Leo: A Ghost Story

This book popped into my life yesterday.  I was at The Harvard Book Store in a state of severe frustration.  The world was not going my way– oh, please don’t worry, it will all be fine, I was simply in a mood where I wanted the world to be more interesting, you know.  I wanted September’s Green Wind to come along already.  So I did what I always did: I went to the bookstore.  But I was still whiny: I’d read everything, I wanted something new… I was completely insufferable, even to myself.  Then I turned around.  And Leo popped up.  “Oh, hello,” I said, a little surprised.  “I’m happy to meet you,” he said politely, offering me mint tea.  I accepted, a little dazed, my frustrated mood completely vanished.  “Excuse me,” I said, “but I didn’t see you a moment ago.  Where did you come from?”  Leo hesitated.  “Are you afraid of ghosts?” he asked, tentatively.  I smiled, “I’d love to meet a ghost, but I never have!”  Leo smiled back at me, then vanished.  I was left with this book in my hands: Leo: A Ghost Story, by Mac Barnett, pictures by Christian Robinson.


As I said, Leo came home with us yesterday.  We have already read him through several times together, the Changeling and I.  Some books just grab you like that, and this one has.  I’ll tell you why I think that is: a) It makes you feel special; b) It makes you feel seen; c) It understands you when you don’t feel seen.  I hear you grumbling: I’m telling you fairy tales and abstruse philosophy, you’re muttering, when you want to know what’s going on here.  Very well: let’s have a look at the story.

Leo is a ghost who lives in a house in a quiet sort of way.  Not everyone can see him– although you can.  One day, a family moves in and he’s excited for the company.  They, however, don’t see him, although they do see a floating tea-tray with mint tea and honey toast zooming towards them.  They make it clear that they don’t appreciate having a haunted house, so Leo leaves.  (I hope you feel sorry for Leo: I feel awful for him whenever I read that bit.)  He goes to the city he used to know, only it’s changed.  He roams along the noisy streets, unseen by anyone, until one day a little girl named Jane looks right at him and they become friends.  She thinks he’s an imaginary friend, and it’s clear that she can see him (as we can) because she’s ready to see things, unlike the unimaginative family which took over Leo’s home.  (I love that.)  Leo, still sore at being unseen and disliked, lets her think that until the night Leo saves Jane’s house from a robber and she realizes he must be something more.  Leo confesses, worried she’ll be scared of him, that he’s a ghost: “Jane, I told you a lie.  I am a ghost.  I said I was your imaginary friend, but I’m not.  I am just your real friend.”  Jane says that’s even better, and they go to the kitchen to have mint tea and honey toast.

It’s a real hefty story for a picture book, isn’t it?  I could imagine it amplified, filled out, and padded to become a slim novel– Roald Dahl-level, but with actually likable characters.  And yet Mac Barnett demonstrates yet again (we’ve met him before, you may remember: Extra Yarn) that he can pack a hell of a lot of story into a really slim space.  It’s so good as a picture book you don’t even find yourself wanting the novel version.  (Well, not much, anyway… oh, who am I kidding?  Mac Barnett, want to try your hand at writing a novel version of this book?)  More than that, he again demonstrates, as with Annabelle, that he can pack a hell of a lot of character into few words.  You saw that little dialogue with Leo I wrote above?  Well, how often do you feel that you’ve gotten to know a character from a picture book so well in just a few readings that you could imagine a full conversation with him?  I read a fair number of picture books these days, and the number of really fleshed-out characters I meet are slim indeed.  This isn’t to say anything against the more limited characters (often they’re wonderfully slim and flat, doing other work instead), but getting a rich plot and full characters is a pleasure.

One of the best parts for me is watching my Changeling relate to a full story and full characters.  “I want to read Leo!  Please will you read me Leo before we leave the house?” is what I heard right after breakfast this morning.  I asked her to bring me the book and she trotted up with it: “Tell me about the girl!  I like her.  Her name is Jane.”  This is what I hear over and over again.  I asked her why she liked Jane, and she paused and said, “Jane is so nice!  She’s a very nice girl.  She’s my friend.”  Remember, please, that my daughter isn’t yet three, so full character analyses aren’t what I would call her strong suit.  What’s clear, though, is that she’s really picked up on Leo’s loneliness, and Jane’s kindness in accepting him for who he is.  Jane means friendship, and the Changeling responds to that.  I think, although I can’t be sure, that the Changeling also responds to Jane’s imagination: there’s a glow in my daughter’s face as we read about Jane’s games (the Knights of the Round Table and hunting a dragon) which makes me think that she does get the imaginative brilliance in Jane’s character.

But I’m not fulfilling my role quite yet.  I’ve let a key aspect of the book stay invisible: forgive me.  You can, I hope, see the richness of the text, the richness of the characters.  But you can’t yet see the richness of the art, or how the art and text work together.  Mea culpa.  Dear readers, I’ve told you about Mac Barnett before and his skills probably don’t surprise you.  But Christian Robinson!  His work was new to me, and now I have to go find everything he’s ever done, and I’m thrilled.  His wit and sympathy come through perfectly in these acrylic and construction paper cutout illustrations.  They’re a perfect match for the text.  The illustrations are all in shades of blue, really drawing out (forgive me) the themes of imagination, invisibility, visibility, and the fading boundaries between them.  All are blue, but Christian Robinson uses clever tricks to delineate the distinctions between what and who is seen and what and who is unseen.  Leo is in outlines whereas other characters are solid colours.  Leo can sometimes interact with what is solid, but others may not see or feel him.  The illustrations reflect that cleverly as he sometimes appears, and sometimes doesn’t, pulling the reader’s eye around the page to find the little outlined figure.  “Oh, where’s Leo?” is a frequent exclamation from my daughter as we read.

Altogether, I think this is one of the most attractive, interesting, and clever new books I’ve read this year, and I don’t say that lightly– you know well, my dear reader, how many excellent books I see.  But this one came to me at the right time, just when it was wanted, and in the best way (thank you, Leo!), and I’m happy to read it as often as my daughter wants me to, and that’s quite a lot.  I think I’ll be keeping Leo visible on my shelves.  Don’t worry, little ghost, you’ll never go unseen around here.

Bébé Balthazar

I want to know if I’m alone in this, so tell me if this scenario resonates with you:

You’re a parent who speaks another language, and your child is younger than, say, two or three.  You’re talking with someone, and they chuckle and say, “Oh, are you, like, talking in Welsh to your kid all the time?   Wouldn’t it be awesome if your kid grew up talking in Welsh?”  (Or French.  Or Chinese.)

I have a feeling some of you are shuddering and nodding along (please tell me I’m not alone), and maybe others are thinking something along the lines of “Wait, you know Welsh?”  To which I say, “Why do people always italicize Welsh?”

The thing is, it’s not just Welsh.  I’m an academic, so I know a number of languages and I get people who, whether because they think it’s funny or because they’re really dead serious, inquire quite minutely into just how much I do in terms of introducing the Changeling to French, Hebrew, and, through my husband, Chinese.  Reminder: she’s a toddler.

I would like to note with great pride that, thus far, I have refrained from saying anything remotely rude to anyone, even when they proceed to give me advice about how singing songs with my toddler is pedagogically inadequate for conveying the finer points of syntax.  To be honest, my restraint in that case wasn’t due to self-control: I was just too stunned to think of anything to say apart from, “Oh?”  I didn’t even have the brain capacity to say, “Why the [expletive deleted–ed.] do you think this is remotely your business?  Also, your pedagogy seems somewhat flawed, not to say it’s complete bull [expletive deleted– ed.]” Ah, how we are haunted by life’s missed opportunities!  [Editor’s note: I would like to apologize for the author’s terrible behaviour.  I won’t let it happen again.]

