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November 9, 2018

A World of Kindness

The superhero of my day today was the woman behind the counter of the Second Cup coffee shop where I was working this morning who engaged with every customer like she was happy to see them, who helped at least two elderly customers with fine motor tasks they were struggling with, and you could tell that for some people their conversations with her were the best parts of their days. She was just base level kind to everyone, and I thanked her for it when I finally left, because I liked the world a little bit better due to the fact that she was in it. Hers were little gestures, but they mean so much, and it’s how it all adds up that really matters, which is the point of a new picture book I love, A World of Kindness.

In a note inside the book, Pajama Press Publisher Gail Winskill writes that the idea for the book was born when her three-year-old granddaughter asked her one day, “Nana, how can I be kind?” Dedicated to the memories of Fred Rogers and Ernie Coombs (Misters Rogers and Dressup, respectively), the book has us to begin to contemplate that question, and makes some suggestion toward answers. “Do you wait your turn?/ Will you help someone younger…/or older?” Each page features art by Pajama Press’s acclaimed illustrators, some from previous books and others original (and my children were excited to see illustrations from books they’ve loved before!). Being gentle with animals, saying please and thank you, helping shy friends join in, watching over those who need it. “Will you be a friend to someone new?”

The ideas are simple, but they’re also transformative and profound, and the depth and diversity of illustrations on this book provide another layer of richness, making A World of Kindness a deeply meaningful read. Even better: royalties from the book will be donated to Think Kindness.

November 2, 2018

Dr. Jo, by Monica Kulling

With her latest book Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America’s Children, Monica Kulling continues to write fascinating (and often feminist!) biographies of remarkable figures who should be better known. We were huge fans of her Spic & Span, a biography of Lillian Gilbreth, who was not only the real-life mother of the Cheaper By the Dozen family, but she was also an efficiency expert, author, psychologist, industrial engineer, and inventor of the shelves inside your fridge door, the electric mixer AND the foot-pedal garbage can, which might make you wonder why all the books in the world aren’t about Lillian Gilbreth. But in the meantime, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker is worthy of a story of her own.

“People called Sara Josephine Baker a tomboy,” the book begins. “Jo did things that the quiet and polite girls of her day did not do…” From playing sports and skating on the Hudson River, to attending medical school—Jo’s interest in being a doctor underlined by the deaths of her father and brother from typhoid fever caused by a hospital dumping sewage in that same river. The importance of public health was also made apparent to Jo through these tragedies, and once she became a physician she realized that working as a health inspector would permit her to make an even greater difference. Kulling shows Jo working in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, where disease spread quickly through tenement housing. And while the illustrations are cheerful and bright, the text doesn’t shy away from the realities of poverty and deprivation—Dr. Jo is called to a family whose baby dies of heatstroke, and another baby she visits has become blind from drops used to clear bacteria from its eyes. Kulling walks a perfect balance between message and story to deliver a picture book that readers of all ages will enjoy.

Kulling shows how Dr. Jo started the practice of licensing midwives to make births safe, organized stations where children could access clean milk, solved the problem of eye drops being contaminated with bacteria, and designed infant clothing that made for better temperature control. “Dr. Jo understood the connection between poverty and illness. Throughout her life she worked tirelessly to improve the health of women and their children in New York and other big cities.”

October 19, 2018

Africville, by Shauntay Grant and Eva Campbell

I am generally impressed with the search function for my online photos—if I search for “playground,” “Kensington Market,” or “bookstore,” it tends to have an uncanny sense of what I’m looking for, although it still has trouble telling the difference between a cup of tea and bowl of soup. But a search for “Africville” turned up nothing, a location Google didn’t recognize—which meant I had to go back into the archive and find the photo myself, the one of my children in front of the Africville Museum on our trip to Nova Scotia in 2017.

