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May 24, 2018

Turtle Pond, by James Gladstone and Karen Reczuch

Every time I go, Allan Gardens seems like a secret I’ve just been let in on, this tropical oasis in the heart of the city, even in the dead of the winter. And if Allan Gardens is a secret, then the Allan Gardens turtle pond is a treasure at the bottom of your pocket. When we go, we can linger there for ages as the waterwheel turns, counting the turtles, then counting them again, and never coming up with the same total twice. Everything they do is fascinating, and we watch them with wonder, these otherworldly creatures who are our neighbours. Eventually I wander off to check out the orchids, but my children never tire of watching the turtles in the turtle pond. And so we were all excited about Turtle Pond, by James Gladstone and Karen Reczuch, in which the magical Allan Gardens turtles finally find their way into proper legend, where they belong. For us, this story of a trip to the turtle pond is perfectly familiar, and the illustrations do a lovely job of conjuring the experience, and for those who haven’t learned the secret yet, this book is a great place to start discovering.

PS Happy World Turtle Day! 

 

May 18, 2018

They Say Blue, by Jillian Tamaki

I’m in love with They Say Blue, the debut picture by Jillian Tamaki as author, although she’s an award-winning illustrator best known for Skim and This One Summer, with Mariko Tamaki. They Say Blue is an abstract story that reminds me of The Color Kittens, by Margaret Wise Brown, but with fewer kittens, the way that one thing runs into another. “They say blue is the colour of the sky,” the story begins, “which is true today!” And here we see an image of a little girl sitting on a beach. “They say the sea is blue, too. It certainly looks like it from here.” But not everything they say is true, of course, as the girl realizes when she holds water in her hands and “it’s as clear as glass.” Are blue whales blue, she wonders. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen a blue whale…but I don’t need to crack an egg to know it holds an orange yolk inside.” And then the story moves from blue, to orange, to red, and gold. “A field of grass looks like a golden ocean.” And then it’s raining, and there’s a crocus: “Oh! Could purple mean something new?” As cold turns to warm, the girl sheds her winter layers. “I stretch to the sky with my fingers open wide.” And she turns into a tree. Moving through the seasons, changes, and it’s winter again. “All white, up and down. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between the land and sky.” She is a girl again, curled up, asleep: “Black is the colour of my hair.” And this part, which is my favourite: “My mother parts it every morning, like opening a window,” and the golden light comes in again. The story going on, as the girl and her mother watch crows out the window. “We wonder what they are thinking when they look at us. What they see….” The story’s final image is a red and orange sunset, the crows in flight. “Tiny inkblots on a sea of sky.”

This is a story about change and mutability, the possibilities of becoming, and the blurring of distinctions between one thing and another. It’s about imagination in flight, about the connections inherent between living things, between human beings and our landscapes. About questions, and wondering, and how nothing ever stands still.

And it’s absolutely stunning.

May 4, 2018

EveryBody’s Different on EveryBody Street

One of the best people I’ve ever known is Tracey, who we were all lucky enough to learn from during the years my children were enrolled at Huron Playschool and she was their teacher. She taught me all the best things I know about getting along with people, a project which is forever a work-in-progress, I know, but I find myself coming back to our conversations all the time. Our Playschool was a cooperative, so getting along with people was integral to the success of anything, but even more important was understanding and appreciating the different skills and abilities that everybody was able to bring to the table. And essentially, that there are always going to be some people who don’t do their part, who complicate processes, who made things harder for everyone else. But this too is exactly what people are, I remember Tracey telling me one day. When you sign up for a co-op/a community/a society/to be a person in the world, you don’t always get to pick your fellow travellers. The very point of everything is: it takes all sorts.

Which is the very spirit that infuses EveryBody’s Different on EverBody Street, by Sheree Fitch, illustrated by Emma Fitzgerald, a reissue of a poem Fitch published in 2001 to support a hospital charity and mental health initiatives. “If ever you go travelling/ On EveryBody Street/ You’ll see EveryBody’s/Different/ Than EveryOne you meet…”

The poem goes on to discuss how some are messy and some are neat, some grow tomatoes, and some don’t have enough to eat. “Some of us hold bags of hope/ Like babies in our arms/ Some hope over sidewalk cracks/ In search of good luck charms…” Some people are outgoing, others hold their selves inside.

