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June 18, 2017

SUMMER READING CONTEST!! #MitziInTheSun

When Mitzi Bytes came out in March, it was packed along on plenty of spring break trips and celebrated by readers as a bonafide beach read—a distinction I’m proud of, and one that only becomes more paramount now that summer is here. And so to celebrate the novel’s beachy qualities—it is plot-driven, comedic and fun‚ plus its pages have been specially manufactured to be sand-resistant*—we’re having a Mitzi Bytes summer reading contest, hashtag #MitziInTheSun.

How to play? Post the official #MitziInTheSun image (above) on Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram for one chance to win. OR share your own image of Mitzi Bytes in a summer setting (at the beach, on a picnic, at a bbq, etc. I can’t wait to see your summer takes you, and where you take Mitzi!) for FIVE CHANCES to win. Tag your posts #MitziInTheSun, of course.

And the prize? Three excellent (autographed) summer reads from Harper Collins Canada, posted straight to your doorstep, along with a beach/picnic blanket for you to curl up on. Contest runs until the end of July 31. Canadian addresses only please.

*Just kidding. Or not. Why not try it and see?

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 14, 2017

We Love Huron Playschool

I honestly don’t remember who I was before playschool. When I had one child, when I’d never published a book, when I was a bit lost wandering around the neighbourhood without a destination. These days we meet friends every time we step outside the house, but it wasn’t like that then. My friend Nathalie lived in the neighbourhood (even though we met first on the internet) and she had three children, had been a mother for a while. It was Nathalie who told me about playschool when Harriet was two, and I registered her for the following year. That summer we came by to visit while playschool summer camp was in session, and as we walked in, an actual pig came down the stairs behind us, noisy and oinking. From our first moment there, playschool was remarkable, and this has never ceased to the case.

The pig hasn’t come back to visit. And the Ministry of Education has since prohibited visits from farm animals for public health reasons (BLAST!) but the pig was really only emblematic anyway. Of the fact that playschool was never boring, always fun, and the things you think will never happen there are never the things that do…in the best possible way.

Our family has spent five years at playschool, five years in which we’ve become us as a family, a family of four, a family tied to our community, supporting our neighbours. Everything I know about the world I’ve learned from playschool, the challenges of working in a co-op, and the rewards as well. I’ve learned so much about people, and sharing, and what it means to be friendly (and that it’s not nice to bite). Our children will carry the lessons learned at playschool all through their lives, and I know that I will too.

On the playschool blog, I’ve written a little post about what the community there has meant to me and us over the last five years, and about how much we’re going to miss it. It’s a truly extraordinary place, and we’ve been so lucky to be part of it.

June 12, 2017

Grounds For Hope

On Saturday night somebody attacked our lavender bush with a sharp stick, clearly with the intent of destroying it. Yes, the lavender that we bought two years ago in order to replace the shrub that someone tore out of our garden in a (we think) drunken rage. It was discovered Sunday morning half dug up, roots torn, sad and limp. Particularly sad because it had been so lush, flowers just on the verge of blooming. Poor little lavender, and we speculated about the culprit—was it a man who (like someone rather close to home) had become frustrated with his wife’s compulsion to add lavender to everything, and just decided he couldn’t take it anymore, every single bite of everything tasting more than a little like perfume? Or someone further over the edge, plagued by demonic lavender visions, a stake in the root the only real solution?

Anyway, we have found that tending a community garden is an excellent exercise in living with the world, in coming to terms with its realities. What kind of asshole would so something like that? But the thing about the world is that there are all kinds of assholes, and accepting this is part of life. And so we focus instead on other things, that we have a community gardening group to whom we could direct our gardening emergency questions: Can This Lavender Be Saved? I got an email back in a half hour or so, that depending on root damage the plant could possibly survive by being trimmed back and repotted in a small container for the summer and given a restful summer. We got on it straightaway and the lavender looks much less sad now. Also, the city is donating plants for community gardeners and we’ll be able to order a new lavender for our planter. All is not lost. We’ll keep tending our garden, and putting up with the jerks that try to wreck it and/or steal our plants is all part of the experience. We’ll keep planting our seeds and helping them grow, because this is the world we’ve got, and when it isn’t awful, it’s really beautiful. The one and only too.

