Here Babies, There Babies in Summer (postcard review)

Well, now. I couldn’t well resist giving you a postcard when I got the loveliest bit of mail today! You all know how much I always loved Here Babies, There Babies by my good friend Nancy Cohen and illustrator Carmen Mok (who’s got a lot of fine books out there right now– check out Percy’s Museum by Sara O’Leary with her art!). I knew Nancy and Carmen were teaming up for a new book on the same theme, but wasn’t it a lovely surprise when a copy landed at my house, signed to my own new baby, ready to take on summer? Well, he’s definitely not a fan of summer, if we’re honest: he’s got good Canadian blood, he was born in November, and he’s completely opposed to this whole “hot weather” business. But here’s a book to teach him how to find cool fun in the warm sun– even if he and I still grumble about the hot sun!

In Here Babies, There Babies in Summer, you and your babies can have the same cuddly, bouncy experience, but figure out what to do in sultry weather: do you want to build a sandcastle (or maybe squash one?), play at the park, get that first taste of delicious ice cream, or snuggle up to your parents in a sleeping bag on a campground?

As in the first book, the star is the light touch in words and art as Nancy and Carmen bounce around with fun, diverse babies doing everything a baby loves to do! My favourite bit? The description of going up in a swing!

Babies at the playground, learning how to fly

Sailing swiftly through the air,

Toes touching the sky.

I’ll let you get the book to see Carmen’s pictures for that scene…

Huge thanks for the bookmail treat– and I want everyone to count this as a recommendation for a good summery treat for the babies and toddlers in your lives as we reconnect with families and friends post-vaccinations!

Fairy Tales Series: Part 1, we begin in Newfoundland

The title is slightly deceptive. The renewal begins in Newfoundland, this part begins in Newfoundland– but really it goes back to the year… hm. Maybe 1995? I remember this, and pretty much only this: I was about eight or nine years old. I had read a few different Cinderella stories and noticed similarities and differences. I talked to my mother about them and she said something about scholars not being sure to what degree the stories had started in one place and travelled elsewhere and to what degree the same type of story had sprung up independently around the world. Being an eight-or-nine-year-old with no academic background but limitless reading time and no barriers to my sense of possibility, I decided it was a very a simple question and that it was up to me to solve the problem.

All you had to do, I decided, was read all of the stories out there (oh sweet child) and sort them out according to time and place on a map and then see whether there was a pattern to show they’d travelled. If there was, they’d travelled, if there was no discernible pattern, it showed that humans everywhere have a natural sense of story and the stories spontaneously emerged across the globe! Simple!

Dear, quixotic child that I was. I read a lot of stories and had a great time and my Unified Theory of Fairy Tales never was published given that I came to no conclusions beyond “huh this is complicated– ooooh another story!” I read Cinderella-style stories from around the world, I read animal transformation stories, and I began to weigh the bestial nature of the beast against other figures… and I learned a great deal from those traditional stories. And I also noticed the other stories. Stories like The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Jon Scieszka. “Cute,” I thought rather condescendingly, “but… I have work to do, Mr. Scieszka, don’t interrupt me.” (Note: I was still about 9 or 10 years old. I had limitless reading time and so much condescension.) (Mr. Scieszka, it’s a good story and I enjoy it to this day, please don’t take this as any type of criticism, it just didn’t fit with my Big Job, OK?)

In hindsight, I think that was maybe the beginning of a shift, though? I never stopped loving reading “original” stories, but I didn’t see so many new editions and anyway as my reading level went up, the available stories turned towards retellings: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, Beauty by Robin McKinley, and, of course, the more recent, older ones: the Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente, not to mention her not-for-kids Six-Gun Snow White and Deathless, and the graphic novel Snow White by Matt Phelan… I’ve written about Hilary McKay’s rather extraordinary Straw into Gold, I know.

These are all fairy tale adjacent, to greater or lesser degrees, but not one single glorious picture books of folk and fairy tales of the kind I grew up with and I have to say I’m really missing those on book store shelves. Which brings me back to Newfoundland, and a box I got from Running the Goat Books.

I’d posit that part of the reason for the decrease in single picture book fairy tale editions is, quite simply, wordcount. (Pause: I’m using a lot of qualifications for a reason. Broad generalizations are broad, I do not want to go into the niggling details, I’m not an expert, I don’t work at a publisher, I’m not published, etc. This is a very limited view from one person who would like more fairy tale books, please. Got it? Don’t wave your bundle of exceptions at me unless there are really awesome book recommendations in there, in which case—do.)

There’s been a really noticeable trend from “storybooks” to “picture books” over time, and that means (generally speaking, very much generally) that authors who want to actually get a book published will limit wordcount because agents know that editors want fewer words on the page, not a Big Fat Story.

Exceptions? Absolutely. Nonfiction, for one. If you’re writing a picture book biography, for example, you’ve got to do what the narrative requires, and that will have heavier wordcount. Likewise, for example, a scientific concept, natural history, history of a time period, etc. Are you covering a lot of facts? Those facts are going to be delineated in words. While you don’t want to waste words, as, for example, may happen in a blog post which no one is editing for length and clarity for example—you probably need more words than would go into, oh, concept picture books, for example, such as A Child of Books. Think of the sparse wordcount and enormous feeling in I Talk Like a River.

“Yes but I get lots of picture books that tell a good story, and do so within a limited wordcount!” So do I! I’m happy with them and am beyond thrilled that you are, too. Not complaining in the least about them and I’ll cheerfully list a bunch that have come out and I never got to review: Sara O’Leary and Kenard Pak’s Maud and Grand-Maud is a wonderful story of relationship between grandmother and granddaughter; Shawn Harris’s Have You Ever Seen a Flower? shows us a kid really seeing a flower; Maile Meloy and Felicita Sala’s The Octopus Escapes tells of, surprise!, an octopus’s escape back to the wild.

But I can think of only one absolutely glorious recent picture book narrative with a dense, wordy story (which I have to admit Candlewick sent me, I didn’t spot it “in the wild”): P. J. Lynch’s The Haunted Lake (I still really want to review that one, but don’t wait on me, get it now). It’s dense, rich, and packed with a story as wild and wonderful as the muted, dangerous illustrations.

The types of fairy tale books I grew up with, though, I’m not seeing renewed: Paul O. Zelinsky, Trina Schart Hyman, K.Y. Craft… I just don’t see editions like those coming out again. And what’s sad to me is that while we can say that those were done and don’t need to be done again (no one will do a better Rumpelstiltskin than Paul Zelinsky or a better Snow White than Trina Schart Hyman, which I can’t seem to find in print?, ever, fight me)—I feel pretty strongly that there are stories not told.

Ashley Bryan told stories from Africa in Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum, for example, back in 1980. And those were still in collections, not the big individual hardbacks I crave. My vague memories of old stories from Canadian First Nations tribes is that most were collected by white people, though I won’t swear to that, and I think an Inuit tale is (probably, but not certainly) best told by an Inuk author, illustrated by an Inuk artist. I think there’s a real lag in telling old stories right now: I love the new ones, I don’t want them to stop, but I do want old stories told and illustrated by people who know them, and I want them individually packaged in big, beautiful hardbacks. Thank you. Hop to it.

The reason I rant at such length is that I’ve been stewing over this for a while, pretty cranky, if we’re honest.