“Some of us have visions/ Some of us have schemes/ Most of us have wishes/ All of us have dreams…”

And this, THIS: “All of us are perfect/ And all of us have flaws.” Which is the best two opposing ideas I’ve ever been able to hold in my head at the same time, such an important reminder to learn to accept and understand people as they are, to appreciate their unique qualities and even the ways they challenge things. Nobody’s perfect, and everyone’s perfect—what a thing. And it’s what Tracey was saying all along.

April 27, 2018

Back to the Future, by Kim Smith

When I was about seven or eight-years-old, Back to the Future was my favourite movie. Marty McFly was so unfathomably cool hitching a ride on his skateboard around town, and the movie suggested a perfectly ordered universe where there was such a thing as destiny (and  density) in that mom was always going to fall in love with dad, Michael J. Fox actually invented rock and roll, and the bully wouldn’t triumph. I mean, just as long as no one disrupted the Space Time Continuum, obviously. In a perfectly ’80s anecdote, I will tell you that I once tried to install a flux capacitor (I think it was a a coat hanger) to make a time machine out of my Dukes of Hazzard Big Wheel. Sadly, it didn’t actually work, probably because I couldn’t get any plutonium.

A few months ago, I decided it was finally time for us to sit down and watch Back to the Future en famille. (“Your kids, Marty! We’ve got to do something about your kids!”) And unlike many movies that had delighted me once upon a time (The Goonies? So shrill!) Back to the Future held up perfectly. 33 years later, Marty’s suspenders/puffy vest outfit just works somehow, the Huey Lewis is fantastic, the ’80s are the future arrived at, and the jokes are still funny—remember Uncle “Jailbird” Joey and “get used to those bars, kid?” Plus, Wayne from The Wonder Years in a Davy Crockett hat.

Harriet loved Back to the Future as much as I did when I was her age, which has made the new Back to the Future picture book an especially coveted item at our house.

Part of Quirk Books’ series of nostalgic pop-culture picture books (whose titles include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the X Files and E.T.) by Canadian illustrator Kim Smith, these books are a kids’-eye-view of the pop-classics we grew up loving. Skipping some bits—the Libyan terrorists, George McFly as a peeping tom, the whole “Calvin Klein” mix-up surrounding Lorraine and Marty’s underwear—the film’s plot is told in picture book form, right down to the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance and the disappearing photo of Marty and his siblings in front of the wishing well.

Will Marty be able to teach his dad to stand up for himself, reunite his parents, invent rock and roll, and drive his De Lorean by the Hill Valley clock tower at the precise moment that lightning strikes, by which powering his journey back to the future? Well, no spoilers here, but I’ll tell you that the story ends with Doc Brown and Marty heading off on another time travelling adventure.

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads…” 

April 20, 2018

The Bagel King, by Andrew Larsen

We love Andrew Larsen’s new book, The Bagel King, about Eli, whose Sunday morning ritual involves his grandfather arriving with bagels fresh from the bakery. Sometimes Zaida lets Eli come with him, and Eli gets a pickle from the big jar behind the counter, but usually Zaida comes to him. With the bagels. Except one Sunday he doesn’t! Turns out Zaida slipped on some schmaltz and hurt his tuches—and one of the best parts of this book is the Yiddish glossary which means we now know how to say “tuches.” Zaida’s injury has taken the best thing out of Sunday for not only Eli, but also for Zaida’s neighbours, who’d come to rely on his bagel deliveries as well. And so the next Sunday Eli steps in to fill the gap, and it becomes apparent that the bagel kingdom is something a person can inherit. And good thing—because what’s a Sunday without bagels, Zaida asks, in this story about intergenerational relationships, family and neighbourhood connections, the importance of ritual, plus pickles and carbs. “Warm. Chewy. Salty. Bagels were the best thing about Sunday. The best thing, that is, except for Zaida.”

March 29, 2018

The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow, by Jan Thornhill

My husband got a new camera, and has been snapping photos all over town, including one shot of a ubiquity of sparrows in a tree, hopping from branch to branch and singing their song. He’d taken the photo after we all encountered the sparrows on our way to the library, pausing to watch them sparrowing. The sparrows were fascinating, and later as we looked at the photo we started talking about sparrows, how they were an invasive species, and I’d read once that that campaigns had used their domesticity (‘house’ sparrow) to have them further reviled—so it’s a gender issue, naturally. And then I realized that here was the segue I’d been waiting for.

