Bob the Artist

So, Chronicle Books recently had a 35% off + free shipping sale.  I will disclose nothing except that that’s when I bought This Is Not a Picture Book! and also when I bought today’s book.  And that’s the sum total of what I bought, and I think I am to be commended for my admirable restraint.  Granted, the sale ends tomorrow and I may possibly have my eye on other items… but, really, only two books so far?  You should be asking who took the real Deborah away and who this is instead.  Or else maybe I’m not quite as extravagant as I present myself when talking about children’s book purchases… who knows?

How one appears.  How one presents oneself.  That’s at the heart of today’s book, Bob the Artist, by Marion Deuchars.

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What’s the story?  Bob is a bird with long, skinny legs.  The other animals– the owl, the cat, even the other birds– make fun of him.  This teasing makes Bob very sad, and he tries to do something about it.  His first attempts are all to try to change himself and his legs: he tries to exercise his legs bigger, he tries to eat his legs bigger, he tries to dress up to hide his legs.  None of these attempts works, and he only ends up feeling sad and ridiculous.  You’re probably feeling really bad for Bob right about now, same as I did when I was first reading the book, but don’t worry– what happens next is that he goes for a long walk and ends up at the art gallery.  There he sees a huge variety of wonderful art and comes away inspired.  He decides to paint his beak in different styles every day, some days like Matisse, others like Jackson Pollock, for example.  He doesn’t worry about being ridiculous, he doesn’t worry about his legs, he just decorates that beak of his.  The other animals love his beak art, and he doesn’t worry about his legs at all any longer.

There are two interconnected aspects to understanding what makes this book so special.  One is the story, so sympathetic to poor Bob and his legs.  The other is the art.  Let’s start by talking a bit about the art, and we can come back to the story.  Marion Deuchars is incredibly skilled at linking up her art both with the text she’s writing and with the wider world she’s conjuring up, and all with a fairly limited palette and scene.  The key figure of the art is Bob himself: a very minimal figure of a black bird with a red beak and two long, thin legs.  He’s featured on every page and each scene is amplified by some additional figure: the cat and the owl and other birds who make fun of him each make their appearances, and there’s a little bat who silently (until the very end) accompanies him wherever he goes.  The cat is made with fingerprint art, the owl with strong red lines.  The other birds mimic Bob, except with shorter, thicker legs.

But Marion Deuchars’ real skill comes in as she shows Bob’s reactions to these criticisms, all building around that strong, minimal figure of the black bird with the red beak.  At first, Bob is stretching his long legs out confidently as he walks, but then the legs fold and his wings droop as cat and owl criticize him, and he folds over to examine his legs as the other birds call out to him.  When he exercises at the gym, Marion Deuchars has him in fifteen different (very funny) poses in a two-page spread, showing him intensely, enthusiastically, devotedly exercising his legs.  When he tries to eat his legs bigger, he’s given a full page with a massive plate of sausages.  Each thing he tries, you see him throwing himself into it as passionately as he can.

When his attempts fail and he ends up at the art gallery, Bob’s world opens up.  You see him, a small, black figure, head tilted to one side, gazing at a wall of glorious paintings.  (And Marion Deuchars shows herself to be excellent at rendering the famous art Bob is admiring.)  On the next page, Bob is a tiny figure in a two-page spread of splashes of glorious colour and fantastic motifs.  When he paints his beak, the beak is overlaid on a world of art– well, let me show you: Bob the Artist Matisse.png

You see how the beak seems to be part of a whole world of art which Bob is now inhabiting.  He’s now strong and confident– no wonder he no longer worries about his legs when he’s now securely in his own colourful space, and presenting himself honestly as he wishes to be.

As I said, Marion Deuchars is truly masterful at weaving together the art with the text, especially in a case where art is at the centre of the book.  But it’s the sympathy for Bob that truly comes through.  We particularly watch his steady progress from the vulnerability when he’s teased, through his passionate attempts at changing himself, to ultimately finding who he truly is and accepting it: an identity shift which is reflected in the title– “Bob the Artist.”  Bob, we discover along with him, is an artist, and his medium is the beak.

The Changeling is, thankfully, too young to have been exposed to teasing (her mother, however, was called “the giraffe” in Grade 6 for whatever reason), but already loves the book anyway.  She doesn’t like poor Bob to be sad, and gets really excited when he starts colouring his beak in different patterns.  What I notice is that, already, it’s a book of sympathy for her, as it is for me.  She feels sympathy for Bob when he’s sad, excitement when he figures out his solution.  She likes to watch him figure out how to present himself honestly, even though she doesn’t yet know what that means.

I bet that you do know, though.  I bet that you’ve had moments like Bob’s, moments of figuring out who you are and how to put your best beak forward.  So maybe check this book out and see how you and Bob get along.  I bet you’ll be friends.

This Is Not a Picture Book!

Do you know we’ve looked at almost a hundredish books here together, blog?  Something like that, anyway.  And some of them we’ve looked at for the text, others for the illustrations, many for both.  Some of them we’ve looked at for the contents, a few for the book as a whole.  But there’s one thing we’ve never talked about: end-papers.  It’s just pretty rare that end-papers end up being particularly, well, important.  Some are decidedly attractive, true, and some are restrained and unassuming, but they don’t tend to play any more of an integral role in understanding and appreciating a book than the flyleaves.  Incidentally, we haven’t discussed flyleaves, either.

