November 19, 2015
The Story of Snowflake and Inkdrop is written by Pierdomenico Baccalario and Alessandro Gatti, illustrated by Simona Mulazzani, and translated from Italian by Brenda Porster. It’s a gorgeously illustrated picture book about yearning, desire, and storytelling, with beautiful intricate die cuts that make it a book that might be better be kept up on a hight shelf, and perhaps best suited for grown-up picture book lovers. Although my children, with their grubby little fingers, like the book as much as I do, and are as adept at getting lost in the illustrations, and perhaps even better at picking out its perfect details, at noticing things. And there is a lot to notice here, in a book about tiny particles and what it means to be part of something larger than oneself. And also about what it means to see the world and want to be a part of it, and the amazing, serendipitous way that this (that love!?) can happen.
At first, this is the story of some wind and a snowflake drifting over the rooftops of a European town. The snowflake, we’re told, has been travelling for a long time. He feels, however, that he’s finally on the cusp of arriving somewhere, and the world below is glimpsed through the snowflake’s crystals, revealed altogether when the page is turned: we see a city street in one image, a circus in another, and then children playing in a park as the snow begins to accumulate.
In none of these scenes does the snowflake fall, however, and he begins to despair that he ever will… When he sees a tiny ink drop flying resolutely toward him, and the snowflake is overwhelmed by the desire to hug it tight. BUT WAIT!
Turning the book around and starting from the other side, we encounter that storm from an altogether new perspective. A single drop in a bottle of ink watching the wind rattling the world outside.
Although the Inkdrop has her own concerns—for days, she’s been waiting for her artist to finally carry her to one of his paintings. Her longing is intensified as a gust of wind from the window blows the paintings around the studio, so that they “flew up, dancing in front of Inkdrop like so many dreams.”
She sees each painting, and wishes deeply to be a part of the scene.
And yes, it is a picture of a teapot. Naturally, we are delighted. We see also a portrait, a bucolic scene. (Clearly this is an artist with a diverse set of approaches!)
When the wind blows so strongly again, unleashing a chain reaction that sends the ink bottle tilting, Inkdrop herself flying out of the window. And then we’re back at the moment we’ve seen before, the ink drop and the snowflake heading for each other in a dazzling cataclysm.
And both books end in the same place, the two parts coming together to have their stories blend, this final image testament to the beauty of contrast.
Truthfully, I am not entirely ensure what the endings means, the snowflake and the inkdrop landing in an embrace “that lasted forever.” When one considers physics, it does not seem entirely plausible, and there is the matter of the inkdrop in the jar—what then of the rest of the ink? Where did one drop end and another begin? And why is the artist so scattered in his style—is he perhaps a forger, I wonder? (Although he looks quite innocent and rosy-cheeked when we spy him out buying a baguette.) One suspects, however, that physics aren’t quite the object of the book, except perhaps those involves in the die-cutting process. For The Story of Snowflake and the Inkdrop is to be looked at and admired and even roughed up a bit by those aforementioned grubby hands, and perhaps this one is the single way that the book should be torn apart at all.
November 13, 2015
On Monday, Harriet pulled Mr. Zinger’s Hat, the 2015 TD Grade One Giveaway, out of her backpack. And I was confused. “How did you get that?” I asked her. A few seconds of discombobulation before the obvious point dawned on me: that Harriet is in grade one, receiving the book with other six-year-olds across the country. Literally, I’d been waiting years for this.
They didn’t have the TD Grade One Giveaway when I was grade one, but I learned about the program first when I started working for 49thShelf.com, and was invited to an event promoting the campaign. This was in 2011, when the giveaway pick was Gifts, by Jo-Ellen Bogart and Barbara Reid. (I wrote about it here.) And in the years since, I’ve been kept in the loop, receiving copies of the books at the TD Children’s Literature Awards (which is the one gala per year I get invited to…)
In a house like ours, the arrival of a brand new book is not such a momentous occasion…or so I thought. But Harriet bringing home a book that was hers alone, so much hers that she’d already written her name in the space allotted on the inside cover, turned out to be really, really exciting. And I can’t imagine what it might mean to a kid who doesn’t have access to all the books that Harriet does, to have a book that’s all their own. Although I can imagine what it’s like for any family to have the pleasure of a brand new book to read together—it’s one of the best things ever. I also appreciate how notes at the back of the book include a listing of every single award-winning Canadian book from the previous year, which is whole words to explore the next time that family visits the library, and another excellent example of one book leading to another.
