Children’s books may seem a bit of an anachronism this season, when computer literacy is the catchphrase on everybody’s lips. Especially when getting kids home to watch television is a problem because the next-door neighbor has just bought a personal computer with optional videogames software. Adults have been told that kids will throw books out the window, that after the information revolution they will not be attracted to anything as old-fashioned as a book-object. But such future-think shouldn’t scare anyone away from buying books for kids. One look at the artistry, the range of subjects expk red and the emotions touched in this current crop of Canadian children’s books should reassure grown-ups that the new kind of literacy will never exclude the old. Those who need what art gives are always going to ask for it—even if they are current champions at Donkey Kong.
Novels for young people, almost by definition, are about misfits searching for their place in the world—the shared interior journey of every teenager. Up to Low by Brian Doyle (Douglas & McIntyre, $5.95) reverses the usual patterr. its hero and narrator, Young Tommy, is a sane and loving teenager who helps a slapstick and misfit world find its feet. The world is the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa, dominated for Young Tommy and his dad by the mythically ugly bully Mean Hughie. Mean Hughie is so mean that after he cuts his eldest daughter’s arm off in a farm accident he beats her for being in the way.
As Young Tommy and his dad head up to their cabin, the news on the lips of every beverage room waiter and gas station attendant on the route is that Mean Hughie has disappeared. The bully was told that there was something he could not beat—cancer—and he has hidden himself away to die. It all sounds grim. But Doyle has a cartoon way with character that lets him get away with a plot packed with excess. It also lets him get away with his big themes of redemption, forgiveness and love. Young Tommy falls in love with Baby Bridget, the girl with the green eyes shaped like trillium petals—and the missing arm. And, in the end, despite his own fear, he helps her find her terrible father and achieve a healing that has nothing to do with physical wounds.
Jasmin, by Alberta writer Jan Truss (Douglas & McIntyre, $5.95), is a more typical children’s novel. Its heroine, saddled by her dreamy mother with the
name Jasmin Marie Antoinette Stalke, is a classic misfit. She is the eldest and has to share all the chores of a rural household with too many kids and not enough money. Her silly name, her poverty, her cheap clothes and the fact that her surrogate motherhood leaves her little time to study all add up to constant excruciation at school. The novel begins when Jasmin decides to run away to the woods, to escape from the spectre of failing Grade 6 and the noisy demands of home.
Truss is honest and good at creating the slovenly chaos of the Stalke family—the constant roar of the TV and the father’s beery longing for the lonesome cowboy condition. She also takes great risks: Jasmin’s little brother, Leroy, so
retarded that he cannot turn noises into speech, follows his sister into the woods, where, at the end of the story, she finds him in a state almost too pathetic for words. But Truss is tripped up by choosing the path that leads to a happy ending. Jasmin, while hiding out in an old coyote den, finds a patch of workable clay and discovers that she has “magic fingers”—she fashions tiny clay models of wild creatures that turn out to be “art.” She also discovers that she is not plain but beautiful. It is the rare little girl who can be rescued from ugly reality by both beauty and art. It is a shame that Truss succumbs to the conventions of romance fiction, in which heroines transcend but never understand.
Rotten kids deserve to meet their own special fate, and this year children’s poet sean o huigin has cooked up something just for them: Scary Poems for Rotten Kids (Black Moss, $4.95). Humor lightens many of the poems—such as Breakfast, in which slimy, unimaginable things tumble out of the cereal box like a cornflakes commercial gone berserk. But grossing kids out is without a doubt o huigin’s aim. Threatened, frightened and gobbled by monsters, few of the children in the poems make it to a happy ending. Illustrated by Anthony LeBaron with undefinable blobs and creeping shadows, this book should bear a sticker on the cover: DO NOT READ ALONE.
Gentler by far is a major children’s book from Tundra called Chester's Barn ($12.95). It is a major book in that the illustrations by P.E.I. painter Lindee Climo were good enough to spark advance international sales and a first print run of 17,000—totally uncharacteristic for a Canadian children’s book. The pictures alone are worth the price of admission: nostalgic, folk-art-influenced portraits of the stamping, wuffling and cackling inhabitants who winter in an old-fashioned grey barn. No modern farm technology here.
