March 25, 2014
The best thing about the Lillian H. Smith Library is that its collection was born out of the Toronto Library’s Boys and Girls House, which opened in 1923, and therefore a trip through the stacks reveals all kinds of vintage gems. Our favourite fruit of Saturday’s visit is How Little Lori Visited Times Square by Amos Vogel and illustrated my Maurice Sendak (which I came across whilst browsing for Viorst).
It’s a book with a warning label: “This is a very funny book and should not be read while drinking orange juice, or you will spill it!”
This is the only picture book by Vogel, who was known for his work in cinema and as author of the book, Film as a Subversive Art. Maurice Sendak is, of course, Maurice Sendak. And oh, this book is weird and terrific.
It’s about a little boy called Lori whose bedroom decor suggests a strong affinity for vehicles of all kinds. He decides one day to go to Times Square, but every route he takes brings him to somewhere different. This is a frustrating process for him–a helicopter delivers him to Idlewild Airport; the elevates subway to his Uncle’s house in Queens. The city in the background is a crowded place, populated by curious characters and decorated with billboards and signs whose words add a marvellous subtext and might be some kind of comment on consumerism but I can’t quite decide which. Potato Chip stores and Peanut butter stores, signs exclaiming, “Buy Now!”, and an ad on the side of the bus: “Don’t walk on the pigeons.”
He ends up crying on the 25th floor of Macy’s (after a trip up the elevator), but then is rescued by a slow-talking turtle who offers Lori a ride on his back. Lori agrees and off they go. But, um, that was four months ago.
“And nobody has heard from them since.”
The warning label is not unjustified then.
Another best thing? The book has been brought back into print where it remains. Because it’s totally totally brilliant.
March 19, 2014
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires: Harriet is big into Ashley Spires’ books, in particularly, Binky the Space Cat, which got her started saying, “Holy fuzzbutt!” But with this latest picture book offering, Spires has truly outdone herself. It’s got everything. It’s got a dog, a girl who builds things, appealing illustrations that stand out against simple line drawings of an urban street-scape. It will appeal to both sexes. It’s got words, so many words, terrific verbs employed in the act of construction. It’s about coming up short, making mistakes and getting angry–the acknowledgement of such experiences is incredibly profound and has echoes of Sendak. Perfect tongue-in-cheek humour too that kids and adults will get–Harriet likes to note that the girl’s “out of the way” workspace is in fact in the middle of the sidewalk. I love delivering the understated line, “It was not her finest moment,” when the girl finally loses it. And that wonderful image when she hammers her finger, Spires’ skill as an comics artist translating so perfectly into picture book form. What a truly wonderful picture book, coming quite close (dare I say it?) to perfection.
The Tweedles Go Electric by Monica Kulling and Marie Lafrance: As a feminist and a troublemaker, I’ve long admired Kulling’s books for their subtle subversion of gender roles. She’s up to similar tricks in this one, her latest, which seems influenced by her experience as author of a series of picture book biographies of scientists. For this is a picture book about technology, the electric car at the dawn of the new century. The twentieth century, that is, the Tweedle family deciding to finally get with the times and joined the automotive race. But they don’t want a steam engine, or a car that runs on gasoline. It’s the electric car for them, a model which is smart, green and economical indeed. Young daughter Frances, however, is not so invested in her family’s new purchase, for “like most young girls”, her interests were more in the direction of higher education. She’s forever got her nose in a book, until she gets her chance behind the wheel and discovers that she has got a sense of adventure after all. Lafrance’s detailed drawings are delightful, and as humorous as the story itself. I do love that penny farthing!
March 13, 2014
Little You by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett is the first book whose content interests Iris just as much as its flavour. This makes me happy because I love it too, and so delight in reading it over and over. The line, “You are mighty/ you are small” describes our littlest girl so perfectly. And then then next line, “You are ours after all,” and I love that too, because ours is what she’s always been, belonging to our whole family, and I’ve loved her even more for that.
At first glance, Julie Flett’s illustrations are simple, though they’re made interesting with different prints and patterns throughout, and I notice new details all the time. Like the Mother’s bright red tights in this in image as she dances with her baby.