Well, after nearly three years of being questioned, I’m finally thinking through an answer, and here’s my explanation.  I love languages madly, passionately, and deeply.  I have a particularly intimate relationship with French, which is as much a part of me as English.  I love how it sounds, I love the literature that’s accessible to you once you know it.  I love how closely it’s intertwined with English, like cousins: each their own world, yet visiting back and forth.  If you know about French and English, you know about families: their loves, their quarrels, their fights, their reconciliations.  Obviously I want to share this love with my daughter the way I want to share my love of music and of animals and of books and of needlework– and it would be super nice if she took to it.  If not, well, we can still talk about cats.

So, yes, we sing songs and read books in French, because I love them and she loves them, too.  If she doesn’t want to read or sing something at a given time, I shrug and put it down.  Maybe she will another day.  If she does– yay, awesome, I love that!  That’s my approach, really, and I find it much easier to resolve than how to respond to being questioned about said approach.  And, perhaps most importantly, no one else gets a say in any of this (unless you know some really good books or music we might enjoy).  Especially because I think the more interesting question is this:  Have you discovered anything new and interesting through re-experiencing a language you know at an adult level with the Changeling at her own level?

What an excellent question!  Why, yes, I have.  I’ve discovered that The Very Hungry Caterpillar works gloriously in Welsh, but only OK in French.  Interesting, right?  I’ve learned a number of new songs which my daughter and I both love.  And I’ve found some really lovely books.  You see, when I learned French it was through New Brunswick’s early French immersion, and I learned it at school.  I’m sure we did some story books, but I don’t remember much apart from worksheets and conversation.  By doing things just at home, for the fun of it, I’m finding all kinds of beautiful books, including some I recently bought at Schoenhof’s: the Bébé Balthazar books by Marie-Hélène Place, illustrated by Caroline Fontaine-Riquier.  If you don’t have a good French bookstore near you, it may be harder for you to find these, although I do link to the French publisher, if you don’t mind paying shipping from France.


These books are simple, simple, simple, and perfect in their simplicity.  They are at precisely the right level for my daughter: French being a foreign language, she can’t quite handle anything with too much of a story, but these are about at the level of Pat the Bunny, which is a bit too simple for her in English.  But what we love about these isn’t just the text; we love the books as a whole.  The layout, the text, the printing, the illustrations, the concept– the books as physical objects are, there’s no other word for it, charming.

I’m sorry that the only images I could find for you are somewhat blurry, but take a look at the covers up above and think about what you see at a glance.  There’s the gingham background, like a classic child’s shirt or dress.  There’s the beautiful script for the title.  And there’s the little illustration set in an oval: the little bébé Balthazar in his rabbit outfit hugging the big, fluffy grey cat, or walking in the water.  Pépin, his teddy, is the little fellow in red you see leaning up against the cat’s hind legs.  The covers encapsulate almost everything to love about these books.

Naturally, they do have something of a story.  In Bébé Balthazar Caresse le chat, Balthazar goes from animal to animal hugging, or kissing, or otherwise interacting with it, and the book is something of a touch-and-feel book.  You can feel the soft fur of the cat, the feathers of a duckling, and the prickles of a hedgehog.  In Bébé Balthazar Je t’aime, Balthazar goes for a walk in his garden and tells everything why he loves it: “Je t’aime fleur qui sent si bon.”  He loves the flower which smells so good, the water which runs over his feet, the ladybird which trusts him enough to let him hold it, and, in the very end, he loves Pépin, who has all the best qualities of everything he meets in his garden.  (Awww!)

In other words, the text is completely sweet: it has no disruptions, no cracks or ruptures to tease out.  It doesn’t teach you any huge lessons about the world.  These books are simply sweet and charming, and sometimes that’s all you need.  Sometimes you don’t need pedagogical complexity or deep lessons, sometimes you just want to enjoy curling up with your daughter and a gingham-patterned book with lovely, soft watercolour illustrations and whisper, “Je t’aime,” over and over again.  “Je t’aime, ma fille!”  I love you, Changeling!  And we both love reading these books together, and that, in the end, is the only part which truly matters, much more than pedagogy, and, I remind myself, much more than worrying about what anyone else thinks of our pedagogical methods.

Let’s all curl up and read a book, shall we?

The Nutcracker

Today has been a pensive day, a day to think about family and work.  And, thinking like that, what surfaces is what’s very close to you.  Right now, what’s close to me is The Nutcracker and a healthy dose of nostalgia.

Let me start by saying that small children have absolutely no sense of time and season.  You know how I’ve talked about having seasonal books?  Well, those are my preferences, of course, but then you have some books which are meant to be seasonal.  Valentine’s Day by Anne and Lizzy Rockwell, for example, which we recently read, because I guess April needs as much a dose of bright red love as February does.  The principle that small children are utterly negligent of time and season, however, is best borne out by the Changeling’s relationship to The Nutcracker, which is apparently of and for all seasons, day in, day out.  There is no day which cannot be improved by watching The Nutcracker, and very few which pass without my voice intoning, “Christmas was coming…” and so on forward through to the very end: “Beside Clara, on her pillow, the Nutcracker smiled with his glittering teeth.”

What’s that I’m reading?  Canadian children will know it for The Nutcracker, retold by Veronica Tennant, illustrated by Toller Cranston, and I will always be happy to read it at any season of the year.


This one is another Canadian book from my childhood.  Veronica Tennant was always, to me, a writer, although I fuzzily knew that other people said she was a “prima ballerina,” which I took to be some kind of ballerina who could do really extraordinary things.  Of course that’s true, but I think that “really extraordinary things” in other people’s minds probably didn’t extend to being able to suspend themselves midair, which I really believed ballerinas could do.  My sister was the ballet dancer between us, as you can probably tell.  I knew, and know, squat about ballet: I just enjoyed it, and I still do.  And while I particularly loved Giselle, I had, and have, a soft spot for The Nutcracker as Veronica Tennant’s story.  We had the cassette tape which went with the book, and I still remember her voice reading us the story, clearly and passionately and mysteriously.  It was the mystery which stood out to us then, and which I try to draw out for the Changeling now.

Mystery?  you ask.  Yes, very much the mystery.  I like to think of Veronica Tennant and Maurice Sendak talking about The Nutcracker, you know.  Both of them wrote and published Nutcrackers, and each, in their own way, fought back against the popular, rather dull, candy-cane-and-flower Nutcrackers of the popular imagination.  Maurice Sendak went back to the original story to fight his battle out; Veronica Tennant, wedded to the ballet in which she had danced so many times, laid out her mystery using the components available to her.

Veronica Tennant starts with an older Clara, right on the cusp of becoming “a young lady,” as her godfather says.   She’s no child, and her childlike innocence is slipping away quickly.  She’s also rather perceptive, and keenly attached to her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer, a clockmaker and antique dealer.  He shows up at the house on Christmas Eve with gifts: a clock, a céleste, and the Nutcracker for Clara.  While her brother, Fritz, bursts out that the Nutcracker is ugly, the more sensitive Clara examines him, enthralled.  Does she love him?  We don’t really know, but she definitely becomes attached to him and pleads with her mother (in vain) not to put him back under the tree with the other presents at bedtime.