As for story, there isn’t one. Instead, big copy blocks relay caption-like information about each painting: how
milking is done, how calves are raised, what animals are fed in winter, how rabbits pull fur off their own bellies to line their nesting boxes, how sheep are sheared. The typeface is cold and seems to emphasize fact. The result is an odd, documentary sort of picture book that underplays its own loveliness.
The documentary touch seems popular at Tundra, flavoring even its new version of the old standard, the alphabet book. In A Northern Alphabet by Ted Harrison ($10.95), A is for anorak and U is for places like Unalakleet. But the trials of pronouncing the multisyllabic names of the North are more than compensated for by the pleasures of Yukon painter Harrison’s boldly colored scenes: the whites and greys of snow and ice turned shades of electric blue. And, with Harrison’s knowledge of a child’s life in the North evident in every plate, there is a good chance that by the time children outgrow this book they will know much more about the world than the alphabet.
Author and illustrator Patti Stren has always walked a dangerous line in her books, relying on the sheer inventiveness of her story lines to rescue her from cuteness. When creative energy flags, cute will out—and it does in Stren’s new offering, I'm Only Afraid of the Dark (at Night!!) (Fitzhenry& Whiteside, $12.95). This book belongs to the genre of children’s literature that helps the little creatures overcome their fears
and prevail in spite of their inadequacies. The hero, Harold Tribune, is a young owl who lives with his mum and dad north of the Arctic Circle. When the sun goes down (as it does for most of the winter) Harold has to conquer the scariest of childhood bogeymen: the dark.
The outcome is easily predictable, and dressing up the book with her usual whimsy backfires on Stren. Here, the elements of her style—the marginalia, visual jokes and constantly muttered asides by minor characters (such as the slugs that Harold and his friends want to make into sandwiches) seem to be simple reflex on Stren’s part: doodling and indulging herself. The sort of puns' that inspired laughter in previous books here cause groans. And delight has unfizzled like a glass of ginger ale left sitting too long.
Storyteller Robert Munsch, on the other hand, has been improving book by book, and his latest, Murmel, Murmel, Murmel, illustrated by Michael Martchenko (Annick Press, $5.95), is the best children’s story of the year. For fiveyear-old Robin, the mystery of where babies come from is solved rather unexpectedly one day when she discovers a big hole in the middle of her sandbox.
Strange murmel-murmel noises come out of it. She reaches way down and gives a big yank, and out pops a roundheaded little pacifier-equipped infant with his arms stretched out, all ready to be hugged. Babies seem to expect that sort of thing. But babies are not Robin’s cup of tea, so she sets out to see if she can find someone to love this one. Many people, she discovers, have a baby allergy: Munsch is brilliant at his 1982 update of the unwanted foundling story. And his happy ending is happy in a totally unexpected way.
Red is Best, the first of Annick Press’s new Toddler series ($4.95), is a simpler story with a straightforward reason for being: sorting out red, green, yellow, blue, etc., so that any kid can successfully match his socks. But Kathy Stinson and artist Robin Baird Lewis have turned an educational task into pure entertainment by coming squarely down on the side of one color. “My mom doesn’t understand about red,” their little girl confides in the first line. Now that she has the readers on her side, she goes on in perfectly irrational threeyear-old fashion to persuade us that her red coat keeps her warmer, that juice tastes better in red cups, and that red pyjamas are the only kind that keep night monsters at bay. She rests her case with the virtues of red paint, then the book itself ends with a double-page spread of bright, burning red. No wonder this is the color of revolutions and Chinese-style good luck.
Every holiday season there is always one picture book that is not only suitable for giving to kids but essential for all those who have not yet set aside childish things. This year it is a Danish book that won a gold medal at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy (Annick Press has published a Canadian edition, which sells for $10.95). The idea and execution of the book are so clever that it is amazing no one thought of it before: it is quite simply a two-dimensional dollhouse. The front cover is the front of the house; the back of the book peeks into back windows and catches laundry hanging out to dry. Open the book up, and the front doors of six apartments are revealed, behind each its own little picture-book story of the people who live there.
Behind the Palmers’ door, a birthday party; behind Mr. Bertolini’s, music lessons; behind the Novaks’, the father, a medical student who is home looking after his messy young son. Not all the stories are happy, so readers can choose their moods. All of them encourage kids to make up more episodes for the lives. All that is missing is a sound track, perhaps by microchip for the next edition. The Yellow House is really not much of a book at all. It’s a toy. — -ANNE COLLINS
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