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September 22, 2017

Mr. Crum’s Potato Predicament, by Anne Renaud and Felicita Sala

I was going to say that chips are my weakness, but I prefer Stephanie Domet’s term, that they’re her “kryptonite.” Domet is the inventor of the #stormchips hashtag, a Martime phenomenon in which an impending storm necessitates the procurement of snack food, chips mainly. Last winter in our household I tried to make #stormchips into a thing, keeping a bag on hand in case of blizzard, except we don’t have the right kind of climate and I just ended up eating chips without a storm. Who needs a storm? Not me, which is why I can’t buy chips, but I love them. One after another, crispy, salty, greasy, kettle-baked, and preferably flavoured with salt and vinegar.

I had a bag of chips last weekend, Old Dutch Chips, because I was in Edmonton and they’re a western thing. I ate them on my flight home and they were so good my eyes actually rolled back into my head, and the thing about something this amazing is the remarkable fact that you can just have them. That there are chips in the world at all, I mean, readily available at any moment to be eaten, usually in giant handfuls. I am incapable of eating potato chips without stuffing them into my mouth like a madwoman, a chip-monster. I have never been able to eat just one chip or a couple. This is my problem. I’m not terribly bothered by it.

For all my talk of can’t buy chips and won’t buy chips, I buy a lot of chips, or at least lately. We eat chips when we’re camping or when we’re at the cottage, and there was a moment this summer when I was actually a bit tired of chips. Which it had never remotely occurred to me was possible. But last weekend’s chips were special occasion, chips outside of season. Although that I was on an airplane at the time kind of negates the whole occasion; I was in transit and one could argue it never really happened at all. The Old Dutch thing was really on my mind because I’ve got the new book Snacks: A Canadian Food History on deck, which I’m planning to read in the company of a bag of Hawkins Cheezies, and probably some chips. And I don’t think it’s weird to plan your reading material around their snacking opportunities. Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that you can’t eat chips without occasion.

Fortunately, there is one more literary occasion for opening up a bag of chips, and that’s the picture book Mr. Crum’s Potato Predicament, by Anne Renaud and Felicita Sala, and it will make you hungry. (It also reminded me of Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad’s Julia, Child in all the best possible ways.)

“The story you are about to savour is a fictional tale with a helping of truth,” the book begins, and then the reader is introduced to George Crum, his waitress Gladys, and the persnickety customer in George’s restaurant whose pickiness would lead to the advent of potato chips, as George is encouraged to cut his fried potatoes into thinner and thinner slices in order to satisfy his customer’s particular demands. The story is playful and light hearted, with a fantastic vocabulary, rich with synonyms and adjectives and gorgeous euphony. Crum was a real figure, Renaud’s author’s note informs us, though he is but one of many people credited with invented chips with his thin potatoes. But Crum certainly did play a role in making chips famous, and both author and illustrator have a lot of delicious fun bringing this historical character to life.

September 8, 2017

Buddy and Earl Go to School, by Maureen Fergus and Carey Sookoocheff

I love September—cardigans, golden light and sharpened pencils—but I also hate September. I always did. Because I hate change, although I’ve been trying hard not to let my children catch onto this. And while I loved the possibility of fresh starts, clean slates and pristine pencil cases, there was always an adjustment. New classes, new friends, old friends who had become new people, new teachers—I would find these things very difficult. I still do. My children seem to be doing perfectly fine, but I have had a difficult week adjusting to grade three and junior kindergarten—who would have thought it? All the tumult and violence going on in the world hasn’t helped the matter either.

And so I’ve sought solace in good things, sweet things and funny things. Buddy and Earl Go To School, by Maureen Fergus and Carey Sookoocheff is the fourth book in this series about a dog and a hedgehog and (although I think I’ve said this about previous titles, but still) it’s the best one yet! I can’t say what it is we like so much about these books at our house exactly, except that it involves the fact of a hedgehog, plus Buddy the dog’s deadpan address and aversion to contractions. It is understated, adorable comic genius.

