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March 10, 2017

Under the Umbrella, by Catherine Buquet and Marion Arbona

A beautifully illustrated picture book that celebrates a few of my favourite things, namely light, umbrellas, and baked goods? Yes, please.

This week’s pick is Under the Umbrella, by Catherine Buquet and Governor General’s Award-winning illustrator Marion Arbona, translated by Erin Woods. As we turn towards the season in which the rain can seem unceasing and the world still a bit too cold and grim, it becomes important to be reminded not to hurry too much, and not to miss those moments in which light and communion is possible.

The book begins with a man who’s doing battle with the wind and rain, barrelling his way along his journey, and furious at the crowds and the weather, and everything that’s offering resistance. We follow along with him in rhyming verse: “The wind attacked. He bent his back/ and forced his way along./ Wet and cold and late—what else/ could possibly go wrong?”

The man doesn’t even notice the boy he passes staring into the window of the bakeshop. “Dry beneath the awning,/ he gazed upon the spreads/ Of cakes and creams and cookies/ meant to turn each passing head.” And what follows is a delicious golden spread that’s entrancing, a torrent of dancing baked goods…

When a gust of wind rips the umbrella away from the hurrying man’s clutches, the flyaway object lands at the little boy’s feet. The boy retrieves it and the man offers his thanks, and suddenly notices the world around him, the light at the window, the good things on display inside. “Aren’t they amazing?” the boy asks him.

I’m going to spoil the ending: the man goes inside and buys the wide-eyed boy a rhubarb-raspberry tart. (Like most things with rhubarb, I assume it’s made palatable with a great deal of sugar: yum.) And when the man delivers this delicious treat, the boy breaks it in half and shares it. Possibly he knows that shared baked goods have no calories…

“Under the umbrella, time seemed to stall. The rain fell on…/ The sky hung low…/The crowds crept by…/ And none of that mattered at all.”

March 3, 2017

Little Blue Chair, by Cary Fagan and Madeline Kloepper

Little Blue Chair, by Cary Fagan and Madeline Kloepper, is the kind of book you finishe reading with your family, and then there’s a split-second of silence which will be broken by someone saying, “That was a good one.” Everybody’s nodding.” It’s a familiar story, the kind we’ve read so many times before, but it’s just so deftly executed that you’ve got to admire it. And there’s plenty else to admire about it besides that.

It’s a something-from-nothing circle-of-life tale, and at its centre is a chair. A little chair, the kind you must contort your body into if you’re visiting a preschool, but this chair belongs to Boo and it’s the seat of his imagination. Fagan shows him using it to read, to build forts, to climb on, and he even falls asleep on it. (He sits on it too.) When Boo outgrows his chair, his mom puts it out on the lawn with a sign that says, “Please take me,” and therein because a most excellent adventure.

Do you ever wonder what happens to the things you put out at the end of your driveway? We’ve gotten rid of an antique bed frame, a busted stroller, a repulsive carpet, a trundle bed, a futon frame, a decapitated rocking horse, and several other objects that way. Moreover our coffee table, desk chair, and many other items in our household joined us in a similar fashion. After reading The Little Blue Chair, I’ll never imagine an item’s narrative trajectory from curbside as anything normal again.

A rattling old pick-up comes by and picks up (of course) Book’s chair, and the drive sells it to a junk shop. A woman buys it and uses the chair to sit her plant pot, but then the plant grows up, she plants it in the ground, and doesn’t need it anymore. And so back out to the curb it goes, where it gets picked up by a sea captain who uses it to have his daughter sit beside him as they sail across the ocean. When they’re finished with their journeys, the leave the chair on the beach, where a man finds it and uses it to give children rides on elephants.

And so on and so on, the most extraordinary travels, through the postal system and up a tree, and round and round on a ferris wheel (and oh, I cringed a bit thinking of the lax safety standards that might make that possible. I’d probably find a different place to sit if that were me…).

And on it goes, another child finding it and using it as the seat of his imaginative adventures, but then there is a misadventure involving balloons and one thing leads to another.

You might be able to imagine what happen next. Somebody finds the chair, and it’s a grown man who’s name is Boo, and even though the chair has been painted he can see where the paint has chipped and he can tell that this little chair is familiar. And quite conveniently, Book has a little person of his own at home for whom the little chair is precisely the right size, and she declares it perfect.

