April 1, 2015
I’m about as crazy about literary cakes as I am about books illustrated by Marla Frazee (and written by Mary Ann Hoberman, no less), so I’ve been meaning to write about The Seven Silly Eaters for quite some time. A book that I’m actually ambivalent about, even though it has rhyming couplets. It’s down the other end of the spectrum from Mem Fox’s Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild, another book illustrated by Frazee. Harriet is the story of a mom who reaches her breaking point after being sorely tested, and she finally explodes at her extremely irritating (albeit loveable) daughter, and then apologizes and everything is okay. Because mothers are human. Getting angry and upset is what people do, and I think there’s nothing wrong with mothers modelling this. Imagine the child who’s gone through his entire life without learning the fact that people get upset sometimes, that one’s behaviour can have consequences; what a rude awakening the actual world is sure to be.
But then there is Mrs. Peters who seems to never have heard of birth control (with seven children in as many years) or setting limits. One by one, each of her children conspires to destroy her person and her cello-playing dreams by making ridiculous culinary demands: her first child refuses his milk unless it’s warmed to a precise temperature; her second will only drink homemade pink lemonade; third would only eat freshly made applesauce; with the fourth it’s oatmeal, unless that oatmeal has the suggestion of a lump and then he dumps it on the cat; the fifth demands homemade bread; and the twins will only eat eggs, poached for one and fried for the other.
And while Mrs. Peters is happy in her bubble of domestic chaos—this is certainly the life she chose and she likes the pace—the resentment does eventually seep in. Not overwhelmingly, and she seems to accept it the way she’s accepted everything. “What a foolish group of eaters/ Are my precious little Peters,” she muses as she strains the oatmeal for the 4000th time. She thinks they’ve forgotten her birthday, and then she goes to bed sad—has there ever been anything more pitiful than that?
She should have put a stop to the whole thing years ago. “Make your own fucking applesauce, Little Jack. I’ve got a cello to play.” Mothers are people. It’s a good thing for a child to know.
But! Here is the twist. The children have not forgotten their mother’s birthday. Instead, they’ve crept downstairs in the middle of the night to make their mother all their most beloved foods—and do note that they don’t think to make her favourite food. It is quite possible that they’ve never considered that she has one. And because she gave them all a fish instead of teaching them all to fish, proverbially speaking, they have no idea how to cook anything, and so they abandon the project in the middle of it all, their dubious concoctions dumped in a pot and stuffed in the oven.
Where Mrs. Peters discovers it in the morning: miraculously, a pink and plump and perfect cake!
Naturally, we wanted to make it. The Seven Silly Eaters is a book that was born to have a recipe at the end, but there is none. Sadly. And we’re not the only people who thought so (google it: the Internet is rife with parent bloggers making Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake)—due to such a huge demand, Mary Ann Hoberman herself came up with a Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake recipe! So we made it too. Though I thought it was cheating because lemon juice in the milk (to create buttermilk) isn’t really pink lemonade, and she pinks the cake with red food colouring. So I decided to add lemon zest to the cake to make the lemon more authentic, and had the clever idea to make it pink by adding pureed beets to the applesauce (which isn’t in the recipe at all—perhaps Mrs. Peters went on to have a beetroot-loving eighth child?). My clever idea fizzled out, however, because by the time the cake was done, all the pinkness appeared to have been baked out of it. Alas. But the cake was totally delicious. Maybe not delicious enough to make up for more than seven years of domestic tyranny, but I was not asking such things from it.
We love this book. I hope I haven’t suggested otherwise. Frazee’s illustrations are so chock full of detail that they can be explored for ages, and there are all kinds of extra-textual stories going on in the background. The family dynamic is fascinating to consider, and perhaps it’s a good discussion point for children—what happens when a family allows its mother to be treated this way? It’s a call for everyone to do her share. It’s a plea for less ridiculousness when it comes to the demands of picky-eaters. But mostly, it’s a cautionary tale for mothers, I like to think. To have limits and live inside them, to not give and give until you have nothing left for yourself. To admit that you too are a person whose needs must be met, and therein lies the negotiation of family life—a useful education for any child.
March 26, 2015
Our first Andrew Larsen book was The Imaginary Garden, which was a Best Book of the Library Haul almost 4 years ago. Since then I’ve raved about his other books, including In the Tree House and Bye Bye Butterflies, and even more important (though not more important than that he was a finalist for the TD Children’s Literature Award in November), Andrew has become my friend. We met first at the library, obviously, and because we live in the same neighbourhood, we get to walk together to school pick-up when circumstances are fortuitous. I enjoy his company immensely, and have been oh so looking forward to his new book, See You Next Summer, illustrated by Todd Stewart. And happily, it’s everything I was hoping it would be.
