Gaston (+giveaway)

(Read to the bottom of the post for a giveaway of today’s book and of Quackers.)

I think the closest I’ve come to discussing real-world events here is when I injured my finger.  But I can’t pass over the attack in Orlando, and I feel like if you read my blog you probably understand that.  You know I have a daughter, and, frankly, you probably either have or know children yourself.  And at the word “shooting” I always feel more than usual like holding onto my daughter, as though holding her could protect her against whatever it is that makes shootings happen.

And that’s the real point, isn’t it?  Politicians, pundits, lawmakers, police– and ordinary people like you and me– everyone’s going to be talking and talking about this shooting.  But all the talk comes down to an essential point: “What made this happen?”  How is it that a person was capable of taking firearms and shooting his fellow brothers and sister– how is it that someone can ask “Am I my brother’s keeper?” instead of stating “I am my brother’s keeper.”  How is it that he couldn’t hear his brothers’ blood calling out to him from the ground?

Obviously, if you catch those heavy-handed biblical allusions, this is an old, old question.  None of the politicians, pundits, lawmakers, neither you nor I… none of us will be able to answer it.  Even the shooter wouldn’t be able to, were he still alive.  But, being that I am who I am, I still have another question:

So many schools these days try to teach us about each other, in the hopes of promoting understanding and love of our fellow human beings.  Others, of course, don’t.  So many homes do the same.  Others, of course, don’t.  But, as part of that climate of love and understanding, we have so many books which try to teach us love and understanding.  Some are preachy or pedantic, others are marvellous.  We’ve encountered some here: Leo: A Ghost StoryThe GiftQuackers.  All of these are great books for reminding us of the humanity of our fellows.  But did the shooter read these?  If he had, would it have helped?  Did he, in a word, read Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by Christian Robinson?

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(NB two things: a) Christian Robinson is the wonderful illustrator who did Leo, and b) My husband firmly believes it should be Kelly DiPoochio, not DiPucchio.  I’m sorry about that.)

Why do I ask whether the shooter had read Gaston?  Well, here’s the thing: the story of Gaston is fundamentally about love across differences of all kinds.  I think anyone who grows up reading Gaston must grow up with laughter and love and sympathy.  Here’s the story:

Gaston is a member of the Poodle family.  He and his sisters, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-La-La are raised to be proper pooches.  They’re tidy and graceful and look pretty in pink.  But Gaston, as the family soon discovers, looks different… he looks like a bulldog.  When they meet the Bulldog family in the park and see that one of the tough little bulldog puppies (Antoinette) looks an awful lot like a poodle, Gaston and Antoinette swap places.  Everyone is sad: the dog mummies miss their own puppies, and the puppies miss their proper families.  The next day everyone resumes their proper places and the two families decide to be friends.  Ultimately, Gaston and Antoinette marry, and all is harmonious: looks don’t matter, it’s what’s inside that counts.

As a writer, I’ve been told not to use vague words like “charming,” but sometimes that’s the only word that will do, and this is one of those times.  Take a look, for example, at this:20160615_131213.jpg

You see here exactly the best points of both Kelly DiPucchio’s text and Christian Robinson’s art.  There’s the lilting prose: “pretty in pink,” “nibble their kibble,” “ride in style,” all lead up to the three superlatives describing Gaston: “worked the hardest, practiced the longest, and smiled the biggest.”  There’s the way the names are all highlighted in the text to look extra-elegant and extra-emphatic: Gaston has to stand out!

There’s also the art.  Christian Robinson is at his best here: each little puppy is distinct, one in a scarf, one in a bow, one in sunglasses, and Gaston in a bow-tie.  The cuteness makes you want to squeal.  But it’s not just the sweetness.  There’s his vintage colours: that slightly dusty shade of rose, that slightly sage shade of green, those off-white pearls which harmonize with the green dress… and let’s not miss that the gentleman’s own bow-tie works beautifully with the pink bags and bows of the little puppies, right?  Everything is just slightly vintage, just a bit old-fashioned, and yet so very perfect for today, too.

But why does that matter for the book?  Here’s the thing: a book of this kind, so very fashionable, so very sweet, right down to little pooches riding in handbags, runs the risk of becoming a little bit too much “of the moment.”  And yet, by making the style just a little bit retro, Christian Robinson says, “Not just today.  Yesterday, too.”  And we complete the thought, “Tomorrow would be nice, too.”

And it’s not just the style which gains an extended lifespan, but the message, too.  Remember the message?  “It’s not just about where you look like fitting in.  It’s what’s inside that counts.  It’s where you feel like fitting in.  Love is love.”  Personally, I stand by that, and I’m hoping that this is a book that lasts, and that it’s a book which gets around.  It may be silly and idealistic, but I still believe that books like Gaston and Quackers can help us stand against horrors like the Orlando attacks.

And that’s why I’m hosting a little giveaway here for a free copy of this book and one free copy of Quackers.

RULES:
The first person to email me with a) which book they want, and b) the first name of the child who will be reading this book will get it.  That’s it.  That simple.  Just write to me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com and tell me who will be reading it, and I will rejoice that the message of love is getting around and send you a copy.

If a lot of people email me, I may send more than one copy, so don’t hesitate to write.

