Pages of Wonder

The season’s best picture books brim with an array of visual and narrative thrills

Patricia Chisholm,Patricia Hluchy,Barbara Wickens November 22 1999

Pages of Wonder

The season’s best picture books brim with an array of visual and narrative thrills

Patricia Chisholm,Patricia Hluchy,Barbara Wickens November 22 1999

Pages of Wonder

The season’s best picture books brim with an array of visual and narrative thrills


Every year, the universe of Canadian picture books for children seems to expand, with more amazing flights of fancy, more cultural flavours, more varieties ofpleasure for young people. To mark Childrens Book Week—Nov. 13 to 20—a selection of the seasons best homegrown picture books (all prices cited are for hard-covers, but some titles are also available in paper):

I Know an Old Laddie (Penguin, $19.99) is veteran children’s author Jean Little’s giggly takeoff on the tale of the old lady who swallowed a fly. Rose Cowles’s Governor General’s Award-nominated acrylic and collage depictions of the moustachioed, elderly “laddie” swallowing a wapiti and a skunk, among other creatures, are wacky and wonderful.

For the sweetest kind of whimsy, few books this season come close to writerillustrator Roslyn Schwartz’s inaugural Mole Sisters tales. The Mole Sisters and the Piece of Moss and The Mole Sisters and the Rainy Day (Annick, $ 14.95 each) are playful, endearing and just about anything else a preschooler could ask for. Schwartz’s coloured-pencil drawings inspire wonder—as do the moles’ celebratory attitude towards life.

A sweet, dreamy ode to fathers, Tall in the Saddle (Orea, $17.95) details a boy’s fantasy that his dad, after leaving for the office in a suit and tie, metamorphoses into a cowboy hero. Anne Carter has penned a simple but tantalizing tale about the father’s exploits with stray calves and cattle rusders, while David McPhail’s colourful,

vintage-style graphics are captivating.

With a spare, sensuous text by Nancy Hundal and exquisite oils by Brian Deines, Prairie Summer (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $19.95) is closer to art than kiddie diversion. Deiness shimmery illustrations are an ideal match for Hundáis poetic text.

The Prairie Fire (Orea, $17.95) also conjures up the plains, but in a more old-fashioned way. Marilynn Reynolds tells the story of a pioneer boy’s ingenuity in helping to save the family farm from going up in flames. Don Kilby’s vivid drawings enhance the suspenseful tale.

The sensitive, insightful story of a girl who just wants to “dance with the rain,” A Screaming Kind of Day (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $18.95) is a worthy nominee for the Governor General’s Award for children’s text. Author Rachna Gilmore convincingly enters the mind of the spunky Scully, who pulls out her hearing aids when she doesn’t want to hear her mother’s reprimands, and who can more than stand up to her older brother’s provocations. Gordon Sauvés hyperrealistic acrylics are effective, but the real draw here is Gilmore’s prose.

Writer-illustrator Gary Clement has scored a double coup with The Great

Poochini (Groundwood, $16.95), the tale of an opera-star dog in danger of missing opening night. By day, the dog is simply Jack, companion to his master, Hersh, but, by night, he slips off to the concert hall to perform such classics as Dog Giovanni by Wolfhound Amadeus Mozart, opposite singers such as Madama Barkoli. Clement’s Governor General’s Award-nominated graphics are first-rate, while the text is howlingly funny.

Sindbad: From the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights (Tundra, $19.99) is a stunningly illustrated retelling of the famed story by Montreal illustrator Ludmila Zeman. The Czechoslovakian-born artist researched Persian miniatures, Oriental carpets and illustrated manuscripts in museums around the world.

The rich colours and intricate patterns that characterize these ancient arts grace every page.

Childrens imaginative powers are celebrated in the ingenious My Four Lions (Annick, $ 17.95). Bernice Gold’s simple but captivating text recounts a little boy’s fantasy of leaving school to go to his camp deep in the forest, where he shares a pizza with four lion guardians. Joanne Stanbridge’s gorgeous watercolours show reality on the left page and an irresistible dreamworld on the right.

Popol Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya (Groundwood, $19.95) combines compelling text with sophisticated illustrations. Sometimes called the Mayan Bible, Popol Vuh has been adapted for younger readers by Guatemalan-born, California-based anthropologist Victor Montejo. The linked episodes describe how the world began (it took three tries to create people), the antics of demigods and supernatural beings, and a history of the Mayan people. The dramatic, finely textured pictures are by Nicaraguan illustrator Luis Garay, who lives in Toronto for part of the year.

The punning cleverness of The Magic Mustache (Annick, $17.95) may leave at least some children a little bewildered at first, but they will nonetheless love Stéphane Jorisch’s wacky Dali-esque illustrations. And with repeated readings, they are sure to get the jokes in Gary Barwin’s nutty takeoff on Jack and the Beanstalk, in which the moustache of the tide grows into a skyscraping beard, while disembodied noses, eyes and ears cavort about.

