The Princess and the Pony

I never do this, but before we begin, here’s two notes: (a) I have been working on getting permissions to post images for various posts.  If you scroll down, for example, you’ll see some images from The Fox and the Star (thank you, Coralie Bickford-Smith!).  Do go look: they’re lovely.  Thanks are also due to Kate Beaton for giving me permission to use images from her website today.  (b)  On Sunday, I’m going to go to Catherynne Valente‘s signing at the Brookline Booksmith where I will try not to embarrass myself.  I will then gobble up the book, probably weep because it’s over, and then try to compose my thoughts about the whole Fairyland series into a blog post.  (That might take a while.)  If you are near any of the locations on her tour, may I suggest stopping by?  Her books are wonderful.

Do you know what?  That paragraph serves as a pretty good introduction to my confession: I am such a fangirl.  I pretend not to be.  I’m not much of a one for movies or actors or anime or any of the things I’ve decided are “fan” categories.  If you don’t chase the Beatles, you’re not a “fan,” right?  Wrong.  I’m an embarrassing, melty fangirl around authors I admire.  Ask my husband how long it took me to be able to open my mouth when I met [name redacted because, God, that was embarrassing].  He had to speak up for me before I could manage to get past, “Oh my God, I’m finally meeting [name redacted] and I’m making a fool of myself!”

Well, I’m like that for Kate Beaton.  When I saw she was coming to Boston for a signing  for  Step Aside, Pops and I couldn’t go: (a) I threw things at the wall; (b) I realized it was better to be sad I couldn’t meet her than to be a writhing ball of embarrassment for whatever I said or didn’t say if I did meet her; (c) I wrote a note to the Harvard Book Store to order a signed copy and beg them to ask her to personalize it.  I am not proud of that note at all, but it got me a personalized, signed copy, with a truly lovely little sketch from Kate Beaton’s hand, and I am proud of that.  You will pry that book out of my cold, dead hands.  Death, thou shalt die before I surrender that book.  Got it, buddy?  IT’S MINE.

Sorry, got a little carried away there.  My point is: people, Kate Beaton is fantastic.  And… She Is Canadian.  More than that, she is a Maritimer, from Nova Scotia, and, well.  First I read her historical comics lovingly teasing my own beloved Middle Ages and I truly admired them.  Then I heard she was from Nova Scotia and, I mean, I’m from Sackville, New Brunswick, right next door, and suddenly I became the girl who begged and pleaded with the Harvard Book Store to get me a personalized copy of her latest book.  And then I heard that she was writing a children’s book, The Princess and the Pony (this link includes activity sheets for your child), about one of my favourite of her comic characters, the pony.  You can see the pony, because Kate Beaton was nice enough to allow me to post this comic, below:

Fat Pony original

That one still makes me giggle, and anyone who giggled at that will be thrilled to know that this was relatively early work, and the pony’s character has developed considerably in The Princess and the Pony, where he works with Princess Pinecone to, against all her expectations, become champions.

Princess and the Pony

Princess Pinecone, you see, is a warrior, the smallest (and, arguably, most adorable) warrior in her kingdom.  She’s made it very clear what she wants for her birthday: a strong, proud, noble warrior’s horse.  Instead, she gets a small, round, funny little pony.  She is somewhat disappointed, but diligently works to try to teach her little pony to be a real warrior’s horse.  The pony ambles around, rolls on the ground, and farts too much.  Princess Pinecone is glumly convinced that they will never be champions, but when the battle comes up, the pony proves unexpectedly successful in a wholly new way, and he and Princess Pinecone are unanimously awarded the prize for Most Valuable Warriors.

It’s a charming little story, but the illustrations are what take this book from “Book I enjoyed” to “Book I truly love.”  As with Here Babies, There Babies and Jillian Jiggs, you’ll find someone in here who looks like you and speaks to you, which is an aspect I love: all colours and genders are represented here.  But Kate Beaton’s style, her humour, her zest, all come through here brilliantly in characters who speak as much through the illustrations as through words.  Pinecone, seen above, is a sweet and serious girl, very invested in her interests.  Her anxiety when she first meets her pony is visible: Oh God, do I sympathize with her!  An “almost” right birthday present can be such an awkward piece of business, yes.  But the personality is what truly pulls at my heart: trying so hard to make something not-quite-right work?  I’m almost 29 and I still identify with that.  Who doesn’t?