Why do I bring these up?  Because I’ve just been taught that both end-papers and flyleaves are decidedly important after all.  Who taught me?  A certain duckling and bookbug in This Is Not a Picture Book! by Sergio Ruzzier.


This Is Not a Picture Book.jpg

People, every once in a while an entirely perfect book shows up, and you sit there in perplexity, wondering where the “buts” and “well, ifs” went.  You wonder why this book wasn’t always here.  You wonder how the world was before it arrived because you can’t quite remember.  Now imagine that this book was entirely complete and perfect from the endpapers and flyleaves to the cover and the contents.  Everything was thought and designed and planned out– perfectly.

That perfect book is This Is Not a Picture Book! and I find it impossible to believe that anyone, adult or child, wouldn’t be better off for reading this book.  Let me put it this way: I read it through before reading it to my daughter, and was distinctly sniffly by the end.

But let’s talk first about what the book entails, and then we can talk more about how it throws me into a rather emotional state.   A duckling is out walking when he sees a red book lying on the ground.  He’s very excited until he realizes that it doesn’t have any pictures– ugh!  He throws it aside, angry, but then feels bad and apologizes to the book.  He starts looking through it, and a little bookbug comes over to him.  Together they explore the book and realize that it has a lot to offer: some words are funny, others are sad, wild, peaceful… but all can carry you away, and stay with you forever.  In the end, the bookbug is very excited: “Read it again!”

This story is told in three different ways in the book.  Yes, three.  Possibly four, if you count differently, but I count three.  First, there’s the front and back end-papers, each different, and then there’s the pages in between, beginning with the fly-leaves.  Does this sound too complicated?  But it’s actually very simple.  You see, the contents of the book are a lovely little picture book aimed at toddlers and up.  The fly-leaves show the beginning of the story:20160816_095205.jpg

And so it carries on in this simple way until you come to the title page:


By which point you’re already heavily involved in the story: you know the problem the little duckling is facing, and you have an idea of what’s coming next to resolve that problem.

But what about the end-papers?  Here I’ve been rhapsodizing about end-papers but I still haven’t told you what’s going on with them except for a hint that they also tell the story, each in a different way.  Well, they do.  See, the thing is that the book is a picture book, despite proclaiming that it’s not, rather in the vein of…

Ceci n'est pas une pipe.jpg

But, in fact, the story is also told without pictures– on the end-papers.  At the front of the book, it’s told in a semi-garbled way, the way someone who’s not really comfortable reading without pictures might see it, as a collection of scrambled letters with the occasional familiar word poking out: “Lafnyil, he saw a ewf sowrd ttha he dah esne ofbere: bee, flowers, mountains, clouds!”  The back end-papers have the same text, unscrambled.  (The sentence I transcribed was: “Finally, he saw a few words that he had seen before: bee, flowers, mountains, clouds!”)  The story, as told in the back, is undoubtedly the most completely described: it tells you about the bookbug, for example, who scrambles out from the gutter of the book and becomes the duckling’s companion on his journey.  We know him from the picture book, but he isn’t fully introduced until you read the end-papers.

Does any of this make the end-papers the “better version” of the story?  Of course not.  The end-papers are a bit more complete, but they lack the fourth element of the story-telling: the pictures.  You create your own pictures, and you remember the pictures from the picture book version, but it’s told unillustrated, and, well, there’s a poignancy to that.  You do miss pictures.  But you can create your own.  The words are working on their own– some are funny, some are sad, just as the text says.  And then there’s the other poignancy: you know that the end-papers are there for you, the adult, probably not for the child you’re reading to.  One day, though, one day… one day she’ll be reading those end-papers, maybe even when she revisits the book with her own children… and you choke up, if you’re me, thinking of the joy of books in store for her.

How does the Changeling respond to this book right now, though?  There are so many clever elements I just described, but a lot of them do seem aimed at adults, what with how the whole book is involved in this love-letter to bookishness, right?  Let me put it this way: when the bookbug cheers at the end, “Read it again!” the Changeling grabs the book from my hands and “reads it again.”  She’s memorized the whole thing and “reads” it aloud to me.  She reads it beautifully, of course, and I should really try to record it because I can say, void of parental partiality, that no one has ever read a book aloud so beautifully in the entire history of the whole world.

It’s one of the nicest gifts a book has given me, that first moment when the Changeling heard the words: “Read it again!” and submitted to the impulse to obey that call.

And that’s what I mean when I say this book is a perfect object.  It uses every element of the book to show off what a book can do, and it does so appealing to every book-lover, or potential book-lover, out there: adult or child, it doesn’t matter.  Everyone can find something speaking to them in this book.  It’s perfect.

The Great Journey

I really do try to stick to books that I’ve read with the Changeling here.  Some of them really are a bit too old for her (Little Red Writing being a fine example), and either I only read it partially aloud or she sits through it patiently anyway.  In fact, let me tell you a secret theory: I think that having my general exams for my PhD while I was pregnant did a lot of good for her patience with books which are too old for her because she’s really good at sitting there sucking her thumb while I read books aloud.  I think she just got used to reading stuff way over her head while she was swimming in gestational fluid and now I could read her Shakespeare and she’d sit through it.

I should try that.

Anyway, the point is that I try out most books here on the Changeling for one simple reason: I like to see how they work when they’re read aloud.  I think that’s important for children’s books.  Remember Moominland Midwinter?  I was really surprised when I read that one aloud to the Changeling– it reads aloud beautifully, and my perspective on the book changed from when I read it as a novel, quietly to myself.  (Confession: I’ve read Jane Austen aloud to the Changeling, too, back when she was a bit younger.  Unsurprisingly, it’s delightful to read aloud.  She made a fine audience when she was 9 months old or so.)