And, of course, don’t forget About that contest…

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The White Cat and the Monk

First of all, a few notes: a) Remember the contest!  Click right here for the rules, please, and share them, and get your entries in.  You cannot see me bouncing excitedly, but I assure you that embarrassing excited dancing is happening.  b) I am going to be away this weekend for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and while I normally plan ahead for holidays so you won’t go without the wonder I add to your days, this time I, well, I was working on my dissertation.  I know, I know, sometimes I cheat on you with my day job.  It happens to the best relationships.  That’s why I’m posting late, too.  I’m sorry, I really am, but the good news is that, while I’m late posting this book ramble, and won’t post at all on Friday or Monday, I was inspired to write about this story, a gift from my supervisor, who loves the Changeling.  (Please note my beautiful transition from introductory notes to substantive post; I’m proud of how that happened to work out.)

That shouldn’t really be a parenthetical note, except that it should.  The story we’re about to look at is, itself, apparently a parenthetical note, or based on one… except that it’s not.  It’s a comment, except that it’s more of a commentary than a comment… it’s… it’s time for me to tell you what the hell I’m talking about.  Excuse me: please remember that I’ve been being an academic.  I’m talking about The White Cat and the Monk, text by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrations by Sydney Smith.

Pangur Ban

People, let’s go over a few basics here.  This is a visually stunning and spiritually uplifting book.  I do not care which religion you practice, or whether you don’t practice any religion: you’ll find this a reassuring, inspirational, and somehow exalting book to read.  But let’s talk a bit about what this book is.  (It’s Canadian.)

It’s based on an Old Irish poem called Pangur Bán, written in the 9th C.  The book is not a translation of the poem, but a simplified adaptation of it.  Let me put it this way: I can be awfully pedantic, and my supervisor has very strong and definite tastes in translations of poetry.  (Seriously, her views on translation are beyond excellent.)   We each separately picked up this book with skepticism, loving the original poem as we do.  And we each were surprised by how much we loved this adaptation.

I’m not going to go into the original poem here.  This isn’t a place for academic navel-gazing or for worrying about being sufficiently precise or presenting the correct analysis.  This is my place for talking about good kids’ books.  I do recommend reading Pangur Bán (look for Paul Muldoon’s translation, although there are also nice ones by Seamus Heaney and Auden), but I’m not going to go into the years and years of academic analysis which surround it.  Let’s just say that it’s a poem a monk wrote about how he and his white cat live together, each pursuing their own tasks, and each achieving all he can within the bounds of his own nature.  It’s a lovely poem, but not one I’d have arrived at on my own as a poem for children.

Well, that proves me for a fool.  It’s perfect for children– and adults.  Here’s the thing: it’s a smart book, but it’s not an intellectual book.  The poem is, or has become, intellectual.  It asks you to think with it, to think about it, to take it very seriously… or academics do, anyway.  The book, though, asks you to read and enjoy it, and, if you like, to think a little farther, a little deeper.  Let’s talk about how the Changeling enjoys it, for example.

The Changeling follows the cat.  The cat first appears outside the cloisters, and then jumps in through a window and trots down a long hallway, down stairs and through passageways until he finds the cell with the light glowing under the doorway… the monk’s cell.  All of this is wordless and almost monochromatic, dark shades of grey and occasional browns, illuminated only by the white cat until the yellow light glows under that door.  Then, after that light appears, colour gradually floods the book.

First you see the cat’s pink nose (the Changeling loves that) and the monk’s warm face, and the first words, all at once: “I, monk and scholar, share my room” and the page turns… “with my white cat, Pangur.”  Then the story, as it were, begins.  Again, seeing it from the Changeling’s perspective, we follow the cat: the monk reads and writes books, but the cat is chasing a mouse.  Now, the monk tells us that each of them does their job– the monk chases understanding, the cat chases the mouse.  And each has, as it were, job satisfaction.  But I don’t think this is what appeals to the Changeling.

Yes, the monk chases meaning, the cat chases the mouse… the Changeling chases the cat.  And I, mother and book-prattler, chase the Changeling.  What does she think?  What does she love?  And the answer I come up with is that in this book, pace the anonymous scribe and poet of the 9th C., she loves Sydney Smith’s imaginative illustrations, weaving the white cat, Pangur, in with his imaginative take on medieval manuscripts.

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Do you see the white cat anywhere?  Keep looking… he’s around there.  (Tell me in the comments how many you see and I’ll enter you for that book giveaway!)

That’s the glory of this book.  Nothing is reduced, nothing is toned “down,” nothing is “made accessible for younger readers!”  (You have to read that in a bright, chirpy voice.)  It just is accessible, it just is a bit simpler.  The art is quite as deep and quite as intelligent as the words are: both owe a lot to that poet over a millennium ago.  And yet this genius duo of author and illustrator manage to make it talk to children as well as to adults.  I am frankly in awe of them.

Apples and Robins

My basically self-inflicted finger injury (dear God, that sounded so stupid I feel ridiculous) is healing well, and I’m able once more to scatter my pearls of insight across WordPress.  No, really, you don’t have to thank me.  It’s my gift to the world.

OK, you all remember the hint I gave you in my apology for taking a day off due to an injured finger (seriously, doesn’t sound any less stupid the second time around), so this will be no surprise.  Maybe you all clicked the link and found yourselves staring at such a lovely book you spontaneously bought it.  You brought it home and loved it so much that your lives are enriched to such an extent that you’ve devoted your lives to the study of geometric forms and what combinations produce the finest robins.  Ultimately, you’ll discover that Lucie Félix (her site is awesome, so visit it!) already came up with it in Apples and Robins (originally Après l’été), which brings us right back to where we started: our book for today, which is an astoundingly simple and elegant exploration of geometry, life, and natural beauty.  It’s like if Wagner’s Ring Cycle were more, well, um, not to put too fine a point on it, but… enjoyable?  (Sorry, music-lovers, including my dad.  I greatly admire the Ring, but you’ve got to admit that it’s not all apples and robins.)