In this story, Buddy and Earl are starting school. “‘Hurrah!’ cheered Earl. ‘Getting an education is the first step to achieving my dream of becoming a dentist.’ / ‘I do not think think hedgehogs can become dentists, Earl,’ said Buddy./ ‘With the right education, I can become anything,’ declared Earl. ‘And so can you, Buddy.”/ Buddy was very excited to hear this.”

When they turned up at school, the setting defied my expectations but was also so perfectly familiar. The school day proceeds in adorable funny fashion, and even when Earl was bored (“How long until gym? Is it almost snack time?”), we weren’t. And by the end of the book, I’m left with a bit more pep in my step. Every school day can be rich with surprises, and there is promise i September after all.

August 31, 2017

Me and You and the Red Canoe, by Jean E. Pendziwol and Phil

“We’re going to have to shut the windows,” I called out a few minutes ago. I’d gone outside to take photos for this blog post, and they’re possibly a bit blurry because I was shivering. There are only a few hours left of August, and tonight the temperature is supposed to go down to 7 degrees. Summer has ebbed, though there is still a long weekend left, and tomorrow we’re taking the ferry to the Toronto Islands and intend to play on the beach, even if it’s a little bit freezing and it might all be a bit English seaside. But we like the English seaside, and it seems a fitting way to spend the last day of summer holidays—beside the water, feet in the sand. We’ve had that kind of summer.

We are not big canoeists. Once in the Lake District, my husband and I rented a rowboat, and I ended up screaming at him as he steered us into a dock full of tourists, and it wasn’t very romantic. So we’ve been a bit wary of nautical vessels ever since then, unless they’re inflatable flamingos, which we’re all over. Literally. But still, Me and You and the Red Canoe, by Jean E. Pendziwol and illustrated by Phil, has been a book that (lucky us!) so suits our summer. We’ve had loons and campfires, and empty beaches, and quiet mornings, and twinkling stars and soaring eagles in the sky. Would be that our children could paddle away from us early morning, and return with fish that somebody in our family would know how to prepare. Imagine if anyone knew how to use a paddle…but still. We went kayaking when we were away in July, and it was pretty lovely. Nobody yelled at anyone.

The illustrations in this book are beautiful, seemingly painted on wood, with lots of texture, a lovely roughness, and glimpses of under layers. They’re timeless, nostalgic in an interesting way, and a lovely complement to Pendziwol’s lyrical story, which is so rich in sensory detail and focused in the perfect notes. There’s not a lot of specificity—who are the siblings telling the story? When does it take place? Was this long ago or yesterday? When the siblings woke early and went out early to catch the fish that would be remembered as the best breakfast ever. Observing lots of wildlife, flora and fauna, and quiet and beauty on the way—it’s all the best things about summer, for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to get away from it all. Even if we don’t know how to canoe.

(PS We did visit the Canadian Canoe Museum last week, however! That’s the next best thing to actually paddling a canoe, right?)

June 27, 2017

Four Great Activity Books For Summer

Today is my last day with both children in school, and while I have a million things to do in the scant amount of time I have left, I wanted to carve out a moment to recommend a few activity books we’ve loved this spring, and will be taking with us on vacation this summer to ease the waits in restaurants or to enliven rainy days.

Read All About It is a future journalist’s dream, a fun kit that lets kids put together their own newspaper headlines and stories using stickers, the more bizarre the stories the better.

Professor Intergalactic Cat’s Activity Book is based on the gorgeously illustrated science books by Ben Newman and is packed with games and experiments for kids who are curious about the world around them (and even the worlds beyond!).

And speaking of worlds beyond, we love Astronaut Academy, a fun book for the poor children who can’t make it to Space Camp this summer, containing fun and challenging activities to prepare future astronauts for an experience in space.

And finally Playing With Food, by Louise Lockhart, which is my favourite colouring book ever (the FUN of colouring a vintage kitchen, or choosing colours for a page full of mystery beverages) and a treasure for children of any age who are partial to yummy things and great design.

