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November 25, 2020

The Seasons of My Life

Back in the Day

I have outgrown picture books…again.

Which I feel nervous even writing. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, and all that jazz, and I have learned through my interest in kids’ books over the last eleven years that those who create these books can be a bit sensitive about their work, about its relegation to the world of childish things. Wonderful children’s literature appeals to readers of all ages, and readers who restrict themselves to a certain age group (or genre, etc.) are missing out. All of this is true.

But it’s nothing not-nice that I’m trying to say here. Instead, it’s a matter of practicality. That for a long time, picture books were my primary way of engaging with my children and this opened up whole worlds to me, and some of those worlds seemed as real as the one I walk around in every day—but time makes you bolder and children get older, and I’m getting older too?

We still read them sometimes. Iris is only seven and we have so many great books on our shelves that all of us enjoy, books we can recite by heart. There are picture books in our library I’ll never be able to part with, and yet—we’re reading them less and less. I used to blog about picture books weekly, but now I hardly do. Everybody in our family is firmly into chapter books now, books we read on our own and the ones we read together. Picture books don’t have the same integral place in our daily life that they once did.

And none of this is remarkable. Children outgrow a lot of things, and families do too. We used to go on road trips listening to the same CD on repeat, this song with a barking dog in the chorus, because Iris cried in the car otherwise, and we don’t do that anymore. I used to get a big kick out of reading Go Dog Go in ridiculous accents, but these days the dog party is over.

But I feel a little bit disloyal, admitting to giving up on my allegiance to picture books. Or rather, moving on from it—although the new frontier, for me, is middle grade and also graphic novels, and I’m getting the same pleasure from relating to Harriet through some of the novels she’s reading as I once did when we used to examine the illustrations in Allan and Janet Ahlberg’s Peepo together, her gummy baby fingers pointing out the dog in the corner that shouldn’t be there. But I’m also trying to give her space to develop her own relationship with books and reading, one that has nothing to do with me.

And this is what happens, of course, the way things come and go. And how when they go, new things grow up in their place, which I keep reminding myself of in these moments of unprecedented change and upheaval. As businesses shut down in my neighbourhood and city and it’s enough to drive one to despair sometimes, the extent of the loss, all of it so overwhelming and hard. But even harder is trying to hold on to it all.

(And remember: a blog needs space to grow and room to wander!)

It’s okay to grow. It’s okay to change. It’s okay to change again, is what I’m thinking, and for the thing that used to define you so much and mean everything to become a spot of the horizon. And those things we loved will always be a part of who we are, because of the way that we wouldn’t have become ourselves without them.

October 18, 2020

How I Made My Children Readers: My ONE Magic Secret

Summer reads…

Okay, as everybody knows, my children are readers because LUCK and because they happened to be born with those inclinations, and because they are fortunate that reading comes easily for their brains. LUCK also that neither of them decided to hate reading out of spite, because their mom was just way too into it. (I was anticipating this. Have done my best—and no doubt failed—not to be too much about the whole reading thing, and give them space to develop their own tastes and connection to reading that was not just an extension of mine.) This is probably 75% of the formula.

In addition, books and reading are an essential part of our family culture, they see me and their dad reading all the time, I’ve surrounded them with excellent books since before they were born, and it’s rare that they’ve ever taken a journey that didn’t end at a bookshop (and then ice cream).

But my magic secret to raising readers is none of these. My magic secret is much less wholesome, is sexist and outdated, and is available in digest form at your local grocery store. My magic secret to raising readers is ARCHIE COMICS.

And here’s why.

1 ) I buy them at the grocery store checkout, along with milk and cheese and breakfast cereal, underlining the point that reading materials can be staples, sundries just as essential as toilet paper and dish soap. They’re always appreciated, and special enough to turn up in Christmas stockings, but they’re kind of viewed there the way that socks in the stockings are. Nice to have, but ubiquitous.

2) Ubiquitous, which is to say accessible. They’re cheap. Can be taken for granted. Unremarkable. They’re just always around.

3) Being so accessible, they’re also disposable. They’re the books my children bring to the table at lunchtime because nobody cares if they get splattered with soup. Nobody has to be precious with a book like this.

4) These are also stories that ask little of their readers. They don’t require a lot of attention or brain power. They’re perfect for if you’re really tired. My daughter likes to read one as a palette cleanser after reading something intense or demanding before bed. They’re not edifying. In short, they are basically literary candy. Unlimited literary candy. And unlimited candy is basically every kid’s dream. (Just don’t tell them that they’re building literacy as a lifelong habit!)

5) I bought two comics last week when we were waiting in the drug store for our flu shots. Archie comics pass the time, and because they’re broken up into pieces, you can read them at three minute intervals or for ages and ages. Picking them up and putting them down is easy , and so they’re really easy to integrate into the course of one’s day. SEVERAL TIMES.

And because they’re so ubiquitous, there’s usually a small pile of them within arm’s reach anyway. Nobody has to go out of their way, which is just the way literacy training ought to be.

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.

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