And then I got a beautiful, lovely email from my personal hero right now: Marnie Parsons of Running the Goat Books & Broadsides in Newfoundland. First of all, Marnie had obviously read my page explaining how I handle review copies. (I love it when people read first! It makes me feel all warm and cozy like a teacher whose student reads the syllabus!) Second, when I selected a few books and she sent them (very promptly), she sent a few extras and very good materials explaining background for each book. Third, she also handles shipments from their store in Tors Cove in Newfoundland and she kindly arranged a package to my friend in Newfoundland. So Marnie is just the best.

And the books. My friends. Local, independent presses are never to be underestimated. Running the Goat produces curated books from incredibly talented local authors, takes the time to shape and edit the text beautifully, the illustrators are often astounding, and the design and production values are great.

And the best bit? This is Newfoundland. I GOT LOCAL FAIRY TALES.

The first one I saw on the website and immediately requested from Marnie was Spirited Away: Fairy stories of old Newfoundland, collected and told by Tom Dawe with perfectly eerie illustrations by Veselina Tomova. Note: this is a collection, not the single story spun out over 32 pages I was craving. But it was a re-immersion in the collections I loved from later childhood. A prim, usually upper middle class gentleman or lady during the Celtic Revival would wander around Ireland or Scotland writing down stories told by an older woman or gentleman, spinning literal and figurative yarn simultaneously while the earnest recorder set down the words. The methodological issues with those early collections are known and I won’t revisit them, but I’m glad to have them. Tom Dawe’s collection is better than those of the Celtic Revival, if I’m being blunt. He knows these stories in their creepy, delightful, eerie beauty. He knows them in his blood and bones and spins them into words with lyrical honesty, with a voice that reminds me of Ellen Bryan Obed’s in its poetry and simplicity. Veselina Tomova, originally from Bulgaria, illustrated these stories with dark wood-cuts that snatch the heart of the story and splay the feeling across the page, grabbing the eye into the mood from the first glance. I love her art and want it on my wall.

I was less sure what to expect from Andy Jones (Marnie sent me Barefoot Helen and the Giants and Jack and the Green Man before I started reading. It didn’t say “fairy tale,” because, well, I guess they aren’t fairy tales. But they are the closest thing I’ve seen to what I was craving, and surpassed my wildest desires in actual execution.

Andy Jones is a storyteller of the Robert Munsch kind: he tells a story and knows how to record it in words such that the voice emanates from the page. (In fact, he reads his own stories on audio, available for download from the Running the Goat website!) And they’re real stories, with brilliant, exciting narratives with kings and queens and princesses running around and giants and everything—all in a hardback with gloriously flamboyant illustrations. And the stories are decidedly familiar: there’s your Molly Whuppie (Barefoot Helen slaying the Giants), there’s your Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Jack and the Green Man), but there’s also a failed fishery with families moving away, and there’s rediscovering old family and remaking a new family. The Master Maid narrative gets a bit of a mischievous makeover, and Molly Whuppie doesn’t end as expected, either. If you, like me, sometimes grumble about stupid worthless princes and heteronormative storytelling… fear not.

The art? Barefoot Helen and the Giants is illustrated with bright, quirky, and bold art from Katie Brosnan. It’s fun, upbeat, and not too beautiful for the story, which emphasizes boldness over beauty—thus leading us to a new type of beauty in the end. Jack and the Green Man is illustrated by Darka Erdelji who also designs puppets in Slovenia, and you can absolutely see that narrative drama in her work, and I just loved tracing the story in the visual landscape of the page.

(Side note to Marnie: Can you get your illustrators to produce prints to sell through your shop? I have a few in mind…)

For me, the icing on the cake was this: Andy Jones brings both the hardback glory of a single story excitedly sprawling its tall tale across 32 pages and the glorious notes of Joseph Jacobs who kindly and accessibly explains his sources at the back of this collections so that nerds like me could run after them and read more stories.

Marnie Parsons is the actual best because in the finest form of every publisher and bookseller she found me new books, authors, and illustrators to love and get excited about.

My friends, I was wrong. There are new folk and fairy tale or tall tale storybooks out there. But don’t limit yourselves to the Big However Many (Big Five, Big Four?) in your searches. It’s totally worth it to look more broadly, and I pledge to tell you of any I find. (There’s a reason this is Part 1…)

Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem

I’ve never actually tried to write a post from my phone before, so this is a first time test… But it’s not meant to be a long or complex one, so hopefully it goes ok. This is, really, just a heads up to everyone looking for the perfect Father’s Day gift: Lauren Soloy has you covered with her new book, Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem (isn’t that a great title?).

It’s such a shame, I think, that good dads generally turn up in books, if they do at all, as “special time” parents. What’s lovely about this book is that Lauren Soloy roots it in history (there’s a note about Etty’s work with her famous father, Charles Darwin, at the back) so the reality of this wonderful dad spending time with his daughter doing a normal, not “special time,” thing together feels all the more real. This is the story: they go for a walk and think and talk. He listens carefully to her thoughts, responds honestly and thoughtfully, and shares his thoughts with her. He notes it when she says something that prompts him to remember to keep an open mind, showing that dads learn from kids as much as kids from dads. At the end they feel better for taking time from the day to walk and think and talk together.

I think this is a great book at any time, but if you’re looking for something to show the dad in your family that you appreciate his “every day” fathering, his attention and listening, his open mind and genuine fondness for spending time with his kids… Don’t get a grill. Get this book.

(I completely blew it because as soon as I got it I shoved it in my husband’s hands so I guess I just have to get him a grill instead. Too bad there aren’t any other books out there instead…)

215 children

I’m going to guess that if you read anything I write, you care about children. If so, you’re probably as shattered and horrified as I am to read about the discovery of the remains of 215 Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc children in unmarked graves at the Kamloops “residential school” as we politely call those former institutions where First Nations children were taken from their families and horribly maltreated. There’s an article from the Globe and Mail here which tells a bit of history.

I remember learning about these schools a little when I was in middle and high school. I got the impression it was a bad thing to do because of the impact on the culture: the erasure of language, family ties severed, generational gaps widened to chasms. I knew some of the priests and nuns did bad things.

We didn’t read any Rita Joe. We didn’t hear personal accounts. We had no idea about unmarked mass graves of 215 children whose parents were waiting and waiting and grieving and never, ever knew– knew for sure— what happened to their kids as young as the age of 3. Each of those 215 kids came from someone, somewhere. Each lost child is a lost story, or, really, stories: the story of the child, the story of the family waiting, the gap of everything that might have happened if they’d been together. All that was left was grief, destitution, rancor.

It’s sickening to look directly at that history and see that it’s not ancient history; it’s quite recent, and the implications are being quite literally excavated and disclosed today. I’m linking you back to these books from Nimbus, I Lost My Talk and I’m Finding My Talk in humility for my lack of knowledge and gratitude to Nimbus for publishing these accounts.

There are, thankfully, more materials being published today directly from First Nations authors and illustrators and I encourage everyone to seek these out and read them with your kids. Not just stories of pain, but narratives of all kinds, featuring joy, the genuine lives and feelings and culture of real living people, with an eye to history, the present, and the future. Don’t leave those graves unmarked.

A Time of Loss

On March 30, 2020, the world lost Tomie dePaola. March 8, 2021, we lost Norton Juster. March 25, 2021, Beverly Cleary died. May 23, 2021, Eric Carle died. And May 25, 2021, Lois Ehlert died.

I’m still trying to absorb this. Every one of these creators left a body of wonderful, beautiful work. They all lived full lives. And I’m still having a hard time.

I say it with Dylan Thomas… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I once half joked here that Eric Carle should win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (I’ve also thought of Ashley Bryan– I just checked, and, thank God, he’s still alive, ever brilliant and ever a mentor at age 97.)