It is the céleste, however, which is yet the more mysterious gift.  It is the gift of music, the gift of the ballet, and it subtly binds the text to the ballet itself.  In that rickety old cassette tape, you could listen for the céleste to make its appearances along with the other characters, but with it long gone, perhaps you’d best listen to the ballet itself as you read.  The céleste summons Clara from bed, and its music pursues her along her fantastic journey; it brings the Sugar Plum Fairy to her feet to dance, and lures Clara to dance along with her– and dance her way home again.  When Clara does return home (to find herself fallen at the bottom of the stairs– was it all just a fever dream?), she lies sick until she can hear the music of the Sugar Plum Fairy again, which is, of course, brought to her by her mysterious Godfather Drosselmeyer… how does he know what she needs?  Is it a kind of goblin market where she can only be cured by the music which felled her in the first place?

Very well, you say cautiously, but what of the Nutcracker?  Well, he’s her partner on this journey, isn’t he?  Her dance partner in the ballet, her fellow warrior against the King of the Rats, and her guide to the Land of Sweets.  But he, too, is bound by certain rules, certain laws.  He is only freed from wood for a few hours, and then he has to return– when the céleste’s music ends, Clara’s back home, and, with her, the Nutcracker is back in his wooden prison.  It’s rather sad, and only Herr Drosselmeyer seems to know more of the story.  And, in this version… he’s not telling.

No, I’m not going to digress into the E. T. A. Hoffman story presented by Maurice Sendak.  Frankly, I do have a sense of the seasons, and I’m saving that for Christmas.  (You can prepare yourselves by checking it out in the meantime!)  I will only say that, yes, there is more to the story, and I honour Veronica Tennant for carefully leaving those threads open, for leaving the mystery alive, along with the music of the céleste, so that children like me, growing up with her story, could whisper, “But I know there’s more…” and go looking for E. T. A. Hoffman as we grew older.  She didn’t wrap it up with a candy-cane bow and pretend that was it: she loved the mystery rather than repressing it.  And, more than that, she worked with Toller Cranston, who fully threw himself into the mystery with his twisted eyes and exaggerated lines and colours.

Come to think of it, the Changeling is right.  Who doesn’t need a bit of mystery in the springtime?  Each season has a little mystery to it, as Vivaldi knew, and the mystery of spring, as Stravinsky knew, is very potent.  As for the Nutcracker?  Well, wood coming to life and growing is definitely seasonally appropriate, isn’t it?  And so I recommend that you turn on some music, fetch a copy of Veronica Tennant’s Nutcracker (if you can find it) and just read and listen for the mystery.

Finding Winnie

Last week I went to the Harvard Book Store to buy a few books.  They had just run out of the ones I wanted so they kindly ordered them in for me, but it’s terribly rude to leave a place without buying something so I came away with Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall.  The sacrifices I make for politeness, folks.

Finding Winnie

Are there books which consistently make you cry?  Well, I’m not a terribly weepy person on a regular basis.  I don’t cry over just anything.  But when it comes to books, I can be a bit more susceptible, it occurs to me.  I mentioned Tess of the D’Urbervilles yesterday?  That one tears open my heart and leaves me a sobbing mess.  Maybe that’s unsurprising: I’m pretty sure that’s what Hardy was going for as Tess is progressively abandoned and lost to the point that her entire life and being are abandoned and lost.  But there’s another type of book which elicits another type of tears: books about the world turning and time going by.  Books about love which endures through that time.  Oh, Lord-a-mercy.  Holy crap.  Even typing those words brings prickles to my eyes as I think about Love You Forever by Bob Munsch, or the ending to Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak.  And here’s another book in that category.

I can now definitively affirm that this is a weepy book for me as it’s been requested on a daily or multiple-times-a-day basis since I bought it.  Let’s see if I can get through telling you a bit about the story without blinking my eyes with a little more than usual vigour.  The story begins with a boy requesting a bedtime story, a true story about a bear.  His mother tells him about a vet named Harry Colebourn from Winnipeg who has to leave for WWI to care for the horses at the front.  (And, yes, I love the Canadian connection.)  On the way, he sees a trapper with a bear cub, and being a mensch, he buys the cub and cares for her.  He names her Winnipeg (she’s called Winnie) and brings her along to the training camp in England.  When it comes time to go to the front, however, he can’t bring his beloved bear into danger, so he brings her to the London Zoo (oh, crap, there go my eyes– that page is beautiful).

Fast-forward to a little boy named Christopher Robin Milne who goes to the zoo and sees a special bear.  They make friends, and Christopher Robin is even allowed in to play with the bear.  He names his own stuffed bear after her: Winnie-the-Pooh.  When Harry Colebourn comes back from the war he’s happy to see his bear loved, and returns to Winnipeg, where he has a family.  Several generations later, here we are with Lindsay and her own son, Cole, named for Harry Colebourn, flipping through an album before bed and going over the family story and, yup, I’m sniffling a little.

I think our question is this: what gets my eyes prickling with sweet tears here?  There’s a few different strands, of course.  One is that we’re talking about a story we all know– Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh.  Finding something a little special behind those books would obviously elicit some emotions.  But that’s not all, and I know it.  I know that it’s the family aspect: it’s not Milne’s story (nice as that was) which made my voice crack and tremble over the last few pages; it was Harry’s and Cole’s.  It was tracing family history, sepia-tinted but still clear, and awash with love through time (love of the bear, love of each other, love of a child), which got me going as I read aloud Lindsay’s words to Cole: “When I saw you, I thought, ‘There’s something special about this Boy.'”  (“OK,” say I to myself, blinking furiously, “Don’t we all think that when our baby is born?”  “Why yes,” I respond.  “That’s the point.  That’s why you named your daughter after your own grandmothers. Now hand me a tissue.”)

Harry’s love and sympathy for a poor motherless bear cub is palpable.  (“What do trappers do?” asked Cole.  “It’s what trappers don’t do.  They don’t raise bears.”  “Raise them?”  “You know,” I said.  “Love them.”)  Harry raises Winnie.  He loves her.  The refrain throughout his section of the book is his struggle to make up his mind about what to do with Winnie at each turn of the war: the struggle between his head and his heart.  Consistently we read, “But then his heart made up his mind.”  Unlike that trapper, God rot his bones, Harry can’t leave Winnie anywhere she won’t be loved, so first he buys her (for twenty dollars, a fortune in those days).  Then he takes her to England.  Ultimately, he makes the hardest choice: he takes her to one of the world’s best zoos.  And that moment of painful love is the first place where the tears start: you think about war, and how the war broke up so many families… and here was another painful decision.   Even after the war, he sees that she is loved and cared for, and, seeing that, he lets her stay.

Let’s pause here a moment to think about another aspect of this book which draws out the love at the heart of the story: the illustrations.  You’ve probably seen Sophie Blackall’s work around.  I think this is some of the finest I’ve seen by her.  The cover illustration (scroll up) of that sweet little bear hugging Harry’s boot shows a confidence and affection which instantly elicits a smile.  But then you turn the book over (sorry I can’t find a picture of the back cover online, and my camera’s inaccessible right now): There’s another leg, and a little hand dangling down.  And from the hand dangles a little bear.  Now here’s a puzzle for you: which boy and which bear?  Is it Christopher Robin with Winnie-the-Pooh?  Or is it Cole with his own beloved Bear?  Who is it?  Answer: it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that we all know that grip, that dangling hand confidingly wrapped around a soft bear’s paw.  Winnie clung to Harry, until she had to go to the zoo.  Christopher Robin and Cole clung to their own bears, made their own loved connections.  And Sophie Blackall captures those moments beautifully.