OK, so that’s fine.  I’ve made a singularly compelling argument for reading books aloud and you’re all convinced that I should never post about any book here without reading it aloud first.  And now I’m going to disappoint you.

The Great Journey, by Agathe Demois (sadly I can’t find a website for her) and Vincent Godeau is such a breathtakingly beautiful book, physically, that I haven’t been able to bring myself to share it with the Changeling.  She’s a very careful three-year-old, but she is three years old, and she might harm the book, and I just don’t think I could bear that.  That’s the truth, and that’s why it’s taken me several months to get to posting this.  Because I couldn’t admit to you that I bought a book for my daughter (introduced to me by the remarkable staff at this store) which I haven’t shared with her for fear of her damaging it, so I haven’t read it aloud, so I didn’t want to post about it, so…

So I looked in the mirror this morning and said, “Dammit, this book’s too good not to share with the blog.  Confess, and post.”

Here’s the cover:

The Great Journey.jpg

Curious, are you?  Wait just a minute while I tell you a bit about this book.  It was first published in French as La Grande Traversée by Éditions du Seuil in 2014 and was translated into English by Rae Walter and published by Tate Publishing.  (What is it about these French books?  Bébé BalthazarApples and RobinsMy Wild Family… there are so many great ones right now!  But then, the same is true of Canadian, British, and American books, so perhaps we’re just living through a Golden Age of children’s literature.)

Sorry for that digression.  I swear this all matters.  The fact is that I’m noticing a trend about these marvellous French books.  What I love about them, even in translation (and they do tend to be beautifully translated), is that they often tell two stories simultaneously.  This isn’t exclusive to French children’s books, of course (Something From Nothing comes to mind as a great Canadian book which has a second story of a mouse family in illustration right underneath the main story), but these contemporary French stories are often very creative in what goes on simultaneously.  Take Apples and Robins, which has the story of the apples and robins and the turning seasons, but also has the story of colours and geometry and how illustrations happen.  My Wild Family has the story of family members and their various characteristics, but it also has the more whimsical story of the relationship between human and animal characteristics, and how people think about that.  They make you think.

Well, our book today has a more explicit “two story” approach.  And, dear God, how I love it.  There’s the story of the birds’ migration, as told through the perspective of Red Beak (Rouge-Bec in the French version).  You can read this story as it stands.  Forget about the second story entirely, just don’t worry about it.  This is the story of a bird who travels from his forest to the jungle.  All of the words are in a lovely light blue and the illustrations are in bright red linework, exquisitely detailed, with a faint tracery of blue underneath, easily ignored if you want to, or adding some cute details if you want to pay attention to that sort of thing.  20160811_142536.jpg

See?  There’s a farmer, Peter, who’s watering his vegetable garden, and Rouge-Bec (Don’t you think “Rouge-Bec” sounds prettier than “Red Beak”?  I do.) is perched on his hat.  (For some reason the blue lines stand out more strongly in my picture than in the real life book.  Ignore them for now.)  Rouge-Bec travels along, past ant hills and factories and city streets.  He wonders what goes on in the factories and watches the people in the train station.  He rests on lovely, sweet icebergs and flies over boats.  Finally he reaches his destination and tells his fellow birds such amazing stories about a cloud factory and fishing with sausages– where did they come from?

Well, did you notice on the cover I showed you that there was a red view-finder showing a different picture?  Yes, that one.  Good.  If you use that along the way the blue lines come alive: you’ll see that the factory Rouge-Bec flies past is a cloud factory, the ants lead an amazing life in their ant hill, the sweet icebergs are actually ice cream cones and the people on the boat are fishing with sausages.  And, on the final page, as the birds call Rouge-Bec’s story nonsense– you can only see them with that same nonsensical view-finder.  Which story is true, you wonder?

Except you don’t.  At least if you’re me you don’t, and I don’t doubt there are others who don’t think of questioning either story until those pragmatic birds start calling it into question.  Parallel realities seem entirely plausible.  Questioning either reality?  Inconceivable!  One of the realities is just a little… imaginative?  Rouge-Bec simply has a knack for seeing things that other birds don’t, that’s all.

Or maybe he’s imagining things.  He’s dreaming.  It’s all a fantastic vision caused by unaccustomed exertions on a long and difficult journey.

But we don’t believe that.  We hold the Magic View-Finder.  We see things which are really there.  We see everything.

Two stories are in this book.  Why should one be more real than the other, I ask you?  Well, here’s where my failure as a blogger comes out: I’d tell you what the Changeling thought right about now, except that I don’t know.  I do think that she’s a bit young to properly manipulate the view-finder, which is my excuse, but I can’t help wondering: would she take the two stories at face value, as I do, or would she be a pragmatist, like the birds?  Maternal instinct says she’d accept the two stories at face value, but that may be wishful thinking.

What do you think of the two stories?  Why are there two stories?  Why not buy a copy of the book yourself, and see?  (I got my copy at my local children’s bookstore, and, uh, by the way?  I asked them and they ship!  Or check at your own local bookstore.)

