December 2, 2016
I full-on believed in Santa Claus until I was eleven, mostly through sheer force of will and because I was a strange child, and I’ve actually kind of still believed in him ever since then. If asked if there is a Santa, I’ll never say one way or another, because there are some kinds of magic that are beyond our understanding. If asked if I in fact partake in performing the duties of Santa, I may concede that I do, but that such partaking is in fact part of the magic, but no one’s asked me that question yet. There have been other question though, and I will answer them carefully, recalling my own longing to believe that so preoccupied me as a child, a longing that had me actually making notes on the books I was reading and tallying those in which Santa was confirmed as real or otherwise within said books (and there became more of the latter, obviously, as I became actually eleven—I think I was actually reading Sidney Sheldon novels when I was eleven, although Santa rarely came up in these).
The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold, by Maureen Fergus (Buddy and Earl) and Cale Atkinson (If I Had a Gryphon) is definitely pro-Santa, and the perfect book contending with these sorts of questions who’s just not quite ready to give up yet. Santa, it seems, has stopped believing in a child called Harold, because the letters Harold writes to Santa are penned by Harold’s mother and Santa’s snack each Christmas Eve is actually catered by Harold’s father. Santa’s wife tries to convince him otherwise, but Santa will not be deterred, and resolves to wait up until Christmas morning so he can see Harold for himself and finally discover whether or not he actually exists…
I bought this one to commemorate the beginning of the Christmas season, a new title for our Christmas book box, and we absolutely loved it. It’s sweet, silly, and the perfect Christmas book for the savvy kid who wants to go on believing just a little bit longer.
November 25, 2016
I’m going to say it—it’s been a rough few weeks. Yesterday I asked a parent in the school yard if he was American, intending to wish him a Happy Thanksgiving, and he looked so upset when I asked him. “I’m not accusing you of anything,” I said. “I’m just trying to create some distance from that mess,” he responded, and I got that. I’ve been trying to create some distance too. I took Twitter off my phone. Between conspiracy theories, white supremacy and CanLit ridiculousity, the platform has ceased to have much value except for to constantly have me exclaiming, “What that actual fuck?” I’ve tried telling men’s rights activists to eat various bags of dicks, and attempted to engage with a woman who insisted that the patriarchy wasn’t real (“That’s what they want you to think,” I told her, with a winky face, which she didn’t think was very funny, and my goodness, I thought feminists were the humourless ones) and watching what’s happening at Standing Rock just causes me to despair.
There are a whole lot of people on Twitter who, before November 8, I’d been in adamant disbelief that they were actually real. But it seems that they exist, human bots. Who refuse to read anything but Wikileaks emails, have eggs instead of heads (remember when once upon a time that implied intelligence?) and have no passion for anything except the things they hate. Which is anything the least bit challenging. And there is this atmosphere of disdain for feelings. Slinging “crybaby” like an epithet. This from people supporting a man whose supporters had been stockpiling arms for the event of their disappointment—and suddenly crying was something terrible? Speaking of alternate universes.
Who are they, the people who make fun of feelings. Do they not understand that it’s feelings that underline the dangerous fabric of nationalism? That there is nothing rational about screaming nonsensically at a rally, or screaming, “Kill the Bitch? (I am never going to forget that phrase.) That the notion of safety has become a joke. Why would denying others such a thing be the hill you’d choose to die on? And I keep getting emotional—of course I do. I feel terrible. I am sad, and angry, and frustrated, and disappointed. And really, really confused by the determination of others to put our precious, fragile, precarious arrangement in peril.
Pendulums swing though. And back. It’s the way of history. And it’s healthy to keep asking ourselves questions. “How do we keep what we believe in and know it’s right from becoming dogma?” I asked my friend May yesterday, and that’s a whole other blog post. We talked about how apparent injustices are now, all those things we were able to ignore before that have risen to the surface. To be acknowledged, looked in the face. Finally. It’s all very hard, but necessary. And in the meantime, the question of feelings are going to be more so. (See also this post: What are you going through?)
On Thursday I went to the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards Gala, and drank all the wine, which helped a bit with the whole feelings thing. And in my silly bubble of happy, I felt grateful to be surrounded by people who acknowledged the power of books and of story and truth and history. We need books more than we’ve ever needed them, books to keep us asking questions, books to make sense of the madness, and to underline to our children the things that are important and ever shall be.