Princess Pinecone might be the most developed character (apart from the pony, perhaps), but my Changeling and I have endless conversations about the others.  She loves to examine each warrior’s face and equipment and talk about who looks “a little sad,” “a little angry,” or “so, so happy!”  She carefully analyzes the battle, Princess Pinecone’s parents, each ice cream cone on the battlefield, and all of the weapons of battle.  The detail, in short, is impressive, both in the layout of each large spread, and in the pages bare of background detail which focus on particular characters to tell you their story.  These are the pages my Changeling can “read” on her own, and I love watching her develop the stories from the art.

Most impressive of all in that regard, perhaps, is the pony himself.  He’s a major figure (and he has a most impressive figure!), but is limited in speech.  And yet he speaks to you so clearly: his big round eyes, his funny mouth (sometimes tongue out, sometimes in), his round figure, all tell you the same thing… “Awww,” you squeal with Otto the Awful, “what a cute little pony!”  The Changeling’s eyes bulged like the pony’s the first time she saw him: “I want a pony, too!” she announced.  (OK, I’ll admit it, she got one for Chanukkah: he lives in her crib, and you can get one right here.  Cave, submit, leave me not alone in my shame.  You can also get a onesie, shirt, calendar, or mug.  I don’t have those… yet.)

I’m still not clear on this pony, I’ll admit.  Shake your head all you want, but I still analyze him: how much does he understand of what’s going on?  He is a most reserved pony.  He watches more than he speaks.  Does he know what he’s doing at the battle?  Does he know what he’s doing during training?  I suspect he’s much more clever than he lets on, but I can’t swear to it.  I’ll just have to read it a few more times with my Changeling, and maybe ask her opinion again.  Last time, I got good suggestions from her.  She thought it over, and said, “Let’s read it again.”  I suggest you do the same.

(Kate Beaton?  Thanks so much for the permission to use your images, and sorry for the fangirling.  I really love your work, in case that wasn’t clear.)

A Castle Full of Cats

While keenly aware that if I run this right after my Little Red Riding Hood post I run the risk of being “one of those cat blogs” (so sorry, Daddy), this Sunday I went to my favourite store in the entire universe again: The Children’s Book Shop.  What that means is that I came back with new material for you all.  And yet here I am writing about a book I got last time I went there.  It goes like this: when I go into a shop like that and casually pick up another copy of that book I got last time because I need to give it to someone for a gift, honestly, I do, no, it’s not just because I want to hold it in my hands at all times… well, isn’t that a sign it’s a book I need to talk about here?

Castle Full of Cats

Those who know me may say that any book called A Castle Full of Cats, written and illustrated by Ruth Sanderson gets its own post here on the basis of the title alone, but those people are wrong for the following reasons: a) If it didn’t work for me and fell flat I’d be too angry to write about it, and, anyway, I intend only to write about books I like (what’s the point of writing about books you hate?); b) Did you know there are cat books I don’t like?  Oh, there are plenty; c) Shut up, Daddy, I do so like books that aren’t about cats– I wrote about Madlenka’s Dog once.  I run my selection process here by a complex and most stringent algorithm written up in Python using processes too technical to share with you, but, to simplify it for the plebes, it can roughly be translated as such: Do I love this book oh so very much that I have got to write about it right now so help me God?  And with this book, well, when I went right into that store, ran over to the appropriate spot on the shelf and yanked it off?  “It’s… for a present,” I muttered, hugging it.  (“Maybe I should get two,” I thought.  But I resisted.  Because there was only one on the shelf and I was embarrassed to ask for a second.)  Well, when that happened I knew there was more to it than “contains cats.”  “Contains cats” will get a look from me.  It won’t get love.

What got love?  I’ll admit one thing up front: this is still a bit too old for the Changeling.  It’s not that she doesn’t sit through it or like it.  On the contrary, she really loves the pictures, poking through and naming the cats and finding the ones that look most like the ones she knows.  She enjoys it.  But there are elements of the story and illustrations which are just over her head and make this more of a book for me than for her for the moment, whereas a book like The Tea Party in the Wood spoke to both of us differently and more-or-less equally.  This one is here for both of us to enjoy, but is waiting patiently for the Changeling to grow and find certain jokes and plot points click as the months go by.  I can tell that’s going to happen.  So, we both do enjoy it, but this is largely my perspective right now.

The basic story goes as follows: A king and queen live together in a charming castle.  The year appears to be, perhaps, 1779.  I think we can assume we’re living in a parallel universe France where the tiers état is happy and satisfied and we needn’t worry about what would happen to aristocratic cats come the Revolution.  This is a calm, lovely, happy, watercolour Baroque world, one where you just want to fall in through the pages of the book, stroke the cats, and run loving fingers across the soft damasked upholstery.

