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Pickle Me This

November 30, 2017

Eating all the pies

I felt very liberated when I read in a cookbook about pies that one should use store-bought puff-pastry always, because attempting to make puff-pastry from scratch was just stupid. I don’t really know if the author of my pie book is an authority (according to wikipedia, she’s an interior designer and pies are just a sideline) but I’m not going to ask too many questions, because puff-pastry makes pies so easy. Savoury pies, I mean, as in for a meal. I still have pretty strong feelings about pastry from scratch for fruit or dessert pies. But puff-pastry means you could have a meat pie on the table as an easy weeknight supper. And we were all over that while we were reading The Piemakers, by Helen Cresswell, which our librarian recommended to us recently and we read-aloud with pure delight. A story that reminded me so much of The Borrowers in tone that I kept forgetting that the characters were not miniature—although the giant pie dish in which they float down the river didn’t make the scale any less confusing. It’s about a family of pie-makers—the daughter is called Gravella, named for Gravy—and it all goes wrong when they get the opportunity to bake a pie for the actual king. (Too much pepper, cough cough.) But then they get another chance to redeem their pie-making reputation, and everyone in the village pitches in, and (spoilers!) the result is a pie-making triumph. We loved it. But it made us hungry. And let me tell you the other best thing about store-bought puff pastry? That it’s sold in packages of two.

November 24, 2017

Feather, by Remy Courgeon

So I’m not exactly blazing a trail here, singing the praises of Feather, by Remi Bourgeon, which is included on the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2017 list, but it’s a book we’ve been falling in love with more and more every time we read it.

It’s an incredible exercise in minimalism, an entire novel so perfectly condensed into a few hundred works. Paulina is growing up in France, child of a Russian father who works all night driving taxis. Her mother, the reader assumes, has died, leaving Paulina the only girl in a household with three older brothers. She’s not just the youngest, but she is also the smallest—they’ve nicknamed her “Feather”—and when they end up fighting over household chores, she always loses, and ends up having to cook and do the laundry and she’s left with no time for her favourite occupation: playing the piano.

One day, after getting punched in the face and sporting a mean black eye, Feather announces that she’s quitting piano to take up boxing. No one can get her to change her mind, and she’s just as determined in her training as a fighter. Courgeon’s illustrations are fantastic, full of detail and action, and are so excellently married with the text in that the first letter of the first word on every pages is also a picture: see the L as the flexed arm below, the T in the t-shirt above, a J that is a cat’s tail dangling from the top of the piano, and an S that is a skipping rope. (And credit to translator Claudia Zoe Bedrick for making this work in English!)

As Feather devotes herself to training, her brothers are forced to take on a greater load of the household chores, but mostly just because Feather starts winning the fights over who has to do them. “Feather’s killer left gave her confidence. She even called Ivan ‘Blimp’ once. She had to run for it, but running was part of her training, after all.”

Before every match, Feather gets ready by reciting “the names of women who had bravely made a place for themselves in the world: Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Nellie Bly, Anna Lee Fisher, Sally Ride… She always ended with Nina Simone, because she had played the piano too.”

The book’s climax is the moment before the big fight, when Feather discovers notes from her brothers and her father hidden in her boxing glove, cheering her own. Her father has left a photo of her mother with a note on the back: “We’re with you, Paulina! Love, Dad.”

She wins, of course. You knew she would. And things do change around their house—she’s learned the respect of her rough and tumble older brothers But the surprising twist in the story is that she gives up boxing after that, and goes back to piano. “Fists should be opened and fingers should fly,” she explains, the last illustration showing a grownup Paulina playing piano with a baby on her lap and a boxing trophy on display.

The book’s final image is a boxing glove in the endpapers being used as a vase for flowers, and I love that idea. This is a fantastic book with a strong feminist message, but like all the best feminist things that message is not singular. This is a fun engaging book first and foremost, but it will also leave its reader with questions and things to think about, and a million other reasons to reopen the book and start reading gain.