Of course, we can comfort ourselves that the beautiful books and stories will live on. And, yes, they do.

But as I’m here, with a Spriggan curled up sleeping beside me, and the Changeling presumably reading in bed… I have another thought.

I’m thinking of the when the warm sun comes up, how it shines on a little egg lying on a leaf. Out of the egg– pop!– comes a little caterpillar. The caterpillar needs food. It eats and it eats all different things. It builds a small house around itself for a nice rest, and out comes– a beautiful butterfly!

Every single creator I list above? For each of these creators I’ve seen an outpouring of loving memories: “She wrote back to me and I have that postcard to this very day,” “He smiled and said, ‘Call me Eric,'” “He had such a great sense of humour.”

Words and images endure, yes, of course: but these creators left behind an energized, inspired series of artists and authors who will continue to create new and original work. More? Eric Carle co-founded the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art which does an incredible amount of good. I will never forget running into the beautiful artist and author, Grace Lin, there with her daughter. We were there masked, social distancing, and I stammered out my request for a signed book for the Changeling and the Spriggan, telling her how my girl reads up everything she writes.

Without Eric Carle, I wouldn’t have had the space to encounter Grace Lin. He’s been such a warm, nourishing sun to so many creators. That museum gives honour to the creators of preceding generations and support to the creators of the present. It’s a living, breathing testament to the greatness of the arts.

One of the exhibits I remember clearly from the Museum was “Eric Carle’s Angels: An Homage to Paul Klee,” where we had a chance to see how his art evolved in response to the influences of Paul Klee, even the past 5 years. There was thought, abstraction, playfulness: he never stopped learning, never stopped absorbing. That takes humility.

Humility, a willingness to learn, the generosity and openness to shine a light on others and warm them with education and support: this is the legacy these creators (all of them, so far as I can tell from the outpouring of love I see and hear) are leaving behind.

I’ve got a lot of writing to do here, and several reviews in progress, but I couldn’t let tonight go by without saying this:

I never wrote to any of these five. (The Changeling did write to Beverly Cleary, a few months before her death.) I have a membership to the Carle Museum– but I never wrote to Eric Carle.

I have a recording my parents took of me “reading” (reciting) The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a child. I read it every night to the Changeling when she took her bath. (The first time I got to the last page– she cried at the butterfly, she was so surprised!) I have it off by heart in English and Welsh, both.

I wish I’d written to tell him. I regret not having done so, I regret it deeply. I think he was such a part of the landscape to me that I never thought to because… the warm sun comes up, you know? But the sun is setting tonight and while I know it will rise in the morning, tonight I’m sad. I wish I’d told Eric Carle that I care. I wrote to a few other creators tonight.

I hope you all reach out to tell people whose work matters to you that it really does. And, if you ever get the chance– visit the Eric Carle Museum and just absorb the greatness of picture books. There are so many, and the warm sun of the generations behind us has given us that space to learn, enjoy, and be inspired.

Thank you, Tomie dePaola, Norton Juster, Beverly Cleary, Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert– your memories are an ongoing blessing on the children’s book community and families everywhere.

And to everyone out there who knew these great creators: I’m holding you all in my thoughts, too. It’s tough to say goodbye, even when the books are still there.

Cat Books: Because I want to

Hello. I’m in the middle of a Very Heartfelt Post about something else, but then two books involving cats fell on me and I decided I need to write about them.

I really love cats. I have two cats: Penelope (Penny) the floofy elegant lady, and Telemachos (Telos) the Big Orange Doofus. I’m still deeply bitter I do not have twin stripey grey kittens named Castor and Pollux. They were in Indiana during quarantine but my husband said we couldn’t get them because I was due to give birth in the next five minutes and there wasn’t time. ANYWAY: sometimes people write really good books about cats– sometimes not. I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein, for example: VERY GOOD. There was also A Castle Full of Cats, many years ago. VERY GOOD. And just recently we got TWO really nicely done picture books about cats, showing two different, but very true, cat personalities– one involving a dog, too, which I consider a bonus.

Elisha Cooper, of Big Cat, little cat, wrote and illustrated yes & no, which tells the story of a very simple day in the life of a cat and a dog. I bought three copies of yes & no when I first saw it… And I’m sorry to tell you that the only reason I only bought three is because they only had three copies on display. It was not my finest moment. The story follows the very different reactions of a cat and a dog to a new day, and their different visions of the day (“YES!” says the enthusiastic dog, “no” says the prickly, indifferent cat), until suddenly they converge in a set of wordless pages of glorious silent mutual enjoyment… and the muted end of the day separates them, but in a lovely companionable disjunction (“no” says the tired dog, “yes,” says the gently helpful cat)… concluding with a very slightly mischievous twist.

I’ve seen some really great analyses of this book, but one review which I thankfully can’t pinpoint right now, offered a very earnest pointer that it’s really about how you can have different interests and personalities but still get along and this would teach kids that and…

I can’t disagree more. This is, fundamentally, a true portrait of a cat and a dog, each with a distinct personality. Every kid and every adult will understand and appreciate this, together, and, in that truth, will come the recognition of their own personalities. “I’m so the cat here!” I thought as I read one page, and turned it and laughed as I was the dog on the next page. These are the conversations you’ll end up having as you read. I guess you could say it teaches about personalities and getting along and… that makes me cringe, though.

One final note: the art… wow, it’s possibly Elisha Cooper’s finest yet, and if you’ve seen his other books… you’ll know that’s baffling to consider. Watch the facial expressions and the landscapes.

Now, Atticus Caticus by Sarah Maizes with art by Kara Kramer is a book that Candlewick did not send me (I found it at the Harvard Book Store and bought it in a heartbeat like a normal person, except that normal people don’t have that poor impulse control, I’m guessing), and I have read it aloud to the Spriggan several times already just because I enjoy reading it aloud.

This is a very different cat from Elisha Cooper’s stately, aloof feline. Atticus Caticus is less like my Penny (that would be the elegant cat in yes & no) and more like my Telos (The Big Orange Doofus), but I think Atticus is smarter? Telos never stalks our toes and is actually too stupid to watch birds, honestly. Atticus wants a “chat-a-ticus” with the birds out the window… that’s a Penny trait, that is.

Fundamentally, though, the glory of this book is that it’s a perfect read-aloud book… not just in that it sings right off of the page onto the tongue, which it absolutely does, but also in that the personality of the characters (both the little kid and the cat) and the art ring together with the silly fun rhythm in an ideal, rollicking merger of pure delight in each other.

Note: I am fanatically picky about rhyming books. I studied poetry at the graduate level. I read a poem every night to the Changeling and the Spriggan (he cares! I know he cares!) and I am just… picky. This is not a “rhyming picture book,” though. It’s more like Jamberry in that the rhyme is part and parcel of a narrative poem where the rhythm and the bounce and the dance is of far greater importance than the (nevertheless satisfyingly perfect) rhyme scheme.

Side rant: Lord only knows why we have to keep talking about rhyme in children’s books. Have you read Mother Goose? Half of them have rhymes all over the place. It’s about good poetry not rhyme. And metre and rhythm and beat can be ten times more important. (End of rant.)

So there you have it! Two new cat books (sorry, Elisha Cooper, the dog is also adorable but it’s a cat book in my head), and I think you should really get both of them. Buy indie, please, and let me know if I can help you find your indie book shop!

(This is all rushed Because Baby so you know I mean it, OK?)