Little Red Writing

Well, folks, this is a day about writing.  I have a lot of writing to do, you see, but sometimes I get bogged down or stalled or stuck or– you all know the perils out there in the writing universe, right?  Well, so does Little Red Writing, by Joan Holub, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.
Little Red Writing.jpg

This is one of those moments when I want to get up on a soapbox and proclaim a few things to the world, so excuse me a moment while I preach to the choir, here.  You see, if you’re at this website, reading my words, I expect that you’re one of those who, like me, sees value in children’s books beyond throwing them at kids.  You, like me, believe that they have inherent value which transcends the ages printed on the website or the spine of the book.  You believe that the same lessons which are being taught to children are important for adults– whether those be lessons about being inclusive or about how writing works.  Everyone needs to learn to be a compassionate human being, we hope, and everyone should learn how a sentence works.

This is a book for children, yes– Chronicle Books recommends it for children aged 6-9, and they’d know better than I would.  (Actually, that sounds really about right to me: for when children are just learning to write.)  What surprised me was how great it was for me to read a simple book with basic writing lessons when I was briefly overwhelmed by my dissertation last week.  “Ah, yes,” I was reminded, “sometimes you do just need to think about getting those words on the page in the right order.  That’s how it goes.”

But how does Little Red Writing work, how does it go?  There’s a little red pencil, appropriately named Little Red, who goes to pencil school.  One day her teacher tells the class that they’re going to write stories.  The rules of the story path are printed on the board:

  • Idea, characters, setting
  • Trouble
  • Even bigger trouble
  • Fix the trouble

Sound familiar?  Well, yes.  This is Basic How To Write Stuff.  Even when you’re writing an essay you probably introduce the setting, introduce the problem, and resolve the problem as best you can.  Little Red, of course, is meeting it for the first time, though, and she guides you along, she and her basket of 15 words to use in case she runs into trouble– and off she goes onto a journey around the school to find her story.  She does run into trouble, pretty quickly: she cartwheels into a “deep, dark, descriptive forest” and is “bogged down, hindered, lost!”  Her word basket hands her scissors to cut through the excess description and allow her to stick to her story path.  And so she goes, adventure by adventure, to the crux of the story:


She hears a growling noise, right at the middle of the story, and starts tossing nouns out of her basket to get her to the next page… when she sees a long tail, and starts to follow it along its winding path, all the way to the principal’s office.  Who should it be, but the Wolf 3000 pencil sharpener who has tried to grind Principal Granny to smithereens?  When Mr. Woodcutter, the janitor, faints, it’s up to Little Red to save the day… and don’t forget, that means: save Principal Granny, defeat the Wolf 3000, and finish her story.

Fortunately her word basket yields one last noun: a stick of dynamite.  Little Red lobs it at the pencil sharpener, saves Principal Granny, and returns to class to read out her story, having learned a thing or two about writing and sticking to the story path along the way.

And what have we learned with her?  Well, we learn some technical rules:

  • Don’t get bogged down by description
  • Don’t write run-on sentences
  • Use adverbs advisedly
  • Stick to your story path

But we also learn some other lessons along the way.  We learn to have fun.  Little Red chases her story down, rather than waiting for it to come to her.  You can’t expect your writing to turn up on the page for you, page numbers and title page and all.  You have to go forth and do.  And you can either do it grumpily or with a smile on your face– that’s up to you.  Little Red chooses to do so bravely and with gusto.

She also leads by example.  The parallels to Little Red Riding Hood are fun, but they’re also useful.  Little Red Riding Hood is a very tightly constructed story, and one with a very clear “story path” (which is very conveniently located on a path in the story, so nice metaphor there).  Using this parallel story gives a nice clear example– for example, I can see a teacher using this in class: if you can dissect the story path of Little Red Riding Hood with your students and show how Little Red in the story does the same thing, well, you’ve already learned a lot!  Good job, class!

But I made the argument that the teacher, too, might gain something.  Or the parent.  Or any adult reader.  And I stick by that statement.  You learn, I think, to be sympathetic to Little Red.  The difficulties and simplicities of writing aren’t likely to change.  They were the same for the original authors of the various Little Red Riding Hoods out there as they were for Joan Holub writing Little Red Writing.  They’re the same lessons I’m learning again as I write.  They’re the same lessons you learn again as you write.  We’re all in this together, with Little Red.

But the same joys of creation are there, and we have the same tools in our writing baskets:  scissors for cutting our way through description, glue for sticking in necessary words (but not too many!), adverbs as needed (in moderation!).  We’ve all been there before and will be again.  And sometimes you just need a simple book to remind you of that: Strunk and White will always be there, true, but here’s a nice book to read with your kid, the two of you learning together.

Will’s Words

I think I’ve told you once or twice before now how obsessive I can be.  Well, I’ve always been like that.  When I was a kid, I was really obsessed with Shakespeare.  Not mildly obsessed, really obsessed: I read his plays and his poetry, I memorized large chunks, I read about him, I went to a Shakespeare camp three summers in a row.  I was obsessed.  I wish I’d had this book then… but since I didn’t have it then, I’m glad I have it now.  And, no, since you ask, I don’t remotely care that it’s too old for the Changeling.  She’ll grow into it.

The book is Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, by Jane Sutcliffe, illustrated by John Shelley.

Will's Words.jpg

That gorgeous title page shows you a good deal of what’s going on in the book itself, as a good cover is wont to do!  You see Will writing, you see symbols of the country, theatre, the Globe Theatre in a frame all around him, and you see his words flying on slips of paper out of the window of his century and into ours.  Will is in colour, and the frame around him is in the sepia-tinted colours of our distance through time.  I love it.  When you open the book, though, the sepia distance is gone, vanished.  We’re now immersing ourselves in the hustle and bustle of Elizabethan England.