November 19, 2017

Baby Cakes, by Theo Heras and Renne Benoit

When Harriet was three-years-old, I read Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman, and loved it mostly because it affirmed all the things I already believed about raising children and therefore I got to feel sophisticated and European, which is always nice when you’re only Canadian. And what I remember mostly about the book, apart from the fact its author had previously published an article in Marie Claire about giving her husband a threesome for his fortieth birthday, was the chapter on baking, and the recipe for yogurt cake. (There was also a chapter on babies sleeping through the night. That chapter didn’t work for me.) French children, according to Pamela Druckerman, bake all the time, and thereby learn about fractions and chemistry, plus stirring and pouring and patience and not spilling things. All of which were things that I could get behind, and so we made that cake, and we made it over and over, in addition to so many other cakes we’ve baked in all the years since. And that I’ve still yet to lose the weight from my last pregnancy suggests Druckerman may have omitted an essential detail in her text, which is that French mothers possibly don’t eat the food their children bake. But then where’s the fun in that?

We have a photo of Harriet from the first time we baked together, sometime in the months before she turned two, and she’s standing on a chair wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon, and I tweeted the photo with some kind of caption like, “Basically I only really had children in anticipation of this moment.” Because I also remember standing on chairs while wielding a wooden spoon, and have such visceral childhood memories of baking, and I wanted Harriet to have to her own. Plus I wanted cake, of course, and so we baked, but it wasn’t always easy. My frequent admonishments of, “Don’t put your hands in the flour,” “Don’t sneeze in the batter,” and “Goddamn it to hell, you’ve just poured vanilla all over the floor” usually went unheeded, and we began to consider a baking session successful if I’d kept my swear words to a minimum of three. Baking with kids was often not as fun as it was made out to be. But I persisted—in addition to math and chemistry, I told myself, my children were learning about human fallibility (mine!) and also expanding their vocabularies.

The very best thing about having children, however, (which is also the very worst thing) is that you basically get a new child every two weeks or so. Which is to say that everything changes, all the time, and the things that seemed impossible once upon a time eventually get to seem easy. Harriet sneezes in the batter hardly ever now, and when she and Iris sit down to baking they’re actually quite capable. And when I’d recently read Iris Baby Cakes, by Theo Heras and Renne Benoit, she’d declared, “That’s such a good book, Mommy.” Mostly because she’s obsessed with cupcakes, but still. Plus there was a recipe for cupcakes in the endpapers; I said, “We’ve got to make these.” And so on Saturday night, we did.

This book would make a great Christmas gift from 3-5-year-olds. With simple vocabulary, a brother and sister would together to make cupcakes (with the unhelpful assistance of their pet cat). The story lists the equipment necessary—”Here are a big bowl and measuring cups and spoons.”—and goes through the recipe, “Sprinkle salt, but not too much.” And “Creaming the butter is hard work.” And is it ever! The recipe inside makes for a nice extension of the book, bringing the story to life and inspiring the reader to  try something new. That the brother and sister in the story bake together without the help of grown-ups (except for with the oven) inspires independence. Plus, the cupcakes were delicious. Obviously, I ate one. Because I am not French.

November 10, 2017

Whispers of Mermaids and Wonderful Things

Full disclosure necessitates I tell you that I had lunch with Sheree Fitch yesterday, although possibly I’m just telling you that because I’m still marvelling at the fact that I had lunch with Sheree Fitch yesterday. Sheree Fitch, whom we travelled to Nova  Scotia to see this summer on the day her seasonal bookshop opened. Sheree Fitch is the most extraordinarily generous brilliant person I’ve ever known, a woman whose books have been the framework of my life as a mother and remember when a tiny Harriet crashed the stage to read with her at Eden Mills years and years ago? Although I was one of hundreds upon hundreds of people who traveled to River John, Nova Scotia, to see Sheree Fitch this some, because she is the sort of person who inspires such a gesture.

Even fuller disclosure: Everything Sheree Fitch touches is more than a little bit magic.