The Rock from the Sky

Sometimes there’s a book you know you need before the deal is even made, much less the writing and art finished, much less printed and distributed, etc. For me, that’s… basically every Jon Klassen book ever written or illustrated, if we’re honest. Definitely it’s true of The Rock from the Sky. I knew I would need it, but I had no idea until it arrived and I read it how much joy it would give us all.

The back cover shows– you’ve guessed it!– a rock, falling from the sky. Crazy surprise.

Hey, did I tell you I sent a copy of Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett with Jon Klassen illustrations to the South Pole? That’s the kinda fangirl I am. (Yeah, they sent the Changeling a beautiful thank you letter and NOAA gear. She’s planning our trip to visit them.) (Dear Family: You all are looking forward to the end of covid-times so we can get together again? See you at the South Pole!)

The point is, though, this is the first book where I actually wrote to a publisher requesting a review copy. I straight up told Candlewick, “I’ve pre-ordered this, actually. In fact, I’ve got two copies waiting at two local indie shops. But I do want to see it and review it ahead of time, so if you’ve got a spare copy…” Inexplicably, they sent it to me. (They were so nice: “Sure, happy to! Send us your review!” I’m like– I love you, Book People, but why do you care about me?)

Look, Jon Klassen and I both love hats– a hat photo was inevitable. Judge not. (Hey, Jon Klassen? I wanna see a turtle in a hat with a feather!)

But in this case it was so much more than simply wanting the book. (Even though, clearly, I wanted the book.) It was more, even, than wanting to slot it into my calendar. I wanted this book, even though I hadn’t seen it yet. I knew roughly what it was “about,” as it were. There would be, the title strongly suggested, a rock, and the rock would be coming from the sky; also I anticipated animals wearing hats. I was not disappointed. Thorough prior research of the Jon Klassen oeuvre suggested he tends toward the “deadpan,” with muted expressions, evasiveness, and animals playing it straight. I felt, rather strongly, that this would be a different experience from my recent reading in the arena of lyrical, gut-punching, earnest books.

It was. The reading was incredibly fun, with delightfully suspenseful page turns and absolutely gorgeous art.

And it’s very, very hard to write about. One reason (and this I know) is that today it’s hard to write about “fun.” The real is surreal today, and it’s bitter and bizarre and heartbreaking. The books about Real Life for adults are, almost without exception, heartbreaking if they let you have a heart to break. The books about reality for kids range from hauntingly wistful and beautiful to desperately peppy “sure it’s crap but you can change it, and sorry we let it get so bad!” books of activism.

It’s very, very hard to pull back from that to say, “Uh, here! This book is funny and will make you feel happy. Are… are we allowed to be happy…?”

And then, quite apart from giving permission to access joy and animals in hats, I was puzzled by what I might write about. I absolutely knew I had something to say… but what? My ever-so-kind husband decided to help out: “You should say…” he began, eagerly. I sputtered in utter fury: “I SHOULD SAY??? You start your own review, then!” So he did:

What first struck me about The Rock from the Sky was Klassen’s use of a sans serif font. Whereas the Hat trilogy is typeset in an easy-to-read serif font (New Century Schoolhouse), The Rock is set in a bleak Helvetica. One character’s lines are in black, the other’s in gray. In We Found A Hat, you know who is talking without the typographic cues. In The Rock, the typography is pointing to the disconnect between the characters. They stand far apart. They cannot hear each other, THEY NEED TO SHOUT. 
The Rock reminds me of Waiting for Godot, down to the bowler hats that the characters wear. (The hats in The Rock are simply there, they don’t have the same aura of spunk and individuality that they possess in the Hat trilogy). “What happened?” asks one character. “Nothing.” Later, “OK. What are you doing?” “We are not doing it anymore.” There is certainly a fun undercurrent throughout the book, but in the end I came away a little unsettled, thinking about closeness and intimacy, the meaning of life, and other existential questions. 

“I should do guest reviews for you!” No, no you should not.

I needed real help, so I talked to the Changeling, who always has insights to share. She loved the book, had things to say, but hesitated a lot about how to say it (so I wasn’t alone). She found it “funny but not ‘hahah laughing out loud funny.'” Please note that all funnies appear on a spectrum from “bathroom humour funny” (which is a fine and legitimate form of humour, too, allow me to refer you to I HAVE TO GO! by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko) on the “hahah laughing out loud funny” side of the spectrum and the dry, the deadpan, and the “my father developed this sense of humour in both me and, by extension, the Changeling” humour which turns up in Pokko and the Drum, for example, on the other side. She noted that the friend who would like The Rock from the Sky best is the friend with whom she reads the heavier duty novels. Usually she wouldn’t think of him for picture books at all, so I was very intrigued that this one (labelled “4-8 years”) struck her as being suitable for her High Intellectual Buddy.

Here’s the thing: I don’t need to tell you what The Rock in the Sky is “about” because, as noted, it’s in the title. And that’s my favourite kind of book. I had a conversation with a buddy recently in which I enthused forever about James Branch Cabell, he asked me “what sort of things he wrote,” and I simply couldn’t figure out how to describe it. How to define that level of bizarre, different, new… even when the new is nearly a hundred years old? That indefinability is absolutely key to me in literature. If I can define it, it might be very good, but it’s unlikely to enter the “I need it before the book deal is made” zone.

I did far too much reading and advice-seeking, in fact. A short list:

Candlewick posted a fantastic video of Jon Klassen himself talking about the influence of Hitchcock on his storytelling.

Over at SLJ, Elizabeth Bird wrote a review distilling everything I think into a beautiful, fun-to-read review so why am I even bothering? (I shouldn’t admit in public how badly I want to be her when I grow up.)

Even the New York Times compares it to Beckett— my husband was doubly scooped, let me note.

At least no one else thought of James Branch Cabell. (“Deb, sweetie, nobody else knows about him or reads him today.” Neil Gaiman does, so there.)

What I think all of this misses is a very simple fact:

Jon Klassen is not writing for Hitchcock fans. Nor is he writing to replicate Beckett, Ionesco, and I wonder if he’s heard of James Branch Cabell? (Hey, Jon Klassen! You should read Cabell!) Let’s look at his art.

I swear my whole life feels happier for uploading this image.

Look at the armadillo’s eyes, tilting up the rock face. The armadillo is slightly baffled, trying to process the sequence of events, piece things together. The turtle, in respectable denial, saving face, keeps those turtle eyes perfectly level, willing the armadillo to go quietly away. (Genders are not vouchsafed, and while I have my own private thoughts, I will not share them. Make your own canon. I mean, my daughter has decided that Lear’s “Owl and the Pussycat” are a gay, interspecies couple, so go for it.)

The colours are muted, as ever, but just look at the glowing, dangerously, gloriously louring sky! One rock has fallen already– what may come next? Turner could infuse no more breathless ideas into a sky than does Jon Klassen…

And we’re giggling at the turtle, hatless and yet not precisely hatless, precariously balanced on the ground, upside-down, while the armadillo puzzles out the past.

Parents may think of Ionesco, Turner, etc. but

But.

The glory of Klassen is that he does not write or draw for parents at one level, kids at another. Parents and kids will both bring ideas to the page, and laugh at the same pictures and ideas on the page.

Another sample:

Is this my favourite page? I haven’t decided. Maybe!

The armadillo and snake are enjoying the sunset– and what a sunset! We, the readers, are breathless, watching the sun descend… and the poor, blundering turtle is breaking the peace, the beauty, with loud shouts, creeping closer against the glorious colours and the deepening intensity of the moment…

And the suspense present over the falling rock is precisely the same, inverted for “oh no the turtle’s going to block the sunset” from “oh no the rock will fall,” but we giggle away…

With parents who have probably wiped tears over an intense movie while the kid is saying “why are you crying I don’t get it” wondering how their kids found this artistic sensitivity.