It’s a simple story celebrating ordinary wonders, the things we can count on, articulated in the perfect, slight-wistful child’s eye view that Larsen is becoming known for. And it’s a summer book, about a girl whose family returns to the same beachside motel for their vacations every year (“I call it our cottage. But it’s not really a cottage.”—and I appreciate that Larsen’s stories often reflect more modest economic realties, the kind we’re more familiar with in our family). It’s a place where nothing ever changes. On Sunday morning, the girl watches the tractor rake the beach, on Monday nights they go into town to the bandstand where a band plays, and on Tuesday it’s foggy, and so on. Though one thing is different this year—she’s made a new friend. They write postcards together, play in the waves, dig in the sand and roast marshmallows in a bonfire on the beach. And that’s it really. There is a twist at the end that’s really lovely, but it does nothing to counter the constancy of the narrative, to undermine the girl’s faith in sure things. Which I love—this simple celebration of rituals we build our lives around, an articulation of faith a bit less cloying than, say, The Carrot Seed. A affirmation that there are good things in the world, things to count on. Sure, the real world is going to come along and challenge the girl’s faith at some point, because that’s what growing up is, but not everything will get broken. Moreover, in this ever changing world in which we live in (to quote a Beatle), it really is the present moment that matters, and Larsen captures it splendidly—the confidence of the child who knows what she knows, whose confidence of her place in the universe is unquestioned, unshaken. It’s the sort of security that every child deserves to grow up amidst.
Todd Stevens’ illustrations are completely enthralling due his fascinating use of light. See the porch light above (with the red sunset just on the horizon), and the sunrise over the city with half the street still in shade, and elsewhere in the book, the shadow from beach umbrellas, the shadow of evening in later afternoon, how a streetlight shines through fog, the lights of the campfire, from shooting stars, the silhouette of the friend waving against the sun as the girl watches him through the back window of the car as her family begins their journey home. (On the very last page of the book, there is a light switch. I find this most significant, of course). And it occurs to me that his use of light is perfect to show the passage of time during a period in which nothing changes—Virginia Lee Burton pulled off a similar trick with The Little House. Suggesting that things are actually changing all the time, the world around us ever in flux, but that all change is part of a cycle. The images adding an additional layer of depth and poignancy to Larsen’s tale.
March 19, 2015
We’re becoming big fans of Marianne Dubuc’s books at our house, having enjoyed In Front of My House and Animal Masquerade. You will recall that picking up the latter title resulted in our entire family eventually assembling on the couch, gathering together captured by the book’s magic, and laughing hysterically at the surprises and absurdity. Dubuc’s latest book, The Bus Ride, similarly engages and surprises, and while it’s is very loosely based on the Little Red Riding Hood narrative, a more fitting descriptive for the story would be “curiouser and curiouser.”
The Bus Ride is the story of a little girl’s first ride along on a city bus to visit her grandmother’s house. Her mother sees her off at the bus stop, ensuring she’s got a snack and a sweater in case she gets cold. And from there the rest of the story is of the bus ride, the bus’s interior each two-page spread. Passengers embark at the front doors and alight through the back. The little girl narrates what she sees in a sentence or two, although the real story is happening in Dubuc’s illustrations. A cat is knitting a scarf that grows ever-longer, a mouse is reading a tiny book, a family of rambunctious moles (I think?) climbs on board and end up swinging from the overhead bars (and one chews on a piece of gum he finds on the floor). A family of wolves boards the bus and the little girl makes friends with the wolf-boy who’s about her age—they share her cookies. A sleepy sloth snoozes the ride away. Someone’s hiding behind a newspaper whose headlines are ever-changing and reference what’s going on the pictures. I admired in the stolid bear in his big blue boats.
They pass through the forest, through a tunnel. Children run amuck. The fox keeps sleeping. The owl woman in the hat seems quite uncomfortable, and characters keep turning up in different places. The turtle gets nervous and hides in his shell. A wannabe pickpocket—a fox, of course—boards the bus, and and the little girl helps to divert a crime. And what is the beaver carrying inside his really big box?
While The Bus Ride is first a story of one girl’s first independent journey into the world, it’s fundamentally a story of how interesting the world is and how fascinating it is to be in the midst of it all. At the end of the bus ride, the little girl reflects on all the stories she has to tell her grandmother now. Hers is an apprenticeship in narrative, but it is for the reader as well, who assembles her own story based on the curious scenes depicted in Dubuc’s illustrations, which are detailed and accessible, appealingly rendered in pencil crayon. And like all the very best picture books, it’s completely different with every encounter.