Remember when I talked about I Use the Potty and praised the use of simple lines and a limited palette?  This is the polar opposite.  John Shelley deserves fame and fortune for the rich and detailed watercolour paintings which form the scenery for this book.  If this book is a theatre, then the text is the play, the voice, the soul of the theatre, and the artwork provides the set, the props, the very structure of the stage itself.  John Shelley’s exquisite art, carefully researched and beautifully executed, provides the wherewithal to bring the text truly to life.

But what about the text, you might ask.  I’m glad you did ask.  The text is a mishmash of elements which are united in a love of words.  We start with a note from the author explaining that she really wanted to write a book about the Globe Theatre and William Shakespeare, but she found that the language was a nuisance: she kept tripping up and using Will’s words as she wrote.  Thus, the nature of her book changed.  She still wrote about the history of the theatre in London, still wrote about the Globe, and still wrote about Shakespeare.  Now, however, one side of the two-page spread has a little boxed text with some history of the theatre (Did you know that a play would be signaled by raising a banner or flag from the playhouse roof?  I remember loving that when I was a kid.), and the other side of the spread has definitions and explanations of expressions which come from Will– thus, Will’s Words (for example: “money’s worth,” which comes from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 2, Scene 1).

And so we walk through three stories: the story of the making of the book, the story of the theatre in London, and the story which ties the other two together: the story of language, from Will’s day to our own.  This is typical of Charlesbridge publications: they rarely have just one facet out there to grab you.  If a Charlesbridge book can’t get you to fall in love in three different ways at once, it’s not a Charlesbridge book!

What’s marvellous about the story of the language is this: unlike the “Shakespeare’s insults” t-shirts, mugs, and other gadgets you’ll see in theatre gift shops, this book isn’t focused on the arcane and the unfamiliar.  It’s focused on words you might use any day of the week without realizing they have a connection to Will Shakespeare.  Either he invented them, popularized them, or revived them when they were fading into disuse… in danger of being pronounced dead as a doornail (another of Will’s Words).

Now, the child I was didn’t mind the arcane and the unfamiliar in Shakespeare’s language.  I’d even say I revelled in it: words like “mooncalf” delighted me.  But I bet that my classmates would have truly benefited from a book like this, back in Grade 9.  And so could I.  To me, it would have been more fodder for my love of language.  To some of them, it could have been that one connection they needed to get Shakespeare to make sense.  You see, for some of my classmates, I recall, Shakespeare might as well have been Beowulf for all they could see a relationship between his English and their own.  To find out that words like “fashionable” became popularized (or… fashionable) because of Shakespeare might have given that point of connection which could have helped them give him a second chance.

But here’s the crux of the matter: between the art and the text here, this book really brings Shakespeare’s England and his theatre to life.  You see the bustle both in the streets and backstage; you see that the language isn’t so far-off and sepia-tinted, but right next door to your own.  The world starts to jump off the page and into your own eyes and mind and life.  I find myself feeling that tingle I used to feel when I opened Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a girl… maybe it’s time to break out the Shakespeare again!  In other words, this book is inspiration.

I see one danger: this is a picture book.  It’s also a picture book I see as belonging in every high school class with reluctant readers of Shakespeare.  I know for a fact that I’d have loved this book when I was a high school student.  But because of pesky prejudice, too few people hand picture books to high school readers these days.  Well, I object!  I think that this belongs not only in the 7-10 range recommended by Charlesbridge (although they’re definitely pitching it right, don’t get me wrong), but older, too.

Let me put it this way: I feel inspired by this book.  I look forward to seeing it inspire a whole new generation of readers of Will’s Words, too.  Let’s read on!

Monthly Retrospective

Here we are smack in the middle of summer, with long days and short nights and, for much of the country, a heatwave.  I hope your weather is exactly the way you like it and, above all, that you’re getting the reading time I always count on from summer.  You may or may not remember me talking about seasonal reading before, but there are certain books I associate with certain seasons– Moominland Midwinter for the coldest depths of winter, The Secret Garden for early spring.  Summer isn’t like that for me.

Summer in my childhood world was always a perfect orgy of reading everything: fairy tales and folklore, novels and poetry, plays and picture books.  The only thing I didn’t read as a child was, to the best of my recollection, even a single graphic novel or comic book.  My loss, I believe, and I’m making up for it now.  For the rest, though, it was an incredibly diverse assortment of reading, without paying any attention to what was too young or too old a book for me.  I did a lot of my most adventurous reading in the summer, probably since I had time to really dive in and explore without that pesky school getting in the way.  I had dreams, and books were my gateway to those dreams.

This list here today is a sort of tribute to that diverse dreaming: in our spotlights we have a very young book (I Use the Potty), a slightly older picture book (How to Catch a Mouse), and a spooky YA novel (The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle).  Overall for the month we have a lot of humour and a little scary (Rookskill Castle again).  We have folklore (A Squash and a Squeeze) and originality and history.  We have poetry (One Little Two Little Three Little Children) and almost poetry (Twelve Kinds of Ice).  We have a lot of fun stuff, basically, and I hope you find something in here you enjoy!

How to Catch a MouseHow to Catch a Mouse: Clemmie is such a great mouser that she’s never even seen a mouse in her house, until… uh oh!  If my daughter is anything to judge by, children will love to watch Clemmie and clamour to warn her that THERE REALLY IS A MOUSE!  Come on, Clemmie, find it!  Philippa Leathers has a witty, gentle touch in the text, and her muted colours with the glowing Clemmie standing out from the page will capture both parents and children.

