—it’s a weird and wonderful book that invites even more questions than those the text poses.

shoesBut then we started noticing other things—there is a pigeon on every page, and the same teacup recurs every little while, and there’s a monkey on the ship, and on the shoe-home page, there is a little boy on the roof who’s pulled down his pants, and he’s showing us him bum, and the children were howling. We still couldn’t find the pigeon on the “Bee homes” (though it dawns on me that it’s a wasp’s nest, but I digress) page, so we called in back-up and read the whole book for perhaps the fifth time, in the presence of Daddy. The book was so wholly engaging for the entire family, and we all of us loved it at once.

“An artist lives here.” is the book’s second-to-final image, showing a person at work in her studio, a room filled with fascinating and ordinary objects all of which (or nearly all of which?) are found within the other pages in the book—a shoe on the floor (sans bum), the fish bowl, stripy socks. And also sketches of the actual illustrations tacked up to the wall, giving the story a new puzzle along with a metafictional subtext, as well as underlining the message that creative inspiration—even for imaginative journeys to the farthest reaches of the universe—can be found in the ordinary world all around us. Which is certainly a testament to the nature of home, indeed.

February 19, 2015

The magic of First Nations picture books

little-you“That is where change is occurring, when we can appreciate each others’ languages, stories and art.” –Julie Flett, Cree-Métis and Award-Winning Illustrator

I’ve been thinking a lot about First Nations issues these last few months, and have determined that the one useful thing I can do, in addition to the thinking, is reading. Not just reading either, but actually buying books by First Nations writers, supporting the publishers who support them. Buying and reading books by First Nations women’s writers in particular,  and helping to amplify these writers’ voices. I’ve been thinking a lot since reading Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, about “the dead Indian” and how it was public policy to exterminate First Nations culture (and people) for centuries. And perhaps, less indirectly than you’d think, it still is.

So how does one counter this? Well, by (as I’ve said) buying and reading the work of living, breathing First Nations authors, making these a part of my canon. And then by doing the same with my children, so that it never occurs to them that there is such thing as a Dead Indian. So that they only ever know First Nations cultures as being rich with art and story, with a proud but difficult history. And with the calibre of children’s books being produced these days by First Nations authors, conveying all this is no challenge at all.

beautiful thing about horsesWhat’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses?, by Richard Van Camp and George Littlechild

This book—Richard Van Camp’s second children’s book—was recommended to me when I was raving about Little You. It’s out of print, but I bought a used copy. It begins with Richard asking a simple question one day from his hometown of Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, where the temperature today is forty below: “What’s the most beautiful thing you know about horses?” It’s a strange, meandering text, perfectly complimented by Littlechild’s illustrations. I like the book because it underlines the fact that First Nations people are undeniably present in the world—we see photos of Richard’s family members, the people to whom he’s asking his question. He’s asking because horses are foreign to his people so far in the north—in his language, Dogrib, the word for horse is “tlee-cho”, which means “big dog.” (‘When did dogs grow into horses? When did horses shrink into dogs? Do horses call dogs “little cousins”?’) He asks the question to his friend, George Littlechild, who is Cree. ‘The Cree word for horses is “mista’tim”. It means “big dog”—just like tlee-cho in the Dogrib language. Isn’t it neat how both our languages call horses “big dogs”?’ Emphasizing that First Nations are NationS indeed—separate but connected, each with its own language and culture. Which is a complicated thing to convey in a story, but Van Camp does it effortlessly. What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? is a book that takes a single question, and instead of beginning to answer instead opens the world up wide.

sweetest-kuluSweetest Kulu, by Celina Kalluk and Alexandria Neonakis

Published by the award-winning Inhabit Media, an Inuit-owned publishing company located in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the only publisher in the Canadian Arctic, Sweetest Kulu is a sweet lullaby to a beloved baby whose existence is tied to the world all around. “Kulu” is an Inuktitut term of endearment, and indeed, this baby is adored—by the sun with its “blankets and ribbons of warm light,” by Snow Buntings that bring flowers, and by Caribou who “chose patience for you, cutest Kulu. He gave you the ability to look to the stars, so that you will always know where you are and may gently lead the way.” The message of the book, to the baby, is You Belong Here, which is powerful and important for political reasons, but is also an absolutely perfect way to welcome a new baby to the world.