Jon Klassen is quietly linking parents and kids with glorious storytelling and art.

I recently almost smashed my laptop out of anger over some dude sneering that he’d always thought of Dr Seuss as junk food for kids (but now they’ve decided to stop printing 6 old, desperately out-of-date titles Dr Seuss is sacrosanct to this dude, obviously) with the implication that children should be carefully trained to Appreciate Higher Things and so on.

Jon Klassen is a perfect answer to that kind of snobbery. Instead of saying kids have to be mini adults, he simply provides the same quality for everyone, kids and parents. Instead of “making art accessible” by carving it down to kid size, he takes the best of the kids’ world and joins with it the level of artistry that goes into art “for adults,” so we can all enjoy it together.

In case you, like me, have been worried you have to seek permission to access this joy? I grant it to you.

Get this book, read it with a kid, and maybe stick one in a Little Free Library or something.

We all need this. We need the joy, the art, the fun.

To sum up in Elizabeth Bird’s words: “It is, in fact, his best book to date. Period.”

Zonia’s Rain Forest

I got an email from someone at Candlewick about Zonia’s Rain Forest (available March 30, also available in a Spanish edition) by Juana Martinez-Neal back in February, when it was cold and damp and cold and distinctly grey and unwarm and did I mention cold and dingy? I don’t actually mean that complainingly– February is supposed to be all of those things. I feel unnerved on years (such as this year) when it warms too quickly (probably climate change at work). But let’s just say when this email hit my inbox, the idea of a rain forest seemed even more remote than usual. And kind of appealing in its remoteness? And a Candlewick email is always a good email!

I read about the book with interest. I love Juana Martinez-Neal‘s work, so I trusted her, but part of me was wondering, “What’s going to be new here?” Not that every book has to do something altogether new– sometimes you can quite simply write a fun book, which is totally fine! But for me to review it, I usually need a hook to something special, something distinctive, especially in a book that’s addressing issues of ecology, sustainability, or otherwise focusing on the damage the human race has been inflicting on our home planet. Given the number of picture books (whether nonfiction or fiction) I’ve been reading in that wide arena (the Changeling is deeply invested in endangered species, so I end up with lots of these), I was wondering what the new angle would be, and then two points jumped out at me from the email: the illustrations were “created on paper made from banana bark” and the story and back matter are set among and provide background on the Asháninka community which lives in the Amazon and is at risk from changes imposed by, frankly, the rest of us.

The texture and luminous quality? The paper. I’m slightly obsessed.

This told me all I needed to know! I was in and wrote to say I’d love to see the book. The art and story were going to be rooted in a new and important arena in picture books: the rain forest in this story wasn’t just somehow disembodied as “the lungs of the planet,” though certainly that’s true– it’s also home. A kids’ book on saving one’s home? That’s personal in a way that “home planet” can feel remote. By making that “remoteness” I mention in my first paragraph “home,” the entire notion of the dangers faced by the Amazonian communities and, by extension, the rest of the planet, become precious to us.

One of the lovely things about this picture book is that it’s layered– much like the art, which uses the nuanced textures of paper made from banana bark to create art that’s both cozy and homey and deeply serious, the story is textured. I scanned the blurbs and reviews out there, curious about what’s popped out to others: Shelf Awareness gleefully jumps to the “super-cute critters” Zonia greets on her way through the rain forest; School Library Journal (starred review) talks about Zonia’s “determination to save her home”; and Booklist (starred review) emphasizes the layers, noting “at its simplest level” the book is about a child who loves her home, but her uncomplicated view is shaken by the swathe of clear-cut forest she discovers.

All of these are true (even if I have to grumble a little at Shelf Awareness‘s squealing over cuteness in a book that touched me deeply– I mean, ok, they are super cute critters, yes), and there’s more there, too. The book begins simply as a family story. “Zonia lives with those she loves in the rain forest.” The illustration shows her with her mother and her baby brother, a blue morpho butterfly flying by. Will the story be about the three of them? Yes– and more: about the four, and more…

“Every morning, the rain forest calls to Zonia. Every morning, Zonia answers.”

And, following the blue morpho, Zonia goes into the rain forest. She meets old friends and new ones. These friends include sloths, jaguars, water lilies, and the Arrau turtle, among others. We get to know them through Zonia as neighbours, friends, almost family (all helpfully named at the back of the book if you find yourself curious to look up more about them). We watch them be playful, beautiful, curious, serene, and chatty. Like most of us, Zonia knows who to visit when she feels like one type of interaction over another: “Zonia knows just who to visit when she wants to be quiet and still.” And then she heads home, eager to see her human family again…

And is frightened to encounter a devastated swathe of the rain forest which we now know, with Zonia, is her home, a special home, perhaps, but as much hers as our homes are ours, whether in cities, towns, or the countryside. How would we feel if we were walking home and saw the path to our front door was crushed rubble in place of stone slabs, we think?

Then there’s a brief dialogue: Zonia shows her mother the dead, broken sticks in her hands, saying the forest needs help. Zonia’s mother turns it around: “It is speaking to you.” Zonia doesn’t hesitate: “Then I will answer,” and, after a page turn, you see Zonia gazing over the rain forest, the blue morpho leading forward, “We all must answer.”

The startling drama of the conclusion is extraordinary after the quiet intimacy of the rest of the book.

The most appealing aspect is Zonia’s quick and upright response to the trauma of her home being invaded and destroyed: she, herself, rooted in the forest, will take up the action here. The story leaves it in her hands, but invites us to help.

There is backmatter, naturally, to help us with this process– but before that, we get something else. The text of the story is translated into Asháninka by Arlynder Sett Gaspar Paulino, a firm recognition that this is her story, the Asháninka story. The backmatter goes on to tell us more about Zonia’s home and community, such as the use of red plant-based paint to “signal strength and determination,” as Zonia does at the very end of the story (and is represented on the cover). Finally, we are given a list of threats to the Amazon, such as illegal logging and mining, and resources to learn more.

While all of the backmatter is useful and great– the part that sticks with me, writing here, is that this is a book about it not being your story, the reader’s story. This is incredibly unusual in picture books. Picture books very often talk to the reader about how this is your story: the feelings, the responsibilities, etc.– these are yours.

In Zonia’s Rain Forest, it’s in the title: her rain forest, her community. Would we please stand aside. We may be beside her as she does the answering, but, honestly, the best thing we can do is get out of the way.

What a lesson. What an important lesson, especially, to the adult reader– I think kids get it earlier and better. “Knock on my door if you want to come into my room!” they tell us.

Can we learn to listen?

Will we accept these boundaries, these limits?

Will we pass on these lessons to our children?

When Aidan Became a Brother

Representation matters.

It’s an easy phrase, often repeated, and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’d nod to that expression– you will echo the sentiment, and mean it when you say it. I’ve written about it myself, as regards the music world and writing about music. But what about when you’re a parent or a teacher or a librarian, say, and you don’t really know about a thing and maybe it’s published but it’s not your thing, precisely, and it’s out there but it’s not a thing you’re comfortable with and…

Look, I’ve never reviewed a book specifically dealing with a trans character here. I actually regret that, because I thought I “wasn’t qualified,” and after thinking it over this past few weeks… I might not be trans, but I’m a medievalist. I think I’ve got a better historical perspective on the range of LGBTQ+ issues and their prevalence globally than many a reviewer of kids’ books (look: if that puzzles you because you thought the Middle Ages were somehow sexually dry– there’s a story about a man and his nephew who get transformed into animals of different sexes so they can copulate, there’s the lovely and moving Roman de Silence which I’ll let you look up for yourself, and a fascinating story about a wife who dresses up as a knight to try to seduce her own husband to a homosexual encounter… there’s more, believe me), so, even though that’s not what this post is going to be about, I look at the past five years of reviews with humility and remorse: I should have said something, somewhere.