Apples and Robins

But what do I mean, and why, precisely, do I risk alienating all the Wagner fans out there?  Bear with me a moment and we’ll see if I can redeem myself at all.

First of all, let’s talk about how, once again, Chronicle Books has found a remarkable French book to bring to American eyes.  Keep doing this, Chronicle Books, and I will keep buying them.  They are so pretty.  They are so clever.  They are so smart.

Smart and clever are perhaps the first words to come to mind right after the “oooooh, pretty” infatuation abated.  (That’s a technical term right there.)  I snapped this book up in all of five seconds after I spotted the illustrations and flipped the first two or three pages.  It just spoke to me.  But I admit that I wasn’t sure it would speak to the Changeling, so it settled on a shelf for a little while, only read by me.  Then, this past weekend, I realized something which should have occurred to me before, but didn’t because I am apparently as dense as bad soda bread:

IT HAS BIRDS IN IT.

I don’t know if you’ve heard about this before, but, y’know, the Changeling loves birds.  So we read it, and she loved it.

“But, wait a second,” you ask.  “Why in the world weren’t you sure that your book-loving toddler wouldn’t go for this book?”  An excellent question.  First of all, I’m dense.  Second, this really is a very, very clever book.  It’s engineered in a visually stunning way: geometric shapes on the page, when the page is turned, become apples, or a ladder, or a flash of lightning.  Here, let me show you:

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That should give you a basic impression of the book, but the Chronicle Books trailer can really show it off:

You see how it works?  Shapes which just seem abstract and geometric become, when the page is turned, a whole new world of storms and apples and birds.  As I said, it’s smart: it’s one of the smartest books I’ve seen this year, and, being rather dense, I thought it was too smart for my daughter.

Yeah, right.  Too smart for me, maybe, but not for her.  She loves watching the transformations, and, I think, even loves the story which quietly underlies the transformations.

You have apples.  And then you have a ladder.  Next, you add the robins and a birdhouse.  Then comes the storm which disrupts the natural order.  Slowly, though, it is rebuilt.  Apples are gathered and the birdhouse is restored– and then the birds make it their home until spring comes and you have more birds, apple blossoms, and the prospect of the whole cycle beginning again.  (See?  Just like Wagner, but happier, and, well, less dreary.)

Why shouldn’t that be a story which my daughter can understand?  Because, perhaps, she’s too young to remember from season to season?  She remembers winter.  She remembers people.  She remembers almost every word of Green Eggs and Ham, and recites it daily.  So, why assume she can’t remember the season?  Perhaps I was assuming that she’d be bored because there wasn’t a more vivid story?  Well, if I was mesmerized by the changing shapes and colours, why wouldn’t she be?    Perhaps I thought that she couldn’t draw comparisons with Wagner?  Happily, being not-yet-three, no, she can’t.  But I think you can enjoy this book without being familiar with Wagner.  (Now there’s a pull quote for you!)

Honestly, I’m not sure why I thought this book was so much too old for the Changeling.  She’s a clever almost-three-year-old, and this book is recommended for ages 4-6, her usual range in books.  It’s true that she can’t track the geometric changes as the pages turn, but she does find them mesmerizing to watch, just as I do.  It’s true that she’s too young to really grasp the cyclical nature of the world and nature, but she’s also too young to know about theories of the fantastic but she still enjoys The Tea Party in the Woods.

The fact remains that I think there is one simple, poetic story in this book which can be apprehended in as many different ways as you can draw apples and robins: it’s the story of the turning year, and turning pages, and turning leaves.  It’s as beautiful as taking simple boxes and ending up with a slender ladder to get you up into greenest trees.  It’s also as fun as watching a bird pop out of a hole.  It’s a story which grows with you.

Dammit, I’m not sure how to do this book justice except to link to it again here and say this: I’m labelling this book for all ages.  I think the colours will engage an infant (just keep it away from grabby fingers or the holes will tear), but the shapes and story will engage a toddler, and the older you get the more you’ll see.

Also?  This is another one I really want to see in the original French, just to compare.

Guys, this is beautiful, and, sneak peek: this is going on my spotlight list for Monday’s monthly blog summary, you bet it is.

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.

Quackers

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.

Quackers

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.

How to Be a Dog

After such serious and intense writing for the past couple of days, I wanted something a little lighter and sillier to write about.  First I thought about A Castle Full of Cats, but I’ve already done that.  But then I was tidying away the day’s books, and came across one my daughter plucked from the shelves of the Harvard Book Store, How to Be a Dog, written and illustrated by Jo Williamson.  (I am not referring to A Guide to Being a Dog, by Seamus Wheaton, which, yes, I also have.  Apparently the Changeling and I really want a dog.)

How To Be a Dog

This was an interesting find.  It’s a debut book from Jo Williamson, and I consider it absolutely unfair that her first book is so charming and pitched so perfectly, and also I’m now very curious to see everything else she does.  But how did I find it when I’d never heard anything about it before?  Well, my daughter, animal-magnet that she is, ran into the children’s book section, paused, veered to the right, and snatched it from where it was inconspicuously shelved and said, “Let’s bring this book home!”  I swear to God she knew.  I swear she was sniffing when she paused there, that she muttered under her breath: “Dogs.  Today I want dogs.”  And she sniffed out “dogs,” and found the doggiest book she could.  Animal magnet.  This is a kid who once located a pit bull in a closed store and basically befriended the dog, who was wagging her tail enthusiastically, until the owner had to open the door to allow them a brief moment to say hello before we apologized and dragged her away.  It’s a little uncanny, but I’m hopeful her skill will one day get us a dog (don’t tell my husband I said that).