Yesterday it was reported in the Toronto Star that students in York Region won’t be receiving Mr. Zinger’s Hat due to rules against corporate sponsorship in schools. And while such a stance is admirable, and while I do wonder why the banks have so much money that nothing seems to happen without them, I know that TD has a long, established and admirable record of supporting early literacy. In addition to the Grade One Giveaway, they sponsor initiatives including summer reading programs at libraries throughout the country, TD Children’s Book Week (which sends authors to school across Canada every spring), and the nation’s biggest children’s lit prize. (Also, the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Prize is named for Marilyn Baillie, Canadian children’s author and wife of former TD Chairman A. Charles Baillie—just another connection).
Upon reflection, it occurs to me that the preceding paragraph is the most corporate shilly collection of sentences I’ve ever written. Do I need to point out then that I’ve not received compensation for it from TD or anyone (though if they’d like to send me funds, I’d be willing to entertain all possibilities)? But I suppose it’s just I really believe in a program like this, one that makes great books available to everyone. And I love the idea of kids across the country united by the power of a story.
November 6, 2015
Elephant Journey The True Story of Three Zoo Elephants and their Rescue from Captivity, by Rob Laidlaw and Brian Deines
Elephant Journey: The True Story of Three Zoo Elephants and their Rescue from Captivity, by Rob Laidlaw and Brian Deines, is a fantastic non-fiction book that uses the power of narrative (and the award-winning Deines’ gorgeous illustrations) to bring complex issues of animal protection to life. It’s the story of the two elephants from the Toronto Zoo who were brought there from African in the 1970s, when our understanding of the culture and purpose of zoos was very different, and one more who was born in captivity, all of whom failed to thrive in a northern climate so unsuited to their species. (For more about the zoo and elephants, read Nicholas Hune-Brown’s 2010 article, “What the Elephants Know”.)
After much political wrangling (which Laidlaw mercifully omits from his version of the tale), it was decided that the three elephants were to be moved to an animal sanctuary in California. And that amazing journey is the focus of this story, how the elephants were made accustomed to their crates, which where then picked up by giant cranes and loaded onto flatbed trailers towed by trucks. (And I love the illustration of the truck, being accompanied by a police car, headlights, streetlights, and flashing lights in the night; Deines is good at drawing trucks, one of which was a focus of Number 21, by Nancy Hundal, another book of his that we’ve enjoyed.)
The elephants make their way past surprised border guards, through the American midwest, and up and down the mountains in Utah and Nevada, where the brakes on one truck begin to overheat, but all is well after the driver douses them with water. And then the elephants arrive, become comfortable enough to leave their crates, and begin to acquaint themselves with their new neighbours, new surroundings and new lives.
Four pages of photographs, fact boxes and additional text add context and background to Laidlaw’s story, though the book stands well enough on its own without it. It’s a harrowing story with a most hopeful ending, and will make a definite impression on readers of all ages.
November 4, 2015
As much as I cherish the feeling of my children’s hands in mine, I do so love watching them race ahead of me down the sidewalk. I love their freedom, speed, their unfettered exuberance, the possibility that their feet might indeed sprout wings. Their sense of entitlement that this world, this city, is open to them. And I like trusting too that they’ll know to stop at the corner. Every time.
But there was something remarkable about watching them fly down the sidewalk on Saturday, Halloween, butterfly wings billowing out behind them, colourful spans. The most low-maintenence costumes in our family history of Halloweens—we had one pair of wings already, and borrowed the other from our cousin. We made antennae out of pipe-cleaners, styrofoam balls, and headbands. Ordinary clothes beneath. I was terrified that all this would backfire the night before and Harriet would decide that what she really wanted to be was a fiery glittery invisible incandescent humdingermabobber. Or Elsa. But she didn’t. And whatever Harriet wanted to be, Iris wanted to be too.