In fact, I’m going to own up to re-reading this post with a jaundiced eye today. Half the reason I remember buying It’s So Amazing is because I felt uncomfortable with the binary representation of “you can tell who’s a boy and who’s a girl solely by the equipment under the clothes.” Why didn’t I say that made me uncomfortable, like I was lying to my kid? Why didn’t I say I was asking around for a sex ed book for the Changeling that at least mentioned the existence of transgender people? I honestly can’t tell you. Maybe, back on (checks date of post) March 1, 2019 I felt concerned about who might read that? But if I don’t say directly “I want trans representation in books about sex written for kids” as a cis parent of a girl who’s apparently cis as well… it feeds directly to the advantage of bigots who consider the existence of transgender people problematic, and I see that with blistering clarity today.

Why? OK, here’s the thing: Kyle Lukoff is an author, once upon a time an elementary school librarian (I think he must have been great), and as a trans man and author, he channels his experience to represent transgender characters in kids’ lit. So, among other books, he’s written Call Me Max and When Aidan Became a Brother, among other books, both of which are narrative introductions to being trans or encountering transgender friends geared towards children. And what I’m wondering is– how many of us are just naturally picking them up for our own young kids? We wouldn’t exactly censor them, because representation matters! But are we buying and reading them? Yes, I’m talking to myself, too.

The Changeling picked this up from a face-out display at the Booksmith!

I admit that when I first encountered Aidan I thought, “Cute story, but in between the Changeling and the Spriggan– I’ll keep it in mind for down the line.” I didn’t consider reviewing it at the time. Apparently, the Changeling had other ideas. She pulled it off the shelf and read it without my noticing. We’ll come back to that.

Fast-forward a few months and it’s about mid-February 2021. I read this article about a Utah school district which is reviewing all literature in its “equity book bundles” program because– get this– a kid brought a copy of Call Me Max from home (it was not in the “equity book bundles” nor is it in any of the district’s libraries) just to make sure there’s nothing that, I guess, makes anyone upset. The issue rather exploded, and I was one of the many readers who was outraged. I imagine you are, too, hearing about this. The reporting was also notably problematic, to put it delicately. Take this tweet from Chelsea Clinton, for example:

Let’s move on. Another schoolroom, another problem. Kyle Lukoff finds himself once again defending Call Me Max, this time to the Eanes School District in Texas. I’ll let you read about that yourself, since he responded in his own words.

What I noticed, again, was in myself– I’m not here to rant (too much) about the sins of others, when you can perfectly well see that, again, I haven’t said much myself in the past. So, I was, indeed, ranting about all of this to my husband, when my daughter popped her head up: “Kyle who?” “Kyle Lukoff,” I said. “He’s an author– you may have seen…”

The Changeling interrupted: “HE WROTE When Aidan Became a Brother!” she squealed. “I love that book!”

I was shocked, since, you know, I didn’t buy it. “Where did you read it?”

She saw it in a face-out display at the Brookline Booksmith and read it.

“It’s really good,” she told us. “It’s about a boy whose parents are having a baby and he wants to make sure the baby feels comfortable and understood because when he was born they thought he was a girl and he didn’t feel comfortable and he wants to make sure the baby is happy and feels loved and–”

Very quickly, I understood something myself: the Changeling was identifying with Aidan in the story. The trans protagonist was excited to have a baby in the family– just as she was. She wanted to make sure our baby was loved, was comfortable, was happy. She wanted to cuddle our baby. Aidan wanted to be a good brother. Aidan was trans. The Changeling is not. But she identifies with the humanity of Aidan. Representation doesn’t just matter for trans kids seeing themselves. It matters for my daughter, too, seeing that trans kids exist.

Representation matters because for the rest of the Changeling’s life, she will have had the experience of seeing a trans protagonist as “different in some ways, but in many others, just like me” so that when someone calls trans people “they” in front of her, it will hopefully clash and she’ll maybe have the courage to say “we’re all human” in reply.

Before I move on from her role in this post, I have to fulfill a promise to her. “If you’re reviewing Aidan, can you put in pictures?” I told her I always make sure to include the cover of a book. “What about inside the book? There’s the last page, where Aidan is cuddling the baby. Can you put that in? Please?” She held it up. I saw what she saw: There’s an older sibling, just like her, holding a new baby, sitting in a chair because no grownup lets a kid hold a newborn without careful support from a chair and an army of adults to make sure that new little neck is supported. He seems to be feeling the soft baby fuzz against his chin and cheek and even though there’s fuss around him, his eyes are closed and he’s entirely focused on the baby. The Changeling saw, in a word, herself:

Ummm… Kyle, sorry about maybe spoiling the SECRET ENDING but I had to keep my promise, ok?

Look, I know. I remember when the Changeling was asking about sex and gender at age 3. I had so many conversations! Someone kindly reminded me “you don’t have to teach her everything all at once.” True, I guess, but I had books that were teaching her incorrect things as facts: the equipment under the clothes is not an infallible sign of gender. So that put me in an uncomfortable position– do I allow incorrect facts on gender, even though I won’t allow them in other books? Do I go through the books with a red pen? Do I hover in the background and explain everything myself? Do I print out articles for her? Or do we actually procure books with correct information and real representation by someone who has lived the experience and knows how to write about it for kids? I think I know which route I think makes the most sense.

“You don’t have to answer every question fully!” Honestly, I grinned and I told that line to my cousin who literally ROARED because she’s met my Changeling and she gets it. But even if you don’t have a feisty “answer my question fully or I will continue badgering you until the windows explode from the force of my questioning” child, why not? Why deflect? Honestly, what are we so afraid of? If we believe representation matters and trans rights are human rights– what’s wrong with telling kids that transgender people exist? I’ve just demonstrated the Changeling’s happiness in reading it. I promise– she’s fine! In fact, when I bought the book, she held it up and giggled, “When I Became a Sister!” I wasn’t going to tell you that because it’s so adorably on the nose you’ll think I made it up, but it’s actually true.

In my experience, the people who feel the discomfort and anxiety and confusion about transgender characters in books aren’t the kids… Only the adults feel that discomfort. And, naturally, if we’re uncomfortable we might convey that to the kids. “What’s upsetting my mother about this?” is a frequent child thought. But the Changeling read it on her own and skated right through: “ah, yes, transgender– that’s like the thing mentioned in It’s So Amazing, cool,” and she recalled that I told her about our trans friend. Her true, natural focus was on the bits she identified with.

In the article linked above (hang on, here it is again), Kyle explains very directly: “It’s only a problem if you think that being transgender is itself wrong,” Lukoff said. “And it’s not. That’s something the parent then has to work through.”

He’s right, and that’s why I feel bad that I haven’t written about this before. Whether I had anxiety or discomfort with speaking up because I didn’t want to be attacked for it (and, come on, I’d rather be called out for supporting trans rep than deal with a fraction of what trans folk deal with for the mere fact of being trans, so…) or whether I just didn’t notice the lack of rep on my own blog– it was wrong of me not to say anything.