Today marks a year since the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, an event that was terrible in itself but also marks the beginning of what I think of now as The Very Bad Time, one that hasn’t yet concluded. Jo Cox’s murder, then Brexit. I remember walking home from soccer last summer on the most beautiful evening (there were rainbows) and then hearing news of atrocities in Nice. The election in November, so much awfulness since. And more devastation in London and Manchester these last few weeks, each of these events strung like beads on a terrible, awful string. It is a difficult time to be in the world. Life is so hard and random, even when there aren’t maniacs committing acts of murder on busy streets. There is uncertainty, and sadness, and so much loss. So much awful commemoration.

Such much juxtaposition too. How do you make sense of it? I remember the Pulse Nightclub news at the end of the most splendid summer day, a day that smelled like sunscreen, tasted like ice cream, and sounded like the splash of waves on the beach. It was a day that became legend in our family, because we hadn’t had a plan at all—it just happened. And then yesterday we wanted to do it again, to return to the Beaches Arts and Crafts Sale, to have a picnic in Kew Gardens, play on the climbers, have dinner on Queen Street, and so spend so much time that time slows down hanging out beside the lake, collecting beach glass, and looking for other interesting things.

Efforts to orchestrate good days can easily go a bit wrong. There has be room for them to happen, and I was thinking about this yesterday as we planned our day. (“Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no terrorist attacks in it yet?”) Plus, I was wondering about the beach. Water levels are at record highs—more dread of course, global warming. Will there even be a beach? I’d seen photos of the lake right up against the boardwalk.

I love beach glass. I love that the intersection of humans and nature can result in something so precious and beautiful. I love that the story isn’t all bad. I love that beach glass by definition is sharp edges worn smooth, that collecting it is an exercise in paying attention. We started collecting beach glass last summer, to what end I’m not sure yet, perhaps just for the sake of having it. I usually resist the urge to own things I find in nature, but beach glass is different, and I don’t know that the lake really minds if we take it away.

And the thing I learned yesterday is that high water levels and diminished beach equals an abundance of beach glass—it’s all been swept ashore. We found loads of it, huge pieces, a veritable treasure trove. I think too about the high water levels in the context of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Big Water,” about the lake reclaiming itself. The positive ecological benefits of what’s happening, all the things that might grow, might be discovered.

In spite of everything, and maybe even because of everything: we had a very good day.

“To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.” —Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness”

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 8, 2017

An interlude

This week’s radio silence brought to you by fun nights out, lots of busyness, and a string of books that just aren’t taking. As ever, I’ve been instagramming though, so head over there to see what you’re missing—which is mostly hammocks.

June 4, 2017

Iris is Four

The most remarkable thing about Iris turning four (tomorrow!) is that she will be the same age that Harriet was when Iris was born. A crazy milestone, first that we’ve never had a four-year-old without a newborn, so this is a new kind of unencumbrance. And also how strange it is that we thought Harriet was so old at the age of four, whereas Iris will forever be the baby, never mind all the incredible things she does—writing her letters, knowing her numbers, drawing pictures, making up songs, and all kinds of other things her sister didn’t do at the same age. When Harriet went to kindergarten, I recall being mildly troubled because she never drew, never mind all the crayons and paper we had around the house, and how she was only interesting in using her scissors to cut the paper into little tiny pieces, and I wondered if she was drawing delayed…all of which is to say that I have always been a bit neurotic. But still, Iris will head off to kindergarten with all kinds of skills already and she’s going to learn more. We’re currently reading Ramona The Pest in order to get kindergarten-going top-of-mind and she keeps waiting for the moment when she’ll finally learn to read and write, and I’ve got a feeling that for Iris it’s not so long in coming.