not-my-girlNot My Girl by Christy Jordon-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and Gabrille Gimard

Not My Girl is a sequel to the When I Was Eight, both picture books based on the books for older readers, Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home, memoirs of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s experiences at a residential school. In Not My Girl, she returns home  to the Arctic after two years at school, and finds she is a stranger to her family, that she has lost her language and taste for her own culture. In a story that’s wholly compelling to young readers, Margaret must rediscover her place in her community and reconnect with her family. Not My Girl makes clear the trauma of children being removed from their families, suggests the painful legacy of residential schools, but ends on an empowering note as she learns to drive her own dogsled as her mother cheers her on.

layout_oct23.inddWe All Count: A Book of Cree Numbers, by Julie Flett

Has there ever been a more subtly subversive title for a First Nations book than We All Count? In this book, which teaches the numbers 1-10 in Cree, Flett celebrates bonds between family and to the land, the illustrations gorgeous and compelling in a style that has become Flett’s signature. Iris, my youngest daughter, is as crazy about this book as she is about Little You. Her favourite image is for “Three aunties laughing.” She likes to point to the picture and tell me, “Happy.”


February 11, 2015

My Julie Morstad story in Quill and Quire

quill-featureI hope you’ll pick up the latest issue of Quill and Quire, which is on newsstands now. It has a feature on Canadian horror (including a bit with Andrew Pyper, whom I interviewed this week at 49thShelf for his new novel, The Damned, which I really liked) and a huge spotlight on Canadian children’s literature. And right in the centre of the issue is my piece on Julie Morstad, of whose work I am quite beloved—Julia, Child, the Henry books with Sara O’Leary, the award-winning How-To, Singing Through the Dark, and more. The feature includes images from her forthcoming book with O’Leary, This is Sadie, which is going to blow your mind with its goodness. The piece was such a pleasure to write.

February 11, 2015

The Lion’s Own Story

the-lions-own-storyA year and a half ago, I fell head over heels in love with the book Ellen’s Lion by Crockett Johnson (who is best known for Harold and the Purple Crayon), a strange and funny book that surely inspired Hooray for Amanda and her Alligator by Mo Willems. It was unusual book, published in 1959 a collection of short stories a bit like the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel or George and Martha by James Marshall, but with more text and fewer illustrations—some pages had no illustrations at all. And I found these stories mesmerizing, so beautiful, hilarious and weird. As Lion is a stuffed toy, all the action takes place in Ellen’s imagination, but as Ellen’s imagination is a thoroughly remarkable place, this doesn’t lessen the stories’ appeal, and they all walk this strange line where it’s never clear where the reality ends and fantasy begins, each one a trick each character is playing on the other. I loved it.

And I was intrigued to discover that Johnson had published a sequel four years later: The Lion’s Own Story. But I couldn’t find it anywhere. Not a copy to be found in the Toronto Public Library system, nor a used copy to be found online (except for one that was for sale for $300). Which made me wonder if the book was any good—it must not have been in print so long for copies to be so rare, and it’s really unusual for a book to not be anywhere in our city’s huge public library system (which has a special collection for rare children’s books).

But one day in January, I happened to take a look for it online, as I did from time to time, and discovered a copy on sale for $19.00.  It wasn’t listed in great condition, which made my husband wary, but I put it to him this way: Would you rather have a crappy copy of The Lion’s Own Story, or never ever get to read it in your life? He saw my point.

Two days ago the book arrived, and the condition isn’t so bad at all. It’s been discarded from the Pacific Grove Public Library in California, which makes it seem like a very exotic arrival in our eyes, even if it smells a bit like a basement. And the stories are really terrific. Perhaps not quite as excellent as those in Ellen’s Lion, but that’s a tall order. It was marvellous to encounter Ellen and her lion again, and I’m going to get to thinking about these books, and write something more about them. Because they’re amazing examples of how smart and fantastic children’s literature can be. And literature too in general.

February 2, 2015

Snow Day Reading Marathon

snowdayToday we awoke to a world transformed by snow storm, so we skipped school again and stayed home, ate french toast for breakfast, and staged a Snow Day Reading Marathon. It was pretty wonderful. And tomorrow real life will resume with absolutely no regrets, because we’re all starting to drive each other crazy.

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.”

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