Today’s kids are so hypnotized by TV, computers and other electronic diversions that it’s a wonder they make time for any non-homework reading. But with the growing concern among parents and educators about literacy—and with books’ power to tweak the imagination in a way other entertainments can’t—children’s literature is still going strong. Canada has dozens of gifted writers and illustrators creating works for kids. In fact, more than 400 books for young people will be published in Canada this year. Some of the year’s best juvenile picture books written and/or illustrated by Canadians, chosen by Maclean’s staffers:
Giggly pleasures abound in the text and drawings of Rose by Night (Groundwood, $14.95), written and illustrated by award-winning Montrealer Mireille Levert. Aimed at preschoolers, the book presents a dilemma to which all children can relate: being too scared to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. The story is filled with delicious details, such as a witch who “smells like old socks, cabbage soup and fried liver.” And the illustrations are primary-color flights of fancy.
Elliot’s Emergency (Kids Can, $12.95) introduces a new kid on the block for school-age or younger children. The stuffed toy Elliot Moose, created by Andrea Beck of Unionville, Ont., is already at the centre of a TV series being produced by Nelvana. In his first book, Elliot is attended to by his toy-animal pals when he splits a seam. Beck’s adorable graphics nicely complement the sweet, simple text.
Adults familiar with Guelph, Ont., author Thomas King’s novels will detect the same sly humor in Coyote Sings to the Moon (Key Porter Kids, $18.95), the story of how Coyote’s grating voice
scares away the celestial body.
Johnny Wales’s silvery, dreamlike watercolors are clever and subtle, and King’s tale is a howl.
The ingenuity of Someone is Reading This Book (Annick, $18.95) will appeal to parents as much as kids, if not more so. Toronto writerillustrator Alice Priestley has created a postmodern tale within a fairy tale: the inside front and back covers both tell a more or less conventional story about a prince and his three wishes, but the pages in between comment playfully on the framing story and address the reader—“Come ... you and I can fly, and we’ll soon find out what’s going on.” Priestley’s illustrations, including a giant whose large hand appears through a “rip” in the page, are beguiling.
The whimsy of Rodeo Pup (Doubleday, $18.95) is wackier, but equally irresistible. Toronto writer-illustrator lisa Rotenberg presents the kooky story of a dog that’s fixated on string—Rodeo Pup eats its owner’s fishnet stockings, but also becomes famous because it can floss its teeth. The acrylics are big, bold and hilarious.
Dog Tales (Whitecap, $18.95) is another book of canine carrying-on,
one that will thrill children familiar with classic fairy tales and enamored of pooches. Toronto author Jennifer Rae has concocted such yarns as “Cindersmelly” and “JTie Doberman’s New Clothes.” Rose Cowles’s illustrations are appropriately kooky.
Rich and evocative, Harvey Chan’s pastels are a perfect match for fellow Torontonian Celia Barker Lottridge’s retelling of an old Russian story in Music for the Tsar of the Sea (Groundwood, $16.95). The book, nominated for a 1998 Governor General’s children’s illustration award, tells the story of a poor musician who earns favor with the god of the watery depths. A beguiling story, with illustrations to match.
The Fox’s Kettle (Orea, $17.95) also has the flavor of an ancient tale, but is in fact an original story based on Victoria author
Laura Langston’s research into old Japanese legends. The ingredients of the yarn are a magic kettle, a samurai who turns out to be a fox and a girl who likes to tell stories. But the book’s real strength lies in the radiant, enchanting illustrations by Victor Bosson, which won him a Governor General’s nomination.
At the opening of Safari (Penguin, $22.99), renowned Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman urges the reader to “leave your modern life behind and listen to the rhythm of the land.” His book is a superb entrée to an adventure of the imagination in Africa. Bateman’s realistic paintings are gorgeous and dramatic, and the text, co-written with Rick Archbold, is evocative.
Another faraway world is brought powerfully to life in Animal Dreaming (Stoddart Kids, $19.95) by Paul Morin. The author’s tales of the Dreamtime—the Australian Aborigines’ phrase for the world of spirits who formed the land and its features—are interesting enough. But his illustrations, many of them based on ancient Aboriginal rock art, are beautiful.
