BOOKS

Tales to keep the nightlights burning

A bountiful crop of reading for children, brimming with visions to dance in their heads

Ann Johnston December 15 1980
BOOKS

Tales to keep the nightlights burning

A bountiful crop of reading for children, brimming with visions to dance in their heads

Ann Johnston December 15 1980

Tales to keep the nightlights burning

BOOKS

A bountiful crop of reading for children, brimming with visions to dance in their heads

Ann Johnston

Having once again agreed that a child does not live on Pooh alone,children’s publishers threw caution to the winds this year, scraped deep to their pocket linings and came up with a crop of hard-cover gems. Brimming with glossy golds, blues and greens (as Alice asked, “What is the use of a book without pictures?”), spinning tales of courageous cats and puppets with souls, there is enough to keep any kid, pyjamas hiked to the armpits, dreaming happily ever after.

HAG HEAD

by Susan Musgrave and Carol Evans (Clarke, Irwin, $9.95)

There was a time when the only thing a kid with a pillowcase needed to fear on Halloween was the odd vampire in the bushes or witch on a doorstep. Then, with a perverse twist, the witch was the lady next door, cramming razors into taffy apples, lacing candy with poison. Now, in Hag Head, Susan Musgrave, poetic high priestess of the gruesome, is out to change all that, giving kids a dose of the good old-fashioned willies.

Her witch is Hag Head, venturing from her marsh on Halloween with her lackeys Scum and Flemm and a legion of lesser monsters, looking for children to steal. Coating her creepy crowd with a potion of toad spittle and sow thistle to make them invisible, she sets her sights on a group of children wobbling from home on high heels, dragging home-made swords and tails. Only their cat, having seen faces “green and wizened, with little beady eyes” at the window, suspects what’s in store: imps snipping at hair, vampires tugging at clothes, a Tree Spirit reaching out with fingers like bleached roots. Mischief turns macabre as Hag Head, choosing little Gretel as her prey, turns insidiously into the frightened children’s mother, come to guide them home.

Musgrave has concocted a potent fairy tale, laced it with menace, doused it with demons, whipped it into a frenzy—and topped it with a triumph for the children. Carol Evans’ watercolors are murky masterpieces: Bosch-like creatures crawling from tree trunks, gauze-like ghosts. True, this isn’t Casper, the Friendly Ghost, but even small spines deserve a tingle. ANNA’S PET

by Margaret, Atwood and Joyce Backhouse

(James Lorimer, $6.95)

This is not one of those lavish creations meant to be taken gingerly from the shelf, with freshly washed hands. Anna ’s Pet is a sturdy, bright book with a tough waterproof cover to be read in the bathtub, in the backyard or up in a tree. Simple and funny, the story tells of a city child’s confusion in finding a pet on her grandparents’ farm: she tries to keep a toad in the tub, a worm under the bed, a snake in the stove. This book doesn’t have the emotional depth of The Pillow nor even the limited suspense of Six Darn Cows, two other books in the series—and those who buy it for Atwood’s name are in for the same disappointment as with her last kid’s book, Up in a Tree. But Ann Blades’s flat, primitive paintings of the farm are beautifully colored, winsome images that project the story perfectly.

PETROUCHKA

by Elizabeth Cleaver (Macmillan of Canada, $12.95)

Like Raggedy Ann, the doll with a heart, Petrouchka is a puppet with a soul who falls head over wooden heels for a pretty ballerina, dies in a battle to win her and lives on forever in spirit. Illustrator Elizabeth Cleaver, adapting the story from Igor Stravinsky’s and Alexandre Benois’ ballet, has constructed a beautiful paper theatre with her collage paintings made from torn paper and small lino and mono prints in rich rose, ^ purple, blue and gold. Stiff, stylized figures in Russian costume are cast against the carnival set for the Shrovetide Fair, where bears dance and carousels twirl. Poised on her toes, the ballerina dances centre stage beside the distracted Petrouchka, his limbs limp with love and his eyes gazing sadly into the audience. When the curtain closes, he’s grinning at the players from above the theatre, commanding a triumphant ovation. This is an exquisitely pretty book, sophisticated in design.

CLIPTAIL

by Gabrielle Roy (McClelland and Stewart, $8.95)

Cliptail is a feline miniature of Avery in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: she rescues animals from the farmer’s hands. When her first family suddenly disappears, she twigs to their fate and hides her second litter far from the farmhouse. Wily and stubborn, she ignores her mistress Berthe’s queries, knowing that when “it came to kittens the two of them would never see eye to eye.” Eventually, Cliptail is hiding seven kittens under her snowy juniper bush, with only the odd frozen snowbird to feed them. When a storm blows up—the kind in which “people say they wouldn’t put a cat outside”—Cliptail has no choice but to lead the kittens on the incredible journey home to Berthe’s.

Gabrielle Roy’s tale is told in a deceptively simple fashion; after Pages of her gentle prose, Cliptail emerges a palpable creaturevaliant, funny and extremely tender. François Olivier’s black-and-white drawings are sometimes awkwardly proportioned but his rich, translucent watercolors of the proud black cat and her peasant owners are as classic as Cliptail’s story.

