As you can see from the title, this is a hefty post in three parts, so I’m giving you a breakdown and Table of Contents for ease of navigation:
PART 1: To put it politely, I will discuss the great value of Canadian illustrators! To put it candidly, I will whine at length about how nobody knows my favourite, beloved illustrators, or if they do they don’t know they’re Canadian, and how it’s a raw deal because if you don’t know an illustrator and an illustrator isn’t widely distributed, you don’t find their stuff– oh no I’m off again.
PART 2: Here I review a book by wonderful Canadian illustrator Lauren Soloy, who draws on wonderful Canadian artist (and author!) Emily Carr.
PART 3: The fun! A Canadian-focused giveaway of Lauren’s book– signed and personalized yesss! She is currently around Halifax, better known as the location of the glorious Woozles children’s book shop, and offered to pop in and sign a book for us! (Bet you anything if you don’t win but you want one– you could contact them and her politely and she’d do one for you at the same time.) NB: This giveaway has a firm deadline of entering by March 8 at 5 pm so that Lauren Soloy can have time to go to the shop and personalize the prize book!
Addendum: I will be dropping MANY names and a whack of pictures in this post for a simple reason: I want you to click my links, be intrigued and search for more of their work, whether they’re still in print or not, so you can read and enjoy– and gaze at the art.
PART 1: I have something of a mild grumble to make, as a Canadian living in the USA, and it’s this: for whatever reason (and there are reasons, there’s a whole border between the countries) I sometimes feel that the books I love from Canada just… don’t cross. They’re hard to find, they’re unknown– they’re beautiful… and just not around. I grew up with Robert Munsch (generally associated with illustrator Michael Martchenko, although he was paired with others, too) being just as much a given in everyone’s house as Goodnight Moon, but around here you can only reliably find Love You Forever (and no one knows the tune) and The Paper Bag Princess. If you ask me, this is ridiculous because in New England you should at least be able to find: Thomas’s Snowsuit, I Have to Go!, and 50 Below Zero, and, I’m sorry, is there a parent on earth who doesn’t need Mortimer? (Hint: it’s about a cheeky kid who just won’t fall asleep… until everyone gets too upset arguing with each other to check on him, and he’s bored of waiting for them to check on him– so he conks out.)
But what’s been getting my hackles up lately is that folks in the USA are often completely unaware of Canadian illustrators outside of the really tightknit kids’ lit world. My point is very far from “Canadian illustrators are undervalued by publishers and don’t get work.” They do! That’s brilliant, it makes me happy! But my bigger point is: a) OK, not to harp on, but I will never not be sad that the Caldecott rules are so exclusive (this article is from 2013 and there’s one like it pretty much annually); b) I’m Canadian and pouty that other people don’t get all thrilled over Canadian brilliance because, I repeat: I’m petty like that (I conducted an informal poll about “your favourite Canadian illustrator” and— well, I won’t talk about it because my heart cracked a bit); c) more seriously: There are genuine distribution issues across the border that have precisely zero regard for artistic merit, meaning that no matter how popular and relevant a title may be in Canada, and it may be a title with equal relevance to the States, with equal likelihood of popularity– it may not get distributed, it may have no chance to be known. That’s not anyone’s fault except for the Top Secret Masterminds Behind Distribution (who handles that and do you have a phone number?), but it does make me sad and frustrated.
Let’s look at success: the author Mac Barnett is paired up with illustrator (and author in his own right) Jon Klassen (they’re good friends and a brilliant team) and while Klassen does live in Los Angeles at the moment, he’s originally from Winnipeg and grew up in Toronto. He’s known, he’s widely recognized, and he publishes with Candlewick as both author and illustrator. I have a mad crush on his wit and his art (turtles) (ho, seriously, if you love turtles and I love turtles you need to read Klassen) and I want his new book The Rock from the Sky now but it’s only being released in April (“Dear Jon Klassen: If you send me a review copy I will send you butter tarts. How many butter tarts can you find in LA? Outside of your own kitchen? Hmmm? Come on, send me the book, and I’ll send you homemade butter tarts, and you get to choose whether with or without raisins, and I won’t even judge. Sincerely, Deborah”). Because he lives in the USA and publishes in the USA, he is known in the USA.