June 23, 2017

Rosie and Michael, by Judith Viorst and Lorna Tomei

I’ve spent this week finishing up the second draft of my new novel, whose title at the moment is I Wish It Were Tomorrow. That title is actually the last line of The Hating Book, by Charlotte Zolotow (and if this title remains and my book is published, this will make for me two-for-two for novels inspired by works edited by Ursula Nordstrom). The Hating Book, like my novel, is a story of the complicated nature of friendship, about friendship’s necessary flip-side, which isn’t the opposite of friendship, exactly, but simply part of it. To expect to lines to run strictly parallel forever and ever is an awfully high expectation. And even when the course of a friendship does run smooth, things can be complicated. It is to one’s friends that one is not always the kindest. And it is that way that friends are like family.

Rosie and Michael, by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Lorna Tomei, first published in 1974, was not a book I was familiar with until Harriet’s class recited it in their school’s spring concert last month. Harriet’s line was, “I worry a lot about werewolves, and he understands.” And oh, is there anybody else who can illustrate the full spectrum of human experience—the good, the bad and the awful—as well as Viorst, author of classics such as Alexander and the No Good Very Bad Day and I’ll Fix Anthony? She gets the quiet rage of childhood fury better than anyone, and can frame it within a context of love and security, which isn’t easy. Judith Viorst would know that friendships can be complicated: “Just because I put a worm in his tuna salad sandwich doesn’t mean that Michael’s not my friend.” Exactly.

We are coming up to the end of a very good school year for both children, and a more difficult ending than we had the previous year in which both Harriet and Iris were returning to the same teachers. Iris’s teacher, the inimitable Tracey at playschool, who introduced the concept of “friendliness” into our lives in a way we hadn’t experienced before. Why don’t we hit, bite, stomp through people’s gardens and act out when we are cranky? Because it’s not very friendly, Tracey has taught us, along with the idea that friendliness is a way of being in the world, a general level of approachability, giving other people a break, giving other people space, even. To be friendly is to reach out to somebody in need, to give a hug to somebody who is sad, to smile at a stranger, to pick up litter in the park, to hold a little kid’s hand firmly when the little kid is crossing the street. A lot of it is about taking responsibility for one’s own actions. A lot of it is about being kind.

Harriet in grade two has had similar yet, appropriately, more advanced lessons about friendliness and friendship in her class over the past two years. Her teacher, Ms. T, has subtly and yet powerfully gone to great lengths to nurture a sense of community in her classroom and sense of responsibility toward the wellbeing of others. I will miss the unique dynamic she has created in her class, which has made for such a positive experience socially for Harriet, who has learned about appreciating difference and finding what’s in common, about working together and supporting each other. The children in her class seem to be inclusive and welcoming, playing together, letting quirky kids be quirky and appreciating those quirks—Harriet’s classmates have been incredibly avid in supporting her hedgehog obsession, for instance. The class is united as a group, and doesn’t become divided along gender lines, and I’m so grateful for the friendships Harriet has been able to have with the boys in class. They’re an incredible group of unique and funny personalities, and part of that is why they work the way do, but so much more is also because of the deliberate approach of her teacher.

All this occurred to me at the spring concert as I listened to then reading Rosie and Michael, what a perfect story is this for this group, this celebration of friendship’s elasticity and solidity at once, and how these relationships become the foundation of the people we are. And it occurred to me too that I have a lot more work to do on my novel, to get at the nuance, amazing singularly, friction, synchronicity, and care involved in sharing a friendship over many years. But still, I’m getting closer.

June 16, 2017

By the Time You Read This, by Jennifer Lanthier and Patricia Storms

I love By The Time You Read This, the new picture book by Jennifer Lanthier (of the award-winning The Stamp Collector) and illustrated by my friend, Patricia Storms. It’s a story about two friends who’ve had a falling-out, and the wronged party is eager to rid his life of any sign the friendship ever happened, and so he’s taking down their fort, throwing out their stuff, shutting down their zoo, and ending their novel for good.