Harriet remains a hedgehog fanatic, and therefore we have all become fond of the book, How Do You Feel?, by Rebecca Bender. I love the double meaning of the question (because anything that teaches that a single thing can have two realities is important), and that the answers to the questions are all about words and similes. The whole book is about connection, and it’s sweet and lovely, and also powerfully subversive in the most important way.
November 18, 2016
Congratulations to Melanie Florence and Francois Thisdale, whose hauntingly beautiful picture book, Missing Nimama, about a murdered Indigenous woman won the TD Children’s Book Prize last night at The Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards. This book is an extraordinary demonstration of what the picture book can be and do; you can read my review here. I’m also thrilled for Danielle Daniel who won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Prize for Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, another book we’re big fans of at our house.
A complete list of winners is here. It was a terrific night.
October 28, 2016
You might recall that back when Iris was the world’s most disagreeable baby, the only book that held her interest was Little You, by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett. It was a book that was so lovely I actually made the words into a lullaby, and the illustrations were so delightful that we got lost in them (the hole in the toe of the mother’s tights!), and we would have loved it so much anyway even if we hadn’t bowed down to it in gratitude for its suggestion to us that Iris was actually capable of liking things, and that she had superior literary taste even.
And so naturally, we’ve been excited about Flett and Van Camp teaming up again on another board book, even if my children (gulp) are beyond board books. Even if this is a technically another “Welcome, Baby!” book, and we haven’t welcomed a baby in three-and-a-half years. We are Richard Van Camp/Julie Flett mega-fans, and so we snagged a copy of We Sang You Home as soon as it dropped in our local shop. (We saw it in the window, but it was Sunday, and the store was closed. So we went back first thing the very next day!)
“Thank you for coming to live with us,” is a thing I like to say to my children, because I mean it profoundly, even if I do not entirely understand what I am talking about. (“Where did you live before you were born?” I ask Iris. “That was when I was dead,” she answers.) The chance, the luck, the miracle, of these two extraordinary people being created and born and raised to now is something that stuns me every time I think about it. I feel like a passive agent in the whole scenario too—for whom am I to take credit for orchestrating pure magic? I was just a body along for the ride.
In We Sang You Home, Van Camp gives credit where credit is due, giving thanks to our children with blessing us with their lives, and enriching our worlds with their presence. The best thing about the book is its lack of specificity in both prose and illustrations as to how these babies actually got here—this story is suitable for adoption, same-sex families too. It gets at the point that is always universal—that when a child arrives, a parent is born, and the world is never the same.
October 21, 2016
Of the many ways in which picture books are superior to all other literary forms is that it’s implicit that the book is going to be read at least one hundred times. You don’t even have to try, it just happens. “Read this one,” says a little voice as little hands force the volume into yours. Again. There are the books on the shelf that get picked up all the time, and even those which aren’t as regularly selected turn up often as a kind of diversion.
The White Cat and the Monk, by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrated by Sydney Smith, came out in the spring, and we’ve been finding our way deeper and deeper into it with every read. It’s effect is subtle, at first. It’s a simple story based on a poem written more than 1000 years ago by an Irish monk whose name was never recorded. As Jo Ellen Bogart explains in her Author’s Note, the poem, called “Pangur Ban,” has been translated many times throughout the ages, and the words she’s selected for this incarnation are inspired by a number of these.
The story is about a monk who spends his days and nights seeking wisdom in the pages of his books, and who identifies with a white cat that has made itself his companion. Quietly, the two together go about their own particular trades, the cat pursuing its mouse and the monk pursuing knowledge.
I don’t completely understand the story—that’s why I like reading it so much, getting a better sense of it every time. Is the scholar like a hunter? Is knowledge like prey? And what of the poor mouse? Not such a happy tale for him. It’s a book that raises questions—not surprising for a story based on an anonymous text. And that’s the very point, I think, the reader’s experience analogous with the scholar’s and even the cat’s.
Notions of predator and prey are complicated by an additional layer of meaning offered through Sydney Smith’s gorgeous illustrations with the appearance of a butterfly in the room. The cat swats at it, watching it…and the monk opens the window to set the creature free in the story’s final spread and beautiful last line of text.