Which actually didn’t surprise me in the slightest, the history of Halifax’s historic Black community being one that’s not much about erasure, never mind that many of its residents could trace their roots back to the arrival of Black Loyalists in Canada during the American Revolutionary War. But while the community thrived in many ways, Africville’s residents never receive the same services as other taxpayers in the Halifax area, such as running water or sewage systems, and the municipality also saw fit to zone a garbage dump and slaughterhouses as its neighbours–all of which meant that when it became fashionable to condemn this historic Black community and recommend its demolition, there appeared to be plenty of reasons to support this action, and in the 1960s—against opposition—residents were moved out and the community was torn down.

On the site now, a replica of the community’s church has been built as a museum, following the declaration of Africville as a National Historic Site of Canada in 2002. Our visit in 2017  was moving and informative, with a great scavenger hunt that got my children involved and engaged with the exhibits, and prompted important conversations about systemic racism and its historic legacies. But while there were books in the giftshop, there were no picture books about Africville exactly. Instead, we got Up Home, a beautiful book about another Nova Scotian Black community called North Preston, written by poet Shauntay Grant—whose The City Speaks in Drums we also picked up somewhere along the way, a perfect Halifax souvenir. All this meaning that I’ve been really looking forward to Grant’s latest release, Africvillea finalist for this year’s Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature, lyrically resonant and stunningly illustrated by Eva Campbell.

“Take me to the end of the ocean,” the book begins, “where waves come to rest and hug the harbour stones.” Africville reimagined in Campbell’s illustrations, oil and pastel on canvas, brightly coloured houses beside the bright blue sea. Blueberries growing on the hill, smells of apple pie and blueberry duff drifting from the kitchens. Football, rafting, and warm summer nights, “down at Kildare’s Field,/ a bonfire burning red/like the going-down sun.”

“Where the pavement ends and family begins.”

Through her story, Grant shows the resilience of Halifax’s Black community who wasn’t about to let their history disappear, and founded an annual Africville reunion festival in 1983, which continues years later and helped lead to the historic site declaration decades later. The rainbow houses are gone, but we see a stone marking the names of community families, and celebrations and singing inside the festival tent. “…where memories turn to dreams,/ and dreams turn to hope,/ and hope never ends. Take me…to Africville.” A history that’s erased no longer.

October 12, 2018

Picture Book Friday: The Crowd Pleasers Edition

We’re pretty-obsessed with Hotel Fantastic, Thomas Gibeault’s picture book about a journey’s end that’s beyond your wildest imaginings. It’s a place like no other, indeed, providing a good night’s sleep to all sorts of creatures—dragons, robots, mermaids, monsters, and giants. There’s a gryphon in the gift shop and a Viking in the restaurant (where everything is roasted with dragon fire). There’s even a rooftop pool, and of course there is, because the Hotel Fantastic has everything, including a ballroom with a disco ball and an infirmary, and hotel security is a knight, a ninja, a superhero and a t-rex—but even they are no match for the PLOT TWIST that reaches in to the Hotel Fantastic at the end of the story and turns the whole thing on its nose. This book is an ode to play and unbounded imagination, as well as the realities of meddlesome siblings. Plus, Gibault’s illustrations are rich with colour and detail, drawing readers right in.

**

And Steve is back! We’re so excited. We loved Kelly Collier’s debut, A Horse Named Steve, and have been wondering what he’s been up lately, that loveable, self-obsessed equine. And so expectations were pretty high for Team Steve, her follow-up, but I’m pleased to announce that we heartily endorse it. And by “we,” I’m not being royal, but mean literally “we”  with my team in picture book criticism, those without whom there would be no storytime, by husband and two children. We love Steve, who thinks he’s got the annual race-a-thon ALL TIED UP because he’s got the longest legs of all the creatures. Except now the rules have changed, and the race is a relay, and Steve’s on the team with Duck, Turtle and Snail. “Wait a sec,” says Steve. “A duck waddles, a turtle walks, and a snail…is a snail! How are we supposed to win?” But Steve, see, just literally can’t lose, no matter what he does, partly because this an unlikely tortoise and the hare-type story, but also because he’s got an ego as big as his heart is. This is a book with twists and turns (and plods and shuffles), and the ending was absolutely a delight.

October 8, 2018

The Reptile Club, and other great books

In lieu of a Picture Book Friday post, check out my round-up of great picture books for autumn—which includes the absolutely delightful The Reptile Club, by Maureen Fergus and Elina Ellis.