But I digress: the king and queen are living happily, and the king presents the queen with a pair of charming kittens.  She is delighted, and, when you turn the page, you see the whole castle swarming with cats.  The cats know the queen adores them, and she provides them with fish for every meal, right at the table with her and the king (who would maybe appreciate a filet mignon from time to time).  She paints portraits of them, she cuddles them, and they’re happy, except… except they’re concerned that the king might not love them.  They leave him gifts, play games and frolic, but somehow they don’t seem to be able to win him over– until one day the king loses patience: “That’s it! I’ve had enough! / He dropped his spoon. / He grabbed his cane. / He marched off in a huff!”  Allow me to relieve you of your terror: He does return, but what can he do to make all well and resolve the problem in the castle so that he, the queen, and the cats can all live happily together?  Dare I tell you?

Oh, I’m awful at keeping secrets!  He brings them all presents: flowers for the queen and a big, beautiful, cuddly dog for the cats.  They’re all thrilled, and the cats are so busy playing with their new friend that the king and queen are even seen to be dining (on chicken– he must be thrilled!) by themselves.  And they all live happily ever after.

The story itself is, in a word, charming.  The cats’ behaviour is generally catlike: it’s not falsely sweet (as in every silly boardbook), and it’s not falsely evil (as in every adult book).  It’s true, and real, and translated for human readers so that we can chuckle along and sympathize as kittens investigate instruments, knock over books, and leave mice in the king’s shoes.  It’s not so ploddingly realistic as to be boring, I hasten to add, anticipating cat-lovers’ corrections: has anyone seen dozens of cats gathered at a table eating out of bowls?  Right.  But it’s realistic enough to give you that chuckle of recognition: two of the kittens hop right up  on the table to help themselves from a platter or nibble from another cat’s bowl.

All of this is rendered in gorgeous watercolour, with sufficient authentic Baroque detail to make the adult reader’s heart go pitter-pat, but with enough kittenish antics to make pet-lovers of all ages smile and laugh.  As I said, the Changeling can excitedly pore over the pictures with for ages, pointing out who “looks like Remy” and who “looks like Penny” and declaring “let’s find Guinness!”  She also enjoys the gentle, rhyming rhythm of the text.  I, for my part, secretly analyze the furniture and clothes and admire the lush textures Ruth Sanderson manages to get across with her glorious watercolours (I didn’t see any prints from this book for sale on her website, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be later– this book is pretty new).  And, of course, I love the cats’ antics and the gentle, joyous surprise of the dog’s arrival.

And for everyone, cat-lover or not, adult or child, I think the story is valuable: without didactic baggage or getting too heavy, here’s a gentle story of love, friendship, and how compromise can lead to greater happiness for all, not lesser happiness for some.  As the Changeling grows to click with more and more of the little jokes in the book, I hope that’s another note that will click.

OK, husband of mine: Now can I have another cat, and also a dog?  It works so well in the book…

Little Red Riding Hood

“Remy has big eyes!”

“The better to see you with, my dear.”

“Woofy has big ears!”

“The better to hear you with, my dear.” (transcribed from a conversation with the Changeling)

Yes, Little Red Riding Hood: it’s become automatic, hasn’t it?  It’s as much a part of our language as the King James translation of the Bible: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings,” “Be strong and of good courage,” and so on.  The way we use them might be, shall we say, frequently divorced from the original context, but, Lord Almighty, the Bible has permeated our daily speech to the point that we talk about our “daily bread” even when we’re on a carbs-free or gluten-free diet.

Fairy tales have also made their way into the collective fabric of our thought (sorry about the grandiose language there), but more through tropes than through language: everything comes in groups of threes; if you lose a shoe, it’s made of glass; if you kill a giant, your name’s probably Jack.  And (shhh… don’t tell God) I think I’m even crazier about fairy tale infiltration of our word-world than the Bible’s, pretty as that often is (try this: “Many waters cannot quench love,” from Song of Songs– lovely, right?).  As I said, however, what fascinates me is that while both literature groups have become so familiar to us, the Bible’s language seems to have had a profound effect on the words we use, whereas in folk and fairy tales it’s the tropes which have achieved that level of familiarity.   What I mean here is that, in fairy tales, tropes remain consistent from tale to tale, whereas language can change radically between retellings.  To put it as plainly as possible: three sons are familiar to us, but the precise words they use are not.

Let me stop you right now: Yes, I am generalizing so badly that they’re going to call me up any minute now and revoke my academic permit, I know this, so bear with me a while longer.  Also, I want to put in a few caveats here: a) I’m just musing here based on what I’ve noticed and strikes me as curious, so forgive me for the lack of footnotes or proper research; b) My credentials?  Um… well, I read a lot of fairy tales and have spent many years doing so.  By no means am I an Opie or Zipes or Ziolkowski, and I by no means claim to be anywhere near their level here.  I humbly bow to anyone else’s greater knowledge or experience.  (If you are Jan Ziolkowski?  Hey, call me, let’s talk fairy tales!)