I love the Winnie-the-Pooh connection to this story; it wouldn’t have the same cultural resonance without that link into children’s literary history.  And yet the interesting thing is that knowing Pooh isn’t necessary to appreciating Winnie.  The Changeling is too little to really know Pooh: she hasn’t read The House at Pooh Corner.  Her favourite Milne poem is “The King’s Breakfast,” which doesn’t mention Pooh at all.  And yet she adores Winnie.  She loves watching Harry feed and care for her.  She loves the page when Winnie is left at the zoo.  There’s something special about that bear, whether as Winnie or as Pooh, and Lindsay Mattick and Sophie Blackall truly draw that Something out.

“It’s OK,” the Changeling assures me as she pats my back.  “She found her mummy.”  Well, “mummy” aside, my daughter is right: Winnie did find her family, and even her legacy, and it continues.

But I warn you: if you’re prone to weepy sentimentality, make sure you get an extra box of tissues when you buy this book.


I wonder how many children’s books could really double as some of the best self-help books out there if people let them.  I can think of a number which have really made me think, right off the top of my head: The Little BookroomThe Snowy DayThe Fox and the Star are some I’ve written about, but there are plenty more out there.  Today we’re going to talk about one which, to me, exemplifies a good self-help book for both adults and children: Quackers, written and illustrated by Liz Wong.


Don’t give me that skeptical look, and don’t run away if you think you don’t need a self-help book.  If you’re like me, you hate that term for the genre.  What I mean when I say “self-help” book is “a book which makes you think about who you are, who you want to be, and how to be the best person you can be.”  That’s pretty broad, and can apply to a lot of books out there, of course– Tess of the D’Urbervilles comes to mind– but some books are more conscious of it than others.  Lots of children’s books are very conscious of the formative role they have in helping children figure out who they want to be.  Some take a rather didactic route, and I don’t generally go for those books.  Others, and Quackers is a prime example, focus on building character and story, and the thoughtfulness slips into the story in a natural way.

Let me give you an example of how lovely this book is.  When I went to The Children’s Book Shop (which is where I found this one), the shop staff were browsing the shelves for some good options for me.  They stopped dead in front of the face-out display of Quackers.  “Awww,” one smiled.  Then the owner glanced over and chuckled when she saw it.  They told me, “We all just can’t stop giggling over this one,” and handed it over.  I looked at the cover.  “Awww!” I smiled.  I opened to the front page, glanced over it, and chuckled.  Who doesn’t love a book which automatically makes everyone smile and chuckle?

Hey, new plan for world peace: Someone send a copy of this book to every single member of the military in every country, and also to the world leaders and the UN.  Then declare it International Storytime for five minutes.  Repeat International Storytime as needed.  Then we give Liz Wong the Nobel Peace Prize.

I hear you, you load of skeptics.  (By the way, I really prefer “sceptics,” but no one seems to write that these days.  What’s your position on this pressing issue?)  You all want to know more about the book before delivering it worldwide.  I’d be annoyed by your skepticism, but: a) it’s my job to tell you about awesome books and I love doing it; b) I’d rather partner with you in my bid for world peace than with Amazon Prime.  Still, have a little faith, people!

But, sure, let’s talk about Quackers.  Quackers has four legs with pretty little paws, a tail, stripy orange fur with a creamy belly, and he meows.  He’s a duck.  He lives in the duck pond with his fellow ducks.  All of his friends are ducks.  But sometimes he feels out of place.  Everyone else quacks, the food is rather unappealing, and he doesn’t like getting wet.  Then one day he meets a strange duck who meows, just as he does, and they can talk!  The strange duck’s name is Mittens, who says he’s really a cat, and they chase mice, drink milk, and clean themselves.  Quackers fits right in– and this is where many stories might end.  Liz Wong is a smart cookie, though, and knows that Quackers’ story carries on.  He misses his duck friends, and goes back to see them.  The story doesn’t end there, either.  Why would it?  Here’s how it ends: Quackers splits his time between his two homes, and he’s a duck, he’s a cat, but, as the story tells us: “most of all, he’s just Quackers, and that makes him completely happy.”  (Feel free to smile and say, “Awwwwww!”  You’ll fit right in.)

My retelling here has an obvious failing: it lacks the illustrations.  Scroll back up to look at the cover image I embedded.  Liz Wong worked with watercolor and digital tools, and I love the combination.  The ever so slight shadings and variation in colour keep the illustrations from looking flat, while the precise rounding of the ducks and cats gives them a cuteness just short of being too cartoony.  To use the most technical of technical language, I’d say the cuteness is squishy-stuffed-animal-cuteness, not overly-exaggerated-anime-style-cuteness.  If you’re me, you’re going to find yourself with an overwhelming urge to dive through the book and hug Quackers on every single damned page.  I’m warning you all: reading this book may result in unintended stuffed animal purchases to follow.  (Oh, hey, I’m sitting right across the street from a toy store…)  Wait, I have an idea!  Can they make Quackers stuffies?  Quackers and his ducks?  Quackers and Mittens?  I would buy them all.

You’re probably all wondering when I’m going to get back to talking about how this book relates to thinking about who you are, though.  Well, in one way it’s obvious: Quackers (don’t you love that name?) thinks he’s a duck, and feels out of place because he’s not!  He has to find out who he is, and, once he has, he’ll be at home and be happy.  Just like the Ugly Duckling, right?  Poor duckling– he’s not a duckling, and once he finds out that he was really a cygnet, ultimately a swan, then he was happy!  Except that, with apologies to Hans Christian Andersen, Quackers is both more realistic and a bit less preachy.  (I love you, Andersen, but you really can verge on the preachy sometimes, you know.)

First of all, there’s the realism.  If one were a cat who grew up to think he was a duck (totally realistic), and one suddenly recognized that, in point of fact, the feline way of life came more naturally, would one entirely forget the ducks with whom one grew up?  I doubt it.  The first time I read Quackers I found myself thinking, “Oh, please, please don’t let him leave those cute ducks behind!”  And he doesn’t.  He knows his ducks, and he remembers them, and while he’s happy to have found other people like him, he still retains a kinship with the ducks.

Let’s turn that around a bit: say you’re a human, feeling a bit uncomfortable in your own skin for some reason.  You’re just not quite sure where you belong– maybe you’ve been pigeonholed as one thing for all your life, but it doesn’t feel 100% right.  You suddenly try something new, or maybe have an epiphany of some kind.  You’re in a new place, either physically or mentally or both.  But can you completely forget all you learned, all you once were, whether the experiences were good or bad?  Do you have to choose between who you feel you are more naturally and your entire past life?  And what do you want to be?  The ideal, I think, of what Quackers is aiming for, is to have the power of choice: he keeps what he wants in his own life.  He assumes he’ll never be abandoned by his old friends– and he isn’t.  He assumes his new friends will accept him for who he is– and they do.  We know, alas, that in daily life this doesn’t always work out so happily, but it’s a beautiful exemplar.

Let me tell you my secret: I think this book is about as good as Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Stick with me.  Tess is out of place in her community from the very beginning, and the rape sets her permanently apart.  Her contact with her community, her out-of-placeness there, has ruined her for the world with which she more closely identifies, however; she feels an affinity for her husband’s world and way of thought, but is never going to fit in there, either.  And so, with no place in the world, the world cuts her out.  Sorry– this is where I always choke up.  But here’s the thing: I choked up when I read Quackers,  too.  It’s the story of Tess if Tess’s society were less dreadful and more accepting of differences.  It’s an ode to finding out who you are, accepting it, and being accepted.