And I’m still not sure what the butterfly means, but I trust that in another hundred reads I’ll probably have a good idea.
October 7, 2016
It’s not hyperbole to state that Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, by Margriet Ruurs and Nizam Ali Badhr, is one of the most extraordinary picture books I’ve ever encountered, a book whose incredible origin story is as remarkable as its execution.
The story begins with Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr, whose evocative scenes created from stones became popular on his Facebook page. Author Ruurs was inspired by the images and eventually managed to contact Badr, and plans were made for them to create a book together. Ruurs secured a contract with Canada’s Orca Books, who were on board with her mission that proceeds from the project be donated to an organization supporting refugees.
Badr’s illustrations are incredible. I never would have imagined that stones could be so creatively arranged to convey action, emotion and narrative. In her introduction to Stepping Stones, Ruurs tells us that Badr, who lives in Latakia, Syria, cannot afford the glue that would render his pictures permanent—and now his images have been collected in a book that people are going read on the other side of the world.
Ruurs’ story is beautifully told, narrated by a young girl whose family is forced to leave the only home she’s ever known, a place of family and friends, memories and familiar scents and sounds. They join, “A river of strangers in search of a place to be free, to live and laugh, to love again. In search of a place where bombs did not fall, where people did not die on their way to market. A river of people in search of peace.” Her text also appears on the page in Arabic, translated by Falah Raheem, making the book accessible to more readers and bring another player into this gorgeous literary transnational collaboration, a book that is very much of this moment and yet timeless at once.
In her book, The Journey, Italian illustrator Francesca Sanna tells a similar story in a different way, a way that in narrative and images recalls fairy tales, Grimms, and an entire canon of stories about people fleeing danger, heroic quests, courage, monsters, danger in the woods, and hope out of the darkness.
Sanna writes that her story is not meant to represent one particular kind of refugee story, but that her book is a collage of different experiences she learned about through her work at a refugee centre in Italy. The stories themselves become a jumping-off point for a narrative that is not necessarily literal, and neither are Sanna’s illustrations, which are dark and compelling (although my daughter as requested that we not read this book at bedtime…)
By car, on foot, by sea, and then by train, the family makes their way, encountering threats along the journey and also help from shady characters. The discerning reader’s heart breaks for the mother.
As with Stepping Stones, The Journey ends on a hopeful note, although the journey isn’t over yet: “I hope one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. A home where we can be safe and begin our story again.”
Reading these books, it occurred to me that it’s not just children who require stories like these in order to better understand current events and the world around us. Politicians, and bigots, and other grownups with hardened hearts who’ve forgotten how to be human—these are the readers who need to read these books in order to remember that people are people, some things are universal, and also that books are amazing.
September 29, 2016
Before my daughter Harriet went to junior kindergarten, she was determined to never be taught anything—by me, at least. I’d read somewhere that a child entering school should be able to write her name, and so that was a benchmark, but Harriet was having none of it. She didn’t even draw pictures. The only thing she ever had to do with paper was taking a pair of scissors and cutting paper into a million tiny pieces, scattering them across our carpet like cheerios.
She did, however, have a notebook, and this was the only bit of “writing” she was willing to be known for, filling page after page with curly lines, the closest she’ll ever get to cursive.
And then she went to school, and it was there the magic happened. Somehow our girl learned to write and to read, and she reads all the time and everywhere, and she writes all the time too (even if her handwriting is atrocious). She makes comics and stories, and she and her friend have written a book at school that they’ve read to kids in the other grade two classes.
And because of Harriet’s example, and because she’s a different person altogether, Iris has a completely different relationship to text and writing than Harriet did at her age. Iris draws amazing pictures, and sits flipping through page after page in novels, and she’s learning her letters—when she sees an “S”, she will shout, “My Daddy has that one,” as if it were some sort of affliction. She knows her classmate’s initials and becomes indignant when a word beginning with A does not actually spell Alma, as it tends to at school.
Most of all though, Iris is partial to her own letter, which is I, and her sister’s H. That the letters fall side-by-side in the alphabet did certainly occur to me when we named Iris, and I also love that an H is an I sideways. They’re often found together in words as well, and Iris is delighted by all of this, finds it intensely meaningful.