Butterflies are special to us. We can trace this back to ancient times, when Iris was a small baby and was given a dress with a butterfly print that was designed to become a shirt as baby grew. As Iris is small, it’s possible she’ll be wearing it forever. She loves it, and calls it her fuff-eye shirt, and now we all call butterflies fuff-eyes because this is what happens when you live with a two-year-old. And obviously, we like to read about them also.
We love love love Julie Worsted’s How To, which has a real butterfly or two, but also has a girl in fuff-eye wings on the “how to go fast” page. (From experience, I can say that wings are an excellent suggestion.)
Then there is Elly McKay’s Butterfly Park, about gardens and community, and mostly about McKay’s exquisite illustrations, which my children get lost in.
It’s also been a pleasure to revisit Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, a book we bought in July when gardening fever was at its height.
Autumn seemed a long way off then, so we’re re-reading it now with entirely new eyes—even if the butterflies are gone.
And butterflies always have been more than a little bit fleeting, haven’t they? Inherently ephemeral.
One of my favourite butterfly books is Bye Bye Butterflies, by our friend Andrew Larsen, which came out just before Harriet started preschool. And I’ve always linked the story to our own experience, in two ways. One, that this was a book about a kid going to school for the very first and beginning to make his way in the world—it was amazing to be on the cusp of that. And also that Charlie’s adventure caring for the butterflies was analogous to our own lives as parents. That these amazing, ever-changing creatures are only with us for a very short time before they find their wings and fly away—an achievement that makes us “a little happy and a little sad all at once.” Which is true.
But, yes, how joyful is watching them soar.
October 30, 2015
It’s not my usual practice here to write about a picture book that I haven’t read with my children, but Missing Nimama, by Melanie Florence and François Thisdale, is not your usual picture book. And I didn’t read it with my children not because they don’t know about Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Girls and Women—indeed, my 6 year old does know about this terrible part of our country’s colonial legacy, a legacy that’s lasted right up to this exact second—but because she told me she didn’t want to read a story that was sad. And neither did I, truthfully, to have to give voice to this story’s achingly, awful, beautiful words: the words of a mother who has been lost to her daughter but watches over her still, and the words of a daughter who has to grow up without the mother who loves her oh so much.
Stories of children who’ve lost their mothers are perhaps the most unbearable thing I can contemplate. So I don’t, usually. But in the case of Missing Nimama, I was compelled to read on, spurred on by Thisdale’s gorgeous dreamlike illustrations (which are similar in effect to his work in the acclaimed The Stamp Collector). I was also drawn by the story, written by Cree writer and journalist Florence. Her young character, Kateri, is raised by her loving maternal grandmother, who tells her that her mother is lost:
‘”If she’s lost, let’s just go and find her.”
Nohkom smooths my hair, soft and dark
as a raven’s wing.
Parts it. Braids it. Ties it with a red ribbon,
My mother’s favourite colour.
“She’s one of the lost women, kamamakos.”
She calls me “little butterfly.” Just like my nimama did.
Before she got lost.’
And then we hear nimama’s voice: “Taken. Taken from my home. Taken from my family. Taken from my daughter. My kamamakos. My beautiful little butterfly. I fought so hard to get back to you, Kateri. I wish I could tell you that. And when I couldn’t fight anymore, I closed my eyes. And saw your beautiful face.”
We see Kateri growing up, thriving under the loving care of her grandmother, and under the proud watchful eye of her mother. We see her grappling with her loss and grief, learning about her culture and traditions, growing up and finding her way in the world. And the heartbreaking sadness of the story is balanced by Kateri’s success in her life—the stability she finds as she grows older, gets married, has a child of her own. A stability that is against the odds, perhaps, and I think about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in connection with the history of Residential Schools and how many social problems in First Nations communities are results from over a century of cultural genocide. Not to mention the much more direct instances of government-sanctioned violence against Indigenous women in Canada.
I think of all these children who’ve lost their moms.