See, I told you it wouldn’t take long, because right here is where I am immediately going to overturn what I just said about tropes vs. language by referring you upwards: Little Red Riding Hood.  Generally, I stand by what I said: there are certain patterns from fairy tales which you can casually reference almost anywhere and your audience will get you (three sons, where the youngest succeeds).  But Little Red Riding Hood is a bit different.  First of all, by no means are wolves generally bad or little old ladies generally innocent in fairy tales.  By no means is there even a clear, consistent lesson between all tellings of Red Riding Hood except, probably, “don’t trust strangers.”  Is the wolf representing creepy, predatory men you should avoid?  Or is the message to listen to your mother’s instructions?  That part isn’t so consistent.  Well, what is consistent in this story from version to version?  Or, to put it another way: What has endured in the collective Western memory of this story?*  I’d answer: the very conversation I started you out with, and the wording it came from: “Grandmother!  What big, hairy ears you have grown!”

Now, I want to point something out to you.  What edition or version of Little Red Riding Hood did I just quote?  Anyone, anyone?  You in the back?  Oh, you were just scratching your ear.  You don’t know, do you?  That said, everyone recognized the line, right?  Yes, you did.  In other words, the words have made it into our memories.  Wolves could mean a lot of things: in some stories, wolves save the hero, but in this story, the wolf is dangerous.  What rings comfortable familiarity for us in this case is the wording, of all things, despite the fact that I just conclusively and exhaustively proved that the familiarity of fairy tales comes from tropes, not languages.**  OK, let me spare you the suspense and, at the same time, clear my own head of excitement: I’m quoting, and plan to discuss, Little Red Riding Hood retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.  I am here to tell you that it gets across both the weird and wonderful richness of fairy tale trope and the familiarity of language we know and expect.  These are woven together in both text and illustration as only Trina Schart Hyman is capable of.

Little Red Riding Hood TSH

Right here, right now, I’m going to apologize to my father.  He is probably reading along saying, “Hmmm, clever enough.  I wish you’d actually cite something, Deborah, but you’re doing quite well… wait, now you’re going to talk about cats?  For crying out loud, Deb, still with the cats?”  Yes, I’m sorry.  I’m really sorry, but we’re switching gears from high criticism to… cats.  Why?  Because I firmly believe that Trina Schart Hyman, in her endless genius, uses cats to excellent effect in her illustrations here: they tumble playfully, kittens and cats together, at her mother’s home; one sleek, black creature follows Red Riding Hood through the woods, just to the side of her encounter with the wolf; the grandmother has a cat who observes the wolf, while Red Riding Hood’s cat pursues the huntsman until he finally goes to check on the grandmother; and both cats joyfully greet the grandmother and Red Riding Hood once they are saved.

These cats never turn up in the text.  They are wild, walk by themselves, unacknowledged by the author, but intimate with the illustrator.  They add immensely to our understanding of the story, but never, ever in the text.  Well, I ask you: Is the wolf a creepy man or a beast?  Is a wolf bad or good?  Is an old woman in a cottage an innocent or a witch?  Is Red Riding Hood a child or on the verge of womanhood?  Is sex involved or not?***  With all these unanswered questions about this story, why not add: Are there any cats in this story?  And are the cats signs of domesticity and comfort, or of an element of wildness half-tamed?  To me, they are like words that are as familiar as our daily bread, and yet make our skin prickle ever so slightly with discomfort.

If there is one woman out there it guts me to think I will never meet, it’s Trina Schart Hyman.  She died in 2004, as I found out two years ago, and I cried when I read that.  I wanted so badly to be able to say “thank you” to her, and now I knew I never could.  It was her Snow White and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins I knew growing up, and I only saw Little Red Riding Hood recently when my sister gave me this book for my birthday (she knows me well).  When I read it, it felt like someone had pulled the story out of my brain and put it on paper.  Familiar and strange, knowing more than I’d known I knew, it glowed with shadows on the page (sorry, sorry, I’ll cut out the grandiloquence).

Do yourself a favour, and get yourself a loaf of new bread, some sweet butter, and a glass of wine.  Then shut the doors to strangers and friends, and quietly read this book with your cat winking at you from the shadows.

*Jeepers, can you tell I’ve got my academic coat on today?  Get me talking about language, tropes, versions, retellings, etc. and I suddenly start getting very choosy with my language!  I could have just said, “What’s familiar to us?” but I had to go all fancy and precise.

