by Sara Cassidy
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Originally Published: September 2016
I have hungered for Sannich artist Kristi Bridgeman’s illustrations ever since she soaked the pages of late poet P.K. Page’s three fables in The Sky Tree and the re-telling of a Brazilian legend about a shape-shifting song wren in Uirapurú, nominated for a Governor General’s Award in children’s literature illustration (both books are from Oolican Books, 2009, 2010). In those books, her sumptuous layers of bright sepia inks and watercolours lift off as they embody the mythological. If you can get your hands on those two picture books, do.
Bridgeman’s illustrations in the new board book, A Parade of Puppies (Orca Book Publishers, 2016), written by prolific children’s writer Charles Ghigna—who lives in a treehouse in Alabama—are fittingly light and playful. The book quietly and intelligently introduces children to common dog breeds. The rhyming text begins with, “I saw a puppy look up at me. What kind of puppy could she be?”
A smidgeon of a puppy is shown: “White coat. Black spots. Friendly and smart.” Turn the page to see the puppy in full, and learn its name: “A loyal Dalmatian who stole my heart!” After a few reads, a very young child will be able to identify beagles, dachsunds, boxers, and more. It’s non-fiction at its best, with facts shared through a non-didactic, engaging guessing game—“hint and reveal” in publishing parlance. The book ends with great fodder for discussion, a mixed breed dog from an animal rescue: “This little puppy just wants to play.” Bridgeman and Ghigna also produced the board book A Carnival of Cats (Orca, 2015), which introduces children to cat breeds.
I am wary of children’s books that celebrate reading—they can too easily tilt into righteous, self-congratulatory solipsism. But famed U.S.-based children’s storyteller and illustrator Oliver Jeffers and illustrator Sam Winston’s A Child of Books (Candlewick Press, 2016) leapfrogs any dogmatic proscriptions by plunging fully into the realms that reading opens to children. These realms are both private and places to commune with other readers. “I have sailed across a sea of words,” a girl says a boy, “to ask if you will come away with me.” Though the text is sometimes cloying—“we will travel over mountains of make-believe”—the illustrations, built up with actual text, the letters and paragraphs, from children’s classics, carry the book. Imagine children climbing a mountain that is shaped out of paragraphs of Peter Pan. Or a cave where text is laid over text, until it is dark with ink. In my favourite illustration, the girl and her friend shout “as loud as we like in space.” The uppercase and lowercase letter A’s that they shout, in white ink on a black page, pour from their mouths and rise into the night sky and become stars. This is a book for future graphic designers as well as bookworms.
I love Toronto illustrator Carey Sookocheff’s Solutions for Cold Feet and other little problems (Tundra, 2016). The illustrator of Maureen Fergus’s funny, peppy Buddy and Earl books (Groundwood Press) comes into her own as an author, too, in this quiet and deceptively simple book for young children. Broken into vignettes, the book shows a girl and her dog tackling everyday problems from multiple angles. There are Solutions for Getting Caught in the Rain (run, take cover outside, take cover inside), Solutions for a Melting Ice Cream Cone (eat fast, lots of napkins), Solutions for a Flyaway Hat (use your mittens, rewrap your scarf), and others. There’s something secular about the book that I am grateful for. Cerebral may be the word. There is no treacly lyricism, no preachy condescension: the bigger picture is the here now, the vital details of daily life, and how to tackle them or have fun with them, with curiosity and self-reliance.
For middle grade readers, The Biggest Poutine in the World (Annick Press, 2016), by award-winning Quebec writer Andrée Poulin, and translated from the French, is a fantastic introduction to literary fiction, especially for reluctant readers. Told in very short chapters, scenes that build up the story prismatically, often through text messages and emails, and with many graphic elements (think Geronimo Stilton for the cooler set), the novel tells of 12-year-old, Thomas, who hopes that by making the biggest poutine in the world and getting his name into the Guinness World Records, he will earn the attention of his mother, who left when he was five. The story, about friendship and determination and imperfect families (anger and alcoholism are subjects), is funny and moving.
Raymie Clarke, in Kate DiCamillo’s stunning Raymie Nightingale (Candlewick, 2016), also seeks a parent’s attention through a marvellous feat. She hopes to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, which will get her into the newspaper. The wobbly idea is that Raymie’s father, who has run off with a dental hygienist, will see his daughter in the paper and, filled with pride, return home to her. Raymie is told that baton lessons are crucial to winning the competition, which gets her to Ida Nee’s for lessons. But instead of learning to twirl batons, Raymie forms immediate, deep friendships with two other baton twirling students, Beverly and Louisiana, who have also been set adrift by parents.
The three ramble through their small town, dreamy, determined, restless, loyal, brave, hurting, impulsive and poetic. They release a bird from a birdcage, pick locks with penknives, pound gravel into dust with the rubbery end of a baton, and along the way meet unhelpful and helpful adults. Raymie learns about courage, and about the ever-shifting size of her soul, which can billow like a sail or shrink smaller than a pebble.
A joy of the book is that it is set in 1977 and captures the rambling, exploratory, freedom of childhood in those days, especially in a small town. Mercifully, two-time Newberry medalist Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane), whose writing is always surprising and exquisitely crafted, remains unconstrained by ideas about any perfect (protected) childhood, and is fully open to the cascade of revelations that is growing up.
Sara Cassidy’s seventh book for children, A Boy Named Queen, is out this month. “A small eloquent book with a powerful message.
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