As for the not being preachy?  Well, I think that comes from a few different aspects of how Liz Wong works.  First of all, Quackers is a pretty well-developed character for a cat who thinks he’s a duck.  (He’s so cute!)  We get to know him, and share his feelings as he’s a little out of place, then cautiously happy in his new life; as he misses his old home, and finally works out his own place.  In other words, we experience his life through his eyes.  It’s about him, not about him telling you who you should be or what you should do.  It’s like having a friend who says, “I see how you feel,” instead of, “This is what I think you should do.”  And it elicits the same reactions from you.  “I see how you feel, Quackers.  That must be hard for you!  Oh, you figured it out?  I’m happy for you!”  Lastly, there’s the silliness: if you embrace your own absurdity, how can you be preachy?  Well, Quackers enthusiastically embraces being a cat who believes he’s a duck.  It’s silly, even absurd, but it works, and it really undercuts any taste of moralizing there might otherwise have been.

The best way to show how this book works, I think, is to share the Changeling’s reaction.  As we read, she mostly picks up on Quackers’ feelings: “He’s sad!  He wants to go home!”  As we read on: “There’s another kitty!  What’s his name?  Oh, look at all the kitties!”  And, at the end, “Oh, look, he found all the ducks!  And the cats!  He’s so, so happy.”  I can’t even say how happy it makes me to see her picking up on expressing those feelings.  If she can express them for a duck-cat, she can express them for herself, and that’s a wonderful thing to learn.

So, folks, what do you say?  Are you with me?  Let’s get this book out there, and get Liz Wong the Nobel Peace Prize.  Or at least make sure as many kids read it as possible.

Who Done It?

When I made my recent trip to The Children’s Book Shop to get that kick to my inspiration, I found myself stimulated and refreshed by a wonderful chat about various aspects of the book industry, which is my way of adultifying what really happened which was a sort of love-fest for Chronicle Books: “Oh my God, yes!  It’s amazing how original they are!–” “Original, exactly!  Both in the content and in the physical–”  “Oh, absolutely, I don’t think anyone has a better understanding of the physical book than Chronicle Books!”  And so on.

Please understand that declaring my undying love for Chronicle Books is in no way an insult to the many, many other wonderful children’s book publishers out there.  Remember how I called myself la Coquette des Livres?  Precisely.  (I’m looking at you, Candlewick and Charlesbridge, right around the corner from me, and always wonderful!)  But that’s the nice thing about children’s books: they do so very, very much that there’s always room for more, somehow.  Whether it’s a clever nonfiction introduction to the doughnut (damn, tell me that book’s out there somewhere, I want it!) or a whimsical poem about a cat’s trip around the world, there’s room for a new book.  Chronicle’s particular skill, I think, is in finding and bringing to life the slightly off-beat, the quirky, the mischievous.  That being said, they’re also responsible for the dreamily lovely Swan and A Child’s Garden of Verses, as well as  Vincent’s Colors, but let’s just say that shows the breadth of what they’re capable of accomplishing.

In this case, however, I’m sharing the off-beat, quirky, and mischievous side of Chronicle Books with you: Who Done It? by Olivier Tallec.

Who Done It

In this case, the genius of Chronicle Books was to look outside of the United States.  Originally published as Quiquoiqui? by Actes Sud in France , Chronicle Books translated this to English.  (And, look, it seems that there are more of them in the series!  And, yes, of course I want them, and want the original French editions, too.)  Let me tell you this: I wish I knew who done it the translation, because it’s wonderful.  I know from experience how hard it is to do a really smooth, flowing translation, and this one is simple, idiomatic, and suits the illustrations well.  My congratulations to whoever was responsible!

After all that gushing and background, I hear you grumbling, “But tell us about the book!”  Patience, grasshopper, patience.  I needed a moment to relieve my overburdened heart, and also wanted to prepare you for just how cute this book is.  First of all, there’s the format: long and thin, the spine is at the top of the book (I think you can see from the picture above).  This immediately captured the Changeling’s attention and she was absolutely enthralled by figuring out a new way to open a book.  I love this for a few reasons: a) it prepares the kid for something new from the first physical touch; b) it’s an excellent format for surprises.  The way it opens, each time you turn a page the whole previous page is covered, making the new page appear like a magic trick: “Hey, presto!  Here’s the new page!”

But what are the surprises?  Olivier Tallec has a lovely little cast of characters (les Quiquoi, in the French versions), and they’re getting up to mischief of all kinds.  Who Done It? is the question.  Who didn’t get enough sleep?  Who forgot a swimsuit?  Who ate all the jam?  To find out, you examine the illustrations.  Well, that little guy is playing the trumpet, this one is wearing a costume and gesturing wildly, and the little girl is holding a red balloon… but that bear is leaning on the sofa sleepily and the red fellow with the ears is falling asleep on his friend, so I guess they’re the ones who didn’t get enough sleep!  And, ahem, I think I see the one who forgot his swimsuit…   Oooh, that little dude up there is smeared with red!  I guess he ate the jam!

So, you see?  It’s a search-and-find game, a sort of puzzle, but with a difference.  Instead of finding “who stands out,” you read the text and watch for subtler clues to find who matches the description.  Instead of seeing who’s the only one wearing green shoes, you’re looking for hints about body language or behaviour.  My absolute favourite page, because I guess I’m about five years old?  (Apologies for the hasty phone photo– the book is hard to get flat on my own, but you should be able to see everything necessary.)

Couldn't hold it.jpg

The little blush, the grin, the puddle?  This is picture-book storytelling at its best.  Even the Changeling, at two-and-a-half years old, could figure that out, just by examining the little figures: “Oh, he made a pee-pee on the floor!  It’s a yellow pee.  I made a yellow pee!”  (Leading to a moment of blessedly unwarranted panic because she didn’t have a diaper on at the time…)

But let’s turn to those illustrations for a moment.  Note the clever lines and details, certainly, but also the pencil work.  It reminds me of nothing so much as Le petit Nicolas, written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempé.  Do you know their work?  Here’s an illustration for you, just in case:

petit Nicolas

Dear God, how I loved those illustrations when I was growing up!  And let me tell you how thrilled I am to have a somewhat similar style to introduce to my daughter right here and now.  Let’s take a look.  Note the free, sketchy lines.  I’d say that Olivier Tallec’s work aims for a somewhat more polished look, definitely with greater use of colour, but look at the noses and ears, those little pert curves.  Look at the slightly shaggy hair.  There’s a type of vigour and humour even in the outlines which I adore.  They announce: “We’ve got a joke, just follow along!”  If you’re familiar with the Astérix comics, they have a similar energy, although of course the style of drawing is very different.  Like a comic, however, we have here a perfect blend of visual humour in the style and content of the drawings.

Let’s finish by running through the reading experience.  First, you’re holding the book open with your child, and you read the first question.  You have to read it with a straight face, because the question is asked very straightforwardly: it’s a serious question!  The giggles start as you turn from picture to picture and identify who’s sleepy.  Then a moment of suspense: what’s next?  Ah!  A new serious question!  And so it goes.  Each page is a surprise with a simple question which has to be taken seriously, and illustrations which refuse to be taken seriously.