Anyway, the point is that it was love at first sniff, which is more or less how the story starts, with the dog narrator relating how dogs find their humans: they just know who’s right for them and make a beeline for their human.  Then they have to get used to living together.  The narrator goes through a list of tips or guidelines for how to live in your new home: finding your favourite place to sleep; greeting visitors; how not to, ahem, sully the floor; cleaning the floor of any delicious debris.  It ends by promising that even if there are occasional sad moments (such as bath time), dogs just want to be with their best friend, and will be very happy in their new homes with their special human: “Just like me,” says the narrator, and if you don’t break into a smile at that final page then I think that’s cause for medical concern.

Here’s the thing: this is a perfect book for dog-lovers.  I don’t have to justify this book to them– they’ve probably already ordered it as of the first paragraph.  I don’t even have a dog, and I love it, because I know dogs and I love them.  It’s also ammunition for me in communicating to my husband that my daughter clearly needs a dog because she chose the book, right?  Right.  But I’m really curious about how it plays with people who aren’t dog-lovers, whether they’re like my husband (who enjoys dogs but doesn’t need them), or my father (who’s really bizarre and seems to actually dislike them).  My husband does like this book, but I’d like to try it out on my father.  My suspicion is that it would at least garner a chuckle, but I have no evidence to back that up.

Why do I think such a dog-oriented book isn’t just for dog-lovers?  It’s got such perfect timing for its little jokes.  The text is straightforward, for example: “Your human will want you to be toilet trained… Mine was very glad when I got the hang of it.”  (Of course you can expect kids to giggle over that.)  This is all true, of course.  A human would absolutely desire a dog to cease and desist from leaving puddles on the floor.  And the first page indicates this clearly:

Not yet toilet trained

Notice what’s going on there?  It’s the illustration you need to read, right?  Hence why I snapped a couple of pictures, unlike usual: you’ve got to see the book to get the text here.  Jo Williamson’s pencil and watercolour images fill the blanks left by the text.  The text gives you the dog’s point of view; the illustrations show you what’s happening, and your reaction provides the human’s perspective.

Let’s look at the next page:

Toilet trained

Oh, whoops!  Not so typical, eh?  The timing is just right, and has a slightly retro, old-New Yorker feel to it.  The vintage feel is bolstered by the art: the very light, bold touch of the pencils sketching the form, and filled in largely by grey watercolours, highlighted by occasional blue and red details.  Of course, there’s also the old-fashioned toilet which I truly and dearly adore, and then the dog reading a physical newspaper.  Note also boy’s clothing: there’s something of the British schoolboy about him, again a little touch which brings seriousness and humour into relief.

There’s nothing about this book which is inherently funny.  It is told straight, it is illustrated straight.  It doesn’t “make jokes” at you.  It’s Costello, in Abbott and Costello.  You’re Abbott, reading it.  You make it funny, by stumbling from page to page, doing a double-take, then chuckling at what you see.  There’s a sort of dry, twinkle-in-the-eye humour here which I think anyone, dog-lover or not, will love.  I’d also venture to guess that any dog-lover, child or adult, would also love this (if you’re not already a dog-lover, you may need a child to introduce you to the book, though).  There are definitely jokes you need to be of a certain age to get, but pretty much any age should be able to enjoy this, thanks to those lovely, vintage-feel, vivid illustrations.  Oh, just scroll up and look at the pictures, then show them to the nearest child.  They’re an immediate attraction, and I frankly can’t wait to see what Jo Williamson does next.

I’d like to thank my daughter’s sixth sense for pulling this book off the shelf.  It’s been a joy getting to know a book and an author really new to me, and it’s been even more fun making my husband nervous as my daughter and I coo over every dog.  (Can we get a dog?)

Feathers: Not Just for Flying

I am delighted to report that we have all made it back from South Carolina in one piece, and that apparently I know how to use the post scheduling thingamajig on WordPress.  (Also, my computer recognizes “thingamajig” as a word, but not “WordPress.”)  And now that we’re back I can tell you that yesterday the Changeling and I were on a farm, Old McCaskill’s, both of us nearly out of our minds with glee.  There were sheep (Dorset, if you’re like me and would want to know), chickens (Buff Orpingtons, again, the sort of thing I like to know), ducks, goats, horses, cats and dogs galore (including a Border Collie and two Great Pyrenees), and probably more I’m forgetting right now.  We were in hog heaven– oh, there were pigs, too.  Anyway, we nearly got our fill of animal company, by which I mean we agreed we wanted to go live on a farm and my husband nearly had to drag us out of there.  (He liked it, too, but didn’t want to end up with a farm in Cambridge, MA, I think).

Also, a baby duck had just hatched and Kathy, who runs the B&B and helps run the farm, let us hold her– well, my husband was too chicken, if you’ll forgive me the pun, but the Changeling and I did.  I was so proud of how gentle the Changeling was.  I took the new duckling first, feeling the prick of tiny feet, watching the bright little black eyes take in the world (it’s amazing that such a tiny, new bird really does take it all in), and stroking the soft, brand-new neck.  Then I taught the Changeling to lay her own small hands open almost flat together and take the tiny bird in her own only-just-not-a-baby-any-longer hands.  It really was a special moment.  It was both of our first time actually touching a bird, and, given our love of birds, having that first experience together was something to tuck away in my memory and cherish.