And then I looked even closer upon my 180th read to see a hole in her big toe, which is pretty much the story of my life.
Just when I thought I couldn’t like this book any more…
It’s so absolutely perfect.
- Learn more about this book here, how it was inspired by Eddie Vedder, and how it was distributed across the Northwest Territories and published also in Cree, Chipewyan and South Slavey.
February 25, 2014
I never read Harriet the Spy when I was a child, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would have been sophisticated enough to appreciate it if I had. There are subtleties at work in the novel, a subversion I might not have been comfortable with. Instead, I loved The Long Secret, the lighter, sunnier Harriet novel. In The Long Secret, Harriet’s father is always home, and doesn’t say “rat fink” once. It’s Beth Ellen’s novel, the girl they call “Mouse”, and really, this novel is subversive too. I was just too stupid to know. Beth Ellen, like Harriet, can wield the power of the pen, but that’s the secret. I loved the map in the book, tracing my finger along its paths and roads. I never owned the book, but The Long Secret is one I borrowed from the school library over and over again. It acknowledged that people could be ugly, and I appreciated that. (Of course, I own a copy now.)
I didn’t read Harriet the Spy until I was 28, and I couldn’t remember why I did, but a search through my blog archives reveals that it was the internet’s fault (and isn’t everything). In 2008, I found an article on Harriet the Spy (via Steph at Crooked House), and it was only then that I realized that Harriet had not been a girl-sleuth solving boring neighbourhood mysteries, but had in fact been a writer. So I finally met Harriet in her original form, and was besotted. The novel was a guide to life, a guide to how to write and be a writer, and guides to such things were important to me in 2008, when I was just a year out of grad school with my writing career going nowhere at all. And that character–she was everything I love about everyone that I love best. She was the best and worst parts of me as well, and I adored her unabashedness.
“When I have a daughter, I am going to call her Harriet.” I remember telling my husband this news in the waiting room at our dentist’s, and lucky for me, he likes most of my ideas, and this was no exception.
Harriet was born in May 2009, and right away, I saw where I’d gone a bit wrong. All these spirited heroines are very nice to dream of, but to have to live with them is a whole other matter. To have to be the person whose job it is to teach Harriets civility, or at least enough to get by–can you believe that I signed up for that? But we’re figuring it out, and so is she, and she really is everything I dreamed of her being when I first dreamed of my own Harriet seven years ago. She loves books, has a vivid imagination, swears too much and is often rude, has a jam-smeared face and messy hair, makes up great stories, is full of faults, is absolutely perfect, and fierce as all get-out. She’s the kind of girl I want to see in the world. She’s worthy of being a Harriet namesake. It might have been easier to name her Beth Ellen, but would probably have been less fun.
Last summer we read Harriet the Spy. Our Harriet had just turned 4 and was much too young, but she was eager to read the book she’d been named for, and I wanted her to hear it too. And I think most of the book went over her head, but she never complained of being bored (and believe me, she would have if she were). As I read aloud, I noted to myself that this was the first book I’d ever read her that contained the word gestapo, and fortunately, she didn’t ask for clarification. I would have told her, but it might have interrupted the flow of the book.
As we were reading the book, Harriet found a notebook of her own, and took to going around scribbling in it. That she didn’t know how to write as much as her name at the time to my Harriet was no deterrent.
It’s a complicated legacy, Harriet the Spy. To give it to a daughter is to open a can of worms, and yet it also contains almost everything a daughter will ever need to know. About character: the sense of self and strength of conviction I wish for her, for one. I want her to know the power of her own voice. Harriet is a good way to learn how to be a woman. And yes, I want her to learn the lessons that Harriet learns too–that indeed, people can be ugly. People can be horrible, but you don’t have to tell them. That we go wrong when we always privilege the truth–sometimes you have to lie. People are rotten and sometimes you have to lie, but also the world is fascinating, full of things to be seen, and you just have to pay attention. Stories are everywhere. Stories are also everything, and happiness and freedom can only come when yours belongs to you.