“By the time you read this,” he writes, “I will have forgotten we were ever friends.” Very dramatic, yes, but it also demonstrates the force (and complicatedness) of a child’s feelings toward relationships, and this force creates serious momentum too as narrator moves through the story with firm determination.

The story also demonstrates the incredible richness of a child’s imaginary world, which is only enlivened when shared with a friend, and this reader glimpses here the subtext of this, in how much is lost to the child when the friendship is. The blanket fort which is “our Indestructible Fortress of Fiendishness”  and the collection of ordinary pets and stuffed toys which have been transformed into “our Magical Zoo of Mystical Creatures” with the wonder of play.

Having dismantled all evidence of the friendship indoors, the narrator heads outside via “our Precarious Portal for Intrepid Explorers” (i.e. the elevator—and how excellent that the story takes place amongst friends who live in an apartment or condo dwelling) and sulks on the playground contemplating just how he has been wronged, and it’s here we learn just how the misunderstanding between friends came about.

As you can glimpse from the illustration about, the two friends do reconcile, as friends often do—a very good thing to have affirmed. And by the end of the book they’re off on another big adventure.

June 9, 2017

The Thing That Lou Couldn’t Do, by Ashley Spires

If life were a movie, all persistence would lead to triumph. Adversity only would exist in order to be overcome. We would all be Rocky, champions, eye of the tiger. If you just try hard enough, success will inevitably result. And it’s not just movies—it’s books too, memoir and fiction, books for all ages. Stella gets her groove back. It leads you to believe that this actually happens, all the time. And for some people, maybe this is true.

Sometimes I feel like there should be a different kind of genetic testing before two people are allowed to procreate. Oh, wait a minute. You can map your entire childhood from the scars on your face from your struggles with gravity, and you played softball for four years and never ever once managed to catch the ball? Do you really think this is such a good idea? Maybe you both should adopt a ferret instead? 

There will be a time when my child’s inability to do a cartwheel won’t really matter. (There might also one day be a time when she can do a cartwheel, but I am not holding my breath.) She couldn’t jump until she was four years old, and hopping remains a challenge. Jump Rope For Heart is coming up next week and she can’t do it. Mostly for lack of trying, it’s true, and if I could go back in time I would have enrolled her in gymnastics when she was two and given her a foundation in physical literacy, but I figured it was the kind of thing she’d pick up on her own. Like riding a bike. Which she still can’t do.

It’s not all failure, of course. I write here all the time about the magnificence of my children, their incredible imaginations and intelligence and how they are funny, kind of empathetic. They love exploring, can walk for miles, can make a game out of anything, read boatloads of books, are up for adventures, do well in school, get along with their friends, and are already very good members of their community. I admire them both immensely. But the whole story includes the struggles, and we’ve got plenty of those. Motor skills are not our forte. If I wanted to, I was told, I could pursue therapies with a aplomb and really nip this problem in the bud…or I could write my child off as a person a bit lacking in physical prowess. Something we both actually have in common. She’s kind of fine with that.

While bike riding remains elusive, she has mastered her two wheeled scooter, which isn’t easy to do. She still can’t skip (three consecutive jumps are a challenge) but we’ve finagled a slow-motion step thing with the skipping rope which might turn into actual skipping with practice. With a lot of determination, she learned to ice skate, and while she’s cautious and slower than her fearless friends, she can skate enough to have an acceptable Canadian childhood. And our latest and greatest triumph is swimming, even though she’s likely to repeat Swim Kids 2 again, but this is probably the last time, and she can actually swim now, which is a long long way for someone who has the buoyancy of a anchor. She’s had a good teacher this term who has pushed her, which she said she resented in the beginning, but she gets it now. On the chalkboard in our hallway, we’ve written, WE CAN DO HARD THINGS.

At their last physical exam, or maybe the one before it, I mentioned the challenge with physical things, and our doctor (who is the mother of four children and knows a few things) told me two things that struck me as quite profound. First, that when our brains have to work harder in order to respond to challenges, our brains get smarter. Struggle is good for us. And second, struggle can make us better people, people with more empathy towards those with their own struggles, a healthy awareness that everybody is fighting their own battle.