Unsurprisingly, by the time we were ready for bed that night the Changeling requested A Bird Is a Bird and we’d already read a new favourite in our house, Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah Brannen.  (By the way, you’ll find good teaching materials at that link under “Downloadables.”)

feathers-hires

You remember how we found Feathers, via the not-unaccustomed route of our children’s librarian and our children’s book shop?  Well, it’s proven popular: it hasn’t had the time A Bird Is a Bird has had to completely meld into our daily lives, but the Changeling has already mentally aligned the two, she loves Feathers, and, as the readers, we parents welcome the addition to our bird-oriented repertoire.  What I noticed, though, was that we felt a particular intimacy in reading these books after having held a bird in our own two hands.  I found they went from being pleasant, interesting, useful books I enjoyed with my daughter to being actually exciting.

I’ve already said that Feathers is excellent if you’re looking for a book to follow A Bird Is a Bird, but I can also tell you that it’s a beautiful book in its own right, particularly if you find yourself with a child who has just found out that her love of birds is really exciting when she’s touching a bird’s feathers with her bare hands.  The book’s style is finely balanced between an old-fashioned naturalist’s notebook (think of Stephen Maturin in Patrick O’Brian’s books, or, if you insist on reality, of John James Audubon) and a child’s scrapbook.  Each page has a broad description of a feather’s function in large type as a title: “Feathers can shade out the sun like an umbrella,” for example.  Then it gives the naturalist’s notes on a particular bird which uses that function: the tricolored heron (illustrated on the facing page in a large, beautifully detailed watercolour) lifts its wings to shade the water so it can find fish and frogs more easily.  Ah, like an umbrella?  The page adds little paper umbrellas, the kind you get in your drink or for favours at a child’s birthday party, to the scrapbook.  Wouldn’t a naturalist provide a closeup of the heron’s wings?  You get that, too.  A frog?  Wouldn’t a child giggle and add a picture of a frog?  You get that, too.  It’s all there, but all done with those gentle, precise, and lovely watercolours: both Sarah Brennan and Melissa Stewart took their job seriously.  Each page appeals to the child, but doesn’t talk down to anyone.  My toddler knew she was being talked to, not being talked at, and if you work with children at all you know that they can tell the difference.

As a parent reader, I loved the style.  I loved the vintage feel of the book (emphasized by the yellowed backgrounds, like old paper) and how each page is laid out differently, really like a scrapbook.  Some pages show clippings being “taped” in (Sarah Brennan is good at her job– have you ever tried to draw a page being taped to another page?), but others show a framed large-scale painting of a bird, for example.  There’s freshness whenever you turn the page, but it always has the feeling of flipping through something a bit old-fashioned… only with bright little details like a sunblock label (for how feathers can protect a bird’s skin from the sun), or seeds trailing out of a photo of a bird feeder across the page.  In other words, the layout is consistent in its vintage feel, it takes its job seriously, it takes the reader seriously, and yet, brilliantly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  I love a book with a sense of humour, as does my daughter, and this one does.

Altogether, the result for the reader is fun and beautiful, but also extremely useful.  Reading it for the first time with my two-and-a-half-year-old, I didn’t go into the full, rich detail this book provides: I read the headings, gave a brief summary of how it applied to the bird in the picture, and we looked at some of the pictures.  (Note that these facts were easily skimmed at a first reading; that’s evidence enough of good, clear writing!)  That was enough for her for the first, impatient reading.  On subsequent, more leisurely, readings, we’ve read each paragraph carefully and found a lot to talk about.  In other words, this is what I think of as an “elastic” book: it’s very malleable to the needs of the moment.  I love that adaptability, and what’s most exciting is that it’s obvious it suits a wide age range and should be useful for a good few years.

I want to end by saying a word about non-fiction books here.  I’m a fiction girl, and I always have been.  (Hey, when I had to think of a naturalist, my first thought was Stephen Maturin, not Audubon.)  I don’t remember loving many non-fiction books growing up.  But this bird adventure with my daughter is bright and exciting for me: I’m discovering so many fun, readable, and informative non-fiction books with her, which is enriching both of our lives a great deal, and Feathers is definitely one of the best.

I’m looking forward to getting outside with our book this spring and summer.  I want to look at birds and talk about what the feathers might be doing.  I think you might enjoy doing the same thing with your child.

Little Bear

Today is one of the days I get to keep my Changeling at home.  I feel a bit guilty about how happy this makes me, but not much.  She’s normally in daycare, among kids her own age, happily learning how to communicate with them, “do bunny-hops,” socialize, and “do jump-jacks.”  While she’s gone, I diligently work.  I even enjoy the peace and quiet and how the floor will stay clear of Calico Critters after I put them away.  (I decline to comment on how long it takes to put them away and whether this is related to any dressing of tiny panda bears which may or may not occur.)  My days working alone while my daughter’s off with her own age group are often fun and rewarding for both of us.  It’s a good arrangement.  And I miss her.  I miss her voice.  I miss occasional feelings of frustration as I patiently wait for her to sort something oh-so-simple out, and more frequent explosions of amazement at how adept she’s become at something (like identifying a blue jay in a tree today!).  So, when I do get her at home, I’m thrilled.