February 9, 2017

Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science, by Diane Stanley and Jessie Hartland

Harriet and I went to see the remarkable Hidden Figures on the weekend, and until the picture book version of the story is released, we will content ourselves with Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer, by Diane Stanley, illustrated by Jessie Hartland, which was recently selected by the America Library Association among the top ten feminist picture books of last year. (We also know Ada Byron [later Lovelace] as a character from Canadian author Jordan Stratford’s middle-grade series, The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency.)

True confession: I don’t understand computer programming. It’s possible that a lifetime of being told that math is hard made me believe that math is hard, or maybe I just find math hard, but my mind doesn’t work that way. I’ve read Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science several times, and while I understand in theory how Ada imagined Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine worked based on symbols and rules of operation changed into digital form…I actually don’t even understand it in theory. Ada Lovelace’s ideas were inspired by mechanical looms which wove textiles based on patterns dictated by punched cards. I don’t really understand that either.

But but but. There is more than one way to be a person, to be a woman, to have a brain. That such things befuddle me is not to say that women are like that and let’s all go back to rocking babies, but instead to say that some women have an aptitude for such things, and it’s useful for even those of us who don’t to realize this. It’s like saying, Maybe I don’t need feminism, but some women do. (Nobody ever says this though. People who don’t need feminism seem to forget the possibility of second clauses.) To be honest, I’m not sure my daughter is going to grow up to be a computer programmer either, genes being what they are, but I will insist on the fact that she knows it’s a possibility. I mean, if a girl could have been one two hundred years ago, before there were even actual computers, then maybe today there are perhaps no limits of what a girl can grow up to be. And isn’t that excellent?

We love this book, about Ada (who gives Rosie Revere, Engineer a run for her money) who has a spectacular imagination, despite her mother’s attempts to school her in logic and rational thinking in order to override her passionate poet father’s genetic legacy. As women of her station had to do, she settled down and married, but that wasn’t the end of her story, and she would go on to do remarkable things in her too short life, indeed becoming the world’s first computer programmer with Babbage’s analytical machine. And what is especially interesting is that there is no direct link between Babbage’s and Lovelace’s work and the development of modern computers, although as Stanley’s author’s note points out, Alan Turing would read their work after they resurfaced after a century of obscurity. But still, I am fascinated by this idea (which is so recurrent in feminism) that some ideas have to be invented over and over again. Or perhaps it’s more miraculous than that—that the great discoveries don’t just happen once, and that progress ain’t a line, but that spectacular bursts of excellence are exploding all the time.

February 3, 2017

My Beautiful Birds, by Suzanne Del Rizzo

As weird and terrible as the world can be, I don’t spend a lot of time, as the modern problem goes, worrying about “how I’m going to explain it to my children.” As I’ve written before, I relish awkward conversations. But I was thinking about this idea yesterday, about how incongruous it must be to be both a parent and somebody who wants to see refugees restricted from finding sanctuary in their country and community. What do these people teach their children about helping others, I wonder. Do they ever worry about the gap between their messages?

“As a parent,” somebody told me on Twitter this week, “my job is to protect my children from danger.” Hence their support of UnpopularDonald’s Muslim Ban. And the logical next question, although I didn’t ask it because this was Twitter and there was really no point, is “Isn’t that precisely what so many refugee families are doing though? And so surely as a parent then, you can recognize the humanity in these people, that they are guided by the same impulses that direct you, except that their homes have been destroyed by years and years of war and your fear is based on a sense of otherness and is also statistically irrational?”

The first time I was happy after November 9 2016 was a few weeks later at the Canadian Children’s Book Awards, and not just because I’d had more than a few glasses of wine. But it was because of the spirit that night, the speeches of the presenters and winners that acknowledged the darkness of the moment we’re currently embroiled in and that books really were one sure way to kick at the darkness, children’s books in particular. Books that bridge the distance between here and there, between us and them, and recognize the humanity common to all of us.

In Suzanne Del Rizzo’s picture book, My Beautiful Birds, a young Syrian boy is forced to leave his wartorn home and make the long journey to the relative safety of a refugee camp. The story is enlivened by Del Rizzo’s plasticine illustrations with their rich purple and golden hues. Of all the things that Sami has left behind. it’s his pigeons he misses the most, the birds he fed and kept and as pets. Although his family does their best to create a home in the camp—planting a garden, buying things in the small shops started by their neighbours—this new life is anything but sure: “Days blur together in a gritty haze. All I have left are questions. What will we do? How long will we be here?” The idea of the birds and their freedom symbolizing everything that’s been lost to Sami.