March 16, 2015
Our March Break plans are modest ones: museum, art gallery, library, visits with friends in the morning, and then Iris nap times in the afternoons while Harriet watches movies and I work. Unlike the previous years, Stuart doesn’t have the week off too, and I’m less interested in adventuring without him. Though tomorrow I am taking Iris on the streetcar untethered, with only Harriet for support, moral or otherwise, which might be more adventure than I’m bargaining for. Other good things about March Break are that spring temperatures are here and it’s glorious, and also that it’s the first March Break ever during which I’m not awaiting biopsy results—that was always really poor scheduling on my part.
Another good thing is that we got a fantastic library haul last week, which has meant it’s March Break, and the reading is splendid. And the best of the bunch is The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie. I’ve been championing anti-princess princess books for awhile now, but this one really takes the tiara. It’s in rhyming couplets, first, which is my definition of a picture book to die for. And tea and teacups and teapots recur throughout the narrative, which happens in most of my favourite books, and the children delight in pointing them out.
The Worst Princess is Sue, whose been waiting around for her life to begin, reading up on all the stories to find out just how one goes about landing a princess. She’s grown her hair to extraordinary lengths, kissed frogs, slept on peas, all for naught. She is lonely and terrifically bored, and then delighted when her prince finally comes. Except that he’s built her a tower and expects her to stay in it locked away from the world—it seems that the prince has read all the books too. But Princess Sue has no truck with that. When not long after, she spies a dragon in the distance, she flags him and down and makes a deal (over a cup of tea, of course). He blows down her tower, sets the prince’s pants on fire, and then Sue and Dragon take off on a series of adventures, “making mischief left and right/ for royal twits and naughty knights.”
March 12, 2015
It’s from picture books that I’ve learned that the best books have to be read at least 10 times before you really get a handle on them. Case in point: Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith. A wordless picture book (though a wordless book with an author, take note!) can slip past one pretty quickly. The first time I read it, I thought it was okay. A bit weird. The next few times, I still wasn’t sure. It’s the story of a young girl walking through the city with her father, her red-hoodie one of the few spots of colour on the page for much of the book. The other colour comes from the flowers she encounters on her journey, flowers which are actually weeds, which is the kind of distinction only adults make. In their ubiquity, we forget to note how remarkable it is that a dandelion—a living thing—can grow between cracks in the sidewalk. That a wild thing can be so determined to live, and how wildness continually thwarts a city’s attempt to tame.
And the flowers grow, and the child finds them, picks them. She’s the only one who notices these bits of wild colour on the urban scene, but they’re not all she’s noticing. (This novel’s grasp of the child’s eye view makes it an interesting companion to the award-winning The Man With the Violin). As her father talks away on his cell-phone, and the people around her conduct their business, she sees other things, other colours—the orange of citrus fruit for sale at a greengrocers, the warm yellow of a taxi-cab, a woman in a floral dress who is reading a book at a bus stop. She’s gathering her wild bouquet, part of which she, calling no attention to herself in the process, offers to a dead bird she walks by on the sidewalk, then to a man who is a asleep on a park bench, and to a neighbour’s dog. And as she leaves her flowers, something remarkable is happening to the world all around her—bit by bit, the city becomes rich with colour. Leaves appear on the trees and the sky turns blue. Through the girl’s small acts, the world is transformed.
It all happens so subtly, it takes until around the 10th read that it begins to be clear. And even then, the reader is still uncovering new details in Smith’s illustrations—the lion in Chinatown, a cat in the window, the streetcar coming around the corner (which is red!). The images are made interesting and complicated by shadows and reflections, adding extra texture to the story. Smith is depicting an any-city, though the savvy among us will see Toronto with its distinctive architecture and peculiar topography suggested by houses situated up flights up steps on steep hills.
Sidewalk Flowers is a book with mystery at its core, a book that is a manifestation of its theme of generosity, for it has given me something new every time I have encountered it. A wordless book too is an important tool for literacy, for it allows parent and child to remember the reason we open books at all. For them to approach a story for once on the very same level—a whole world to be explored together.
March 10, 2015
As you know, I love Carson Ellis’s new picture book, Home, and one of its chief delights is the final image, “An artist lives here.” It’s a glimpse into the book’s creation, and a fascinating self-portrait.
It reminded me of another book that we’ve been enjoying, Any Questions by Marie-Louise Gay.
But where is the artist who lives here? Here she is!
And surely, I thought, there must be other examples? It all seemed quite familiar, vivid in my mind’s eye. But when I thought about it, I came up with nothing. Except for Virginia Lee Burton’s Life Story, which isn’t of an artist in her studio (because her studio, as the book tells us, is in the barn behind the house). But there she is down in the lefthand corner painting a picture of the entire scene, finding inspiration in her own surroundings just like Carson Ellis and Marie-Louise Gay.
There must be more though. What other picture books can you think of in which the artist includes an image of the artist herself at home (which is to say, at work)?
February 27, 2015
While 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).
So 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.
But 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
“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.
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 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 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.
We 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
I 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
A 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.