February 13, 2014
Family Day: the statutory holiday that makes February almost endurable. Though as the holiday is still new and as a concept is sort of vague (beyond the “stay home from work and school” part), we’re all still defining what this day is all about. So how about: this is a day for settling your kids around you on the chesterfield as you read these excellent books that celebrate family ties.
The families in some of these picture books will be mirrors of your own, while others will provide a window onto a different kind of family life, which is just as important to encounter.
Let’s Get a Pup, Said Kate by Bob Graham: Bob Graham’s books are all celebrations of families, families of all different colours, shapes, and sizes, but I highlight this one for its story of Kate, an only child whose place in her family has nothing of the “only” about it. Graham’s detailed illustrations (right down to clutter in the corners), Kate’s parents who are individual characters in their own right, and the never-in-doubt love between the members of this threesome make clear the richness of their family life.
Never Let You Go by Patricia Storms: I chose this book already as one of my top books of 2013, but come back to it again because of its portrayal of family bonds. It’s never clear whether the Big Penguin is Mother or Father (or perhaps neither?), or whether there are any more members of this family than just these two, but it doesn’t matter. In its simplicity, this book shows that the definition of “family” is just as elastic as love is.
A Baby Sister for Frances by Russell Hoban: Being a member of a family is often not fun, as Russell Hoban is smart enough to make clear in this true-to-life book about a new sibling. “Well, things aren’t very good around here anymore,” reports Frances the Badger, since the birth of Baby Gloria, whose needs have subsumed Frances’ own in the family hierarchy. The story has a happy ending, but not a sappy one, and I think plenty of older siblings will feel good about a book that reflects the complex experience of siblinghood, and validates their feelings.
The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith: This book is a terrific introduction to the diversity of family life in terms of members, traditions, socioeconomic status and more. Facts of life such as homelessness and unhappy families are acknowledged for a nice dose of reality, complemented by funny, detailed illustrations, which bring levity and tell stories of their own.
What a Family! By Rachel Isadora: Of the many exceptional things about this book, one is that it explains on its inside cover just what is the difference between first and second cousins, and cousins once removed—how useful! Isadora’s book provides the narrative for a complicated family tree, and shows what brothers, sisters and cousins across generations (and ethnic backgrounds) have in common, and what is different between them, celebrating both.
The Hello Goodbye Window by Norton Juster and Chris Raschka: This is the first picture book by Juster, author of The Phantom Tollbooth, and it won a Caldecott Award in 2006 for Chris Raschka’s art, which mimics a child’s drawing style. It’s a lovely ode to extended family, and to the rituals that emerge from that precious part of life: visits to a grandparent’s house.
Nala’s Magical Mitsiaq by Jennifer Noah and Qin Leng:
Recently published by Inhabit Media, an Inuit-run press out of Nunavut, this story puts open adoption in the context of Inuit tradition, where adoption between family members is common. Two little girls learn from their mother’s stories that indeed they are sisters, though they both came to the family in different ways.
My Father Knows the Names of Things by Jane Yolen and Stephanie Jorisch: Fathers still remain conspicuously absent from so many picture books, and so My Father Knows the Names of Things makes for a nice change. Written as a memorial to her late husband, Yolen celebrates a father figure not for his ability to conform to prescribed gender roles, but for his wisdom, knowledge, and importance as a guiding force in his child’s life.
So Much! By Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury: I never met a Helen Oxenbury book I didn’t love, but this one by Trish Cooke is particularly charming, and a winner of many prizes when it was published in 1998. Mama and Baby are home alone one day, not doing anything in particular, when the doorbell rings, and rings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins arriving to hug that baby, to love that baby. Cooke’s prose is almost a song, and a joy to read, and readers will be particularly excited by the story’s surprise at the end.
In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco: In our library, there are a variety of books about families with two mothers, and many of these live on a shelf called, “Issues,” along with books about dying grandparents and another called Julio’s Gluten-Free Birthday Party. What these books mostly have in common is not their family issues, but that they tend to be really terrible. Which is why Polacco’s book is allowed to live on the real shelf with the rest of the books, I think, because no matter how many moms it has, it’s a work of literature proper.