Del Rizzo shows Sami’s grief and sadness with thick black lines that overwhelm the pictures he tries to paint of his beloved birds, the black paint taking over his art like a storm. Where he finds solace, though, is in the sky, one thing that is familiar to him, “wait[ing] like a loyal friend for me to remember.” In the clouds, he sees the shapes of his birds: “Spiralling. Soaring. Sharing the sky.”

January 27, 2017

Picture Book Wisdom

It’s Family Literacy Day today, and I’ve written a post at 49thShelf about how everything I know about the world I’ve learned from picture books. Including, “Dance in the kitchen. Don’t do the dishes” and “Far more than any fame, enjoy the peaceful pursuit of knowledge. Treasure the wealth to be found in your books.”

You can read all the words of wisdom here, and make sure you pick up these great titles if you haven’t already.

January 20, 2017

Have You Seen My Trumpet?, by Michael Escoffier and Kris Di Giacomo

Tonight at dinner, Harriet told us a story. “Today for Show and Tell,” she said, “Eric brought in a diaper.” A diaper? “Yes,” she continued. “He punched it, and then he cut it in half and took these things out from inside it, and he put it in his jello bowl, only there wasn’t any jello in it.” I was trying to make sense of this. “So it was like an experiment?” I suggested. The insides of diapers are filled with these gross little gel balls that I only know about because of the times(s) I put a diaper through a wash cycle and it exploded (don’t ask).

“And then he ate it,” said Harriet, and I said, “What?” and we all started laughing, quite hysterically, the way you might if you were eating dinner, someone ate a diaper, and the world’s worst man was being elected the American president tomorrow.

At certain moments, absurdity is fitting, and not much else these days is making the me laugh the way I like to laugh, which is to say, so hard that I shake noiselessly with one of my eyes closed—trust me when I tell you it’s very attractive. At certain moments all you want is a picture book with a sea urchin, a gruff fly, a missing trumpet, and a bat that’s sitting on the toilet. In 2016, the word of the year was “surreal,” and so all this is quite in keeping with the zeitgeist.

Have You Seen My Trumpet?, by Michael Escoffier and Kris DiGiacomo, is a book that’s brought delight to all of us during the past few months. Ostensibly the story of a small girl searching for a trumpet (that doesn’t turn out to be quite what you’d expect), the book’s true charm is spread after spread of bizarre beach scenes with appealing illustration and engaging, amusing details. On every page, a question is asked whose answer is to be found in not only the illustration, but also the question itself—and don’t you love that smug fish (above), who’s hogging all the pails and is sporting his I Love Me t-shirt?

The strangeness of the English language is underlined by this exercise—because indeed, the crow thinks it’s too CROWded, but that’s not we say it. And while it’s true that the owl has fallen in the bOWL, we don’t pronounce “bowl” as “bowel.” Which brings us to everybody’s favourite page, who’s in the BAThroom indeed?

It’s almost as weird as a kid who brought a diaper to Show and Tell and ate it, and makes as much sense as anything.

January 17, 2017

Reconciling

The first definition of “reconcile” in the Merriam Webster is ” to restore to friendship or harmony <reconciled the factions>” but it’s the second definition that is more meaningful to me: “to make consistent or congruous <reconcile an ideal with reality>.”  This definition certainly resonating in general, because in the past two months my ideals and reality have certainly been at odds, and reconciling that has been a process. The world is more complicated than I ever knew, which makes “restoring to friendship and harmony” seem like a pipe-dream, except: restoring, how? Because when was there ever friendship and harmony? It all sounds a bit like the notion of making America great again—elusive and facile. The first definition is a misnomer. Reconciliation is a process, and in order to be properly it is a process that will never end. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about reconciliation lately, as I’ve been reading I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. A friend of mine has also recommended Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. I’m interested in and troubled by the way that people seem unable to constructively disagree with each other. (Another book along these lines that I’ve appreciated is Creative Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking With Creativity, by Patrick Finn.) I take some solace in the fact that people in disagreement, while inconvenient, is actually much healthier than the alternative, and that the potential for learning is infinite. A community in which everybody though the very same thing, and nobody challenged anyone or asked any questions, would be the very worst thing I could imagine. Worse even than the state we’re in now.

Remember my mantra for 2017, “Listen. Be Better.” I’m trying. It’s a challenge, and such an opportunity. Once upon a time, when I was young and things were simpler, I fervently underlined the following bit from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play I loved: “This is the best time possible to be alive. When everything you know is wrong.” Such a prospect is more terrifying than I ever thought it would be, now that we’re kind of here and, you know, with the collapse of the world order, but still, there is something extraordinary about it too. I’m thinking about reconciliations big and small, in terms of domestic politics and literary criticism, even. Literary criticism, especially, because I wonder if this is a constructive metaphor with which to understand the process that has to happen in order for anything to happen.