**OK, I can’t help it.  There is one other case I can think of where the wording in a fairy tale means familiarity: Hansel and Gretel, when the witch says, “Nibble, nibble, little mouse. Who is nibbling at my house?”  If you can think of anything else, let me know, but these are the only two instances which occur to me.

***The Opies say there ain’t no sex involved, absolutely not, and I’m going with them because the thought creeps me out just a bit too much.  On the other hand, a part of me suspects they’re probably wrong.  Oh God, I hope they’re right….


Extra Yarn

I have a friend.  Not just any friend; I hope we all have a fair few friends.  But I hope everyone also has a friend like my friend: when I was pregnant, this friend brought me a baby present.  This present was a book, which is already a good start.  The book was called Extra Yarn, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen.  What this demonstrates is that my friend Knows Me, with those uppercase letters used consciously.  It’s wonderful when people provide you with good and useful things before you have a baby– soft blankets, sturdy burp cloths, pretty clothes.  It’s lovely, and I’m touched and grateful.  But when someone looks around and says, “Deborah would not want to bring her baby into a house without a charming new book about yarn and knitting for that child,” then?  Then you know that you should make that person the executor of your will (thanks, lady!).

Extra Yarn

Have you ever knit something?  Let me tell you: there’s nothing quite so terrifying as the moment when you’ve been knitting merrily along, feel your ball of yarn, and get an “uh oh…” feeling, as in, “That feels a bit… small?”  Maybe you weigh it to see if you have enough left.  Maybe you knit faster, trying to outrun the yarn.  Maybe you knit more slowly, on the basis that “haste makes waste.”  But there’s nothing like the sinking feeling when you’re sure, oh so sure, your yarn is going to run out!  But way on the other side of the spectrum is the placid security that comes with an assurance that you’ve got Extra Yarn.  Maybe enough for a matching hat?  Or matching socks for your baby?  You feel peaceful, at ease, even a little smug.  And that’s the peace we see in Annabelle, one of the most confident protagonists I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet in a book.  Let me tell you: I want to be Annabelle when I grow up.

The story is one of the most engaging I’ve written about here: Annabelle lives in a colourless town, but one day she finds a box filled with yarn of every colour.  She knits herself a sweater, but has extra yarn.  So she ends up knitting sweaters for everyone she knows.  Then for the animals, then for buildings and cars, and, through it all, she never runs out of yarn, she just carries on placidly knitting.  It’s a knitter’s fantasy.  Then an evil Archduke comes and steals the box!  Only, when he gets to his castle, he opens the box… and it’s empty.  He throws it out the window with a curse, but the box ignores the curse and goes back where it was always meant to be– with Annabelle.

I think this marks the first time I’ve written here about a book where the plot and character were the driving force in what made me fall in love.  (OK, yes, and the yarn.)  Annabelle, throughout the book, runs into mild to forceful opposition.  And yet she never talks back.  She never whines.  She never raises her voice.  She never caves.  She just carries on knitting.  You can see in Jon Klassen’s wonderful drawings: her face maintains a slight smile, and perfect repose.  To put it in a somewhat more blunt fashion, she shares John Scalzi’s Christmas gift from this year (I promise you want to click the link).  When her friend Nate laughs at her sweater, she says, “You’re just jealous,” and knits him one, too.  That shuts him up.  At school, her teacher scolds her for distracting the other students with her colourful sweater, so she just knits them all sweaters, too (and, I hope, teaches Mr. Norman a lesson– dude, don’t tell your students “You can’t.”).  And when the Archduke tries to buy her beloved yarn, she just calmly turns him down, over and over again, and sends him away.  As my sister would have said when she was little, Annabelle is a “big strong girl.”  More than that, she’s tough.  She’s resilient.

And that’s where I truly love this book.  Annabelle is the model here.  The adults don’t teach her; she teaches them, if they care to learn.  Some of the adults she meets are fun and give you a good chuckle (“Mr. Crabtree […] never wore sweaters or even long pants, and […] would stand in his shorts with the snow up to his knees.  ‘No sweater for me, thanks,’ said Mr. Crabtree.  So she made Mr. Crabtree a hat.”), but more often they’re minor obstacles.  I’ve mentioned Mr. Norman, the teacher who tells her off for distracting the class by quietly wearing her sweater, and who, when she proposes to rectify the situation by knitting everyone sweaters, expostulates, “Impossible!  […]  You can’t.”  Annabelle doesn’t answer back; she just does it.  And as for the spoiled, petulant, domineering Archduke?  Annabelle quietly carries on doing her own thing, sticking up for herself, and the yarn chooses her in the end.  He throws a temper tantrum, but she just carries on carrying on, and is happy.