She celebrates a multi-cultural family with two mothers and three adopted children, showing the richness of their life together, and also hints at the discrimination they encounter along the way. But really, what I love most about this book is that it sets an example of the kind of mother I want to be, the kind of family I want to have. A warning though: my husband is incapable to getting through the book entire without starting to cry.
Bumble Ardy by Maurice Sendak: I like the realities acknowledged in this, Maurice Sendak’s final picture book. That one’s biological parents can be a bit rubbish, for one, (so that when Bumble Ardy’s piggy parents gain weight and get ate, we all acknowledge that it’s not so much of a loss), and also that a caregiver (his Aunt Adeline) can become ferociously angry with you when you misbehave, and still love you all the same. Though this isn’t a feel-good story, of course—this is Sendak, after all. The family ties in this book are curious and unsettling, which contributes to the story’s strange appeal.
Further Adventures of the Owl and Pussy Cat by Julia Donaldson and Charlotte Voake: Not just anyone should be allowed to write a sequel to Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat”, which we love at our house through its edition by Kids Can Press’s Vision in Poetry Series, but I’m pleased that Julia Donaldson (famed for her Gruffalo and rhyming verse) was permitted to do so.
It’s the story of what happened to this mismatched pair after their honeymoon (where hand in hand by the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon), when the wedding ring goes missing and they must embark to find it. The story is fun, and shows that family can emerge between the most unlikely candidates, and children need not be part of the equation at all.
February 5, 2014
I have heard rumours here and there that to children raised on Hogwarts and Lemony Snicket, the adventures of Ramona Quimby come across as a little bit dull. Perhaps so, but then the domestic has always been my literary milieu, setting for plenty of magic in its own right. As a child, I was wild about Ramona, about her “wonderful, blunderful” self, as she was referred to at the end of Ramona Forever. In her blundering, I suppose she was a forerunner for chick-lit heroines on shoe-covered books in decades to come, and it’s part of the reason I identified with her, but here is a serious distinction: unlike Bridget Jones on the fireman’s pole, to give an example, Ramona never ever lost her dignity.
To be an adult encountering Ramona again has been absolutely fascinating. First, unlike Rowling, whose magic spells allow us to forgive literary missteps, Beverly Cleary never misses a beat. The pacing, characterization and dialogue in these novels is brilliant. Nothing clunks. These books are really not so dated–I only remember the line in Ramona the Brave, when Mrs. Quimby announces she is going back to work, and Beezus responds with, “Mother! You’re going to be liberated.” I note that on a newer edition of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona is depicted as wearing a bicycle helmet, which seems bafflingly incongruous (but then I have this theory that “safety” is a conspiracy theory, and that’s another story).
Reading these novels with my daughter, I see they are tremendously useful for educational purposes. For my education, that is, Cleary’s stories reminding me exactly of what it was like to be little in the world. I have forgotten this, the injustices of childhood, which Ramona calls attention to and battles at every turn. And injustice it truly is, to have no say in your comings and goings, to have the ground pulled out from under your feet on a regular basis, to have your fears and worries scoffed at, to be shushed and quieted, shooed away from underfoot. Reading the Ramona books provides with tremendous sympathy for how difficult it is for a child to be in the world. Reading the Ramona books, I think, makes me a better parent.
They’re also useful to my daughter though, not for morals and lessons, but for everything that’s going on in the background. That Ramona’s mother and father are depicted as real people, for one, their experiences providing a whole level of subtext to these stories that I wouldn’t have picked up on as a child, but which I zero in on now. I was reading aloud the Quimby parents’ argument from Ramona and Her Mother recently, and it was so pitch perfect and hilarious:
“Ramona, don’t just stand there,” said Mr. Quimby as he laid the bacon in a frying pan. “Get busy and set the table. As my grandmother used to say, ‘Every kettle must rest on its own bottom,’ so do your part.”
Ramona made a face as she reached for the place mats. “Daddy, I bet your grandmother didn’t really say all the things you say she said.”
“If she did, she must have been a dreadful bore,” said Mrs. Quimby, who was beating batter as if she were angry with it.
Mr. Quimby looked hurt. “You didn’t know my grandmother.”