Although in the case of her latest project, the anthology Whispers of Mermaids and Wonderful Things: Atlantic Canadian Poetry and Verse for Children, co-edited with Anne Hunt, she’s not the only magic-maker. Credit belongs too to the designer of this gorgeous book whose cover art is absolutely enchanting, along with delightful leafy end pages, borders, and yellow ribbon to hold one’s place. And to her co-editor too, with whom Fitch has selected these works, and to the poets too, some of whom—Fitch herself, Jennifer McGrath, Kate Inglis, Al Pittman—I’m familiar with through their words for children, and others—Lynn Davies, Kathleen Winter, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, E.J. Pratt, Alden Nowlan—I know if a very different context.

So how do you use a book like this, a pretty book with a ribbon, a book that isn’t a picture book because there aren’t any pictures? Which is to say, how does one awaken the magic within, the whispers of mermaids and wonderful things? And the answer, of course, is to read it. To take book off the shelf and leaf through at random, see where the pages fall open or where the poem catches your eye. To make a ritual of it, a poem before bed, perhaps, or first thing in the morning, like a vitamin. To revel in the words and rhymes, and share that wonder with the people around you. Let beginning readers have a chance to read these poems too, to experience the pleasure saying their phrases, how the words feel in their mouths.

This is a book that will make an extraordinary holiday present for (or from!) anyone with an affinity for words or poems, or an affiliation with Atlantic Canada. It’s such a beautiful object, a treasure, and then you open it up, and there are worlds upon worlds inside to explore.

November 3, 2017

Captain Monty Takes the Plunge, by Jennifer Mook-Sang and Liz Starin

Is it wrong to fancy a mermaid? Well, it mustn’t be so wrong, because sailors have been doing so for centuries. But is it wrong to fancy a mermaid in a picture book? One who’s already in a relationship with a pirate who is also a cat? Well, if loving a picture book mermaid is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

And it’s not like Meg is just any picture book mermaid. “She’s like you, Mommy,” said my daughter. “She has a star tattoo.” And I remind my daughter, “We also both have awesome squishy tummies.” Because Meg the mermaid is the kind of mythical creature you want to have a lot in common with. She’s cool. She plays the ocarina, likes bad jokes, and she teaches Captain Monty how to set his course by the constellations, which is a useful thing for a pirate captain to know.

While she might be a punk rock mermaid, Meg still swims like a fish, displaying amazing skills that put poor Monty (who’s afraid of water) to shame. And she’s got standards too: when Monty asks her out, Meg turns him down. Because a guy who’s afraid of water never gets a chance to bathe, and she tells him, “You’re a real nice pirate, Monty, but you smell like stinky boots.”

When Meg gets captured by an octopus, however, Monty has to step up to save her. Which he kind of fails at, until he thinks up a clever way to outwit the many-legged sea creature, and Meg joins in on the action, the two of them rescuing themselves together. And all that is pretty romantic, so of course they fall in love. “My brave Monty,” Meg tells him. “Now that you smell like fresh air and seaweed, would you like to have dinner with me?”

Captain Monty Takes the Plunge, by Jennifer Mook-Sang and Liz Starin, is a fun and lively book for any young reader who’s into pirates, dislikes bathing, and/or requires just a few more ounces of courage before she leaps into the pool. But it’s Meg who steals the show, a fabulously subversive and feminist rad mermaid, and she’s the reason we keep returning to the book again and again.

October 27, 2017

You Hold Me Up, by Monique Gray Smith and Danielle Daniel

My children delighted in You Hold Me Up, by Monique Gray Smith and Danielle Daniel. As we read it, my littlest kept guessing what the text might be based on the image. “When you dance with me!” she offered, for the “you hold me up when you play with me” page, so she wasn’t wrong. She also guessed, “When you yawn with me,” for “when you sing with me,” which is a little bit wrong, but then we all started yawning, underlining the point of the book, that we’re all connected to each other.

Monique Gray Smith is the award-winning author of Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience, and children’s books My Heart Fills With Happiness (which I read last year) and Speaking Our Truth. I also really recommend her podcast, Love is Medicine. Illustrator Danielle Daniel won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award for her first book, Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, which we loved, has another new picture book just out, Once in a Blue Moon, and I also really liked her memoir for the adult set, The Dependentmy review is here. The idea of these two teaming up on a project has had me looking forward to You Hold Me Up for ages.