This is just a story about a girl doing her knitting.  From Annabelle’s perspective, I think the world around her is just full of big opportunities and minor nuisances.  I picture her, if the book were turned into a movie (Oh my God, Mac and Jon?  Can you make that happen???  This would be such a good animated short!), occasionally sighing, or flashing that slight smile at Mr. Norman as she casts on a new sweater.  Perhaps the Archduke would elicit so much as a little shrug, as thought to say, “Dude, just leave me alone, OK?”  But her focus is on what makes life fun for her, not on the nuisances, and, in the end, she gets more of what she pays attention to: knitting.

The Changeling took to this book immediately.  “Read me Extra Yarn,” she’ll beg.  Or she’ll add it to the pile of books to take with us when we travel.  One of my very favourite moments was when she took it over to my friend, now her friend, too, and clambered onto her lap.  “Read it to me, please?”  And, as they went through the book, the Changeling did what she always does: “And she knit a sweater for the doggie!  And that’s a cat!  I see a bunny, and a bird, and is that the birdie’s house?  They all have sweaters!”  It’s enthralling.

I love seeing her admire Annabelle’s handiwork.  I hope, as she grows up with Annabelle, she’ll also learn just to do, and keep on doing, awesome things, no matter who tries to persuade her that she can’t or shouldn’t.  Just go for it, kiddo!


Do you ever get something in your head and end up chanting or singing and dancing your way around your empty house, possibly scooping up your poor, defenseless kitty in the process?  Don’t worry, I won’t make you answer that.  But I will reveal the full depths of my own embarrassment: for me, this morning, it was Jamberry, written and illustrated by Bruce Degen (I link to Porter Square Books, the marvellous, well-curated store where I bought my copy).  After reading it to the Changeling a few times this weekend, I couldn’t get it out of my head and spent the morning dancing around the living room, stumbling over Calico Critters, and swinging my patient cat through the air while chanting: “One berry/ Two Berry/ Pick me a blueberry!”


This was when I had a “click” moment.  I should know by now never to doubt my mother when she makes a remark about a children’s book, but when she compared Here Babies, There Babies to Jamberry I confess that my thought was, “Really?  I mean, they’re both rhyming stories, but so is Jillian Jiggs, for example, and, well, I just don’t see it.”  But after I read Here Babies, There Babies to the Changeling last week we spent a few days, as usual, chanting about babies in the most random places.  “I see a baby!” the Changeling would call from her stroller.  “Here babies, there babies…” and off she’d go.  That’s when Jamberry ever so gently started to nudge my brain again.

Then the Changeling started to play “going under the bridge” as she ducked under her stroller handlebar.  “And over the dam,” I went on, “Looking for berries, berries for jam!”  Next thing you know, we’re in full-on Jamberry mode: we read it a few times, and our natural mode of discourse seamlessly moved from Here Babies, There Babies to Jamberry.  We speak in berry rhymes (Merry rhymes, fairy rhymes, prattle in berry rhymes!  Sorry, folks, that one wasn’t even any good, was it?), we sing strawberries, we dance in meadows of strawberry jam… um, I mean in the living room.  It’s jubilantly moved in and taken over.

What is it about these books?  Why do they take over in a way that other charmingly rhyming books don’t?  There are lovely rhyming books, such as Each, Peach, Pear, Plum or Jillian Jiggs, books I desperately want to write about here.  They entertain when you read them, and then nestle nicely back onto the shelf when you’re through.  They don’t take over your tongue and make you dance in your sheepy pyjamas for the next day.

Partly, of course, it may be a question of metre: Jamberry‘s initial dactyls (“One berry/ Two berry/ Pick me a blueberry.”) rumble along like a folk dance to a drum, but then swap out for longer lines, most of which end with a bouncy stressed syllable: “Under the bridge/ And over the dam/ Looking for berries/ Berries for jam.”  This slight shift sweeps you along with the canoe in the picture, and if you don’t find yourself swinging your child on your knees?  Well, that probably means you decided to swing your child in your arms instead, right?  Right?  You’ve gotta move with this one, you really have.

And that’s because this little story here isn’t about the story.  Like Here Babies, There Babies where the emphasis is on the babies around you, not on a specific tale, Jamberry does have characters and a plot of sorts, but the emphasis is elsewhere: on jammy jubilation.  I don’t think I’ve ever read it without laughing at least a little at one point or another.  The beat and the song of it, the increasingly zany pictures, the berry-stained fingers and mouths, and the sudden urge to grab a pail and find some berries… well, that’s what this is about.  You read it and feel celebratory.  You read it and feel warm sun and sweet berries.  You read it and sing.  You read it and dance.