These little check-ins with the people my children are are more precious than I ever realize when I write them, which I only ever realize when I go back and read them, like this one from last March. Harriet is fairly familiar, but Iris has been eleveneen people since then. And so it’s useful to sit down and note the particulars of this moment, of Iris at four. Iris, who gets a bad rap as our family mischief maker (and I have a distinct memory of cleaning crayon off the wall this morning) but who might deserve more credit than we give her—her teacher has wonderful things to say about her as a student, a leader, and a friend. She is well-liked by her classmates and they fight over who gets to sit next to her at snack time, which is good because at our house that’s kind of the booby prize. But see, I’m doing it again. Iris is notorious. She has the most curious facial expressions, and verbal expressions. She is the opposite of sugar and spice and all things nice, although she can be really nice. She gives incredible hugs and is not so big that she doesn’t like sitting on people. At Harriet’s swim class she sits on my lap and I hold her, smelling her hair, reading a magazine together, and I’m thinking it’s not going to be much longer before I never hold anybody like this again.

She loves pink and purple, and Taylor Swift. She likes to dance and do whatever her sister is doing, although she always wants to play the  game longer than anyone else does. She sleeps in her own bed now, in the room she shares with her sister and on the best mornings we come downstairs and hear them in there talking together. She talks about poo all the time, so much so that it’s not remotely funny, but she’s amusing herself. She likes hotdogs, but not the bun, and spaghetti, but not the sauce, and pizza, but only disassembled, plain dough and a pile of grated cheese. She can make games out of anything—a pile of pebbles, some pencils, Thomas the Tank Engine Trains and the game is always that one is the daddy, the other is the mommy, and the third pebble/pencil/tank engine is the baby. She can sing the alphabet, but only up to TUV and then she skips the rest. Recently she’s been telling us all over and again how boy tigers have hair and girl tigers have no hair, we don’t feel the need to correct her, re. manes and lions. She likes to make presents for Harriet. She’s partial to walking around the house muttering “for god’s sake,” apropos of nothing. She likes to help with baking, and she really is helpful. She climbs up on everything, and it’s kind of terrifying, so we close our eyes and/or look the other way. She’s the most physically coordinated member of our family, although that’s not saying much. But still. We love her. She’s awesome. Our funny looking baby who spent her early days resembling a dinosaur, and now she’s living proof that all of us and she herself have come a long long way.

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.

June 1, 2017

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

Has extreme weather always been a feature of literature? Certainly the flood in The Mill on the Floss wasn’t caused by climate change. But it seems particularly meaningful in a troubling fashion to be encountering so much bad weather in books lately—floods in new books by Carleigh Baker, Margaret Drabble and Leanna Betamasosake Simpson as floods have closed Toronto Island. Yesterday and the day before as the weather moved between sunshine and thunderclaps every ten minutes or so kept calling to mind Barbara Gowdy’s new novel, Little Sister, which I read last week. There is something disconcerting about the unsettled weather I keep finding in books these days, almost more so than the unsettled weather in the actual world. The way it narrows the space between truth and fiction, eerily seeming to make all things possible.

Although there is something disconcerting about the work of Barbara Gowdy in general, Gowdy who is best known for her short story collection which includes a tale of necrophilia. The idea of Barbara Gowdy’s work is more pressing in my mind than the work itself—I read her novel, Fallen Angels, years ago, and then completely forgot about having done so. The book about the elephants, which I never even read. My salient memory of We So Seldom Look on Love is a story about a child who is decapitated while being carried on an adult’s shoulders, a tragic encounter with a ceiling fan—Harriet overheard me explaining this synopsis when she was three, and then became obsessed with it, which lead to this very macabre post about gingerbread men. I wonder if the idea of reading Barbara Gowdy might be bigger than the work itself, possibly because the experience is so visceral.

There was a point in Little Sister where I became incapable of putting the book down, not because I was “gripped” necessarily (although I was enjoying the book entirely) but instead because never in my entire life had I had any less idea about where a novel was going to go. I stayed up that night reading well past midnight because I had to find out and couldn’t rest until I did. The answer is not obvious, um, obviously. This is the story of a woman who runs a repertory cinema with her mother who is suffering from dementia, and who keeps slipping in and out of another woman’s body during thunderstorms. Not occupying the other woman’s consciousness, but being privy to it, and she spots the other woman’s eyes in the mirror, eyes that seem to belong to her sister who died under circumstances the reader doesn’t learn until later.