This is sheer fun to read with a little child, probably of any age, but definitely with a toddler.  It’s quirky, it’s intelligent, it requires thought from both parent and child, and it’s always, always fun.  The hard part with this book was getting it out of my daughter’s hands long enough for me to write about it.  The fun part is having it to myself to giggle about for a bit.  The really hard part is that now I want to go to her daycare to read it with the kids.

Warning: book may cause uncontrollable giggles and an urge to locate children to read it with you.

Every Day Birds

Did you know that the Changeling loves birds?  I think I’ve given you a hint, or maybe two.  Well, the sky is still blue and water is still wet, and she still loves birds.  When I went on my trip to the bookstore earlier this week, the lovely people who run the store and I were chatting about my daughter, and I remarked that I really love how she can express her own taste, including this love of birds.  The owner, who may actually be a character from Cat Valente’s Fairyland, now I come to think of it, vanished in a puff of smoke.  When she reappeared, she was holding this book: Every Day Birds, by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, cut paper illustrations by Dylan Metrano.  (Over here you can also find Dylan Metrano’s original art for sale.  I mention this only because my heart is breaking that I don’t have the $350 to get the framed chickadee for my daughter’s room.  Curses!)

Every Day Birds.jpeg

You know, since I’m already talking about the illustrations and we have this beautiful cover right here, let’s jump right into talking about the illustrations.  You see, I had one concern in buying this book.  I adore the art, but it’s a different style than my daughter is used to for her birds.  I’ve talked before, for both A Bird Is a Bird and Feathers, about my love of precise, accurate, detailed illustrations of birds for these children’s books: ones which really show you what the bird looks like, and are in no way cartoonish or exaggerated.  Audubon for children, basically.  You can see from the cover that Dylan Metrano’s gorgeous cut paper art is accurate and detailed, but the style is very different from the paintings the Changeling and I love so much in her other bird books.  In fact, when the owner of the Children’s Book Shop handed this to me, I immediately blurted out, “Holy, it looks like a William Morris!”  I was thinking of images like this pattern, “The Strawberry Thief,” particularly in his stained glass (on the left, sorry I couldn’t easily find better images for you):

Obviously William Morris has more lush detail curling around his birds, but do you notice the markings on the wings and tails?  Around the eyes?  The slightly abstract, leaded look of those dark lines, almost as thought they were stained glass?  And yet, at the same time, they’re poised to move: I guess I’d call it an abstract realism.  Can you tell I have a major crush on William Morris?  (One day we’ll talk about my tendency to crush on historical figures, but today is not that day.)

Well, you get this vivid, bold, ever so slightly austere art for each bird (the chickadee is perhaps my favourite).  And my concerns that my daughter wouldn’t take to it, or wouldn’t recognize her favourite birds in these somewhat more abstract forms, were patently ridiculous.  Her reaction was positively gleeful: “Birds!  Oh, thank you so much!  Where’s the cardinal?  I found the cardinal, look!”  Nota Bene: Do not underestimate the Changeling.  This has been a Note To Self.  You may now go about your regularly scheduled blog.

All right, so we have our lively yet accurate illustrations.  What about the contents?  Well, part of the reason I started with the illustrations is because we go very much bird by bird in this book.  Unlike A Bird Is a Bird, which goes by categories (types of beaks, wings, eggs), and Feathers, which focuses on feather types, Every Day Birds progresses only according to common birds of North America, one at a time, each one accompanied by a lovely picture.  It’s an incredibly soothing read. We begin with a little verse:

Every day we watch for birds
weaving through our sky.

We  listen to their calls and song.
We like to see them fly.

And then we watch the birds course by, one at a time, still in verse:

Chickadee wears a wee black cap.
Jay is loud and bold.

Nuthatch perches upside-down.
Finch is clothed in gold.

This, again, is why I wanted you to think about the illustrations first.  When you think about these lines, you have to accompany it with one of those bold, strong pictures in your mind.  This isn’t just a chirpy (dear God, forgive me) rhyme; it’s a warm partnership with the illustrations.  They work hand-in-hand.  What you get, in the end, is a series of bird facts, charmingly tripping along in verse, each one accompanied by a really clear illustration of the fact.  After you’ve seen the picture and heard the words, you will never forget that nuthatch perches upside-down: there he is, clear in your mind.

So, maybe this doesn’t have quite the scientific accuracy of A Bird is a Bird‘s labelling of the males and females and so on, but it has extraordinary clarity about a few simple facts which children can easily learn to identify.  Look for the bright yellow of the goldfinch.  Listen for particularly loud blue jays.  Watch for the black cap of the chickadee.  The great blue heron goes fishing.  Nothing here is at all fantastical, and these are all good starting points for anyone interested in birds.  At age two, you don’t really need to be able to identify the finer points of the male vs. the female bufflehead, but you may be very interested in knowing that the oriole’s nest hangs from a tree.  And this is all told in that lovely, easy-going poem which makes it very easy (as I’ve found out) for children to remember the bird facts!

There’s one additional point about the book I’d like to make: something I didn’t expect my daughter to care about at all, but it turns out she gets highly affronted if I neglect to include it in a reading.  (I’m so sorry, Changeling, I won’t do it again.)  At the back of the book there’s a list of all the birds included in the book, each with a thumbnail of the picture and additional facts about the bird.  It’s great for a little further reading, but I wasn’t prepared for how much my daughter loves those pages.  She goes through and, effectively, tests herself: “This is the sparrow and the woodpecker and the blue bird and the…” On she goes, running down the list of thumbnails, trying to remember the name of each bird.  She’s in love.

For a perfect introduction– early, early introduction– to the birds you might see in eastern North America, I can’t see a better book than this one.  This would be a great book for right before A Bird Is a Bird, which is a great book for right before Feathers.  But they’re all great in any order, and my bookshop really, 100% pegged my daughter’s taste on this one.  It’s amazing.

Borrowed Black

There’s a silly, lovely little book I was going to talk about today, but then my daughter stole it and took it to daycare with her.  I can’t blame her: it’s a fun book and it made her happy about going to daycare.  But I was left one book short and had to come up with another book for today.  As I stared at my shelves, looking for another silly, lovely little book, I felt a pull in another direction.  It’s been windy lately, here in Boston, and I guess the wind pulled one idea out of my head and blew another in: let’s talk about Borrowed Black: A Labrador Fantasy, poem by Ellen Byan Obed, illustrated by Jan Mogensen.

Borrowed Black.jpg

This is the opposite of silly loveliness, although it is definitely a beautiful book.  There’s silliness in here, there’s fun, but at the heart of this book is wind, and if you come from my part of the world, Atlantic Canada, then you know damned well that you’d better take the wind seriously.  Ask my mother about driving in the wind there sometime.  I suspect that there’s a reason she loved this book so much (and I learned about it from her, growing up), and I wonder whether part of it wasn’t an underlying feeling that “if you say the wind can do it, then I believe it!”  What I’m trying to say here is that if there’s one part of the world where it makes sense to harness the wind to provide power for the rest of the world, Atlantic Canada is probably your best candidate.  And wind is a pretty integral element of the story of Borrowed Black.

You know what?  I don’t use the word “favourite” very often when talking here.  I love so many books so much that I’m pretty much La Coquette des Livres; if I’m not with the book I love, I love the book I’m with.  And I’m very comfortable with that kind of coquettish streak in my book life (I assure you it doesn’t extend to my family life).  So I don’t bother much with throwing around preferences.  But I’m entirely comfortable saying this: in the world of poetic narratives for children, Borrowed Black is, bar none, my favourite.  I love many of them, but there’s only one that nestles in the deepest recesses of my heart, and it’s this one.