I Use the Potty


I Use the Potty: Come, ye, and join our young protagonist as he shares the joy of accomplishment with you: He has learned to use the potty! The flush of excitement (that was totally intentional) is contagious, and my daughter has been encouraged to seek her own victories after seeing our protagonist’s joy in his. The illustrations are engaging with their bold lines and limited but, again, bold and bright palette. This is a truly bewitching guide to getting on the potty train!

Charmed Children Rookskill Castle

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle: An eerie and mysterious novel about the adventures a group of children experience when they’re sent to Scotland to avoid the London bombings at the outset of WWII.  With a dark and Gothic atmosphere, the novel is still lively and sympathetic due to the protagonist, Kat Bateson.  In fact, if you don’t fall in love with Kat, you should probably check your vital signs because I just can’t imagine any living being not finding themselves enthralled by her keen intellect, the regular battles between her pragmatism and imagination, and, above all, her loving warmth for her family. Get ready to shiver in delicious fear as you watch these children battle an unknown foe…

Lastly, to answer the burning question: “What is the Changeling reading?”  For the past few nights we’ve had a return to an old favourite: The Tea Party in the Woods.  Thanks for reading along, as always, and we’ll be back on Thursday with our regular musings!

I Use the Potty

First of all, I want to let you all know that I’m Very Officially switching to a Tuesday-Thursday schedule for posting here.  I ran it by the Board of Directors (me) and the CEO (me) and we all agreed that it was the best course since those are days I’m not looking after the Changeling all day and will be better able to write.

Second, on the topic of the Changeling, did you all know we’re so excited about potty training?  Except that the Changeling calls the potty the “teapot” (pot-ty; ty-pot; more easily spelled “teapot”).   And we aren’t exactly excited.  In fact, I think a more accurate word for my feelings is “resigned.”  As in, rather than spend another five minutes trying to cheerily encourage my daughter to wear underwear rather than diapers– I resign myself to changing diapers.  It’s not worth the time.  Or rather than find a dozen systems of entertainment to keep my daughter on the toilet (or potty, or teapot) for twenty full seconds before she declares, “I don’t have anything in my bum,” and jumps off– I resign myself to the fact that she’ll be back sobbing out, “I have a peepee!” within another two minutes.  I’m resigned.

And this is the part where I should declare cheerily– “Or I was resigned until I found this book which changed everything!!!”  And, well, I did find this awesome new book, and it is helpful.  It didn’t change everything, not really.  It does keep the Changeling sitting on the toilet (or potty, or teapot) for a good bit longer before she jumps off and says, “I don’t have anything in my bum” (and runs back two minutes later).  It does engage her interest.  It does make her smile and recite along with it.  I think, in a word, it empowers her.

But what really makes it worthwhile?  It’s affirming to both of us, not just her.  And who knew that parents needed the affirmation of potty books?  But apparently we do.

The book is I Use the Potty by Maria van Lieshout.  (Hi, Chronicle Books!  You’re still doing amazing stuff, aren’t you?)

I Use the Potty.jpg

And you see that cover?  That’s a truly magnificent representation of the sort of thing you’ll be seeing in this book.  The bright, warm yellow background with the strong lines of our protagonist standing out from the page, arms flung open victoriously, big smile– that’s the kind of energy that carries you all the way through the book.

In fact, look more closely at the cover: that limited palette (yellow, blue, white, and black) is the palette that’s used throughout the book, and I love it.  Much as I adore really rich illustrations (think about The Owl and the PussycatA Castle Full of CatsLittle Red Riding Hood— all of those have a wealth of colour, subtlety, and detail), I am coming more and more to appreciate the effect of a limited palette and simple, strong lines when done effectively.  And, to be clear, in this case it’s done really, really effectively.

How so?  Well, Maria van Lieshout has done something wonderfully well: she found the simple, core, essential message of her book, and stuck to it, both in the text and in the illustrations.  What’s the core message?  “Because I’m a big kid I can do it myself.”  (In this case “it” being “using the toilet”– or potty, or teapot.)  Every outflung arm and triumphantly smiling face, all in those strong, simple lines, emphasizes that same message: “I did it myself!” the pictures dance with glee.  Oh, hell, I’m going to show you another example and save myself a thousand words.  Check out this picture:


Simple colours and lines and textures, but every bit of it is closely directed towards the same message: “I do it myself!”

As for the text– conveying that message in the text looks so simple that I can only imagine it took a lot of work.  (Kudos, Maria van Lieshout!  I hail thee from the depths of editing hell.)  She follows a straight, chronological trajectory from babyhood to Big Kidhood (erm, as it were).  When our protagonist was a baby, he tells us, he drank a lot of milk and peed and pooped in diapers all the time– Yucky, Stinky Diapers!  (Yes, part of what attracts kids with this book is that it’s full of sound effects and gross descriptions.  It’s easy to emphasize those bits so that kids love it even more.  Or you can try to tone it down if it bothers you, but I warn you that you’re missing half the fun.)  But now our protagonist has grown up and become a Big Kid!  Big Kids use the potty, he tells us, and they wear underwear.  And he goes on to deliver a graphic illustration (graphically illustrated) of exactly how Big Kids use the potty.  Perhaps the most useful page to us is the one where he shows that “Sometimes it takes a while.  But then… PLOP!”  (See above re: getting the Changeling to sit for more than five seconds at a time.)

