As anyone who was a bookish child remembers, reading was the refuge of the child who didn’t quite fit. Nothing was better for such a kid than getting books for Christmas, because books, in those awkward times from age 8 to 12, could successfully insulate one from the increasingly important judgments of one’s peers. So what if you were too smart or weird-looking, or a klutz at hockey. Did they know all about the Arctic or volcanoes or dinosaurs or horses? Three novels will warm the hearts of such “outsider” kids this Christmas. And even if your child has hordes of noisy friends, one suspects that each child carries within him the conviction that he is somehow “different.”
A Perfect Day for Kites by Monique Corriveau (translated by David Homel, Douglas & McIntyre, $13.95 hardcover; $5.95 softcover) is perhaps the most poignant of the three. At 10, Arno Colin
is just such an outsider, with a bulwark of knowledge about smelt-fishing, spaghetti, the mathematics of dice, plant and animal life, and the geology of the St. Lawrence River basin around the village of Brúñante. He is staying there with his father, an unsuccessful writer badly wounded and withdrawn after the death of his wife, who had looked, moved and talked painfully like little Arno. What Arno doesn’t know is how to seduce his father into loving him again. But he is a valiant hero who goes out into the world and not only wins his father’s love, but also a livelihood for his shattered family—mythic feats bearing the emotional reality of a fairy tale by the Grimms.
So, Pm Different (Douglas & McIntyre, $13.95 hardcover; $5.95 softcover) is much more vernacular and modern, narrated by Joan Weir in the first-person voice of an 11-year-old Indian boy named Nicky, uprooted and adrift in a new school called Upswich. Uppercrust-wich, as Nicky dubs it, has apparently never had an Indian child cross its threshold. Nicky, with the help of his grandfather’s wisdom and the example of a lovely Indian fable about the purpose of rainbows, makes his connections to the new life, but not before Weir has had a chance to make a few choice reflections on “outsiderhood,” such as:
“My safe smile is a kind of thoughtful beginning smile, but it isn’t a ‘hello’ look. That way if the other people don’t smile back, it isn’t embarrassing. Then, I just look past them and pretend I’m smiling to myself . ...”
Rose Larkin, the orphan heroine of Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar (Lester & Orpen Dennys, $14.95 hardcover; $7.95 softcover) doesn’t bother trying even a safe smile on anyone, especially not her aunt and uncle and the higgledy-piggledy collection of cousins with whom she has been sent to live. But Lunn has given the unhappy Rose an escape into a warmer past down the rotten steps of an old root cellar that transports her into adventures in the era of the American Civil War. It is the most ambitious novel of the three, but doesn’t quite come off. The mechanics of Rose’s time travel are often clumsy. And equal narrative measure should have been given to Rose’s present-time dilemma—her frigidity with an apparently loving new family—before hastily applying the magic poultice of the past.
If you would like a child expert on the Inuit in the family, nothing would suit better than this pair of books. Long Claws by James Houston (McClelland and Stewart, $11.95) is about the
freezing, starving reality of an Inuit family stranded without food. Grandfather has cached a single caribou three blizzard-ridden days’ walk away, its antlers all that mark its hiding place. The two eldest children set off to bring it back, but have to get past an equally hungry akla or grizzly bear on the way. Ytek and the Arctic Orchid (Douglas & McIntyre, $12.95) is a picture-book legend version of starving Inuit and the caribou shortage, a beautiful example of a mythic coping mechanism.
The Mare's Egg, as retold by Carole Spray (Firefly Books, $9.95), is folksy and friendly and illustrated cleverly by Kim La Fave in nice warm pumpkin colors. It tells the cautionary tale of a naïve Ichabod Cranish settler taken for a ride by his loutish New World neighbors, much as Susanna Moodie was—as Margaret Atwood points out in an afterword. This poor fellow’s 10 weeks of sitting do not hatch a horse out of a pumpkin, and this gives rise to one small quibble: a pumpkin, wrapped up in blankets and left by a fire, would rot a lot quicker than that.
Merchants of the Mysterious East (Tundra Books, $12.95) is a distinctly odd catalogue of the vendors of smells and spices, foods and skills who enlivened the streets of artist-writer John Lim’s Singapore childhood. How much
more interesting than shopping at the supermarket or department store, to have house calls from the beautician or frog vendor or knickknack seller (“What he really sold was surprise”).
Lim has worked his pictures out in bright blocks of color in the flattened dimension in which children draw. The habit he has of putting people’s heads on upside down is disconcerting at
first, but grows on you.
Nothing could make Belinda's Ball (Oxford University Press, $9.95) grow on this firm believer in the principle that picture books must intrigue or enchant an adult reader as well as the child recipient of the readings. Joan Bodger and artist Mark Thurman have made a valiant attempt to personify child psychologist Jean Piaget’s concept of object constancy in Belinda’s hunt for a bright red ball. But their larger aim overwhelms what should be the immediate purpose of any such effort—the artful entertainment of children.
Finally, more simple fun is available in two brightly illustrated picture books. Hickory Dickory Duck (Greey de Pencier, $8.95) does what you might expect it to do with 12 familiar nursery rhymes: mess around with them in a totally inoffensive way. With a twist of rhyme and the addition of a verse or two, Pat Patterson and Joe Weissmann have come up with some challenging picture puzzles for the under-8 set. Z is for Zipper in The Great Canadian Alphabet Book (Hounslow Press, $10.95) because a Canadian invented it, and there are other nice little tads of inventive information. But author Philip Johnson has occasionally succumbed to a decidedly horrible educational tack. E is for Elmer the Safety Elephant? Not that kids shouldn’t know his rules, but surely they come across him often enough in the classroom. Why not E for Elk, or Estevan, Sask., or Equal rights for women. Let’s be daring.
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