So I want to tell other parents, teachers, librarians, other grownups in general: really, if you’re concerned about “talking about it” with your kids– it’s really ok. It’s more than ok, it’s great! Talking about gender is very different from talking about sex because with gender the worst they can ask you is “what gender are you?” rather than, mercy on me, “Can you and Daddy show me how sex works, though?” (Although that did lead to a useful and interesting conversation about intimacy and privacy, at least. It’s also very much the same. Kids are direct (see questions quoted above). They are also very matter-of-fact. “OK, so that’s what that is.” And they’re proponents of justice: “Well, I think the school district should just read those books, then! There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re cute! They should read them!”

If you’re afraid of introducing discussions of gender with your kid, maybe think about where that fear comes from. I’m not saying that as an indictment of you! When I asked myself why I had no trans rep on the blog I think the answer was fear of outside accusations: would a reader reproach me? And I thought, “So what if they did?” And then I wasn’t afraid any longer. So– think about the question for yourself. And, I would recommend, read some of those books yourself! Kyle’s books, as you can see from my daughter’s reaction, are warm, lovely, hugs of books, and I found them comforting, too. In When Aidan Became a Brother, the mother is asked about whether she’s having a boy or a girl. Lord, did I always hate that question! It was nice to see the mother smile and say, “I’m having a baby.” Cheers for Mom!

So, this is not to say we’re bad people. But let’s recall: trans kids exist, trans authors exist, and if cis kids like my daughter can identify with trans kids? Give them the chance to! I love that my daughter is experiencing a chance I simply didn’t have because Kyle Lukoff wasn’t writing these books when I was her age. So give your own kids that experience.

Representation matters. Trans representation matters, too.

A Canadian Trifecta: Illustrators, Review, Giveaway!

As you can see from the title, this is a hefty post in three parts, so I’m giving you a breakdown and Table of Contents for ease of navigation:
PART 1: To put it politely, I will discuss the great value of Canadian illustrators! To put it candidly, I will whine at length about how nobody knows my favourite, beloved illustrators, or if they do they don’t know they’re Canadian, and how it’s a raw deal because if you don’t know an illustrator and an illustrator isn’t widely distributed, you don’t find their stuff– oh no I’m off again.
PART 2: Here I review a book by wonderful Canadian illustrator Lauren Soloy, who draws on wonderful Canadian artist (and author!) Emily Carr.
PART 3: The fun! A Canadian-focused giveaway of Lauren’s book– signed and personalized yesss! She is currently around Halifax, better known as the location of the glorious Woozles children’s book shop, and offered to pop in and sign a book for us! (Bet you anything if you don’t win but you want one– you could contact them and her politely and she’d do one for you at the same time.) NB: This giveaway has a firm deadline of entering by March 8 at 5 pm so that Lauren Soloy can have time to go to the shop and personalize the prize book!

Addendum: I will be dropping MANY names and a whack of pictures in this post for a simple reason: I want you to click my links, be intrigued and search for more of their work, whether they’re still in print or not, so you can read and enjoy– and gaze at the art.

PART 1: I have something of a mild grumble to make, as a Canadian living in the USA, and it’s this: for whatever reason (and there are reasons, there’s a whole border between the countries) I sometimes feel that the books I love from Canada just… don’t cross. They’re hard to find, they’re unknown– they’re beautiful… and just not around. I grew up with Robert Munsch (generally associated with illustrator Michael Martchenko, although he was paired with others, too) being just as much a given in everyone’s house as Goodnight Moon, but around here you can only reliably find Love You Forever (and no one knows the tune) and The Paper Bag Princess. If you ask me, this is ridiculous because in New England you should at least be able to find: Thomas’s Snowsuit, I Have to Go!, and 50 Below Zero, and, I’m sorry, is there a parent on earth who doesn’t need Mortimer? (Hint: it’s about a cheeky kid who just won’t fall asleep… until everyone gets too upset arguing with each other to check on him, and he’s bored of waiting for them to check on him– so he conks out.)

But what’s been getting my hackles up lately is that folks in the USA are often completely unaware of Canadian illustrators outside of the really tightknit kids’ lit world. My point is very far from “Canadian illustrators are undervalued by publishers and don’t get work.” They do! That’s brilliant, it makes me happy! But my bigger point is: a) OK, not to harp on, but I will never not be sad that the Caldecott rules are so exclusive (this article is from 2013 and there’s one like it pretty much annually); b) I’m Canadian and pouty that other people don’t get all thrilled over Canadian brilliance because, I repeat: I’m petty like that (I conducted an informal poll about “your favourite Canadian illustrator” and— well, I won’t talk about it because my heart cracked a bit); c) more seriously: There are genuine distribution issues across the border that have precisely zero regard for artistic merit, meaning that no matter how popular and relevant a title may be in Canada, and it may be a title with equal relevance to the States, with equal likelihood of popularity– it may not get distributed, it may have no chance to be known. That’s not anyone’s fault except for the Top Secret Masterminds Behind Distribution (who handles that and do you have a phone number?), but it does make me sad and frustrated.

Let’s look at success: the author Mac Barnett is paired up with illustrator (and author in his own right) Jon Klassen (they’re good friends and a brilliant team) and while Klassen does live in Los Angeles at the moment, he’s originally from Winnipeg and grew up in Toronto. He’s known, he’s widely recognized, and he publishes with Candlewick as both author and illustrator. I have a mad crush on his wit and his art (turtles) (ho, seriously, if you love turtles and I love turtles you need to read Klassen) and I want his new book The Rock from the Sky now but it’s only being released in April (“Dear Jon Klassen: If you send me a review copy I will send you butter tarts. How many butter tarts can you find in LA? Outside of your own kitchen? Hmmm? Come on, send me the book, and I’ll send you homemade butter tarts, and you get to choose whether with or without raisins, and I won’t even judge. Sincerely, Deborah”). Because he lives in the USA and publishes in the USA, he is known in the USA.

There are certainly others who have had wonderful success here, even without crossing the border! Sydney Smith springs to mind: I don’t know anyone in the kids’ lit world who’s not kicking as sulkily at rocks as I am because he’s not eligible for the Caldecott. He gets face out displays at every indie book shop, and even people who don’t scrutinize displays and make multiple trips to multiple book shops per week (I’m totally not describing myself, shut up) may actually own a book illustrated by him. Are there others? Sure! Isabelle Arsenault, Qin Leng, Julie Morstad, Elly MacKay— these are illustrators who get good work and whose books I’m able to buy relatively easily. Most of them. Most of the time.

It shouldn’t matter to me that no one knows they’re Canadian (but it does: see point b above re: Deborah is a pouty pouty rock-kicking sulky puss), because, honestly, they’re succeeding in a tough field. The reason I justify my poutiness about something so utterly irrelevant is this: When something reaches us, and we fall in love, we look for more of it, and it’s nice to be able to get it… but if you don’t know it exists, you can’t. Consider:

When I was growing up, Martin Springett’s art for Mei Ming and the Dragon’s Daughter was so lovely I read the story over and over and I wanted more. I was starry-eyed over his work, and I’m pretty sure that in my heart it paved the way for Grace Lin‘s books (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, in particular) today. (You should get her books. They’re amazing.) When I grew older and saw the Fionavar Tapestry (then with the original covers), the style rang a bell, and I checked– it was Martin Springett’s art! It was the first time it occurred to me that Grown-Up Books Can Have Art, Too, and I can’t tell you how that link made me glow. To this day, I check good covers for the artist– and go out of my way to get special editions with covers by my favourite artists.