There are certainly others who have had wonderful success here, even without crossing the border! Sydney Smith springs to mind: I don’t know anyone in the kids’ lit world who’s not kicking as sulkily at rocks as I am because he’s not eligible for the Caldecott. He gets face out displays at every indie book shop, and even people who don’t scrutinize displays and make multiple trips to multiple book shops per week (I’m totally not describing myself, shut up) may actually own a book illustrated by him. Are there others? Sure! Isabelle Arsenault, Qin Leng, Julie Morstad, Elly MacKay— these are illustrators who get good work and whose books I’m able to buy relatively easily. Most of them. Most of the time.
It shouldn’t matter to me that no one knows they’re Canadian (but it does: see point b above re: Deborah is a pouty pouty rock-kicking sulky puss), because, honestly, they’re succeeding in a tough field. The reason I justify my poutiness about something so utterly irrelevant is this: When something reaches us, and we fall in love, we look for more of it, and it’s nice to be able to get it… but if you don’t know it exists, you can’t. Consider:
When I was growing up, Martin Springett’s art for Mei Ming and the Dragon’s Daughter was so lovely I read the story over and over and I wanted more. I was starry-eyed over his work, and I’m pretty sure that in my heart it paved the way for Grace Lin‘s books (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, in particular) today. (You should get her books. They’re amazing.) When I grew older and saw the Fionavar Tapestry (then with the original covers), the style rang a bell, and I checked– it was Martin Springett’s art! It was the first time it occurred to me that Grown-Up Books Can Have Art, Too, and I can’t tell you how that link made me glow. To this day, I check good covers for the artist– and go out of my way to get special editions with covers by my favourite artists.
Nothing is as frustrating as falling in love with no hope of finding the object of your love without paying about $30 in shipping which I’ve certainly never done no never stop it (FINE I’ve done that, and ok yes I’ve paid even more than that, but not everyone is as willing as I am to say “it’s cheaper than a plane ticket, though!”) (It is cheaper than a plane ticket and during covid you can’t travel). However, the fact is that if you go to a book shop and think, “Well now, my kid loves books by Mac Barnett. I shall now find every Mac Barnett book here and buy as many as I can,” which is a lovely thing to do, it’s quite easy. You get to go and look on the shelves, search alphabetically by author’s last name, and you will find all of the available lovely books by Mac Barnett– some illustrated by Jon Klassen, others by Isabelle Arsenault or Christian Robinson.
However, unless you’re at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which is a wonderful idea, but not so easily achievable worldwide, and anyway it’s closed now because of covid (though the online shop is open, so patronize it, my friends), you don’t get to browse shelves by illustrator.
Further, I say, and yes I’m getting all wound up: classics, particularly illustrated classics, don’t have the staying power if you’re, for example, the abovementioned Martin Springett or, say, Frances Tyrrell, or Stéphane Poulin, or Phoebe Gilman, rather than Ezra Jack Keats or Maurice Sendak. Oh, and let’s not forget that Keats and Sendak were author-illustrators. Note that Margaret Wise Brown is far more of a household name than Clement Hurd, the skillful illustrator of Goodnight Moon. (Did you know Mac Barnett wrote a lovely book about Margaret Wise Brown? Illustrated by Sarah Jacoby.)
So I get rather fussy about my beloved Canadian illustrators, who don’t get quite the prominence unless attached to a good USA distributor, somehow, and whose names won’t be as recognized unless they’re capable of writing as well as drawing, and who won’t last as well… Example? I really wanted to give Marjorie Pickthall and Frances Tyrrell’s beautiful The Worker in Sandalwood to a friend for Christmas, but had to get it secondhand. Stéphane Poulin’s Joséphine books, even in translation, are hard to find. And so on and so forth. Oh yes, I’m fully aware that old books go out of print! Sure, the vast majority of books by the Lobels are hard to find, and I recently bought a hardback copy of In the Night Kitchen, classic of classics, simply because I FOUND IT SO IT’S MINE. Of course I already have one, don’t be silly. This is to give to the next person I hear lamenting that “they only have the paperback.” So, no, this is not exclusively a Canadian issue. It is difficult and expensive to keep every book ever produced in print in the editions everyone loves. But it is definitely harder for Canadian content than American. (And, I repeat, I’m being specifically pouty as a Canadian here: this is personal for me. I have also been known to spend exorbitant amounts of money getting books from the UK or from France. And Australia, once.)