“We have a book about sparrows, you know,” I said. A book that is absolutely gorgeous, Jan Thornhill’s The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow, which follows up on her award-winning The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk. I’d been intrigued by the sparrow book, but wasn’t sure what to do with it—it’s too long for bedtime reading, but looks like a picture book, so my biology-obsessed reader might not be inclined to pick it up on her own. So this was a perfect opportunity, and I started reading it out loud over dinner, and all of us were absolutely riveted.

Honestly, I’m not going to tell you everything, because I don’t want to deprive you of the experience we had again and again in this book, of beginning a new paragraph only to have our minds blown. We learned how sparrow species date back to prehistoric times and how populations of sparrows grew and changed their habits when humans discovered agriculture and started harvested the sparrow’s favourite food, which was grain. And now humans and sparrows have been living side-by-side ever since.

Sparrow populations spread as human populations did, house sparrows displaying their signature adaptability. But, Thornhill writes, “We humans have never been very good at sharing the food we grow with other animals—unless those animals are pets or livestock. The ones that eat our crops, we consider pests…and we always have.”

The remains of sparrows have been found in the stomachs of mummified falcons from ancient Egypt, and ancient Egyptians used a hieroglyph of a house sparrow to describe something as bad or evil. House sparrows would stow away on ships carrying the Roman legion. They grew so numerous that “sparrow catcher” became a legitimate occupation and sparrow bounties were demanded—although their meat was spare. “In fact, one old recipe for a simple sparrow pie calls for the meat from at least five dozen birds!”

But the house sparrow is not just detested. Thornhill underlining our own experience with the following paragraph: “[The house sparrow] can be fun to watch, particularly since it will go about its business—eating, preening, dust bathing, feeding its young—much closer to humans than other wild birds.” (We have spent hours over the years stopped at a house around the corner with a feeder in front watching the sparrows do what sparrows do. It never ever gets old…)

Sparrows were brought to North America and soon spread across the country, even hitching rides on boxcars with livestock and sharing their dinner. There were sparrow crackdowns even here eventually, though sparrow populations would soonafter decline for a different reason relating to the advent of automobiles, which was our favourite fact of the book (and such a neat lesson in unexpected consequences…). In 1958, Chairman Mao declared war on the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, which he saw as depriving food from Chinese people…and the decimated sparrow population that resulted would lead to a plague of insects, crop devastation, and a famine in which thirty million people starved to death.

The history of the house sparrow would turn out to be the history of everything, but the future of the house sparrow is also important. In some regions, sparrow populations having been declining for reasons scientists don’t understand, and while Thornhill is not an alarmist, she speculates that this reason might be important, and that the status of any species so connected with our own probably matters a lot. Because everything is actually connected, which is the very point of this wonderful, fascinating book.

March 16, 2018

March Break Special: The Big Bed, by Bunmi Laditan

A weird thing is March Break just a week after a week-long vacation, which makes it seem like those few days of school were a blip and we’ve been on vacation forever. And I am the luckiest because I work from home and therefore March Break gets to be a real thing here (except I am also the unluckiest, because it means I have to cram my workday into a couple of hours every morning while my children watch television; come next week I’ll have catching up to do). We didn’t have elaborate plans for the week, but they’ve come together nicely, and we’ve been up to fun things and enjoying evenings without the rush of getting to various activities and also no making lunches. And so to celebrate this free-and-easy week of goodness, I’m making this week’s Picture Book Friday selection a book that my children absolutely adore, a real crowd-pleaser, a book my littlest calls “the pee-pee book,” which is The Big Bed, by Bunmi Laditan, illustrated by Tom Knight.

You probably already know Laditan as the writer behind the very funny Honest Toddler blog and book, and she brings the same approach and humour to her first picture book. It’s written in the voice of a young child who is very persuasive and attempting to explain to her father just why she deserves his spot in the big bed with Mommy. “When day turns to night, it’s normal for people to seek comfort. No one can deny that Mommy is full of cozies and smells like fresh bread. Who wouldn’t want to cuddle with her?” Making good points too: “Quick question: Am I mistaken, or don’t you already have a mommy? Perhaps Grandma is available to sing you to sleep three or four nights a week.” And yes, maybe the narrator does tend to leave the bed a little, um, damp in the morning—but she’s got good three reasons why this is actually a positive thing (even if they are a little yuck). She’s even got a plan, in the form of a camping cot. She’s even going to let her daddy pick out some special new sheets for his “awesome sleeping rectangle.”

