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Pickle Me This

September 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

August 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

June 23, 2017

Rosie and Michael, by Judith Viorst and Lorna Tomei

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

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

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

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

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

June 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 2, 2017

Up, by Susan Hughes and Ashley Barron

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 26, 2017

The Gold Leaf, by Kirsten Hall and Matthew Forsythe

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 19, 2017

The Way Home in the Night, by Akiko Miyakoshi

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that everyone has their own story, about light in the dark, and pie, baths and bookshops. (The final clause of that sentence is evergreen, but still.) The Way Home in the Night, by Akiko Miyakoshi, brings all of these ideas together in a quiet thoughtful way and manages to be a lullaby—for the whole wide world.

(Check out the endpapers:)

Miyakoshi’s third book in English (after The Tea Party in the Woods and The Storm), The Way Home… is about a child (rabbit?) coming home when its late, sleepy in her mother’s arms. They walk together in the darkness of the city, past stores closing up shop, through empty streets which are illuminated by streetlights and the lights from people’s windows.

The child hears vague sounds, smells different scents in the air, and ponders what these tell us about what’s going onside the lives of the people at home in all the houses.

And I love that—curiosity about the lives of others, an acknowledgement that everybody is a character in their own story, stories we only sometimes get a glimpse of. That each of us is not the only person in the world, even, and that when we sleep—settling down to the bed as the narrator does after her mother tucks her in—the world is still going on without us, people going places, other people coming home.

The book then turns into an exercise in storytelling as the rabbit drifts into sleep, imagining the characters she encountered on her journey making their own way home, drawing a bath, settling down with a book. What can we know about other people, the book is asking us. And what does it mean when we bother to try? The point being that this wondering is what connects all, each of us with our own lit windows, our self-contained universes. In fact, we’re all a constellation.

May 4, 2017

A Bird Chronicle, by Ruth Ann Pearce & Rina Barone

I’ve been following Curiosity House Books on social media for awhile now, so when I finally got to visit Creemore on Saturday, a highlight was getting to see the picture book created by their in-house publishing company in real life. A Bird Chronicle is an ABC book, a bird book, and an art book. It’s even a font book—every letter and bird has its own typeface, i.e. H is for “Half-collared Kingfisher” and also for “Hoefler“; O is for “Ostrich” and “Optima.” Most of these are birds I’ve never heard of before (“i’iwi,” anybody? Or turquoise-browed motmot?) and each one is given a name (alphabetically, of course, i.e. the American Kestrel is called Andy) and a little alliterative verse that tells us something about the bird’s habits or habitat. It’s all a little bit abstract, but fun to read—try saying, “Oh how she wishes the fishes would just hurry up…” and not feel good. Each bird had a vivid colour illustration, accompanied by a very cool silhouette, and the whole thing is lovely. I would have bought it—even if H and I had not turned out to be particularly close to home… It’s a gorgeous, singular and enjoyable book, and everyone at our house has fallen in love with it.

April 21, 2017

Stop Feedin’ the Boids, by James Sage and Pierre Pratt

There are several levels in our appreciation of Stop Feedin’ Da Boids, the new picture book by James Sage and triple Governor-General’s Award Winner Pierre Pratt.

Number One: the whole wildlife in the city thing. I was a fan of Alissa York’s Fauna a few years back, and this story similarly illuminates the wildness hiding in the concrete jungle—and not just the people and their dogs either. Pratt’s beautiful spreads bring the diverse and frenetic city to life, and this is a city in particular: Brooklyn, to which Swanda has moved after years in the countryside, leaving rolling hills and animals grazing in pastures behind,

Number two: the pigeons. This has been a season for birds, literary-wise, but pigeons still don’t get a lot of respect. The great thing about wandering the city with children, however, is that they don’t discriminate, and pigeons and sparrows are as marvellous as downy headed woodpeckers. In fact, imagine seeing a pigeon for the first time in your life. Wouldn’t you think it beautiful? So I can kind of understand their appeal, why the animal-loving Swanda jumps on the pigeon-feeding train…but things quickly spiral out of control and soon the neighbourhood is overwhelmed in that particular way only pigeons can make an urban place.

Which brings me to the third level of our book appreciation, the splendid moment in the text when, after reading the scrams and the shoos and the subtle suggestions by neighbours and experts (“I’m afraid the problem with pigeons was ever thus…”, when finally, finally, push comes to shove, and the reader gets to proclaim with the entire city street:

It’s intoxicating, that proclamation. And now my three-year-old has taken to calling birds “boids,” and it’s catching. And now we kind of want to move to an apartment in Brooklyn with big old windows, fire escapes and a superintendent called Mr. Kaminski… By this point, however, Swanda has started feedin’ the fish, and you’re going to have to read the book to learn how that turns out.

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