Sheldon Oberman, a Winnipeg Jew and a teacher, and artist Simon Tookoome, one of the last Inuit to live a nomadic life in the Arctic, ostensibly have little in common. But love of a good story brought them together, and the result of their collaboration, The Shaman’s Nephew: A Life in the Far North (Stoddart, $23.95) is a deeply moving tale aimed at preteen readers, which weaves together Tookoomes life story and traditional lore. The renowned Inuit artist provided the magical drawings, while Oberman crafted Tookoomes vignettes into English.

Bear on the Train (Kids Can, $15.95) is Julie Lawson’s dreamy, mesmerizing tale of a bear that spends the winter in the grain hopper of a cross-country train. Youngsters will thrill to Brian Deiness radiant oils of the train, the bear and the young boy who is the only witness to the animal’s adventure.

The pragmatism of young people is highlighted in My Rows and Piles of Coins (Thomas Allen, $23.95), the story of aTanzanian boy’s efforts to accumulate enough money for a bicycle. Any kid who has tried to save up for something will relate to the young Saruni’s quest. The tale by Tanzanianborn, Edmontonbased Tololwa Mollel comes vividly to life with E. B. Lewis’s uncannily expressive watercolours.

Every year, there are more amazing flights of fancy and more cultural flavours

In Mr. Dickens Hits Town (Tundra, $19.99), British author Jan Mark has fun with a real-life event: Charles Dickens’s 1842 visit to Montreal. In Mark’s telling, the world-famous author is a bit of a buffoon—an excuse for some wonderfully colourful illustrations by Toronto-based Regolo Ricci, not to mention a subtle poke at fame.

The writing-illustrating team of David Bouchard and Zhong-Yang Huang complete their Chinese legends trilogy with The Dragon New Year and The Mermaid’s Muse (Raincoast, $ 19.95 each). The Dragon New Year explains the magical origins of fireworks and the dragon dance at Chinese New Year. The Mermaid’s Muse, meanwhile, spins a tale around the beginning of dragon-boat races. Bouchard’s prose is economical and dramatic, but the real strength of the books is Huang’s majestic oils.

Looking at rows of paintings on white gallery walls can be a tedious exercise for children. But Meet the Group of Seven (Kids Can, $16.95), produced in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario, is a kid-friendly way into the works of Canada’s best-known painters. Arranged like a scrapbook, it consists of two-page spreads— including reproductions, photos and digestible chunks of text—on topics ranging from why the Group of Seven was considered revolutionary to what it was like to paint in rugged northern terrain.

A young girl’s determination to take part in her family’s traditional ceilidh celebration is the focus of the big-hearted Brave Highland Heart (Stoddart Kids, $18.95). Heather KellerhalsStewart’s story combines a loving evocation of Ontario rural life with a passion for Gaelic tradition. And Werner Zimmerman’s watercolour-and-pencil illustrations, which won him a Governor General’s Award nomination, are dazzling.

Linda Granfield’s 1995 book, In Flanders Fields, told the story behind John McCrae’s famous poem. She takes on another verse classic with High Flight: A Story of World War II

(Tundra, $ 18.99). It tells the story of American John Gillespie Magee Jr., who wrote the famous High Flight to evoke the joy of piloting a plane—and died in an air accident two months later, at the age of 19. As Granfield relates, an eager-for-batde Magee joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940, before the United States entered the war. The paintings by Michael Martchenko are sensitive vignettes of the world at war.

With Boy of the Deeps (Groundwood, $16.95), celebrated illustrator Ian Wallace, the grandson of an English miner, vividly conjures up a boy’s first day in a Cape Breton coal mine at the turn of the century. Accompanying his gripping narrative are his homespun, affectionate acrylics.

The Forest Family (Tundra, $18.99) is an artful retelling of several myths and folk tales, from the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi to the medieval saga of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Author Joan Bodger has come up with an in-

up genious linking device: they are told by Sylvania, who lives in the forest with her family. The woodcuts by Mark Lang evoke the storybook traditions of centuries past.

The tale of a dog that loves to play in the mud but hates washing, Pippin Takes a Bath (Kids Can, $12.95) is a silly delight. Bernice Lum’s witty illustrations are an ideal match for K.V. Johansen’s lively, comical text, which recounts Pippin’s misadventures as she flees her bath-insistent master.

Claire’s Gift (North Winds, $18.99) is Maxine Trottier’s charming story of a girl’s introduction to hooking rugs in olden-days Chéticamp on Cape Breton. The tale illustrates the Chéticamp adage that when a rug is well-made, “a little piece of your

heart is tucked in there with the wool.” Rajka Kupesic’s folk art-inspired oils are themselves big-spirited and evocative.

Calling a book for preteen readers “educational” risks giving it the kiss of death. But The Spirit of Canada (Malcolm Lester, $45), edited by Barbara Hehner, is educational—in the best sense of the word. No dry recitation of facts here. The beautifully illustrated (by more than a dozen artists) anthology of legends, fiction, poems and songs draws on the best writing Canada has to offer. It is no idle boast when the dust jacket claims “here is everything that makes us Canadian.”

Patricia Chisholm

Patricia Hluchy

Barbara Wickens