THE CHRISTMAS BIRTHDAY STORY

by Margaret Laurence (McClelland and Stewart, $9.95)

SUN, MOON, STAR

by Kurt Vonnegut and Ivan

Chermayeff

(Fitzhenry and Whiteside, $16.95)

With a hushed reverence, Margaret Laurence retells the story of the Nativity, spooning the details out in digestible bits for very small mouths: Mary rode a donkey because there were no cars, the frankincense and myrrh were for Jesus’ bath water. She even goes as far as explaining that Joseph and Mary didn’t mind if their baby was a boy or a girl (a noble gesture, but Mary had already

had a sort of heavenly amniocentesis— the angel had told her she was bearing the son of God). All the spelling out tends to spoil the mystery; an exotic passage on the approach of the wise men is bogged down with: “Camels are interesting beasts. They have humps on their backs.” Laurence’s pedantry is redeemed by Helen Lucas’ simple stencilled illustrations, glowing stainedglass figures celebrating the birth.

If Laurence’s version is too obvious, Kurt Vonnegut’s Sun, Moon, Star is as unorthodox as can be. Presented with a series of bold, bright shapes by artist Ivan Chermayeff, Vonnegut agreed to play a publisher’s game and made up a story to fit the images. He takes the point of view of God suddenly on earth as a human infant, lying in the stable, having to see “imperfectly through two human eyes, each a rubbery little camera.” Like any other alien on earth, the baby confuses things: a lamp’s flame for a supernova, the forehead of Joseph for a moon, Mary for a sun. Though never irreverent or flippant, Vonnegut has kept his humor: when Joseph, having stamped out a fire on the stable floor, begs God’s forgiveness, Vonnegut points out: “He was heard.” Like Superman as Clark Kent, the Creator is trapped in a human body, trying to cope with his diminished situation. With large, bright shapes illuminating the confusion, this is a lyrical, inspired approach to the world’s oldest story.

Holden Caulfield, like Pooh, is a classic-but still not enough to sustain a person through that long stretch from childhood to adolescence. Here are two of the best new books to fill the gap.

FAR FROM SHORE

by Kevin Major (Clarke, Irwin, $9.95)

It’s Christmas Eve at the Slade’s house. Mum, Chris and Jennifer are trimming the tree, Charlie Pride’s Christmas album is playing and Dad has gone to Decker’s for cigarettes. Four hours ago. Now he’s home, dead drunk, falling into the tinsel (“lights is enough to blind a goddamn seeing-eye dog”). Jennifer is in tears and Chris is hauling his dad off to bed: “I knew I needed something to liven up my night a bit more. Getting 200 pounds to its feet just about does the trick.”

For those who like to think that family life is still more or less as it was on Leave It to Beaver, Far From Shore hits hard and low. For others, weary of the sensationalism of juvenile novels, Kevin Major’s story is a brave look at how a tough period can harden a boy like a nut. The pressures on the Slade family are like a vise gripping a migraine. Some (as in Major’s last novel, Hold Fast) come from the frustrations of life in a small Newfoundland outport—boredom, unemployment, a general yearning to be anyplace but home. But more often they are the pressures of a family that isn’t sure it’s a unit any longer, and the one who flounders most is 15-year-old Chris. A cocky, wisecracking kid—when Jennifer snarls, he considers tossing her “a chunk of raw meat to quiet her down”—he is snared by the dissatisfaction around him, and becomes angry and confused. As a counsellor at summer camp, he agrees to take a boy who can’t swim on a secret canoe ride, and is as baffled as everyone else when they almost drown.

Brilliantly, Major tackles his story in five voices—the four Slades, plus Rev. Wheaton, the camp director. They pass their story along like a hot potato, contradicting, misunderstanding and forgiving, until voices reverberate from the four corners of the house. When they finally come together, it’s like the end of any family argument: you’re pummelled and drained, and you can’t remember whose side you first took. Major has pulled powerfully at unwilling chords, making sense of the most confusing battleground there is.

A PLACE APART by Paula Fox

(McGraw-Hill Ryerson, $U.50)

Victoria dreams she is a queen whose crown is a “circlet of those little brown pears you can buy at the market in the fall.” Her only problem is that she is no longer sure of her country: she has just turned 13 and her father has died. Her mother moves them to a smaller home where she sits at the piano in her husband’s sweater, fingering old songs and letting her cigarette ashes drip down her front. “You won’t live to see the trees in bloom if you don’t quit hammering at yourself with those coffin nails,” Victoria tells her, and her mother cries.

In A Place Apart Paula Fox tracks a young girl’s search past the blind, suffocating passages of grief, through the awkward transition out of childhood, to her own solid ground. Infatuated with Hugh, a haughty manipulative boy, Victoria is thrown off course, blackmailed by his intellectual bullying. When her friend Elizabeth finds a boy-friend and is transformed, Victoria is the victim of an age-old betrayal. But her sense of order is threatened most when her mother, her partner in so much fumbling, falls in love and finds her feet again. Their banter, sometimes serious, sometimes right out of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, turns to silence.

In a quiet, articulate manner, never raising her voice, Fox details Victoria’s rites of passage. There are no pregnancies, no rapes, no murders; only one sensitive girl inching down the tightrope to adolescence. When Fox lets her reach the end, you finally let your breath out.