But I made the argument that this book is as useful to parents as to kids, and here I am describing gross potty humour clearly directed towards children.  Where’s the point for parents?  Or am I just arguing that what’s effective for kids will also be helpful for parents?  What a cop-out, Deb!

Please, no, have a little more faith than that.  Here’s the thing: this book is such an accurate representation of potty training and the struggles you face, the goals you set, and the milestones you achieve (“Good job, you sat still for a whole twenty seconds!”), that it makes you feel less alone, both as a child and as an adult.  Children say, “That’s me!”  Adults say, “That’s my child!  Hey… that child has a parent… maybe that parent’s going through the same thing I am!”  And the answer to both is this:

“Yes.  You’re here.  You’re not alone.  Potty training can be tricky and fragile and you do have to clean up poop from the floor occasionally, soothe tears, and calm frustrations, but this, too, will pass.  It has for others.  You’re not alone.”

And that’s why I recommend this book not just to encourage your kid– although it’s great for that, honestly– but also to calm yourself as a parent.  You’re really, truly part of a grand and splendid tradition of teaching your kids where to take a dump, and you should be proud of yourself, not just proud of your beautiful growing child who is so not a baby any longer.

A Squash and a Squeeze

Not just the book I’ll be talking about, but time over here: a squash and a squeeze!  Believe me, no one could be more disapproving of my delinquent status as a book enthusiast than I am over here– unless it be my cat, peering at me from under my hat stand.  See Penelope there?  “I waited all those years, patient and virtuous, for my husband to return from Troy, and you can’t write about a picture book?”


Ah, Penny.  Always so reassuring.  Here’s the story: I’ve had a feverish child on my hands since Friday.  In fact, I’ll be having the Changeling home with me every Friday from now on, so that will require some juggling in terms of blogging schedule, anyway, but this week was something else!  I had a cold, my husband had an ear infection, then my daughter had a fever.  I blame the hot weather, myself.  ’tain’t nat’ral, ‘s what I say.  In any case, I hope that’s the end of it and we’ll be back to something resembling normalcy soon.

In the meantime, a super-mini review of another one of the Changeling’s birthday presents: A Squash and a Squeeze, by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

A Squash and a Squeeze.jpg

How old is the story in this book?  I feel like I ought to know, but, being honest with you, I don’t.  I grew up with it as a Jewish legend, but I learned since then that there’s a variant for almost every culture out there: someone feels crowded in a tiny house, and goes to the wise man in the village.  He tells the person to bring in a farm animal, and that repeats itself until the house is completely full to bursting with animals and people.  Then the wise man says, “Take them all out,” and the person realizes how much room there was to begin with, and is thankful for what there is.

I’m going to admit that I never had much affection for this story growing up– maybe the version I heard was too preachy.  Maybe I thought it was too hard on the animals.  I don’t know, but I preferred reading up on the variants of Cinderella (somewhere my mother is muttering to herself: “I know you did, Deborah!!!“).  I wish I’d known this version, though.  With a perfect bouncy rhythm for lap reading and illustrations which make my daughter giggle on every page, this takes a potentially moralizing tale and brings out all the funny elements.

One last, quick note before I try to scavenge my house from under fever-related paraphernalia: We’re huge fans of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler over here.  Oddly enough, we first encountered them in Welsh: the Welsh translation of The Gruffalo (Y Gryffalo) is excellent, by the way.  Then we got Room on the Broom for Hallowe’en (I’m sure I’ll talk about that in October).  The partnership is obviously wonderful and successful and doesn’t need my endorsement, even though this is the season for endorsements, but here are my thoughts as to what makes the pairing of art and text work so well together:


The text bounces beautifully– all you need for proof of that is to read a page aloud, so I won’t belabour the point.  As for the art, just look at a page, almost any page!  Axel Scheffler has an almost George Cruikshank-esque knack for vigour on the page.  I don’t mean to suggest a stylistic influence from: Cruikshank the umbrella.jpg



All I want to note is the energy of the lines, the sense of motion barely stilled for a moment on the page.  It perfectly matches Julia Donaldson’s energetic text, which makes for a perfect pairing between the two.

Now, for the blog: certainly expect me back in full form later this week.  I’ve been contemplating a move to Tuesday-Thursday, just writing twice a week, to give myself a more spaced out schedule and more time for, you know, my dissertation, but you’ll find out what I decide on that front sooner rather than later.  In the meantime, I hope your time is less of a squash and a squeeze than it’s been over here!

How to Catch a Mouse

Dear readers, I am back from the family wedding, and slowly returning to sanity again.  Or something resembling it, in any case.  This will probably be a short blog again today.  The real news is that the Changeling has turned three years old (going on thirty-three, I sometimes think!), and what that means is that certain very thoughtful people were sweet enough to get books for… well.  For her.  For us.  For those of us who enjoy the reading of children’s literature, yes?  How about we just say that a non-zero group of humans in the house were excited by the books which arrived for the Changeling’s birthday.

There were some really, really good books, and I’ll probably be talking about a number of them over the next while, but there’s one which was just so cute, and so fun, and had such a funny kitty-cat in it that it immediately captured both of our hearts: How to Catch a Mouse by Philippa Leathers.  (Take a look at her site: once you’ve had a chance to poke around at her art, I’ll still be here.)

How to Catch a Mouse.jpg

The story runs like this: there’s a cat, and there’s a mouse.  The cat, Clemmie, is such an excellent little mouser, bless her heart, that she’s never even seen a mouse in the house.   She knows all about mice, and still she’s never seen one, so she knows that all the mice are afraid of her, and she’s doing her job brilliantly.  But– uh oh.  See that mouse on the cover?  Right behind Clemmie’s tail?  What’s that mouse doing there?