September 28, 2018

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, by Linda Bailey and Julia Sarda

“HOW DOES A STORY BEGIN? Sometimes it begins with a dream…”

I’ve been really looking forward to Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Julia Sarda, which brings together so many of my favourite things: Sarda’s creepy/gorgeous art—she also illustrated Kyo Maclear’s The Liszts; early feminist history with references with Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelley’s father, William Godwin, would teach her to read by tracing the letters of her mother’s gravestone; the fantastic story of the creation of the Frankenstein; and also the character of Mary Shelley herself, bookish and rebellious. By the time she is a teenager, Bailey writes, Mary “has become a Big Problem,” and she’s sent to live away from her family in Scotland. “But at sixteen, when she returns to her family, she is still a Big Problem.”

“And what does she do next?” the story continues. “She becomes an even Bigger Problem. She runs away with a brilliant young poet…” In dark and brooding spreads, we see Mary Shelley and her companions travelling through Europe, meeting up with Lord Byron in Switzerland, and that dark and stormy night with the ghost story contest 200 years that has since become the stuff of legends and birthed one of the most famous stories ever told.

Throughout the story and detailed in the illustrations are all the seeds that would culminate in the Frankenstein story, intermingled with an emphasis on tales and dreamy, and steeped in a delightfully creepy aesthetic. Readers discover that powerful stories can come from unlikely places—even an eighteen-year-old girl who wasn’t sure she’d have a story to tell. We see the way that the borders between stories, dreams and life are fuzzy, and how they overlap in places—and the incredible possibilities this offers for what we can make of our lives.

September 21, 2018

Hansel & Gretel, by Bethan Woollen

Things get a bit weird in Bethan Woollen’s Hansel & Gretel, which is a book you’ve probably got to get if you’ve read her Little Red and Repunzel and you have completist tendencies. See photo below for what I’m talking about:

Once again, Woollvin is revising a fairy tale we think we know, but this time she’s telling it from a different point of view. Yes, a house made out of gingerbread might turn out to be all too tempting for a brother and sister who are lost in the woods, but luring children wasn’t what the good witch Willow had in mind when she conjured the spell to build her house. A miscalculation, maybe, but when Hansel and Gretel come tramping through the woods scattering breadcrumbs, which are sure to lure mice and other pests and therefore put Willows gingerbread house at risk, she  politely asks them to clean up the crumbs, which they refuse. And when she has her back turned cleaning up the crumbs herself, the recalcitrant pair begin snacking on the house, which might be the final straw for some witches, but not this witch, who determines Hansel and Gretel must be hungry and invites them to come in for dinner.

It turns out that Hanesel and Gretel have no manners at all, however, and they gobble up all of Willow’s food, then start messing with her spells and wands, turn the black cat gigantic, and then Gretel stuffs Willow into the oven so she and her brother can continue to make trouble—but then the house is so full over magic, it explodes: “It was only made out of gingerbread after all.”

And so it is here that Willow finally decides to get her comeuppance, concocting a nasty bit of revenge that Hansel and Gretel completely had coming, and which hearkens back to a bit of fairy tale darkness worthy of Grimm’s.

September 14, 2018

Pinny in Fall, by Joanne Schwartz and Isabelle Malenfant

Before Joanne Schwartz was taking over the literary world with her beautiful picture book, illustrated by Sydney Smith, Town Is By The Sea, she was author of a whole bunch of other lovely picture books, among them the perfectly delightful Pinny in Summer, which we fell in love with two years ago and inspired us to bake a cake. And so we’ve been looking forward to Pinny’s return with Pinny in Fall, a collection of four miniature adventures that demonstrate the amazing possibilities of a single day, smallness (and slowness) writ large in an approach that reminds me of the Frog and Toad books.

“Does Pinny have parents?” my children wonder when we read this book, and I tell them that her parents are probably curled up in comfortable chairs somewhere reading. Which means that Pinny can do whatever she wants to—in the first story she wakes up and does her stretches, and then packs a small bag for her morning walk, with a sweater, a rain hat, a snack, and her book. Plus her treasure pouch, which was hanging on a hook by the door.