So you can imagine how Iris felt when she saw the above page in Andrew Larsen’s latest picture book, A Squiggly Story, illustrated by Mike Lowery. I is, of course, a letter than is intensely personal to anyone narrating their own experience, but Iris simply took for granted that this was a book that was created just for her.
And in a way it was, a book just for her, among many other readers. It’s about a boy who longs to be as deft with words and letters as his older sister, to write a story, and she tells him there’s no reason why he can’t—even if he doesn’t know how to write words yet. “Every story starts with a single word,” she tells him, “and every word starts with a single letter.” This breaking down into smaller pieces concentrated on one step after the other (and another after that) being the best writing advice I know.
So the boy begins his story, a story with I’s and circles and an upside-down V (i.e. a shark fin! This is not a boring story). Empowered by his own creation, the boy takes his story to school and shares it with his classmates, inspiring them to come up with stories of their own and suggestions for his ending. And coming up with one story, of course, makes him think about what kind of story he’s going to imagine next, and the possibilities are endless—a squiggle can be so many different things.
Andrew Larsen is my friend and we’ve had many good discussions about books and writing, and one topic we keep returning to is our distaste with the idea that the outcome of a narrative should necessarily be a protagonist learns a lesson—it’s such a simple minded approach to the role of story in our lives and our experiences. And I love that Andrew’s work reflects this—his are stories that serve to illuminate rather than preach. But a very cool twist is that within his stories I do always find a worthwhile lesson for me, the grown-up reader, to ponder.
“Remember, you’re the author,” the boy’s sister tells him. “You can do whatever you want.”
Fine advice in the writing of a story, but also in the making of a life.
GIVEAWAY: I have an extra copy of A Squiggly Story that you can have a chance to win. Comment on this post and tell me your favourite punctuation mark, and why you love it, and you will be entered in a draw. Canadian residents only. Giveaway closes
October 14. October 20.
September 23, 2016
Today for #PictureBookFriday, I’m relinquishing book review duties to Harriet, who has started a blog to explore her fascination with hedgehogs and whose latest post is a review of Buddy and Earl and the Great Big Baby, by Maureen Fergus and Carey Sookocheff, which is the funniest Buddy and Earl book yet (and that is saying something). We love this series, and not just because it features an adorable hedgehogs (although that helps).
September 15, 2016
There is a special place in my heart for short picture books. And not just because they’re the best books to read on those nights when the day has been long and after-bedtime can’t come soon enough. But also because the best ones manage to be expansive, to incite questions and ideas and discussions, and Sara O’Leary and Qin Leng’s A Family is a Family is a Family is no exception.
It begins with a classroom discussion, one that could possibly be quite fraught: What makes your family special?
“I went last,” our narrator tells us, “because I wasn’t sure what to say. My family is not like everyone else’s.”
But the revelation of the class discussion is that no one’s family is like every one else’s. And in simple sentences delivered from a child’s eye view we learn what is indeed special about so many different families, the families’ diversity inferred by the reader but diversity not necessarily the speciality, because this is a book about specifics: “Both my moms are terrible singers. And they both like to sing really loud.”
From the child whose parents won’t stop kissing to the family with so many kids, the family with split custody, the blended family, the single parents, two dads, and the child who lives with her grandparents (“Because I live with my grandmother, people sometimes think she is my mother. She’s not. She’s my everything.”)—O’Leary’s story paints a varied and celebratory picture of the many ways there are for a family to be. Leng’s illustrations add richness and texture to the simple prose, with their action-packed and cluttered scenes that suggest a marvellous mess of abundance (which, of course, is love).
In the end, the narrator shares an anecdote in which they’re at the park and a woman asks her foster mother to point out which are her real children.
“Oh, I don’t have any imaginary children,” Mom said. “All my children are real.” (…An idea that took me back to Jo Walton’s My Real Children, which is a novel I loved so much).
This book is terrific for its celebration of family in many forms and of diversity, but also for conversations in general about what a family means and how one is defined. “What makes our family special?” a reader is bound to ask herself after finishing the book, and considering such things—as well as the ways in which we have to nurture our own families as little institutions, a home base in the big wide world—can only do us good.