“If she went around spouting wisdom all the time, I can’t say I’m sorry.” Mrs. Quimby was on her knees, dragging the griddle from behind the pots and pans in the bottom of the cupboard.
It is remarkable how much economics factors into these books, much like how they do in our own family life. Though by no means poor, the Quimby family has to think about costs and expenses. A new bedroom is only built onto their house because Mrs. Quimby returns to work and they have the means to do so. Later, Mr. Quimby loses his job, and when he returns to work, it is to a position that makes him terribly unhappy. This leads to Ramona’s perpetual worrying, and her silent pleading with him via attempted thought control, “Daddy, please like your job. Please like your job.” Her concern as she listens from her bed to the timbre of her parents’ late night discussions in another room.
And don’t you remember that? Anxiety and fear over things of which you have no control? Only hearing patches of the conversation, parts of the story, and filling in the blanks with all your deepest fears? The dawning understanding that your family life is built on unsure foundations, as unsure as is anything I mean, and the terror of thinking it might all come apart?
That life isn’t fair is such a cliche, but in her stories, Cleary makes this idea endlessly interesting. Her situations are always sometimes unbearably true to life–the frustrations of trying to sew a pair of pants for a toy elephant, for example. Or the problems of a not-so-great teacher. Not a bad teacher, but just one generally lacking in appeal. There are teachers like this, and while in other novels, her student might discover her actual heart of gold, in Ramona, such teachers are trials to be borne. Because life is like that. Life is unfair. Sometimes your cat dies and you’ve got to bury it and you get blisters on your fingers.
But life is also rich in its smallest details—the squelch of boots in the mud, the appeal of a banana sticker, the sounds of kids riding bikes outside, a haircut that transforms you into a pixie for a while. That the foundation of family can be surer than you think. And that when you’re wonderful and blunderful, you’re a lot like life is. Which is something that’s good to know.
January 29, 2014
Harriet is (sort of) beginning to learn how to read, and as Harriet balks at any activity that is remotely challenging or involves learning by rote, I have to tread very carefully in my exuberance for her acquiring literacy. A book like Mamoko, by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński, which I brought home from the library the other week, is a perfect reminder for both of us that books can be wonderful fun.
Think of Mamoko like Where’s Waldo, but for people who love stories. The book’s inside cover introduces us to a range of characters whose stories we will follow throughout the rest of the book in dynamic, busy, detailed, wordless illustrations. There are dramas experienced, mysteries to be solved, jokes shared, and something new discovered every time. You can pick a new character and “read” a new book in Mamoko over and over again, or else just pick peruse the illustrations for general entertainment. The stories in this book aren’t straightforward either, and we went back and forth a lot to try to understand what we missed, to figure out exactly what was going on. It was utterly engaging, the illustrations smart enough to make this very satisfying, and while we had lots of fun with this book together, it’s also nice to have a book that Harriet can “read” all by herself.
Another book by the same press and same authors is Maps, which was one of (too) many books I’ve picked up at Book City lately (sob). I’ve got such a thing for maps and atlases (my prized one is Atlas of Remote Islands, and I so want to get my hands on Infinite City by Rebecca Solnit), so I was excited to get a kids’ atlas. There is a world map, and about 50 others of individual countries. And as with Mamoko, the creators of this book know that story is what compels someone to open a book over and over again. And so each country’s map includes an image of a little boy and girl who might live there, and we learn their names, which is how these countries become more than just a shape on a page for young readers. And then we learn about that country’s wildlife, famous exports, cultural figures (fictional and otherwise), different cultures, national food and drink, industry and agriculture, all though adorable cartoon illustrations.
Pick a page, any page, and Maps will take you on a journey.
January 9, 2014
I have been besotted with Rebecca Solnit ever since reading The Faraway Nearby last fall, so I was very pleased to receive two more of her books for Christmas. I read Wanderlust: A History of Walking first as it was written before the other, and I loved once again being absorbed in a Solnitian world where the connections between books and place are so strong, and where one thing leads to another, just as one step does. (“One foot in front of the other,” is Harriet’s mantra as we embark on the 1.3 km walk to school every morning. It is a long walk if the walker is 4 years old, particular lately through snow and ice. ) And it is because one thing leads to another that one can’t sum up a Rebecca Solnit book properly, and I therefore must resort to ecstatic sharing. I loved learning about how closely the history of English garden design connects to the history of walking, about how the idea of walking being natural takes for granted civilization (i.e. law and order), and the gender politics of walking and (for women) the sexualization of the street—how different is the term “tramp” depending on to whom it is applied.