Why do I love it so much?  I think it’s because it gives, with every word and every stroke of Jan Mogensen’s beautiful monochromatic watercolours (all blues, relieved judiciously by white and black), the impression that it’s telling an old story– something as fundamental to Labrador as the ocean and the rocks.  And yet, at the same time, it’s completely original: a fantasy, not a folktale.  Ellen Bryan Obed tells the story of writing Borrowed Black on her website: apparently she wrote it when she was twenty-two years old, and with very little revision, and adds, “It was as if it were not my own, that I was penning a story that had always been.”  And that is distinctly the impression that comes across from the book for me, that “it had always been.”  Rocks, ocean, and wind.

Borrowed Black is a Labrador creature who makes himself from bits of the land and sea around him, held together by the wind, which is part of his heart: “He had a borrowing wind for a heart/ That held him together, each small borrowed part.”  But his greed for more makes him a menace: he borrows the very moon from the sky, smashes it to the ground, and buries it deep in the ocean.  Then he sleeps through dark moonlessness until rescue is at hand in the form of a boat in the back of a whale. This boat belongs to Cabbage Captain and his Curious Crew, including Mousie Mate and Sinky Sailor “who was happy and round,/ Who always was laughing without making a sound.”  The quiet humour which slips in here is a welcome relief from the spookiness of Borrowed Black, and Mousie Mate quickly becomes a favourite as he slips into Borrowed Black’s shack and steals the wind.  Pursued by Borrowed Black, Mousie Mate bravely challenges him to show where the moon lies: “Tell us, Borrowed Black, where the moon pieces lie./ You’ll not have your wind ’til the moon’s in the sky!”  Borrowed Black is forced to agree, but the wind can’t mend the broken moon.  So the wind stays in the sky with the moon, and “as night turned to day…” Borrowed Black falls apart and is gone forever.

And here’s where the folkloric feel to the book really comes through:

To this very night on the Labrador
When you stand and watch on the tall, dark shore,
You can see cracks in the moon round and high
And the silver it left on its way to the sky.

And fishermen say if you follow the trail,
You’ll come to the boat in the back of the whale.

OK, let’s take note of a few things here: a) This is a children’s story, with Mousie Mate and the Curious Crew– there really is genuine fun and silliness here; b) This is a spooky story, with Borrowed Black’s glowing eyes and creepy thievery; c) This is a creation myth, explaining some aspects of the world as it is around us– the cracks in the moon, and the trail of light it leaves on the water.  All of these things are true.

But there’s something more: it’s a home story.  It’s rooted in its own place so very deeply that I, who also grew up in the Atlantic provinces (New Brunswick, though, not Newfoundland), feel a sympathetic thrill when I pick it up.  I was desperate for my daughter to love this one, and, even aged two when I first introduced it, she did.  (She also loves wind and snow and takes ice-cold baths.  She’s a Maritimer at heart, that one.)  She had us reading it to her again and again, so often that I’m actually labeling this as an “All Ages” book, even though it’s probably aimed at an older audience.  Clearly some children will enjoy it very young.

I wonder whether I’m the best person to review this one.  It’s so very personal to me, so very much a part of my home and my roots and my background that I almost feel too close to have perspective.  But, then again, I watch my husband reading it with my daughter, and the two are engrossed.  They’re smiling and spooked and delighted.  They love it.  And this is what I think: you don’t have to be Greek to appreciate the Odyssey, or English to love Joseph Jacobs’ retellings of English Fairy Tales.  So, too, you don’t need to be from Atlantic Canada to know a good story when you see one, and this one is, truly, fantastic.

It’s a fantasy, and a fantasy that knows it’s home.  Let the wind blow you in for a visit, but maybe bring a good hot cup of tea with you.

Vincent’s Colors

There are some books out there which really and truly are good for all ages.  Usually when I see a book marked as being for “children of all ages!” in a review, I mentally append, “Please don’t feel stupid for enjoying this as an adult.”  Now, personally, I never feel stupid for enjoying these books as an adult; instead, I spend my time over-analyzing them on my blog.  So, when I say that a book is for “all ages,” this is what I mean: I think that you can go as young as you like with this book.  I think that once your kid is interested in looking at books and listening to words, you can give this book a try, and I think you’ll get something out of it at the same time.  The Fox and the Star was one of these: I found it meaningful, and I think my daughter would have enjoyed it at even a younger age than she is now (two-and-a-half).  Well, here’s another one for you: Vincent’s Colors, words and pictures by Vincent van Gogh.  This comes to us from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Chronicle Books, and it’s so pretty that it should be marketed as “baby’s first coffee table book!”

Vincent's Colors.jpg

The basic concept is simple, but, Lord, it must have taken a lot of work to get just right.  The book presents a series of van Gogh paintings, each accompanied by a brief description of the painting taken from van Gogh’s own letters to his brother, Theo.  Doesn’t that sound lovely?  Let me ruin this for you: I bought this in a rush of excitement from the Chronicle Books website (NB: that website is dangerous and beautiful, like a kind of modern day fairyland), but the reason I bought it was because I was somehow expecting some series of deep, abstruse, inspirational descriptions.  I don’t know, something like: “Here I attempted to capture the shades within shades which permeate the redness of the cap– that whole new spectrum within RED, can you not see it?– and which matches the spectrum of the spirit…”

God, I’m sorry I inflicted that on you.  Please forgive me.  Moving on: I’m so very glad that van Gogh wrote better than that, and that Chronicle Books and the Met decided to pair his beautifully concise descriptions with his lush and vivid images, because they taught me something about how adults, children, and van Gogh himself see and describe art.  To spoil the suspense, let’s just say that adults like me maybe try to see and say too much (quelle surprise!), whereas van Gogh, in these pared down descriptions, perfectly meets the child’s eyes and perceptions, and, through that, we can find a whole other world of art.

To be clear, for all that I’m teasing myself here, I don’t think that adults have dulled perceptions whereas children see the true hearts of things in art.  That’s taking things to the other extreme.  My view is a little simpler: we all see and enjoy what we see and enjoy.  That said, it can give us a bit of a brain boost, a bit of extra fun, to see how someone else enjoys art– and maybe we’ll learn another way to enjoy things.  I first learned this with my daughter by taking her to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with me.  We didn’t get through the whole museum, of course, and what we saw and enjoyed tended to be about three feet of the ground, maximum, but what a new world!  Stone lions and “pictures of babies” (any art depicting the baby Jesus, basically) were paramount, as well as all of the fountains.  Looking around with her, and through her eyes, I noticed statues I’d passed by with barely a glance on my own.  It was really a new way of seeing a museum I already loved.

I think the same thing holds true of reading this book.  The paintings are mostly familiar, although you may meet some new van Gogh art (always a good thing!), but you may learn a few new things.  This is hard to express in words, so let’s try an exercise.  Three paintings by van Gogh, his description, and what struck me:  First, a certain familiar painting of sunflowers:


with the words: “twelve flowers that are light on light.”  (I was caught up with the signature on the vase.  Yes, I’m weird.)

You’ll also get Zouave:


van Gogh’s description: “a reddish cap and orange bricks.”  (I was fascinated by the small face emerging from big, embroidered coat.)

And, finally, View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground:

View of Arles.jpg

described as: “some very yellow buttercups.”   (My eyes were struck by the trees and buildings in the background.)