I love The Thing That Lou Couldn’t Do, by Ashley Spires, because (SPOILERS) she never learns to do it. This is not a story about triumph over adversity, but about adversity. About how adversity can be its own story, worthwhile in its own right. That learning and trying and trying again, regardless of what happens next, is its own kind of adventure. And that all of us are doing this in some part of our lives, and if we’re not, it’s only because we’re not brave enough to bother.

June 2, 2017

Up, by Susan Hughes and Ashley Barron

I don’t know where spring went. It was March and then ten minutes later it was June, which means we’ve just a few weeks left of playschool. Playschool, which has been so important to our family since Harriet began in 2012. Playschool, which has begotten us crafts and friends and songs and dances, and books, and where we’ve all learned so much, because being part of a co-op brings lessons for everyone. Very good lessons, about working with other people, and learning from their strengths, and what all of us can learn from each other.

When I bought the book Up: How Families Around the World Carry Their Little Ones, by Susan Hughes and Ashley Barron, I had it in my mind as a gift for playschool. Not just because the idea of carrying babies and playschool going hand-in-hand for me, as Iris spent much of her first year of life on my front or back in her carrier on my co-op shifts. (I used to beg the children not to bang their tin plates on the table, because it always made her wake up early.)

But also because playschool is all about babies, or at least no one loves babies more than the kids there do. They love books about babies, and pictures of babies, and playing with dolls that are babies, and little brother and sister babies. They push babies in strollers and plastic shopping cards, and shoved inside their shirts with babies’ heads poking out, a DIY Baby Bjorn kind of deal.

I also knew that with its inclusivity of characters from different races, who live in different countries and come from different cultures all over the year, and its representation of diverse families and physical ability that this was a book that playschool would be able to get behind. Government policy dictates that inclusive toys and images featuring racial diversity and disabled people must be present in all play areas of the classroom. On one hand, that’s “political correctness gone mad” [and kind of tricky for a non-profit to fund] but three seconds later I realize the implications of young children growing up with images omnipresent, diversity being just normal for them. Because it actually is.

Finally, Up is a playschool book, because playschool is all about stories. These kids know books. In all my years of co-opping, I’ve never once sat down to read a picture book and not found myself surrounded by children wanting to hear the story (including the ones fighting to sit on my lap). These kids have an ever-changing range of books to choose from on their story shelf (from a huge and incredible library in the back room that stretches back decades. Some books never go out of style). They get trips to the library, and stories every day, and at free time many of them elect to pick up a book and sit down with it.

And so we’ll leave a note on the inside cover of this story, thanking playschool for so many extraordinary years (and days!) and letting them know that this is a gift from us. It’s nice to think of the children in the years ahead who’ll be enjoying this book while my own are out exploring the wider horizons playschool has set them on a path toward.

May 30, 2017

Big As Life

I fell in love with Sara O’Leary’s picture books back when I wasn’t even into picture books, before I had children. I discovered her via the blog Crooked House, when Stephany Aulenback published an interview with her in 2007. (Stephany Aulenback delivered me to all the best things, and I miss her blog: she is also the reason I read Harriet the Spy.) I loved O’Leary’s first picture book, When You Were Small, and it’s where my love of Julie Morstad’s work began—we’ve now got a print of hers hanging in our hallway. All of which is to say that Sara O’Leary’s work has been a part of my life in an essential way for a long time now.

And so I was particularly delighted by the opportunity to write about her books for The Walrus, an adventure that had me revisiting microscopic books at Toronto Public Library’s Osborne Collection and calling them up to clarify just how many miniature books they had—amusingly, all online references noted the collection of miniatures was “sizeable.” I got to revisit The Borrowers, and read Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House and T.H. White’s Mistress Mashem’s Repose. I was also recommended Jerry Griswold’s fascinating book, Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature—the chapter on “snugness” was my favourite.