The first paragraph of Wanderlust:
Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down. The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot. The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again. The legs reverse position. It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking. The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.
Which reminds me of the exquisite picture book that I bought Harriet/myself for Christmas this year. The Silver Button is a new book by Bob Graham, one of our favourite authors and the force behind the wonderful Oscar’s Half-Birthday. It’s a story that takes place within a single moment, illuminating the connections, the beauty and the perfections of the world. The perspective moves from a space on the floor in a single room to eventually comprise an entire city and beyond toward the global as Jodie puts the finishing touches on her drawing of a duck and her brother Jonathan rises to his feet to take his very first step. “He swayed, he frowned, he tilted forward, and took his first step. He took that step like he was going somewhere….”
These two books are an unlikely but absolutely perfect pair.
December 5, 2013
Never Let You Go by Patricia Storms: Patricia is a friend of mine, and I love her latest book, the story of a parent’s unconditional love. This Mommy or Daddy Penguin is never going to let the baby go… except, well, let’s not be ridiculous about the whole thing. Baby Penguin will be let go to go to the bathroom, of course (and she actually mentions bathroom=hilarity). And Baby Penguin will be let go for lunch, to play, to chase the stars (and here there is a gorgeous spread of Aurora Australis). But other that that, of course, “I will never let you go,” says Big Penguin, portraying the elasticity and infinitude of great parental love.
Mr. King’s Castle by Genevieve Cote: I’ve got a bias for this book as well, because it’s got a pink owl in it who was named for my daughter. It’s the follow-up to Cote’s Mr King’s Things, and similarly presents an environmental theme. That crazy cat Mr. King starts building a castle out of the pieces of the world around him, and he wants a big castle. So he builds and builds and builds and the castle is amazing, but he’s oblivious to the fact that he has robbed his animal friends of their habitats. When he realizes, he and his friends go to make it right, and he learns something about environmental stewardship in the process.
ABC of Toronto by Per-Henrik Gurth: I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this alphabet book, as Allan Moak’s A Big City ABC is the Toronto alphabet in my mind. But it turns out that Toronto is big enough for two ABCs. I love “D is for Dinosaur,” which shows my favourite dino skeleton from the ROM; “K is for Kensington Market;” and “P is for Picnic at Trinity Bellwoods Park.” Plus Union Station, Streetcars and “W is for Ward’s Island.” I love this book’s perfect specificity.
Loula is Leaving for Africa by Anne Villeneuve: This brand new book is a little old-fashioned, recalling Eloise a bit (or perhaps that’s just the chauffeur). I like this book’s eccentric twists–Loula’s mother is an opera singer, her father a designer of moustaches (?). Neither is much concerned that Loula’s three brothers are making her crazy, and so she runs away from home, on a voyage of the imagination to “Africa”, in the company of her family’s chauffeur Gilbert. The story shows that one needn’t travel far to really get away, and that the most wonderful terrain to explore is in the mind.
Shhh! Don’t Wake the Royal Baby! by Martha Mumford and Ada Grey: I picked up this one while we were in England, because Iris and the Royal Baby are contemporaries and it’s as good a souvenir as a tea-towel. It’s a funny story with smart illustrations about how the Royal Baby just can’t be put to sleep. My favourite part is when the Baby is almost down, and then Prince Phillip prances in kicking his heels and dancing, waking baby up again. I also like when Pippa and Prince Harry raise a ruckus planning a lavish party in Baby’s honour, with Pippa yelling, “More blinis! We need more blinis!” Of course, specific Royals (and their sister) are not named exactly, called “The Duchess” and “The Duke” (and oddly, Phillip gets to be The King, and Charles and Camilla don’t even factor, but let’s not complicate things).