It’s a story that resonates for all of us, mostly because there was an extra body or two in our bed for years and I do indeed remember the struggles. Though to those of you still in the midst of sleep struggles or bed woes, maybe hold off on this book for just a little while longer. You wouldn’t want your little bed sharer getting any more ideas….

March 9, 2018

Sugar and Snails, by Sarah Tsiang and Sonja Wimmer

A thing that has surprised me lately is how much so many people seem to have invested in archaic systems I wouldn’t have thought give us much to cheer for, systems like colonialism, white supremacy, and the patriarchy. It’s a thing I’ve only been able to be surprised by, really, because I’ve gone about for 38 years in the world with white skin, an able body, financial stability, among other advantages I’m lucky enough to take for granted, which means there is a whole lot of living that I’ve never seen. Although I’m still a bit nostalgic for a few years ago though when I thought there were just a handful of stupid people who talked about things like “reverse racism,” and we just laughed at them—but now there are hordes who get outraged because a fruit stand puts up a sign that says “Resist White Supremacy.” A UK department store decides not to label children’s clothing by gender, and people go bananas. Which means that this is a particular cultural moment to publish a book critiquing what little boys and girls are made of (“frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails,” and “sugar and spice, and all things nice”), I think. I’m anticipating a backlash to Sarah Tsiang’s new picture book—Sugar and Snails, illustrated by Sonja Wimmer—that involves furious anti-PC women shoving puppy dog tails down their poor sons’ throats.

I’m anticipating the backlash because a) obviously, I’m kidding b) people are stupid and c) what Tsiang sets out to do in her story, she accomplishes so well, Wimmer’s images underpinning the whole project with a foundation of pure magic. (Sarah Tsiang is also author of the amazing picture book, A Flock of Shoes, among others, and magic is kind of her forte.) The book’s first image is a tapestry upon which the traditional rhyme has been cross-stitched, and then we see an older man with a boy and a girl, presumably his grandchildren, and the grandchildren are having none of that gender binary nonsense—the side-eye from the girl when she’s accused of being made of sugar and spice is pretty epic. And her brother wants to know, “What about sweet boys like me?”

But their grandfather is struggling to remember how it goes—”Pirate and dogs and noisy bullfrogs”? Are girls made of “Snails and rocks and butterfly socks?” And suddenly they’re all making it up together, a world where boys are made of “lightning, and newts and rubber rain boots” and girls are made of “boats and whales and dinosaur tales.” Wimmer’s illustrations literalizing the nonsense rhymes so that we see the kitchen filled with water as the boy wades in his rain boots and his sister swims as a whale (and everywhere there are teacups and teapots, which means this whole book is so up my alley I feel like I live within its pages…) There is also a reference to chicken butts, which means the children are totally on board, although they were pretty enthused in the first place. And never before has the patriarchy been bashed with such whimsy and a spirit of fun.

The book concludes with the tapestry image from the first page, but the children have pulled out many of the threads. Which means the work is still half-done, of course. Sugar and Snails inspires us to keep on imagining new possibilities for what boys and girls can be.

February 9, 2018

Author’s Day, by Daniel Pinkwater

Being an author always seems like it might be a little bit glamorous, which I know because I spent a large part of my life wanting to be one. Back in the days before I knew that your favourite author “spending an afternoon signing” at a big box bookstore really means she’s sitting lonely at a table, trying to coerce strangers into purchasing her book via fledgling sales and marketing techniques, unless she was JK Rowling, which she usually wasn’t. I have never spent an afternoon signing books at Indigo, mostly because I do not overestimate my own popularity and also I read that essay years ago by Margaret Atwood about signing her book in the socks department at Eatons. My first experience of encountering my novel in a bookstore only underlined to me that being an author is an exercise in mild humiliation. I’m still pretty raw about the reading I did in 2014 that nobody came to. Although I felt better after I did an event with a wildly successful author not long ago who gave me a dirty look when I suggested that all her events were well-attended—maybe the problem wasn’t just me. And also after I read Billie Livingston’s beautiful essay about a US book tour event gone wrong that ended up going oh so right. About “the spark that connects far-flung strangers,” which is why we write at all really, and the great privilege of putting a book into the world.