But my issue is, very simply: how do we get more if we don’t hear about them in the first place and it’s hard to get them? I’m not an average buyer of books, but this is how an ordinary experience has gone for me: Neil Gaiman writes of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making: “A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom.” (100% accurate, by the way.) Now, I know and trust Neil Gaiman and that sounded like something I like, so I got it. I loved it, and got more of Cat Valente’s books, which have led me not only to more of her own excellent work, but also to the work of others (Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, and so much more). That’s how book-purchasing functions, normally. But let’s throw in a stumbling block: Cat decides to publish a story with an indie publisher in another country and they don’t distribute here. If we’re talking about a die-hard bibliophile and fan, this would cross the reader’s radar and maybe they’d go out of their way to get it. The average reader wouldn’t know. It wouldn’t pop up through an online algorithm because the book’s not available for purchase in the USA so a website serving the USA won’t pop up a notification “Oh, guess what? Why not get in touch with a store across the border and get this book?” If you are in a good store around the USA, a bookseller may mention it in the store, but only if you have a chatty bookseller who says: “Oh, hey, you like her? Wish we could get that new book, eh?” (Side note: Don’t worry, I know of no such book.)
Look, there’s no easy solution here. But I want to encourage you, dear readers, to think outside of the distribution bubble. When I travel (Remember travelling? I hear we might get to do it again one day!), I look for books at indie shops wherever I go (yes this is a problem when flying and the airlines make a fuss about weight limits), and I do my best to get local books– ones I know my Boston people can’t get me. In the UK, I have been known to reserve books in advance for purchase when I arrive. In Canada, I just pop in because I, um, know the booksellers and they know me. In Jerusalem, I have a local shop I love (Adraba, yes, they’re amazing). It’s worthwhile, I promise, and will enrich your library, and if it enriches your library it will enrich your mind, your heart, and your soul. And sink the foundations of your house, potentially.
PART 2: So, I’m going to show you work by a new-to-me illustrator (author-illustrator, too!), Lauren Soloy, from Canada: her earlier years in British Columbia gave her insights into the work of artist Emily Carr (how I love Emily Carr!), and she now lives on the other coast of Canada, in Nova Scotia, not far from where I grew up. She’s currently not far from the wonderful children’s book shop in Halifax, Woozles, and has offered to sign and personalize a book for ONE OF YOU, my dears, which I will pay to ship anywhere in Canada (yes, I want to focus on Canada, just this once– indulge my patriotism, I miss my home!). Rules to follow. Read on.
Her first author-illustrated book is When Emily Was Small, and it’s rooted in the story of Emily Carr as both writer and artist. I was so completely delighted that she wrote about Emily Carr just when I wanted to introduce the Changeling to Canadian art that this became personal to me.
Lauren Soloy did a wonderful job of making this story– and the art– both general and specific. Any child will be able to relate to Emily-as-Small’s feelings of repression and liberation, I think– and the story of the artist as well as the art is perfectly attuned to the historical context, too. The Canadian author-artist story goes back so far, both as far as and far preceding Emily Carr. One of the things to love about Emily Carr’s art, in fact, is that it represented a world of nature and art far beyond her own work. She was not a self-aggrandizing artist, though she knew her own worth, and you can see how steeped she was in the richness of her environment in so many ways. Lauren Soloy points to this one painting by Carr, “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky,” as a particular influence on When Emily Was Small, but “Totem Forest” shows her keen eye for the world around and the Indigenous art surrounding her yet more explicitly:
Now, if you want an example of how Emily Carr’s eye for narrative and nature in her art is reflected in the narrative art of Lauren Soloy? Look here, at a page which made me gasp aloud:
I chose to highlight this book for a few reasons: a) I love it and she so kindly agreed to sign a copy for one of you, b) it links art and narrative in Canada across time and culture, c) it tells the story of yearning to make art, to be seen, to be heard… to be bigger than yourself, yet, ultimately, to be yourself most fully. It makes the reader yearn to live in a broad, beautiful way in this broad, beautiful world, and it feels real to me. Real– and personal. (Did you know Lauren Soloy has a new book coming out soon? She does! Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem, May 18, 2021, and I’m very excited!)
PART 3: So: One of you Canadian readers! Remember that this time it’s for residents of Canada only, just this once. Please do my heart good! By Monday, March 8 at 5 pm either pop into the comments of this post and write about a Canadian illustrator you love– include the name of the picture book they illustrated, please! Or email me: email@example.com with the info– and attach a picture of the picture book you’re talking about if you’ve got it! I will choose a winner at random that night, email you immediately for name and address, and once I have the name for personalization and address for mailing, I will make the order from Woozles in Halifax to get to you ASAP!
Thanks so much– and try a Canadian book!