It’s all so ordinary, that’s the thing. Plausible, even, because all the details are concrete, the geography mapping properly onto reality as I know it. (Quite literally: like much of Gowdy’s work, this is a story set in Toronto.) It reminded me of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of the Lemon Cake, which I read a few years ago. Both books with such understated sorrow, and protagonists named Rose also. Magic realism, but without the magic. Or maybe the point is that the magic is so real, of this world entirely?

I loved Little Sister. Rose becomes obsessed with locating the woman whose body she keeps possessing, craving thunder (which she has the inside track on—her boyfriend is a meteorologist). So much goes unspoken, and the whole novel is about the spaces between us, the desperation for connection, the gap between a first person narrator and third, how we see ourselves and the ways we are seen. All of it very understated, the opposite of cinematic, but it riffs on cinema too because of the setting, all things being connected, the question for reader being: how?

And here is where the magic is. And maybe also it’s the question that is the very point.

May 30, 2017

Big As Life

I fell in love with Sara O’Leary’s picture books back when I wasn’t even into picture books, before I had children. I discovered her via the blog Crooked House, when Stephany Aulenback published an interview with her in 2007. (Stephany Aulenback delivered me to all the best things, and I miss her blog: she is also the reason I read Harriet the Spy.) I loved O’Leary’s first picture book, When You Were Small, and it’s where my love of Julie Morstad’s work began—we’ve now got a print of hers hanging in our hallway. All of which is to say that Sara O’Leary’s work has been a part of my life in an essential way for a long time now.

And so I was particularly delighted by the opportunity to write about her books for The Walrus, an adventure that had me revisiting microscopic books at Toronto Public Library’s Osborne Collection and calling them up to clarify just how many miniature books they had—amusingly, all online references noted the collection of miniatures was “sizeable.” I got to revisit The Borrowers, and read Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House and T.H. White’s Mistress Mashem’s Repose. I was also recommended Jerry Griswold’s fascinating book, Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature—the chapter on “snugness” was my favourite.

So much stuff I came up with didn’t make it into the final piece (1800 words is not so long…) but it was all so fascinating. Everyone was sick in my house on Christmas Eve, which was annoying but left me free to read the entirety of O’Leary’s collection of short stories for adults, Comfort Me With Apples. (Note: she also has a novel for grown up children forthcoming next year, a ghost story which, unsurprisingly, features a dollhouse…) I was particularly struck by O’Leary’s preoccupation in these stories with so many of the ideas that would surface in her work for children a decade or more later—children with indeterminable origins, the fundamental unknowability of mothers, families that weren’t the way they were supposed to be, subtle allusions to nursery rhymes, and particularly ideas about size and scale.

I found O’Leary’s novella in the collection, “Big As Life,” made for the most fascinating companion to her Henry books. It begins with a woman sharing her first childhood memory, which her mother informs her is not a true memory but more likely something she dreamed once. This mother too who wishes to foster a more equal relationship with her daughter, to be like roommates who where the same clothes, which reminds me of the mother in When I Was Small who tells stories so she and her son “can be small together.” Lost photographs, so the woman is unable to corroborate anything she remembers from when she was small. The mother talking about her pregnancy, explaining, “Even though I was getting bigger all the time it felt like I was disappearing.”

This one extraordinary part where the women recalls the stories she used to tell her baby brother about when he was small: “I tried to tell him about who we were, what we’d been doing before he came along…I never prayed when I was a child, but somehow, telling my baby brother all I knew about life so far, I came close.”

And then this one incredible paragraph, from the perspective of a child watching her mother:

“The expression on her face—it was like she was aloft in a hot air balloon and we were all rapidly diminishing to the size and importance of ants on the ground below. It was as though soon we would grow too small to be seen, disappear, never to have existed at all. This, at least, is what I imagine, years later, trying to remember why I had grown suddenly enraged at the sight of my mother reading a book and smoking a cigarette.”

I am not sure at the connections one could make between the two works, what they mean. From reading the picture books we know that ants are actually pretty important after all and there is reverence for smallness—but perhaps you have to grow up in order to fully understand this. I think you also have to be grown-up to appreciate a mother’s desire to sometimes float away.

Parent/child relationships are complicated and fraught, it is true, but as I write in my Walrus piece, O’Leary’s picture books offer the suggestion of connection—just one of the many possibilities of small things.

I hope you’ll read it here.

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