Smith’s text is simple, but powerful, about the small and essential ways we all support each other. “You hold me up when you are kind to me…” it begins, accompanied by a photo of an Indigenous family in the kitchen baking together. “…when you share with me…when you learn with me.” Daniel’s illustrations have a playful approach, but are also nicely stylized and textured, with a collage effect and fine details, warm and familiar images of people together.

“It’s about family,” Iris proclaimed when we got to the end of the story, the line, “We hold each other up,” with the facing image of two adults, their children, and a grandmother having a picnic under birch trees. And she’s not wrong here either, except it’s not only that. Smith writes in her Author’s Note of Canada’s “long history of legislation and policies that have affected the wellness of Indigenous children, families and communities.” Like her My Heart Fills With Happiness (and in everything she does, really) Smith is writing about survival and resilience, about the strength and power that comes from the love we give each other.

October 20, 2017

Rapunzel, by Bethan Woollvin

I love me some side eye, the sweet subtle rebellion of a woman who’s got no time for your nonsense. A woman who’s tired of outdated tropes, stereotypes, and sexist cliches. The thing about fairy tales, of course, is that they’re fluid, ever-changing. Even the tired versions of the stories aren’t ever told the same way twice, so one could feel justified in making some adjustments. “[W]hoever makes up the story makes up the world,” Ali Smith writes in her novel, Autumn, and I love that idea. In her first book, Little Red, Bethan Woollvin is making up a world where little girls don’t fall for wolves in bad disguises and get along just fine without the help of a Huntsman, thank you very much. She continues to make such a world in which girls can be their own heroes in Rapunzel, whose heroine rescues herself from the tower and becomes a masked vigilante on horseback—which was clearly  a detail that was missing from the original tale. And the very best thing, when you put Little Red and Rapunzel together? The side-eye is solidarity, of course. These two fearless girls are looking right at each other.

October 6, 2017

When We Were Alone, by David A. Robertson and Julie Flett

Please forgive the absence of a proper Picture Book Friday post but my phone broke so I can’t take photos, plus my children are off school tomorrow schedules are all askew. But I did make time to run out to Parentbooks this afternoon to pick up a copy of When We Were Alone, by David A. Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett, whose work I so adore. Partly because Orange Shirt Day was observed at my children’s school last week, and I wanted this book to contextualize it. And also because When We Were Alone has just been nominated for a Governor General’s Award, on the trail of big wins at the Manitoba Book Awards earlier this year and a nomination for the TD Children’s Literature, whose winner will be announced next month. I’d read it earlier this year while we were at the Halifax Central Library, but I didn’t read it to my kids because the book made me a bit nervous. I’d interpreted the title in a sinister fashion, and knew the book was about residential school survivors, and really, I wasn’t sure even I wanted to know what had happened when these poor kids were alone.

But I was wrong, for so many reasons, not least of all in thinking that these kinds of stories were the sort I could ever turn away from when so many other people don’t have that luxury, but also because it was when the children were alone that they were free and used all kinds of smart and beautiful ways to subvert the tyranny and abuse of residential schools. For example, where they had their hair cut short, and dressed in drab uniforms, and were forbidden to speak their languages. But when they were alone, the narrative goes, the children would braid long strands of grass into their regulation short hair, and decorate their bodies with colourful leaves, and hide in the fields far away from everybody else and talk to each other in Cree. So that this is a story of resilience and survival, even more so because the story is told through the perspective of a young girl who is asking her Kokum why she does things the way she does—have her hair so long, wear bright colours, speak in Cree, and Kokum explains that she does all these things because once upon a time she couldn’t.