On her walk to the lighthouse, she encounters her pals, Annie and Lou, and they play tag in the wind and the fog, and then Pinny shares her snack and they read poetry. “The sun slipped behind the clouds, once, and then it was completely gone.” The fog is getting thicker in the third story (which Malenfant renders beautifully in her art) and Pinny and her friends have to rush to help the lighthouse keeper sound the foghorn and light the light. With their help, a ship safely navigates its way along the rocky shore, and the lighthouse keeper rewards the children: a piece of beach glass for each of them. Pinny slips hers into her treasure pouch.

And in the final story, Pinny is sipping hot chocolate by her window. As with Pinny in Summer, the colours in this book are particularly and beautifully hued, and the light that shines into Pinny’s room at the end of the day continues to be the most wonderful thing. This time coloured by the leaves falling outside her window: “A Special Kind of Rain.” After going outside to soak in it, she comes back in and the day is nearly done—her takes the beach glass from her treasure pouch and sets it on the window. “The glass had been washed so smooth by the ocean, it glowed in the twilight like a tiny bacon of light.”

Pinny in Fall is a gorgeous, old-fashioned story with such reverence for language, and wholly infused with a sense of wonder that will inspire readers to look at the world differently and seek out adventures of their own.

September 7, 2018

Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings, by Naseem Hrab and Josh Holinaty

The children went back to school this week, and nobody cried—except me when they played “We Are Going to Be Friends”  on the radio, but I’m not counting that. And while there is nothing wrong with crying, that nobody did cry means that this week has been relatively smooth sailing, so far. (Lack of sleep notwithstanding. ASBWU! [Always Somebody Be Waking Up!, possibly our new family motto]) But in Naseem Hrab’s Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings, illustrated by Josh Holinaty, things are just a little more emotional…

(Psst: see Hrab’s ‘An Open Letter to the Stranger Who Asked Me, “How Did You Write That Book for Children If You Don’t Have Children?”’)

This is Hrab and Holinaty’s second book about Ira Crumb, whose best friend is Malcolm Cake, who appears to be a rabbit. And they have a good time together and indulge in extra pickles, and everything is perfect until a little rift because Malcolm wants to play tag and Ira doesn’t, and finally Ira ends up alone. And not just alone: sad and alone.

“My tummy hurts,” says Ira, in comics-inspired speech bubbles. “My chin is wobbling. My eyes are leaking. Even my feelings are having feelings.”

This is a great book about emotions and the importance of feeling your feelings, but it’s also really fun to read with lots of deadpan humour, great pace and rhythm, and an anthropomorphic fart, of curse. The latter point meaning that the children really like it, but the really important part is that their parents like it too.

June 15, 2018

The Steves, by Morag Hood

A thought that occurs to me sometimes is that there are an awful lot of Steves in general, and definitely too many Stevens in Canadian Literature (but not you, Steven, I’m talking about the other ones, unless you are that one, then I am definitely talking about you), and then yesterday I got this package in the mail, so the whole situation has definitely become alarming. Which seemed like the perfect occasion to make The Steves, by Morag Hood, my picture book Friday selection, I thought, even though Hood’s Steves are not Canadian and therefore can’t be held responsible for CanLit Steveness (but they would probably get along well with Kelly Collier’s Horse Named Steve, who has a new book out this fall called Team Steve [YAY!!!]).

Morag Hood’s Steves are puffins, naturally, each is surprised to find another Steve on his turf. “But I was here first,” declares Steve. “BY ONE PAGE,” declares Steve in a different typeface. Neither is content to let the other be Steve the First. Who is the oldest? Who is the wisest? Who is the greatest? Yes indeed, this becomes just another Steve-measuring contest. Which one is the Stevest Steve? They even turn to insults: “WEIRD FEET STEVE.” “SMELLS OF POO STEVE.” Which takes the whole thing just a step too far, and then the friends apologize, shortly before running into a third puffin, and guys, you’re never going to guess what his name is…

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