The title alone, combining two disparate things that seem to belong together, casts a spell. Fog Cat (Kids Can, $14.95) is the story of a girl’s wooing of a cat, and their short time together. Burlington, Ont., writer Marilyn Helmer based the story on her own childhood experience with a wild cat. Paul Mombourqette of Oakville, Ont., makes the tale come alive with homey graphics.
In The Roses in My Carpets (Stoddart Kids, $17.95), an Afghani boy lives in a mud-drenched refugee camp caring for his mother and sister, and measuring his life by the next trip to the well or finding the next piece of bread. Except, that is, when he escapes into his work as an apprentice carpet weaver. Then “with my fingers I create a world the war cannot touch.” Spare, unsentimental prose from Torontonian Rukhsana Khan and pictures by Tucson, Ariz.-based Ronald Himler make this a moving story.
Tom and Francine: A Love Story (Key Porter Kids, $16.95) is that rare thing, a contemporary kids’ book in rhyming couplets. Best-selling adult author Sylvia Fraser tells the story of a city cat who sets aside her prejudices and wv learns to love a rough country tom. Peterborough, Ont, illustrator Eugenie Fernandes has created sensational watercolors to match Fraser’s vigorous text.
Frank Newfeld’s superbly illustrated Creatures (Douglas & McIntyre, $25) is an oddity in children’s literature, billing itself as “an alphabet for adults and worldly children.” While some of its pictures will surely puzzle the worldliest of adults—under the letter M, for instance, is Michael the Malevolent, an obscure Byzantine emperor—there is no denying the charms of an alphabet that
offers, under the B, a beautiful balloon bearing Beelzebub and Lizzie Borden (brandishing her axe).
Midnight in the Mountains (Orea, $17.95) is a blessedly quiet book. A little girl stays awake in a mountain cabin listening to the muffled sounds of a winter’s night—the brush of an owl’s wings, the rush of an ice-cold stream. Any attempt at teaching a child the value of silence is only to be encouraged; Julie Lawson’s poetic text and Sheena Lott’s lovely watercolors make this one a spectacular success.
Margaret Laurence’s The Olden Days Coat (Tundra, $17.99) has become a classic since it was first published in 1979, and not simply because it is by a famous novelist. This dreamlike tale of time travel— graced with new illustrations by Muriel Wood, the original artist—is an enchanting story of family ties and growing up, seen through the eyes a 10-year-old girl.
The peculiar genesis of Gogol’s Coat (Tundra, $17.99) is the desire of author Cary Fagan to provide a happy ending for Nikolai Gogol’s classic short story The Overcoat. Although the intention is akin to trying to make Romeo and Juliet palatable for tots by keeping the lovers alive, Fagan does create a sweet little story.
The book’s real attraction, though, are 14 gorgeous full-page oils by Regolo Ricci.
Any child who loves animals, riddles and outsmarting adults will gobble up Weighing the Elephant (Annick, $16.95; $6.95 paper). Set in the mountains of southern China, this original story by Shanghai-born, Orillia, Ont., writer Ting-xing Ye has all the elements of a classic fairy tale: an evil emperor who decrees that a young elephant will only be saved if his village can figure out how to weigh him, adults with no notion of how to solve the problem, and a small but resourceful hero. The watercolors, by Montreal artist Suzane Langlois, gently evoke China’s ancient past.
Vancouver Islander Barrie Baker’s stories in The Village of a Hundred Smiles and Other Stories (Annick, $17.95;
$7.95 paper) pull the reader into a lost time and place, a small Chinese village at the turn of the century where the powerful ties of family and friends are explored by Little Orchid and her grandfather. With gentle wisdom, one helps the other explore the world and learn when to embrace adventure and when to seek the comforts of home. The watercolors, which won Montreal-based Stéphane Jorisch a Governor General’s nomination, glow with gem-like tones.