I didn’t just do that because I wanted to look at a lot of van Gogh.  I mean, I do, but I also have the book right here and the colour reproductions in this book are stellar, much better than the internet pictures I grabbed (a reason in itself to buy the book).  I mostly chose these pictures for three reasons: a) to give a sense of the scope of the book, which includes a wide variety of paintings, some more familiar to us than others; b) van Gogh and I focused on very different things; c) I thought those descriptions gave a sense of the variety and level of descriptions included in the book.  Some are a bit more abstruse (“light on light”) and some are very concrete (“a red cap”).  Some are about the main subject of the painting (“twelve flowers”) and some are deliberately not about the object in the foreground (“very yellow buttercups”).  Brief as the descriptions are, their breadth matches the breadth of van Gogh’s art: he touches on everything, and packs a lot into a small space.  Compare “light on light” with my atrocious attempt at art description above, and tell me which you think captures more in a smaller space.  (Hint: it’s not me.  Granted, I perpetrated that atrocity deliberately– mea culpa– but, still.)

That’s great then, that’s what van Gogh sees, and how I understand what he sees.  But what about children?  Have I forgotten them?  I can only speak to my Changeling’s reaction, I’m afraid, but it’s surprising how often what she picked up on aligned with the description.  In order, and I admit that I am somewhat paraphrasing here: “I see flowers!  They’re big.”; “Look at the red hat, do you see the red hat?”; “There’s so much yellow!”  Her reaction is very like her reaction to any other full-page illustration in a picture book, of course, so we’re not exactly looking for art critique here.  (Also, I acknowledge that the editing of the book has a lot to do with this as well; which is to say that the editing is great!)  What’s interesting is that she picks up on and describes the first thing to catch her eye, and, in most cases, that’s pretty much the aspect that van Gogh’s describing.  For Arles, for example, she pretty much didn’t notice the misty, dark irises in the foreground.  The bright yellow strip of buttercups?  Absolutely!  She wasn’t so interested in the man, but his red cap?  Sure thing!  It’s the brightness, the “light on light” which she sought out.

Now, isn’t that worth noticing?  I’m telling you: take your kid (or niece or nephew or grandchild or friend) and go to a museum.  Look with them, and be patient.  Listen.  You may see something you’d never seen before.


I’m posting ever so slightly later in the day than is my wont, but I won’t apologize.  Why am I a bit later?  Because this morning, after dropping the Changeling off at daycare (excuse me, at “work”), I went to the seat of all that is happiest in life: The Children’s Book Shop.  That’s why I won’t apologize (except to the Changeling, who will be furious I went without her); I was off getting supplies to make you a better blog, a happier blog, a blog which purrs contentedly as you sit on your cushion and sew a fine seam and feed upon strawberries, sugar, and cream.  There are lots of places to go for supplies (the library, of course, being bread and milk for our darling blog), but every once in a while a blog needs those strawberries, sugar, and cream.  For that, there’s none compare to the Children’s Book Shop.  I feel a happiness and lightness in my spirit, and you’re going to love what we’ve got for you.

First things first, dear readers: I want to tell you a story of a good bookstore and why people should shop there.  When I walked into the bookstore today, I said, “Hi, I need new books.”  I named a few good publishers (Chronicle, Candlewick), but mostly said I wanted interesting things fresh off the press– I have a lot of classics, but I need something new.  Then I stood there while they trotted around saying things like, “Oh, there’s this one– and do you think she’d like…?”  Books rained down upon me and I chuckled and thought and sighed as I flipped through beautiful book after beautiful book.  That’s a good bookstore!  That’s food for the brain and inspiration for the soul!  And that’s why today feels a bit celebratory and revolutionary around here.

For example, I normally don’t post about picture books without first reading them with my daughter and having a good think or two first, but I read this at the bookstore and had such a good laugh that I couldn’t resist sharing it with you right away.  I’m sure the Changeling will forgive me when she sees what I brought home.  The book is called Swap! written and illustrated by Steve Light.


Folks, this is a swashbuckling, chuckling, clever ride of a book.  It’s sheer fun, but with a puzzle-like twist from page to page, and a thoughtfulness to match.  The question the book asks is: “What do you do if you seem to have nothing, but want something very much?”  The answer is: “Are you really, really sure you have nothing?  Search again… and then?  Let’s SWAP!

First, let’s talk a bit about the story to this book.  There’s a sad sailor whose ship is old and decrepit.  His feisty young friend picks up a button which fell from the sailor’s outfit and says, “Let’s SWAP!”  And they set about swapping for all they’re worth: the button becomes two tea cups which become three coils of rope, two of which become six oars, then two oars become four flags… and on they swap until the ship is fully kitted out and the friends are ready to set sail on their new ship, happy again.  Ahoy!

Did that sound boring?  My apologies– blame me, because it’s not: that’s where two other factors come in, one of which I’ve already raised.  First, there’s the puzzle feeling.  You may have already sensed this from my retelling.  You figure out pretty early on that the friends are gathering ship-related things, and you can also be reasonably sure that, being a picture book aimed at children, they are unlikely to fail in this mission.  A tragic demise by falling timbers is probably not going to traumatize the sad friend even further, since it would probably also traumatize the intended audience.  So we’re left in a state of moderate suspense: “What next?  Will they get anchors?  Won’t they need– ah, yes!  But why three anchors?  Do they need three?  Oh!  Another swap!  And then they get sails!”  So, you see, there’s a constant question in mind: “What else will they need, and how will they get it?”  It never, ever feels dull, because you just don’t know where their ingenuity is going to take them next.

The other factor is the art.  Steve Light works mostly in pen and ink: lively, bold pictures of sailors and dockyards, mermaids and towns, birds and figureheads.  Each page is punctuated, however, by ink and gouache colours: perhaps for the oars, or someone’s outfit, or the ocean, or just a bird’s beak.  This lightly teasing approach, the lively continuity of the illustrations, along with the mischievous use of colour, precisely parallels the continuity of the narrative punctuated by unexpected swaps (I didn’t expect those glorious hats!), or the ultimate use of the swaps (A flag becomes a blacksmith’s tunic?  How clever!).  In fact, it’s the very simplicity of the narrative which allows for the unexpected to come through, and so it becomes a course of bubbling fun: “What’s next?  How will they make it work?”

That, of course, being the unspoken message of the book: “Persist, young friends!  There’s a way, if ye can but trim your sails and follow the true course!”  (Forgive me, I couldn’t resist.)  “Unspoken” being the operative word here; there’s nothing I loathe more than preachy books.  A book should open you up, give you an epiphany, a new way of seeing the world, and that’s what this one does: “Hey– if I have something he wants and he has something I want… we can swap!  And then we’ll both be happier!”  That’s a little epiphany right there, and the persistence that goes with it should be another one.  “Don’t give up,” the book whispers, “there will be a way.”  And it whispers lightly, engagingly, and we go happily along for the trip.

There’s one thing that concerns me with a book like this: it’s the work that must have gone in.  I see a light, funny, simple book like this and think, “Holy crap, that must have been a lot of work to make it seem so smooth and light!”  Those detailed pen and ink drawings, the choice of colour and where to colour, and, of course, the simple, effervescent feel of the words… that must have been hard to accomplish, and yet may not be evident in the outcome, so I want to give an extra flourish of my plumed hat as I bow to Steve Light.

I can’t wait to read this one with my daughter.  I predict that it will be a favourite of hers as well as of mine, and I thank the Children’s Book Shop for seeing to it that I got it!