Literary criticism, the best kind, is a conversation. A back-and-forth, a broadening, the prying of a text wide open. The best kind of literary criticism isn’t just about the text itself, but it’s about everything, and it invites big questions and many different answers. It provokes debate and causes the reader to change her mind—about the text, about the world. It’s not about whether a text is necessarily good or bad, but about the things it makes us think about, the places it takes its readers beyond itself. Literary criticism is a process, a collaborative ongoing pursuit which requires generosity, openness, consideration and respect on the part of the players involved. If no one’s listening, nothing happens, but if everyone is willing, anything can.

I was thinking about all this as I read Debbie Reese’s review of the award-winning picture book, Missing Nimama, which I reviewed in 2015—and you can read my review here. I am a huge admirer of Debbie Reese’s scholarship and advocacy about representations of Indigenous people in children’s books—she’s taught me a lot and she challenges my understanding in uncomfortable and constructive ways. She’s not afraid to go up against really popular authors—see her review of Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. I don’t always agree with her assessments of certain books, mostly because there are so many lenses through which readers approach a book, and hers is one, but I’ve never found her to be wrong.

While I still appreciate Missing Nimama and celebrate its success, Reese’s review shows me my own weaknesses in approaching it as a writer and a critic. Reese writes: “To me, however, Missing Nimama …. strike[s] me as something Canadians can wrap their arms around, to feel like they’re facing and acknowledging history, to feel like they’re reconciling with that history.” She continues, ” To many, this review…will feel harsh. Most people are likely to disagree with me. That’s par for the course, but I hope that other writers and editors and reviewers and readers and sponsors of writing contests will pause as they think about projects that involve ongoing violence upon Native women.”

And this is just the point. The pause, the reflection. Disagreeing is even okay, but it’s failing to consider that is inexcusable. The point is the conversation, the questions that are asked, which are far more important than the answers. And how we take these questions with us, this broadened perspective, with the books we read and the books we write. The point is to listen, and then be better.

UPDATE From Carleigh Baker’s review of Katherena Vermette’s The Break:“A generous storyteller, Ver­mette does not take it for granted that all readers will inherently understand how damaged the relationship between indigenous people and Canadian society has become. As readers, we can honour this generosity by not allowing ourselves to be lulled into a satisfying sense of camaraderie, having suffered alongside fictional characters. We can honour it by not repeating over and over how strong the women in this book are. It is true, they are strong. But let us not nod our heads in grim recognition of this strength, as if acknowledgement equals solidarity [emphasis mine]. Let us not pull our lips into thin lines and furrow our brows and express amazement at their resilience, as if its origin is a mystery. This makes it too easy to dismiss.”

January 12, 2017

Best Book of the Library Haul

There is a whole subset of nursery rhymes that I never learned as a child, although I did know my Rockabye Babies and Pat-A-Cakes, and was fairly literate in most respects. But it turned out what I knew was only just scratching the surface of the enormous richness and history that nursery rhymes offer, the bulk of which has been passed down through the annals of time by, well, (at least in my experience), librarians at the Toronto Public Library—could they really be responsible for preservation of this cultural trove? In addition to the Opies, of course. Rhymes like See, Saw, Sacredown and Leg Over Leg the Doggie Went to Dover. I discovered these at the Baby Time circles at the library after Harriet was born in 2009, which was same time I discovered Mem Fox.

Mem Fox, author of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Harriet You’ll Drive Me Wild, Hattie and the Fox, Time for Bed, and most spectacularly, Where is the Green Sheep, which were mostly the books I read more than any other through 2009-12. A passionate advocate of early literacy, Fox is also author of Reading Magic, a book that has been fundamental to my practice as a parent, and which recommended children get on a necessary diet of at least a handful of nursery rhymes every day. And because of the TPL Librarians, I had nursery rhymes to spare, so it was handy.