Oh, and there’s also a boy in there, and he meets a bear and they pick some berries.  Not really sure about how the bear has a hat, but he seems like a nice bear.  And I think that maybe CPS should check on the kid’s family because he seems to be seeing elephants skating on raspberry jam, which is, in my experience, unusual.

You see?  This is not a book where you should, as it were, focus on the story.  Sing it, move to it, dance your kid around to it– but, for the love of God, check your logic at the door.  (Which is, of course, where it differs from Here Babies, There Babies, initially leading me to doubt the wisdom of my mother.  That book feels intensely real, leading its own singsong verses to blend into the world around it.)

I’d add one last note here: Jamberry‘s fantastical celebration of berries is so very zany, so ebullient, and so jubilant that it really has a tendency to break through barriers and take over.  As I said, it takes over language and makes you hum it over and over.  It makes you use words like “ebullient.”  It also takes over seasons.  It might be February (albeit a very warm February), but it feels like June when you read Jamberry.  It’s really the polar opposite of Moominland Midwinter, which, as I noted feels like the epitome of winter.  Moominland Midwinter I only ever feel like reading when it’s starkly, icily, snowily cold.  Jamberry?  It makes February into June and has me wondering where I can get strawberries that taste like something.

What does the Changeling think?  “Berries for jam!” she cries, flinging her hands up.  Does she eat jam?  No, absolutely not.  Never, ever, ever.  (She won’t touch ice cream or candy, either.  I’m thinking of asking the doctor if she’s OK, and what else we can use as bribery.)  But she does love the pictures, and she does love the words, and the animals, and berries.

So, what can I say?  Even if you don’t have a kid handy, get out your copy, and start dancing at your own Jamberry bacchanal!

The Tea Party in the Woods

I sometimes wonder if other people grew up in families with a favourite time period.  Ours was the Romantic period, I often think.  Let me explain: I don’t mean that my family’s house was furnished in a particular way (although our living room furniture is lovely) or that my parents dressed us in replica 19th C clothes, or that they dressed up.  They’re very practical, sensible people and would raise their eyebrows at the suggestion (or will send me a caustic email if they read this).  What I mean is that living in our house was an immersion course in love of the Romantics: there was an awful lot of Romantic music and literature around, and I grew up knowing that if you were talking about the “fantastic” in Romantic literature then there are certain rules or keys to look out for.  My favourite was always that when the fantastic episode was over, it could almost never have happened… almost, except that there might be one sign which would raise doubt: a rose in the wrong place, for example.  Did it, or did it not?  (Hey, if I got this wrong, Daddy, you can correct me.  After all, I never studied this stuff, I just grew up hearing you talk about it!)

The Tea Party in the Woods, written and illustrated by Akiko Miyakoshi could almost be a starter story in the fantastic.  Almost, except that it defies adult expectations.  This book, the other Kids Can Press book I found at the Harvard Book Store, is translated from the Japanese, with the English edition edited by Yvette Ghione and Katie Scott.  It is beautiful to read, and beautiful to look at.

Tea Party in the Woods

The story goes that a girl, Kikko, realizes that her father has left the house without the pie he meant to bring to her grandmother.  She runs after him with the pie only to realize, at last, that she has followed a bear, not her father, and has ended up at a strange tea party of animals in the woods.  In her rush, she had crushed the original pie, so the animals provide her with a new one assembled from the tea party, and guide her safely to her grandmother’s house.  The illustrations are all a soft, dreamlike black and white, with pops of vibrant colour in Kikko’s red hat and mittens and yellow hair, as well as occasional red and yellow sparks among the animals.

Any adult reader, educated by the experience of reading Alice in Wonderland, watching The Nutcracker, or just spending five minutes talking to my parents, would go in with certain expectations.  The animals are evidently a quasi-dream sequence: maybe they are there, maybe they aren’t!  We know this because the soft, charcoal-like dreaminess of the forest tells us that we’re in for dreams here.  Of course this is going to be your child’s first book about the fantastic and she’s going to learn the rules of that type of story.  (Let me note that the Kids Can Press page I linked to above even says, “The ambiguous ending — in which it is not clear whether Kikko imagined the tea party or if the animals simply disappeared back into the woods — provides a terrific opportunity for children to weigh in on what they think happened.”  I think it’s lovely that they let parents think that!)  Well, the thing is that Kikko is very clear at the end about what happened:

“You’re never alone in the woods,” Kikko answered, smiling.

She was sure her new friends were listening.