I don’t think that children like mine are necessarily who this picture book is meant for, not right at this moment in time, perhaps. For the far too many children for whom this story is close to home, however, I can’t imagine how powerful it would be to see one’s own experience reflected in a story like this, Kateri’s own story an inspiring example of the path a life can take, even one that begins with incalculable loss and trauma. (Which is not to say that this isn’t an important story for anyone—it’s such a visually compelling book that I’d like to keep it around, have my children leaf through, and become familiar with. We will definitely read it together. We’ll just have to ease our way into it…)
But then, someone might ask, why is it a picture book after all? Surely a book with such subject matter should be geared toward older readers? Should be a chapter book, at least? To which I respond that picture books have nothing to do with age. That grief and trauma don’t have a minimum age requirement either, sadly. That picture books allow this story to be accessible to all kinds of readers (and, remarkably, like all books from Clockwise Press, this one is printed in a “dyslexia-friendly” typeface). And most of all, that this story works because it’s a picture book, because of the marriage of words and stories, and how the respective voices of mother and daughter can exist together, even if apart, on the page.
Missing Nimama is a mourning song, but also a call to action. Near the end of the story, Kateri attends a public vigil for missing and murder aboriginal women: “Stolen sisters. I hold my own sign. My own lost loved one.” And the book’s final page contains quotations by family members of murdered women, from the UN Report which dictates that “Canada must take measures to establish a National Public Inquiry into cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.” And our soon to be ex-Prime Minister’s infamous shameful view on the subject: “It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”
The numbers are important, inarguable. “A total of 1181 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012.”
But it’s going to be stories—like that this one—that make the difference if we’re to give all of our daughters a chance to live in a better world.
October 23, 2015
This week our family has been having fun with The Ghosts Go Spooking, a new picture book written by Chrissy Bozik and illustrated by my friend, Patricia Storms. Sung to the tune of The Ants Go Marching, the story traces the antics as a group of friendly ghosts make the most of Halloween night on their way to a costume party at a haunted house. A nice touch is that the ghosts themselves are costumed—as a clown, a witch, a cowboy. As as they go, one-by-one, two-by-two, etc., one of them (a different one every time—the scary one, the silly one, the wiggly one) stops and does a variety of things—knockings on a door, does a jive, does some tricks.
The story is more fun than scary, which is a good thing with our crowd, and my kids like the mischief the ghosts get up to, their amusing extra-textual dialogue in the illustrations: “Better than a rabbit,” exclaims the Bunny-hopping ghost when “the clever one” conjures bats from his hat. Momentum builds as the ghosts eventually end up spooking ten-by-ten, arriving at their party to find a horn-playing werewolf and a vampire on the double-bass, spooky rock-and-rolling against an enormous yellow moon. No doubt this is a party that will go one well into the night.
Boo boo boo…
October 9, 2015
We are in love, besotted, absolutely gaga. I first heard tell of Henrietta—a small brilliant and bookish girl who appears in the Macanudo comics by Argentine artist Liniers—when “Henrietta’s Reading Adventures” appeared in The New Yorker. Then Dan Wagstaff informed me that a Henrietta book was forthcoming from TOON Books, which we’re huge fans of. And that book is Written and Drawn by Henrietta, fun, inspiring and amazingly terrific. We read it together over dinner last night, and just now I had to go retrieve it from Harriet’s bed.
Written and Drawn by Henrietta is a story about the pleasures and frustrations of the creative process. Young readers will be inspired by Henrietta’s creation to make an attempt at their own literary masterpiece (and won’t be intimidated either, with Liniers’ rudimentary-looking Henrietta-style). They will also benefit from practical advice Henrietta offers along the way:
Creating art is not without its challenges and pitfalls, and Henrietta contemplates these as well.
But the narrative is driven primarily by her wonder and her excitement at the story she is creating (“I’m drawing really fast because I want to see what happens next…”) and the reader will be inspired to begin her own creation on Henrietta’s coattails.
…Or at least I’d like to meet the kid who wasn’t.
October 7, 2015
“So he didn’t have your advantages,” went on Homily breathlessly, “and just because the Harpsichords lived in the drawing room—they moved in there, in 1837, to a hole in the wainscot just behind where the harpsichord used to stand, if ever there was one, which I doubt—and were really a family called Linen-Press or some such name and changed it to Harpsichord—”
“What did they live on,” asked Arietty, “in the drawing room?”
