by Sara Cassidy
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Originally Published: June 2016
This month’s column features books that are in some way about the ocean, that pulsing realm that encircles us on Vancouver Island.
The children’s publishing powerhouse, Orca Book Publishers, has two oceanic hits on its hands. Two board books, both by Victoria writers, have been on the B.C. Bestsellers list for over two months. Beach Baby (2016), by Victoria writer Laurie Elmquist and acclaimed illustrator Elly MacKay, is a soothing and graceful lullaby. The text is spare but lyrical, with the dreaminess of memory. A perfect bedtime book, it recalls the images from a day at the beach—perfect starfish/the goose waddling up from the bay—and tucks baby in, knowing there will be more adventures tomorrow.
My Heart Fills with Happiness (2016), by Victoria writer Monique Gray Smith, is the second bestselling board book of the season. Gray Smith is of Cree, Lakota and Scottish heritage and the author of the award-winning, semi-autobiographical Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience; My Heart Fills with Happiness builds on hope and resilience as well. Against the calming colours of Cree-Metis illustrator Julie Flett’s illustrations, the book affirms Indigenous children by acknowledging the beauty of simple, deep pleasures—walking barefoot on grass, smelling bannock baking in the oven. It asks all children, what fills your heart with happiness?
It’s impossible to go wrong with Julie Flett; her award-winning work is always stunning, fresh and timeless at once. Her books Wild Berries and Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet are so pure, so carefully created, so seeing, reading them is a transcendent experience. They are perfect oases of the best of what childhood is. Orca published Flett’s board book collaboration with Dogrib Dene writer Richard Van Camp, the gorgeous Little You (2013), and, this fall, will publish another Flett-Van Camp collaboration that respectfully honours Indigenous children and families, titled We Sang You Home.
As for the ocean, Flett illustrated Dolphin SOS (Tradewind, 2014), a picture book co-written by husband and wife team, poet Roy Miki and Slavia Miki, based on the true story of white-beaked dolphins trapped by ice in a Newfoundland bay. Locals were warned not to help them—it was against federal wildlife regulations—but after hearing the dolphins cry for three days and nights, people finally took things into their own hands. Flett’s quiet, inky illustrations, like block prints, (Flett was trained as a textile artist), highlight the dolphins’ predicament, a watchful girl’s compassion and helplessness, and the heroes that did the obvious, humane, kindness. Flett’s illustrations have been described as “starkly simple” (Globe and Mail) and having an “extraordinary, austere beauty”(New York Times).
Specific Ocean (Kids Can Press, 2015) is a book you’ll want to frame. Written by Kyo Maclear, author of Virginia Wolf (sic!) and Julia, Child, and illustrated by Katty Maurey (Governor General’s Award nominee for Francis, the Little Fox) the poetic story, of a girl’s reluctant summertime trip to the ocean, moves slowly, but shifts deftly, like a Pacific tide. The book has lovely lines and word play and an endearing, believable relationship between a girl and her older brother. “Here’s a secret,” the girl tells us. “I used to call it the Specific Ocean, until my brother corrected me. But he doesn’t know that a place can have two names: one that is correct and for saying out loud, and one that is private and for saying inside your head.” When the girl falls in love with the ocean, her brother wisely explains that she can’t take the ocean back to the city with her—and taking a cupful won’t suffice. But it doesn’t matter: once home, the girl realizes the ocean is forever hers.
Much lighter, but as charming, is Montreal illustrator and writer Marianne Dubuc’s The Animals’ Ark (Kids Can Press, 2016). Dubuc isn’t interested in sins and punishment by drowning, she’s intrigued by how a bunch of animals fared cramped together on board Noah’s famous ark. Isn’t that what really makes the story? Well, at first they’re relieved to be out of the constant rain. The birds make their nests—in the sheeps’ wool coats, the chameleons play hide and seek, and the zebras count their stripes. Some of the animals get very bored, though. A storm upsets everyone, and the ship springs a leak—the elephants are great help with bailing out the water. Then the rabbits get seasick and the penguins overheat and everyone gets grumpy and quarrels. Just like families do, even friends, when they’re holed up together. Carried along nimbly by sweet, light illustrations, the picture book becomes satisfyingly long. Land comes at just the right time.
Two other books out this spring from Kids Can Press pay homage to the ocean and its wonders. In Toshi’s Little Treasures, by Montreal writer Nadine Robert and illustrated by Aki, little Toshi goes on a series of adventurous hikes with his grandmother. On the first pages of the gentle, cheerful book, his grandmother gives him a backpack, “to carry all the little things you collect on our walks.” Toshi responds, “For my treasures!” “Exactly,” responds his refreshingly pragmatic grandmother. Toshi’s grandma will never say “don’t touch” or “dirty!” Toshi spies all sorts of things along the river (crayfish claw, an old chain link), in the city (stones, sunglass lens, guitar pick), the forest, the country, the park, and, yes, the ocean (cuttlebone, clam, driftwood, bottle). The book has many search-and-find and matching games, which are fun, but more than anything, this book is a fantastic lesson in looking, seeing, and treasuring.
The Not-So-Faraway Adventure is also a grandchild-grandparent story about simple adventures. Theo loves to go through her widowed grandfather Poppy’s trunk of travel mementoes. On his birthday, he and she plan a little trip together, the kind of thing Poppy and his wife used to do. In this second Theo and Poppy book, Toronto writer and illustrator Andrew Larsen and Irene Luxbacher turn a simple day trip into an exciting voyage, with a map, a streetcar ride that “sails” through town, and a trek through a park that delivers them to the beach, where “The world opened up! The beach stretched as far as [Theo] could see. The blues of the sky washed into the blues of the water.” Poppy says, “I used to come here in the summer when I was a little boy. I thought this was the ocean.” And Theo replies, “Let’s pretend it is the ocean, Poppa. Let’s pretend we’re on a faraway adventure.”
On Vancouver Island in the Salish Sea, a faraway adventure is always at our fingertips. As close as our bookstores and libraries.
Sara Cassidy’s six books for children and teens have all been included in Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s “Best Books for Children and Teens.” Sara lives in Victoria with her three kids, and at saracassidywriter.com. Book Nook is written with the invaluable assistance of GVPL librarian Lonestar Stone.
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