And I have a book to share with you, courtesy of the Changeling.  “What book should I write about?” I asked her.  She thought seriously.  (She always thinks very seriously.) “A Bird Is a Bird,” she suggested.  “That’s a wonderful book!  I already wrote about it, though.  Can you think of another?”  She sorted through her mental library and turned up… “Little Bear.”  “Thank you!” I said.  “What a wonderful idea!”

Little Bear

And so, here we are.  Little Bear, by Else Holmelunk Minarik, pictures by Maurice Sendak, is one of the first books my Changeling selected herself at the Children’s Book Shop.  I’d say most of the books I talk about here fall into two groups: a) the very new; b) the Canadian or otherwise “hidden” classic.  I rarely get to talk about books we all read, and all will read with our children and grandchildren, and so onward through the ages, amen.  I need to thank the Changeling for giving me the nudge and permission to talk about some of these really good books– the ones which are popular for a really good reason.

The difference for me, of course, is that you all know what I’m talking about.  Instead of trying to give you the feel and texture of an unfamiliar story, or pinpoint the big idea of a book you probably haven’t read, here I am in new territory: we’ve got something we all know, so what can I tell you about it?  So I’m going to shift focus to the reading process.  These books, after all, are all about the process– the process of reading with your child.  Sometimes the Changeling likes to sit on the floor while we read to her, but that can’t be done with these: “These are lap books,” I tell her.  You have to read these together, as a partnership, so I’m going to tell you all about these books as a partnership.

“Books?” you query.  “But you said… Little Bear, not Bears or Little Bear Series or…”  Ah, yes, fair point.  As I said, I’m talking about these books as a partnership.  When my daughter says “Little Bear,” she means all the Little Bear books.  And that’s one of the great things about this series I want to draw attention to here.  In general– and there are major, major exceptions to this rule, so I’m making an easily-punctured generalization here– young children’s books tend to be singles whereas young novel-readers expect series.  I’m talking Each, Peach, Pear, Plum vs. Harry Potter here.  That is: when a picture book author starts a book, my impression is rarely that they’re planning from the first to start the Curious George franchise.  They wouldn’t mind if people want another book with Babar in it, but it’s a bit different from a 7-book series proposal.  Very generally speaking.

So, for young readers like my Changeling, who are used to getting very contained books (Annabel lives in Extra Yarn, not elsewhere), it’s exciting to get your first taste of books where the characters go on to live out more adventures in a number of books.    You meet a little bear cub who’s cold and goes through all kinds of clothes before settling on his own fur coat, and you want to know more about him.  Well, it turns out he likes to visit his grandparents (Little Bear’s Visit), and he misses his father and looks forward to seeing him when he comes home (Father Bear Comes Home) and he really, really loves mermaids (likewise in Father Bear Comes Home).  My Changeling loves to stand there with all the books in front of her and make a choice.  (I will note that she has a very similar response to the Harold books, which makes sense; it’s a similar structure and dynamic.)  Often she heads straight for the story of Mother Bear and the Robin (from Little Bear’s Visit), but sometimes she prefers a mermaid story (Father Bear Comes Home), or “Birthday Soup” (Little Bear).

The choice rests with her, and that’s the genius of this series.  They’re constructed around getting kids interested in reading, and every element works towards that: of course there are the glorious illustrations by Maurice Sendak (which are minutely examined on a near-daily basis in this house), and there’s the simple, repetitive, but not at all boring text.  Of course there are the stories themselves: the topics are familiar (hiccups, pets, birthdays), but the stories are adventurous enough in being set out of our world, in a warm parallel plane inhabited by animals rather like us.  Yes, these are all very successful elements.  But the gentle structure of being almost a series, where you’re learning to engage with a character and care about him and his family and friends as you move from story to story, getting pulled into a whole world– that’s something I haven’t seen remarked on (I  may simply have missed it), and after reading these stories over and over again with my daughter, it’s something I’ve learned to notice and greatly appreciate.  I’m not saying these books are a gateway drug to the big series out there right now– anything from Little House to Harry Potter to Cat Valente’s Fairyland and all the others out there.  I’m not saying it’s like that.  No, I’m not saying that.

I am saying it’s wonderful to watch my child learn to engage not just with a particular story, but with a character and a world.  In other words, to learn to engage with how a story’s made, what a book really is: world and character and words.  All of those elements that go to make a novel, and to make a series.

These books aren’t a gateway drug to series at all.  They’re a gateway drug to reading in general, to books with more complex groups of characters, and richer worlds.  And, sorry, Nancy, we aren’t saying no.  We’re saying: “I love this so much I want my Emeh to write about it.”  Now, that’s getting kids into reading.

P.S. She said she’s going to write about another book all by herself.  A book about stories, she said.  I’ll keep you posted.  Can you tell I’m happy I have my girl home with me?  (Not that I’m sorry she’s been taking a good nap!)

I Will Keep You Safe and Sound

Yesterday, the Changeling and I were headed to the library.  We were both happy.  The Changeling was prancing along in front of the stroller, dancing and singing.  The birds were singing.  The Great Writer Who Wrote that first Word was pouring the loveliness of the heavens on us because that’s what writers do when they want to give a real sense of Impending Doom™, don’t they?  Impending Doom™ just doesn’t work when things are already pretty shitty.  Things have to be really idyllic to get that Impending Doom™ feeling rolling.