Nothing is as frustrating as falling in love with no hope of finding the object of your love without paying about $30 in shipping which I’ve certainly never done no never stop it (FINE I’ve done that, and ok yes I’ve paid even more than that, but not everyone is as willing as I am to say “it’s cheaper than a plane ticket, though!”) (It is cheaper than a plane ticket and during covid you can’t travel). However, the fact is that if you go to a book shop and think, “Well now, my kid loves books by Mac Barnett. I shall now find every Mac Barnett book here and buy as many as I can,” which is a lovely thing to do, it’s quite easy. You get to go and look on the shelves, search alphabetically by author’s last name, and you will find all of the available lovely books by Mac Barnett– some illustrated by Jon Klassen, others by Isabelle Arsenault or Christian Robinson.

However, unless you’re at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which is a wonderful idea, but not so easily achievable worldwide, and anyway it’s closed now because of covid (though the online shop is open, so patronize it, my friends), you don’t get to browse shelves by illustrator.

Further, I say, and yes I’m getting all wound up: classics, particularly illustrated classics, don’t have the staying power if you’re, for example, the abovementioned Martin Springett or, say, Frances Tyrrell, or Stéphane Poulin, or Phoebe Gilman, rather than Ezra Jack Keats or Maurice Sendak. Oh, and let’s not forget that Keats and Sendak were author-illustrators. Note that Margaret Wise Brown is far more of a household name than Clement Hurd, the skillful illustrator of Goodnight Moon. (Did you know Mac Barnett wrote a lovely book about Margaret Wise Brown? Illustrated by Sarah Jacoby.)

So I get rather fussy about my beloved Canadian illustrators, who don’t get quite the prominence unless attached to a good USA distributor, somehow, and whose names won’t be as recognized unless they’re capable of writing as well as drawing, and who won’t last as well… Example? I really wanted to give Marjorie Pickthall and Frances Tyrrell’s beautiful The Worker in Sandalwood to a friend for Christmas, but had to get it secondhand. Stéphane Poulin’s Joséphine books, even in translation, are hard to find. And so on and so forth. Oh yes, I’m fully aware that old books go out of print! Sure, the vast majority of books by the Lobels are hard to find, and I recently bought a hardback copy of In the Night Kitchen, classic of classics, simply because I FOUND IT SO IT’S MINE. Of course I already have one, don’t be silly. This is to give to the next person I hear lamenting that “they only have the paperback.” So, no, this is not exclusively a Canadian issue. It is difficult and expensive to keep every book ever produced in print in the editions everyone loves. But it is definitely harder for Canadian content than American. (And, I repeat, I’m being specifically pouty as a Canadian here: this is personal for me. I have also been known to spend exorbitant amounts of money getting books from the UK or from France. And Australia, once.)

But my issue is, very simply: how do we get more if we don’t hear about them in the first place and it’s hard to get them? I’m not an average buyer of books, but this is how an ordinary experience has gone for me: Neil Gaiman writes of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making: “A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom.” (100% accurate, by the way.) Now, I know and trust Neil Gaiman and that sounded like something I like, so I got it. I loved it, and got more of Cat Valente’s books, which have led me not only to more of her own excellent work, but also to the work of others (Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, and so much more). That’s how book-purchasing functions, normally. But let’s throw in a stumbling block: Cat decides to publish a story with an indie publisher in another country and they don’t distribute here. If we’re talking about a die-hard bibliophile and fan, this would cross the reader’s radar and maybe they’d go out of their way to get it. The average reader wouldn’t know. It wouldn’t pop up through an online algorithm because the book’s not available for purchase in the USA so a website serving the USA won’t pop up a notification “Oh, guess what? Why not get in touch with a store across the border and get this book?” If you are in a good store around the USA, a bookseller may mention it in the store, but only if you have a chatty bookseller who says: “Oh, hey, you like her? Wish we could get that new book, eh?” (Side note: Don’t worry, I know of no such book.)

Look, there’s no easy solution here. But I want to encourage you, dear readers, to think outside of the distribution bubble. When I travel (Remember travelling? I hear we might get to do it again one day!), I look for books at indie shops wherever I go (yes this is a problem when flying and the airlines make a fuss about weight limits), and I do my best to get local books– ones I know my Boston people can’t get me. In the UK, I have been known to reserve books in advance for purchase when I arrive. In Canada, I just pop in because I, um, know the booksellers and they know me. In Jerusalem, I have a local shop I love (Adraba, yes, they’re amazing). It’s worthwhile, I promise, and will enrich your library, and if it enriches your library it will enrich your mind, your heart, and your soul. And sink the foundations of your house, potentially.

PART 2: So, I’m going to show you work by a new-to-me illustrator (author-illustrator, too!), Lauren Soloy, from Canada: her earlier years in British Columbia gave her insights into the work of artist Emily Carr (how I love Emily Carr!), and she now lives on the other coast of Canada, in Nova Scotia, not far from where I grew up. She’s currently not far from the wonderful children’s book shop in Halifax, Woozles, and has offered to sign and personalize a book for ONE OF YOU, my dears, which I will pay to ship anywhere in Canada (yes, I want to focus on Canada, just this once– indulge my patriotism, I miss my home!). Rules to follow. Read on.

Her first author-illustrated book is When Emily Was Small, and it’s rooted in the story of Emily Carr as both writer and artist. I was so completely delighted that she wrote about Emily Carr just when I wanted to introduce the Changeling to Canadian art that this became personal to me.

Lauren Soloy did a wonderful job of making this story– and the art– both general and specific. Any child will be able to relate to Emily-as-Small’s feelings of repression and liberation, I think– and the story of the artist as well as the art is perfectly attuned to the historical context, too. The Canadian author-artist story goes back so far, both as far as and far preceding Emily Carr. One of the things to love about Emily Carr’s art, in fact, is that it represented a world of nature and art far beyond her own work. She was not a self-aggrandizing artist, though she knew her own worth, and you can see how steeped she was in the richness of her environment in so many ways. Lauren Soloy points to this one painting by Carr, “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky,” as a particular influence on When Emily Was Small, but “Totem Forest” shows her keen eye for the world around and the Indigenous art surrounding her yet more explicitly:

Now, if you want an example of how Emily Carr’s eye for narrative and nature in her art is reflected in the narrative art of Lauren Soloy? Look here, at a page which made me gasp aloud:

Terribly sorry for yanking, Lauren, please forgive me. I know it was a very secret nod.

I chose to highlight this book for a few reasons: a) I love it and she so kindly agreed to sign a copy for one of you, b) it links art and narrative in Canada across time and culture, c) it tells the story of yearning to make art, to be seen, to be heard… to be bigger than yourself, yet, ultimately, to be yourself most fully. It makes the reader yearn to live in a broad, beautiful way in this broad, beautiful world, and it feels real to me. Real– and personal. (Did you know Lauren Soloy has a new book coming out soon? She does! Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem, May 18, 2021, and I’m very excited!)

PART 3: So: One of you Canadian readers! Remember that this time it’s for residents of Canada only, just this once. Please do my heart good! By Monday, March 8 at 5 pm either pop into the comments of this post and write about a Canadian illustrator you love– include the name of the picture book they illustrated, please! Or email me: deborah.furchtgott@gmail.com with the info– and attach a picture of the picture book you’re talking about if you’ve got it! I will choose a winner at random that night, email you immediately for name and address, and once I have the name for personalization and address for mailing, I will make the order from Woozles in Halifax to get to you ASAP!

Thanks so much– and try a Canadian book!