The Laziest Boy in the World (Thomas Allen, $27.95) is another story set in an ancient Chinese village. Seattle author Lensey Namioka tells the somewhat long-winded story of Xiaolong, who is so lazy that he doesn’t cry as a baby and only sits and dreams of playing as a boy. The book’s real strength is the stunning illustrations by Chinese-born artist YongSheng Xuan, now based in Windsor, Ont.
In Dreams Are More Real than Bathtubs (Orea, $17.95), Vancouver Island poet Susan Musgrave and acclaimed Montreal artist Marie-Louise Gay zoom in on the rich inner life of children, using the fractured syntax and penchant for wiggly blobs of color favored by the very young. A plotless wander through the mind of a little girl plagued by bad dreams and worries about the strange world of Grade 1, Dreams pulls off a rare feat: the authentic recreation of a child’s voice.
As young readers of The Miss Meow Pageant (Annick, $16.95; $6.95 paper) will learn, looks don’t have to matter all that much: with a little preparation, and the courage to take a walk on the wild side, even a mangy-looking street cat can shine. This tale of a feline beauty contest—by Torontonian Richardo Keens-Douglas, author of the acclaimed book The Nutmeg Princess—comes wrapped in sassy illustrations by Montreal artist Marie Lafrance.
One of the attractive things about Torontonian Manjusha Pawagi, beyond the delights of her work The Girl Who Hated Books (Second Story Press, $12.95), is that she is under no illusions about why the story has attracted so much attention—and orders. It is, she surmises, because people in publishing love a book about books. That should not stop anyone else from getting on the bandwagon. The girl in this clever, finely illustrated (by Montrealer Leanne Franson) tale eschews the
tomes her parents clutter the house with until she discovers—entertainingly—what is inside them.
The latest offerings from Canada’s king of children’s writers, Robert Munsch, will disappoint neither the kids who love his hilariously offbeat tales, nor the adults who enjoy reading him aloud. Andrew’s Loose Tooth (Scholastic, $12.99; $5.99 paper) is the more slapstick of the two—involving a leather-clad, motorcycle-riding Tooth Fairy—while Get Out of Bed! (North Winds, $12.99) is the stretch-your-brain-around-thisone tale of a girl who won’t wake up.
Credit is due equally to author and illustrator for the success of My Leafs Sweater (Raincoast, $19.95). Toronto hockey writer Mike Leonetti has penned an engaging quasi-memoir of a boy who idolizes 1970s star Darryl Sittler and wants a Maple Leafs sweater. Sean Thompson’s big-headed illustrations elevate the production to something approaching high folk art.
A fat book of rhyming poetry for kids should be a staple in any family library, and this season’s standout is A Child’s Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (Kids Can, $24.95). Brandon, Man., writer and illustrator Kady MacDonald Denton won a Governor General’s award for the whimsical pictures that accompany her eclectic selection of nursery rhymes, songs and ditties ranging from Mother Goose favorites to poems from China, Africa and India.
There are some tasty thrills in Each One Special (Orea, $17.95), leading to a nourishing message about creativity. Toronto’s Frieda Wishinsky tells the story of a cake decorator who concocts such wonders as a “tall mocha cowboy spinning a butterscotch lasso.” But after losing his job he sinks into despair—until a young friend suggests he take up sculpting. H. Werner Zimmermann’s watercolors are a joy.
Montrealer Pierre Pratt, winner of this year’s Governor General’s award for children’s illustration in the French category—for Monsieur Ilétaitunefois—has two books out this season. Mister Once-upon-atime (Annick, $16.95; $6.95), is the English version of the prizewinner, with text by Rémy Simard, and Sassy Gracie (McClelland & Stewart, $17.99), with a story by James Sage. Both are delightfully silly stories perfectly complemented by Pratt’s lively illustrations.
The whimsical The Christmas Orange (Stoddart Kids, $18.95) by Don Gillmor isn’t up to the standard of his previous book, the very funny When Vegetables Go Bad. But it still provides plenty of laughs as spoiled Anton, who receives an orange one Christmas rather than the 600 presents he had demanded, takes Santa Claus to court with the aid of Wiley Studpustle, a lawyer so mean “he ate peas with a knife.” □
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