“Afternoon tea,” said Homily, “nothing but afternoon tea. No wonder the children grew up peaky. Of course in the old days it was better—muffins and crumpets and such, and good rich cakes and jams and jellies, And there was an old Harpsichord who could remember sillabub of an evening. But they had to do their borrowings in such a rush, poor things. On wet days, when the human beings sat all afternoon in the drawing room, the tea would be brought in and taken away again without a chance of the Harpsichords getting near it—and on fine days it might be taken out into the garden. Lupy has told me that, sometimes, there were days and days when they lived on crumbs and water out of the flower vases. So you can’t be too hard on them; their only comfort, poor things, was to show off a bit and wear evening dress and talk like ladies and gentlemen…” —Mary Norton, The Borrowers
(We’re reading this right now and I’m loving it so much. I don’t know that I’ve ever read it before. When I was a child, I was into the American knockoff, The Littles, but I had no taste, and Mary Norton is so clever, funny and bright. I also like our copy because the cover is by Marla Frazee, who is one of my favourites. And sort of related, we recently finished reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, which went over very well, except that Iris now walks around saying apropos of nothing, “Aslan die?” and I don’t think she knows what die means, or even Aslan for that matter. But Harriet is quite enchanted and now we’re going to read the whole series, and tonight we were reading a new book called Written and Drawn by Henrietta, by TOON Books, and there was a Narnia reference, and I haven’t seen Harriet that excited since she found out she had a wobbly tooth.)
October 1, 2015
We are a little bit crazy for Marianne Dubuc in our house, which is interesting because she does something very different with every book she writes, but what all her books have in common are elements of whimsy, unabashed absurdity, rewards for those who are attentive to detail, and an all-engaging strangeness. And in Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, she has written a book about the mail, and so naturally I am totally obsessed. As are my kids, because, well, look right there on the cover: there is a rabbit pooing. Sitting on the toilet reading, no less. And this glimpse into the rabbits’ hidden world is what’s so entrancing about this book, exploring these animal abodes that Dubuc has dreamed up: the bear’s house has honey on tap from a hive on the roof; the snake’s long skinny house is outfitted with heat lamps; the squirrel’s got a clothesline and sleeps in a hammock; the mole house has a kettle on the stove.
It’s the kind of book a kid can read with her finger, tracing along the Postmouse’s route and in and out of the houses he delivers to. While the illustration style is very different, we love it for the same reasons I loved Jill Barclay’s Brambly Hedge books when I was little, tiny worlds magnified, access into hidden corners, such incredible attention to detail. And yes, it’s funny. There’s the poo (and the flies’ house is actually a giant piece of much poo, much to everybody’s delight). And there are abandoned shoes, mitts and candy wrappers littering the animals’ neighbourhood, and just what’s going on in each of these dwellings? Each house containing a story of its own, so that you can read Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds over and over again and—which I know from experience—the young reader will continue to keep exploring its pages long after the reading is done.
September 24, 2015
This week for Picture Book Friday, I bring you the October issue of Quill and Quire, which is on newsstands now. As part of their special Kidlit Spotlight, I took part in a panel discussion focussed around the question, “Are we living in a golden age of Canadian picture books?” It was a very neat, informative and wide-ranging discussion with a bunch of kidlit experts (of which I am now—it’s official). As someone with strong opinions about most books I read, good and bad, it was interesting to hear from others with different points of view. (This is the reason I’m never going to start the blog I was born to write, called “Picture Books I Really Hate”, because these things are so subjective.) It was also really interesting to learn from people whose roots in Canadian children’s books go back to the 1970s (which is basically when Canadian children’s literature began) and find out what is different and what has stayed the same. And is this a golden age? I really do think so. I was pleased that my quotation from Ursula Nordstrom closed our discussion, about books that are written from the outside in, versus books written from the inside out (i.e. the best kind). And there is such a greater level of sophistication in Canadian books at the moment, even by the same writers who were working 30 years ago. Kathy Stinson’s Red is Best is a classic, timeless and fantastic children’s book, but her recent award-winning The Man With the Violin is on a whole other level, which is where so many picture books are appearing these days. It’s a real pleasure to be a part of this literary moment.
Also in the issue are great children’s book reviews, and plenty of other good stuff. Make sure you pick up a copy!