Yes, at the same time that Clemmie’s going around studying mouse diagrams and vigilantly ensuring that there are, to quote the refrain from the book, “no mice in this house,” there’s one little mouse scurrying around in a variety of disguises, nibbling tasty treats and stealing naps on comfy beds.  Clemmie ultimately discovers his mischievous ways, and learns from his methods: the last pages show her buttoned up in a coat as the mouse goes boldly by, then scampering after the mouse with a triumphant: “Miaow!”

The story is adorable: it’s sweet, it’s funny, but it’s ultimately true to the spirit of a house cat.  How many cats do you know who are regularly called on to do the work of a mouser?  I know very few– just some country cats, not city cats.  My cats– thankfully– haven’t been called on to be mousers as yet.  But they’re constantly on the look-out, hence the pursuit of anything dangly, as this page shows: 20160720_152411.jpg

(Sorry for the crappy picture: this was a hard book to balance open!)  You see the sweet balance between realism on the right-hand page and imaginative, slightly fantastical details on the left.  Any cat owner knows that look on a cat: “Oh, boy!  Dangly thing!  It’s a threat!  I must get it!”  (And any cat owner can also predict that the next page… well.  Things fall down.)

But the mouse, now.  The mouse represents the creative, the fantastical, as I said.  Mice do not normally dress up with pompoms hiding their tails and masks disguising their faces, in my limited experience.  But Clemmie’s mouse is doing just that.  It gets a giggle, for sure, but it also balances the book, gives it a bit more heft.  If we were just seeing a cat being a cat, it would be cute, but where would the story be?  The mouse being not-quite-a-real-mouse gives us something to think about.

Thus much for my in-depth, oh-so-serious analysis of the book.  What does the birthday girl think, though?  For her, the pictures were the gripping thing.  She loves watching Clemmie from page to page.  I’d thought she’d be enchanted by the mouse, personally, but I was wrong: it’s the cat who attracts her.  (“She looks like Telemachos!”  Our new cat is a marmalade kitty.)

And I completely sympathize.  The story is charming, absolutely adorable.  But it wouldn’t be anything without those lovely, soft, yet endlessly amusing illustrations.  Philippa Leathers does a beautiful and humorous job with the art.  Unfortunately, I can’t find any information about the media she uses, but she uses them well.  (I would hazard a guess that pencils and watercolours are involved, and also digital media, but I’m no more an art expert than an electrical engineer.)  The soft outlines and gentle colours make Clemmie’s brightness really stand out, and the mouse fade back… unless the ludicrous pink nose of the mouse’s disguise attracts our attention, of course!

All in all, this is a delightful read.  I recommend pairing it with a squishy toddler, a comfortable armchair, and a purring cat in the corner.  Enjoy!

The Owl and the Pussycat

Today I’m going to put up a very short post because I’m leaving town shortly.  (I know.  We travel too much.  Believe me, I hate travelling, so I’m very much aware that we need to cut down on it.)  I’m going away for a wedding, which means I’ll be extremely busy (and probably extremely uncomfortable) and may not even be able to post on the Monday we come back, so… this will have to make do for a little while.

It’s a travelling book, but it’s my dream travelling.  The travelling I wish I were doing, not the travelling I am doing.  When we travel, we rush and bustle to the airport, stand in long lines, and finally cram into a metal tube to hurtle through the air as quickly as possible to the other side of the state, country, continent, world– someplace definite and distant.

When The Owl and the Pussycat (here illustrated by Jan Brett) travel, they swing themselves into a pea green boat and sail away for a year and a day, dawdling and dallying over blue waters with, in Jan Brett’s version, fish swirling beneath them and a warm sun above them.

Owl and the Pussycat.jpg

There’s no fear of being told that a fish in a bowl of water might be a dangerous explosive and have to be left behind, no.  There’s no worry about whether “plenty of honey” is considered more than 3 oz of liquid or gel.  All there is is time with a loved one, sailing away at leisure.

A note here about my prejudices and their defeat: I am normally a purist when it comes to illustrations.  I love Edward Lear’s, in particular, and was deeply skeptical of any other illustrator tackling his poem when I felt he’d already made his vision very clear.  (My skepticism was bolstered by having seen some painfully bad illustrations of Lear’s work by others, but we won’t go into that.)  But then my sister told me about this one, and I looked at some of the illustrations online.  I loved them.  She proposed getting it for the Changeling for her birthday.  I agreed enthusiastically.  I just got the book (yes, I looked at my daughter’s birthday present, but don’t worry, I’ll wrap it for her!), and it’s even more beautiful than I’d imagined.

The thing about Lear’s drawings is that they support the nonsense in his verse.  They’re glorious little serious caricatures, and they’re sensible nonsense, just like his verses.  Jan Brett, however, doesn’t try to do what she knows Edward Lear already did perfectly.  She tells the story, and loads it with glorious pictorial detail.  It’s lush, it’s colourful, it’s a beautiful nonsensical love story in her hands, and I’m in love.  Purist though I am, I think everyone should have this version to read with little ones who aren’t quite ready for Edward Lear’s illustrations yet.  (Because I have to admit that his illustrations are a bit sparse for toddlers.)

So, that’s my mini-post for today.  There may be another mini-post on Monday, or you may see me again on Wednesday.  Either way, I wish you a weekend of glorious nonsense!