For parents who do not have a plethora of librarians at their disposal, however, Mem Fox comes to their aid with her picture book, Good Night, Sleep Tight, illustrated by Judy Horacek. Fox has taken age-old nursery rhymes (“It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,” “Round and Round the Garden,” This Little Piggie,” etc.) and linked them into a story featuring a rather dynamic babysitter called Skinny Doug whose mother must have been a TPL Librarian, because she’s taught him all the rhymes, which he’s now passing onto his babysitting charges, Bonnie and Ben. Who are definitely enjoying his performances—and not just because they’re delaying bedtime—because whenever he finishes another rhyme, this happens:

“‘We love it, we love it,’ said Bonnie and Ben. ‘How does it go? Will you say it again?'”

“‘Some other time,’ said Skinny Doug. ‘But I’ll tell you another. I heard it from my mother…'”

Which becomes, quite frankly, the most beloved rhyme in the whole book, so much so that when anything is regarded with great enthusiasm in our family, we take to chanting, “We love it, we love it, said Bonnie and Ben!!” in a way that’s a bit nonsensical. But then most nursery rhymes are.

We’ve had this book out of the library a million times, and it’s become such a part of our canon that I wanted to make sure that I wrote about it here. It’s a simple premise for a book, but it’s also quite profound, taking centuries-old rhymes and introducing them to new audiences—children, their parents from non-European cultures, or anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to learn these rhymes first time around. Through her story and Horacek’s illustrations, Fox conveys how these nursery rhyme works and how to use them, that this one book is not just one book but instead the product of generations’ cultural lore, ensuring literacy and a love of language for those who come after.

January 6, 2017

Rad Women Worldwide

Quite intentionally, I am raising my children in a house full of books, and while this has resulted in my children engaging with books a lot, best intentions don’t always lead where you’d like them to. I do have a theory that books can work by osmosis and that just being around them makes people smarter, and I cling to this belief when my oldest child passes up the incredible works of world-broadening non-fiction we have stocking our shelves in order to reread the Amulet series for the five-hundredth time. I had this vision of children sprawled on the carpet, leafing through our encyclopedia of animals, illustrated atlases or perusing the images from Sebastian Salgado’s Genesis. Sometimes I even intentionally leave these books on the floor, so as to instigate said leafing and perusing, but then the children just end up using these books as stools on which to perch while reading Amulet.

The book Rad Women Worldwide, by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Mariam Klein Stahl, might have joined this pile of books for sitting on. It was an extra Christmas gift, purchased without forethought. A good book to have around the house, I thought, particularly in these regressive times. Subtitled, “Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History,” by the creators of the brilliantly conceived American Women A-Z. It doesn’t hurt that the book’s design is awesome. I loved the idea of my girls learning about the incredible women profiled within, and understanding that their amazing accomplishments are what history is made of. We don’t even have to call it “herstory.” All this is simply the society in which we live.

Rad Women Worldwide includes women making history throughout history, but also women who are making history as I write this. And I love the idea of my children taking for granted not just that history includes women, but that history (and feminism) includes women of colour also—this is huge if I hope to raise white feminists who aren’t White Feminists (TM). I want to raise girls who see race and know race, acknowledging the role it plays in people’s lives (including their own). And I want them to know that the world and progress is powered by women who are black and brown and Asian, as well as white. I want my white children to grow up inspired by the accomplishments of women of colour—and with this book, how can they not be?

The thing about Rad Women Worldwide, though, is that it’s not just for children. It’s not only they who have gaps in their education, and the stories in this book are so fascinating that we’ve started reading them aloud. So that this isn’t a book just for sitting on, but also because I want to learn more about the women I’ve already heard of (Aung San Suu Kyi, Malala Yousafzai) and want to discover those I hadn’t heard of yet (Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian female astronaut, Junko Tabei, who was the first woman to climb Mount Everest, Fe Del Mundo from the Philippines who was the first woman admitted to the Harvard Medical School in 1936).

So we read a profile a day, Harriet and us taking alternate paragraphs, and I love the words that are entering her reading vocab: “Indigenous,” “Constitution,” “Advocacy,” “Reconciliation.” These stories are the perfect antidote to the bleakness that pervades news stories about women right now, riding the sad coattails of #ImWithHer. Inspiring, fascinating and ever-illuminating, each story affirms my faith in progress and justice just a little bit more.

December 15, 2016

Christmas Books

We’re winding down to the holidays (although, unfathomably, they don’t start until the end of next week when school’s out). Instead of Picture Book Friday, I want to point you toward my Instagram account where I’m sharing a title from our Christmas Book Box every day. We’re also reading the short novel A Christmas Card now, which our friend Sarah read last year (as we were reading The London Snow, by the same author, Paul Theroux). Today we walked home from school in a glorious blizzard, and hot chocolate with marshmallows are getting to be a habit.

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