Well, sure enough, next thing you know, right in the middle of a tinkling rendition of “The ABCDs,” the Changeling goes flying: first her knees hit the ground, then her middle, then her face.  All I remember is thinking: a) “Crap, I can’t reach her in time”; b) “Thank God her legs and stomach hit the ground before her face: she’s probably fine.”  Fine she was (just a scratch on her upper lip, for those of you who are related to her and are probably worried right now), and we were right near a real, very good pharmacy, so we got her cleaned up and checked over in no time flat, but we were all shocked and scared for a bit.  The library gave us balm in the form of a few bird books I’ve already reserved at my favourite children’s book shop.  (Don’t give me that look, I’m investing in my child’s education.)

But it got me thinking about a book I’ve read to the Changeling fairly regularly for a long time now.  It was a baby present from the same lovely person who gave us The Itsy Bitsy Spider, an old friend with excellent taste in books, and who actually keeps up with new releases.  (Protip: Foster such friendships.)  The book is I Will Keep You Safe and Sound, by Lori Haskins Houran, illustrated by Petra Brown, and it is as much of an antidote to nasty falls as the title suggests.  This book is equivalent to a kiss on a booboo, a hug to the soul, or a Mickey Mouse bandaid to your courage.

I will keep you safe and sound

When I watched my darling baby falling, I stifled my screams so I wouldn’t scare her even more, but those screams sort of cut me up inside a little.  Well, she needed cuddles, and those cuddles helped me, too, but reading stories?  Stories are the best medicine, I think we can all agree.  (I mean, we’re on a blog about stories, so I’m assuming we’re on the same page here: stories are awesome, right?)  But sometimes you need le conte juste, as it were.  I am here to tell you that when you’ve just experienced a nasty invasion of safety and soundness, this is le conte juste to restore peace and harmony of spirit.

The first thing I noticed about this book was that it’s infused with a golden light.  That comes first as a visual impact, through the lovely watercolor, gouache, and brown pencil illustrations by Petra Brown.  (Petra Brown?  I just want to check, would you maybe have time to do murals in my Changeling’s room?  Or… uh… maybe my room?  Please?)  I think, in this case, it’s the brown pencil which really does it: each page has a very soft, very subtle golden glow.  That means that each page glows with warmth, and that warmth means security.  This creates a perfect harmony with the warmth and security and reliability of the text itself.  The brown pencil of the text, as it were, is the security and reliability of the metre.  Each page has a lilting verse about an animal, and each triplet of animals culminates in the chorus: “I will keep you safe and sound.”

Note the trochaic tetrametre catalectic of the chorus– excuse the jargon, I’m afraid poetry is my stock in trade: the point here is that the line both begins and ends on a stressed note.  That’s what gives it that feeling of strength and firmness.  The repetition from triplet to triplet reinforces that, and provides the backbone of the book.  Safety is strong.  The lilt of the old, familiar metre softens that strength (check your books of Romantic poetry for more of trochaic tetrametre: Blake, Wordsworth, and the rest of them use it), as do the gentle intermediary lines: “Brown bears in the den / While the first buds peep / Rabbits in the field / While the crickets cheep.”   The softness both contrasts and merges with the strong yet gentle chorus line: “I will keep you safe and sound.”  There’s an underlying complexity, or at least thoughtfulness, that goes into building the simplicity of the text.

I’m so sorry, but, as I said, I do study poetry.  It was inevitable that I’d break into analysis of the poetic form at some point.  I suggest breathing a prayer of gratitude that it’s over and wasn’t all that bad (hey, I could have done “Hoppity,” you know).  Let’s move on to the story.  After all, the metre is the vehicle for the story, yes, but the story, as I said, is the real medicine here.  You’ve already met the bears and rabbits.  That’s essentially our pattern: we meet robins and dolphins and beavers and squirrels.  Each has a story to tell about the safety the parents provide for their young in the face of the world’s dangers.  The illustrations glow with love: they’re precise drawings of each animal in its own habitat, and the realism is balanced by the softness of the watercolours and that lovely underlying glow.  (Petra Brown, I wasn’t kidding.  Let’s talk murals!)

At the end, we come to the key reason this book is loved in this family: “Kitten in the moonlight / Lost…” (“Oh no, where’s his mummy?”)  “… then found” (“There she is!  Oh, he found his mummy!  He’s so happy!”) “I will keep you safe and sound.”  (“There’s so many kittens!  They’re so happy!  Let’s count them! One, two, three, four kittens!”)  Hey, folks?  Did you know we’re cat people here?  Surprise!

Such is the Changeling’s glow of happiness.  I agree with it, but for an additional reason.  Without that problem, climax, and dénouement the story would be saccharine.  It comes just to the edge of the overly sweet, and this keeps it from crossing the line.  More than that, this problem highlights our dilemma as parents: Our child will get lost, or fall down and scrape her lip, or fall from a swing, or… or… sorry, I need a moment.  OK, the fact is this: we cannot prevent all dangers from occurring– nor, dare I say, should we necessarily.  If we could keep our children from all problems and dangers, they’ll certainly crop up for our kids as adults, so they’ll need to learn to cope at some point.  What we and they need to know is that, when push comes to shove, we’re there for them.  We’ll listen, we’ll hand the tissues over, we’ll take them in and love them and support them, no matter who, no matter what… no matter how dumb they were to date that guy who was obviously a jerk, or how cruel that kid at school was, or how manipulative that first boss was.  We love them, and even if the world is nasty, they will always have us.  We’re there.

That’s what I want the Changeling to get out of this book, and that’s why I was so glad to have it after that tumble hurt me so badly (and her, too, of course): it reminded me that while I can’t prevent pain, I can be there afterwards; and I hope it reminded my Changeling of the same thing.