So much stuff I came up with didn’t make it into the final piece (1800 words is not so long…) but it was all so fascinating. Everyone was sick in my house on Christmas Eve, which was annoying but left me free to read the entirety of O’Leary’s collection of short stories for adults, Comfort Me With Apples. (Note: she also has a novel for grown up children forthcoming next year, a ghost story which, unsurprisingly, features a dollhouse…) I was particularly struck by O’Leary’s preoccupation in these stories with so many of the ideas that would surface in her work for children a decade or more later—children with indeterminable origins, the fundamental unknowability of mothers, families that weren’t the way they were supposed to be, subtle allusions to nursery rhymes, and particularly ideas about size and scale.

I found O’Leary’s novella in the collection, “Big As Life,” made for the most fascinating companion to her Henry books. It begins with a woman sharing her first childhood memory, which her mother informs her is not a true memory but more likely something she dreamed once. This mother too who wishes to foster a more equal relationship with her daughter, to be like roommates who where the same clothes, which reminds me of the mother in When I Was Small who tells stories so she and her son “can be small together.” Lost photographs, so the woman is unable to corroborate anything she remembers from when she was small. The mother talking about her pregnancy, explaining, “Even though I was getting bigger all the time it felt like I was disappearing.”

This one extraordinary part where the women recalls the stories she used to tell her baby brother about when he was small: “I tried to tell him about who we were, what we’d been doing before he came along…I never prayed when I was a child, but somehow, telling my baby brother all I knew about life so far, I came close.”

And then this one incredible paragraph, from the perspective of a child watching her mother:

“The expression on her face—it was like she was aloft in a hot air balloon and we were all rapidly diminishing to the size and importance of ants on the ground below. It was as though soon we would grow too small to be seen, disappear, never to have existed at all. This, at least, is what I imagine, years later, trying to remember why I had grown suddenly enraged at the sight of my mother reading a book and smoking a cigarette.”

I am not sure at the connections one could make between the two works, what they mean. From reading the picture books we know that ants are actually pretty important after all and there is reverence for smallness—but perhaps you have to grow up in order to fully understand this. I think you also have to be grown-up to appreciate a mother’s desire to sometimes float away.

Parent/child relationships are complicated and fraught, it is true, but as I write in my Walrus piece, O’Leary’s picture books offer the suggestion of connection—just one of the many possibilities of small things.

I hope you’ll read it here.

May 26, 2017

The Gold Leaf, by Kirsten Hall and Matthew Forsythe

The Gold Leaf is the kind of book that you’d think at first glance was by an author/illustrator, a conceptual book in which the images are fundamental. Beautiful, lush, classical styled illustrations of a forest turning into spring.

But then the words too, all the ways to describe greenness. “Jungle green, laurel green, moss green, mint green, pine green, avocado green…” I love any book that emphasizes the many different ways there are to be one thing. I also love how in this case, the splendid text is enriching the picture.

Anyway, the animals are awakening from winter slumbers and in all the newness and excitement, everyone almost misses the sight of something most unusual:

An author’s note explains the process and history of gold leaf as an art form, as well as the the author’s grandfather was responsible for the gold leafing on many famous buildings in New York City, adding another layer of texture to this beautiful story.

Well, obviously the gold leaf is coveted amongst the forest creatures, and one after another they snatch it, keep it, grab it and run, and the inevitable occurs—the leaf falls to pieces, scattered in the wind. And then life in the forest goes on as it should—until the following spring (with “pear green, pickle green, parakeet green…”) when the gift returns to them. A story about second chances, gifts and mercy, maybe, and community, precious resources, and how much richer we are when we take care of each other.

The book, in its exceptional design and quiet story, reminds me of Coralie Bickford-Smith’s The Fox and the Star, which we loved, and also a little bit of Kyo Maclean’s beautiful new book, The Fog, with its subtle environmental message and open-endedness (and also a warbler). And yet its utterly itself as well, and we absolutely love it.

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