September 29, 2017

The Man Who Loved Libraries, by Andrew Larsen and Katty Maurey

Harriet has decided she’s going to be Jane Goodall for Halloween, mostly as an excuse to carry around a stuffed monkey at school, but it seemed like a good excuse for a little educating. So I put a bunch of kids’ biographies on hold at the librarian, and they all came in on Tuesday. Tuesday was the second day of a heat warning here in Toronto, a stop at the library on the walk home from school serving as a very good pit-stop. And when we got there, the place was packed, people escaping the heat, reading books and magazines, kids spinning on the spinning chairs, playing games on the computer, washing their hands in the bathroom because they were sticky from where popsicles had melted in the heat.

The library is for everyone, I was thinking as I took in the scene on Tuesday, Harriet gathering her stack of books, heading over to sign them out on the library we got for her when she was just a few weeks old. I’ve written before about how important the library was to me when Harriet was small, and our experiences with phenomenal children’s librarians underlined my children’s pre-pre-school years when I was home with them, and taught me the stories and songs that would become the foundation of our familial literacy. Our kids continue to attend library programs. We visit as a family every couple of weeks, and borrow so many books we need to bring a stroller in order to cart them home. Books and reading are a bridge between the thirty years that divides me from my children; reading books together is the one activity that we’re able to reap enjoyment from on the very same level. And the library has ensured there’s always something new for us to explore. 

But the library isn’t just for us, the already book-spoiled. The library ensures that everyone has access to knowledge, to learning, to entertainment. To bathrooms too, and a place to sit down, and cool enough (or warm up, as the case may be). For a lot of kids, it’s where they get their access to computers, to the internet. It’s where people learn to format their resumes, where lonely people find company, where postpartum mothers go to give their muddy days a shape. For some people, the library is a comfortable place to sleep. They’re community centres, schools, literacy hubs. They’re about trust, community, democracy. I read a post recently where someone posited that if libraries didn’t exist and someone tried to invent one, you’d swear it would never ever work.

The funny thing that I hadn’t considered when I started this post is that I met Andrew Larsen at the library. We live in the same neighbourhood, and met when Harriet was small and he was on the cusp of publishing his second book, I think. And I would learn that he too felt the library had been essential to his experience as a stay-at-home parent, eventually leading his emergence as a children’s author. We have loved the books he’s published since, books that have delighted our family (“I read Andrew Larsen’s squiggly story today, Mommy,” reported Iris this very afternoon when I picked her up from junior kindergarten.) I’ve savoured our conversations on our walks to school together, and miss him now that his children have moved on to bigger kid things.

Andrew Larsen’s latest is a picture book biography of Andrew Carnegie, The Man Who Loved Libraries, illustrated by Katty Maurey who was also behind Kyo Maclear’s The Specific Ocean, another picture book we’ve loved. I’m familiar with Carnegie in theory, because he’d helped to build libraries in both of the Ontario towns I grew up in, as well as the Beaches, High Park and Wychwood Libraries in Toronto, among many many others. But Larsen’s story fills in the gaps—Carnegie was born in Scotland and moved to America as a child with his family who were looking for a better life. His first job was in a cotton mill, where he was a bobbin boy. A hard worker, he strove to get better work, and find whatever education was available to him. He made a point of teaching himself skills that would be relevant for work, but also was able to acquire deeper knowledge by accessing the private library of a wealthy businessman who opened its doors to workers on Saturday afternoons.

When Carnegie was 17, he got a job as a telegraph operator with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and by age 25 he was working in management. He started to make money, and invest money so that he made even more money. “By the time he was thirty-five, Andrew Carnegie’s investments had made him a rich man. He had more money than he could ever need. So what did he do?” Remembering the literary riches that had been shared with him in his youth, Carnegie worked to open public libraries so other working people could access books and learning. Carnegie’s first library was built in the Scottish village where he was born, and he would eventually build 2500 around the world.

Carnegie’s legacy is a mixed one, as a note at the back of the book makes clear. He fought against unions and resisted his employees’ efforts to fight for better working conditions and wages. As with everything, it’s complicated. But still, The Man Who Loved Libraries will provoke interesting conversations and make young readers reconsider ideas they might previously have taken for granted. At this moment in Western democracy, we need to underline the value of public libraries more than ever.

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.

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