I don’t know if I ever thought that being a children’s author might be a less humiliating experience than publishing novels for adults, but Daniel Pinkwater’s book Author’s Day suggests that it isn’t. I also don’t really know how Pinkwater managed to publish Author’s Day, unless maybe he’d given some publishing executive’s toddler the Heimlich Maneuver and the book was payback for the favour. Because, from a child’s eye view, Author’s Day is not particularly appealing. It’s a picture book with two-page text-only spreads. The story itself is passive-aggressive as all get-out, angry, mean and completely self-serving—and I love it. My children find it weird and a little bit funny, but I think it’s brilliant. I found it in the library about a year ago, and then absolutely had to have a copy of my own, which I was able to purchase on Amazon for a penny.

The plot is this: it’s Author’s Day. A banner is hung. Everybody at the school is very excited about the visit of Bramwell Wink-Porter, author of The Fuzzy Bunny. Except, “I did not write The Fuzzy Bunny,” says Bramwell Wink-Porter to himself when he reads the banner. “The name of my book is The Bunny Brothers.” When he informs the principal, Mrs. Feenbogen, she suggests, “[P]erhaps you can talk about The Fuzzy Bunny, even though you did not write it.” In the school library, there is a box of books for Bramwell Wink-Porter to sign, and the books in that box are Bunnies for Breakfast, written by Lemuel Crankstarter. But before anything can be sorted out, Wink-Porter is dragged off to the kindergarten where numerous sticky children insist on hugging him and feeding him pancakes with pieces of crayons in them. And then he arrives in Grade One, where the children have dressed up in Fuzzy Bunny Masks and Fuzzy Bunny hats. They ask him questions like, “Was it hard to write The Fuzzy Bunny?” And then he goes to the staff room, where a teacher gives him a sandwich that was the favourite sandwich of the fuzzy bunny in The Fuzzy Bunny.

“I did not write that book, you know, said Bramwell Wink-Porter.

“I am Mrs. Wheatbeet,” said the teacher. “I have written a book too. It is called Bunnies in Love. I have it here. It is nine hundred pages long. I wonder if you would read it while you eat your lunch… If you like, you can give me your address… I will bring you the book and I will wait in the car while you read it.”

…Another teacher sat down. “I am Mrs. Heatseat. I think it is wrong that animals do not wear clothes. I know you agree with me, because the Fuzzy Bunny always wears a raincoat.”

The fourth and fifth graders give him drawings of the Fuzzy Bunny on large sheets of paper with coloured chalk that gets all over his clothes. They let him pet their class bunny, who bites Bramwell Wink-Porter on the thumb. And then he goes to the sixth grade.

The sixth graders were waiting in the library. “Hey, doofus!” one of the sixth graders shouted. “You’ve got a slice of bologna stuck to your shirt, and there is coloured chalk all over your clothes!”

They end up tying Bramwell Wink-Porter to a chair.

And suddenly I feel better about everything, and very much not alone.

January 26, 2018

Picture Book Friday: The Lost Words

A bit of magic was delivered to our house this week with the arrival of The Lost Words, by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris, which I first learned about via MacFarlane’s essay in The Guardian about how British children are losing the words to describe their country’s natural places. The Lost Words is a book about absence and things that are missing, this theme reflected in the title fonts with their missing pieces, and the two-page spreads in which an absence is shown by white space. The missing thing from each spread is shown on the next page in full colour illustration with an acrostic poem on the facing page, which sounds like the worst idea ever, but these poems are wonderful. “Rustle of grass, sudden susurrus, what/ the eye misses:/ For adder is as adder hisses.” And not poems, even, according to MacFarlane, but spells. “You hold in your hands a spell book for conjuring back these lost words,” he writes in a brief introduction. “To read it you will need to seek, find and speak.” And magic indeed are what these spells are—the one about the conker is absolutely perfect, about how it’s an object so magnificent (and isn’t it?) that it could not be manufactured. “…conker cannot be made,/ however you ask it, whatever word or tool you use,/ regardless of decree, Only one thing can conjure/ conker—and that thing is a tree.”

 

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