Arctic Dreams

First of all: Would the person who misplaced every book I own and simply cannot find please step forward?  Thank you. I promise I will be merciful, I would just like my books to be returned where I can find them.

See, it goes like this: the Changeling and I get really into a book and read it all the time.  It’s usually left out on the sofa or side table because we’re probably just going to read it in another five minutes, anyway.  Then… it disappears.  Then the Changeling really wants to find the Arctic hare in Arctic Dreams by Carol Gerber, illustrated by Marty Husted, and the book is nowhere to be found.  Her lip jumps.  I quickly explain that the book will come back and can she be a brave girl and choose another book until it comes back?  She stiffens her upper lip and nods and says that there’s an Arctic hare in her animal book.  What a brave girl, thank you!  I breathe a private sigh of relief.  And then, a week later, Arctic Dreams is back, and I have no idea how or where it was.

Arctic Dreams

So, I know someone out there’s playing tricks in here, and it’s driving me up the wall.  Oooh, that’s what you want, isn’t it?  Well, the bad news is that you let me find Arctic Dreams again, and so long as I’m reading this book, it’s impossible to feel anything other than perfect serenity.  This is, I’m positive, the Buddha’s favourite book.  If we could just give every world leader a copy of this book and persuade them to read it every morning, we’d have world peace by next Tuesday at noon.  This is the book Gandhi read before he decided on his personal Credo of nonviolence.  This is, in a word, serenity encapsulated between the covers of one of the best bedtime books I really hope lots of parents know about, because, seriously, it will relax your kids, I promise.  Or, if it doesn’t?  You won’t care, because your blood pressure will have relaxed, at least.

Now, my previous standard for “super-relaxing bedtime book” was Goodnight Moon, that basic staple of the children’s bookshelf.  I wasn’t even looking for other “bedtime books” because, c’mon, I have Goodnight Moon.  This makes about as much sense as not trying lemon-strawberry sorbet because you already have a really good vanilla ice cream.  They’re both delicious, both frozen desserts, but sometimes you’re in the mood for rich and creamy, sometimes for lighter and tangier.  This book is, at one and the same time, more complex and simpler than Goodnight Moon.  Goodnight Moon is vanilla ice cream: rich and deeply loved and lovable, you always love it, you had it when you were a child and you know your grandchildren will have it, too.  It’s reliable, a little old-fashioned.  And then you stumble across lemon-strawberry sorbet on a day you need a bit more of a change, and it’s also lovely on a hot day, also wonderful for chilling you out, but there’s a bit more variety going on, and it really hits the spot.

Or at least that’s how I felt when I found Arctic Dreams.  It’s not that recent (published in 1999), but it was new to me, and it may likewise be new to you.  The text of the book is very simple, lilting and rhythmic, but the vocabulary is a bit more complex than in Goodnight Moon, partly because it draws on a particular cultural background, the Inuit culture (well, so Canadians would say– the book says Eskimos, but I was brought up Not To Do That in the Canadian school system).  And so you have a mixture of the simple, repetitive “Snuggle deep, my little one. / Snuggle deep. […]  Dream in peace, my little one. /  Dream in peace,” and textured, occasionally surprising passages such as, “Let sleep surround you as silently as a snowdrift… and cover you as softly as the fur of nanook, the large white bear.”  The gentle, soothing rhythm is still there, but I find my brain suddenly feels that soft, warm blanket of fur in a quiet snowfall.  (Fate?  Please note: I do not actually wish to be flumped on by a hungry polar bear in an Arctic snowstorm.  That sounds like a terrible, if memorable, way to die.  Memorable for everyone else, that is.  I’d be dead.)

Marty Husted’s pencil and watercolour illustrations, however, take this book from lovely and relaxing, to utter serenity.  We begin with the mother murmuring to the child in his bed, and then enter the child’s mental dreamscape, where his mother’s words and his dreaming imagination take us to world’s we couldn’t really inhabit awake.  See my above memo re: death by polar bear in a snowstorm.  However, who doesn’t want to, in some absurd, dreamy level of their mind, snuggle with a polar bear in a gentle snowfall?  How lovely!… in the dreaming imagination.

That dreaming imagination is what we see in these warm yet dreamy images (the precision of the pencils is offset by the softness of the watercolour), and it pulls your mind halfway into sleep, just like cuddling a kitty taking her nap: that sleepy serenity is contagious.  We none of us are really going to snuggle up with a group of walruses (or at least I hope we aren’t), but wouldn’t you sort of like to be on a wild rock, surrounded by the sea, roaring with the walrus?  No, you wouldn’t, says your logical mind: that would be smelly, uncomfortable, and deadly.  Yes! screams your idiot imagination. What a breathtaking experience.  “Exactly,” says your logic, dryly. “Breathtaking, indeed.”  [Huh, apparently we don’t write “drily” any longer.  It’s “dryly” now.– Ed.]  I’m not even going to go into my favourite page: diving down deep in the blue ocean on the back of a bluer whale, surrounded by orangey-gold squid and seals, and schools of silvery fish.  How gloriously impossible!

This book is dreamy in every sense of the word: it conveys dreams, draws you into dreams, and is a dream to read with a droopy, dreamy child.  Also, pipes up the Changeling, “it has so many animals!”  Yeah, that’s the only issue: you may be headed into dreamland– but then your toddler may pop up her eyes again to say, “That’s a tern!  And a puffin!  A puffin!”  Go to sleep, my little one.  Go to sleep.