I love that ending, fiercely and passionately.  She knows what’s going on.  This is no Alice waking up and having a curious dream.  This is no poor, messed-up Dorothy.  Kikko is confident, she’s clear on what’s happened, and she’s moving forward, smiling, surrounded by friends.  She shares her red and yellow with the animals in the woods, and they all share the dreamy black and white.  Kikko, the animals, your children reading this–all of them know the rules here: what you think has happened, has happened.  Don’t doubt, don’t be scared, it’s fine.  The bear is a bear, even if he is wearing a coat and hat.  The parents?  We’re the ones at sea.  We, lured on by years of reading ambiguities and dreams, expect doubts, distrust straightforwardness.  Kikko surprises us, and I have never, ever been happier to be surprised.

I thought this was going to be a lovely, sweet book.  I expected a fairytale tenderness and shyness, maybe with just that special tinge of the strange and fantastic.  I got that, but I got something more: I got a confidence in dreams and reliance on the fantastic which I hadn’t experienced since… oh, I don’t know.  I guess maybe I had that when I first heard La symphonie fantastique?  Before I got really sick of the second movement when 96.3 FM in Toronto played only the second movement every single day of the week, blast them.  In any case, The Tea Party in the Woods restored a sense that strange things really can have happened for sure, that children really can rely on their senses– and that sense and nonsense aren’t so far apart.

What’s really special, though, is that reading it with the Changeling made it so clear that we were each reading with our own, very different, experiences.  I noticed no surprise in her: talking bears aren’t so unusual, and so she went along with Kikko very happily, and the whole thing made sense.  Her only concern was in accurately identifying every single blasted animal in the book, and there are a lot of them (note to parents: maybe spend some time looking up the animals first so that you can answer questions readily and actually get through the story in under an hour); she didn’t mind about the ending at all.  I was the one who felt surprise.  I was the one who had my world shaken up.  She was on solid ground, among her own kind.

That’s a special moment to experience, watching your child’s confidence while you learn something.  This book puts the power in the child’s hands, and that?  That’s truly fantastic.

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Do you hate Itsy Bitsy Spider as much as I do?  The boring, slightly droning, melody, the pointless story, and, well, not to put too fine a point on it… the protagonist, an eight-legged beastie?  Not that I’m particularly scared of spiders.  My sister always was, but I was the one who killed the spiders: Deborah Spider-Slayer, you might call me.  In point of fact, I’d say that I have more cause to be afraid of spiders than she does, because if there were a conference of spiders (ick), then they’d probably look at me, with the blood of countless innocent spiders on my hands, and instantly slap a price on my head, while they’d never give her a second glance.  But the point is: no, I’m not really scared of spiders, I just don’t like them, and if you make me sing songs about them over and over again I may want to throttle you.  The YouTube videos are the worst– watching these stupid cartoon spiders which are supposed to be cute (nice try, people) scuttle around… they make me itch.  Itch to plant my fist in the computer screen and stop that tinny music, that stupid spider, that… pardon me.  I hate those videos.

Which is why I completely and totally adore Itsy Bitsy Spider by Richard Egielski.

Itsy Bitsy Spider.jpg

This book takes a boring song about a freaking spider and, to my frank astonishment, makes it charming.  What differentiates it from all of those trying-and-failing YouTube videos?  Oh, and believe me, believe me, I have done the research here.  I have sobbed my way silently and patiently through “the purple itsy bitsy spider,” “the pink itsy bitsy spider,” and even, God help me, “the blue itsy bitsy spider.”  They are not cute.  I’m sorry, Changeling, I know you like them, and you somehow even like the song without the aid of any additional media, but on that point our taste differs– sharply.

But Richard Egielski takes what I consider to be unpromising ingredients in the extreme and comes up with something frankly beautiful.  What does he do?  He makes a pop-up book.  I know, I know: I don’t like the song, I don’t like spiders, so why would I want it in a touchable, moving, 3D form?  Well, there’s the one major advantage of the book: you don’t have to hear the melody at all… until your kid learns to sing it by herself, that is, but at least even then it will be more pleasant to hear her than a tinny electronic rendition on YouTube.  Even so, I wouldn’t have expected to like a 3D spider wriggling out of a book, but it turns out that I was delighted to be surprised.

It’s not easy to define exactly how Richard Egielski’s Itsy Bitsy Spider works but the YouTube videos (in my view) fail, because it all comes down to illustration; the text and melody, of course, remain the same, and they are, again of course, a dead loss.  Illustration is the only real variable at play, and one easy way out is to say it’s all a matter of taste.  The Changeling likes the videos, right?  So maybe they’re actually OK and it’s just that they’re not to my taste.  OK, sure, that’s a valid point.  A totally valid cop-out if you want to take it, I say cheekily.  But I think there’s a real difference between the two types of illustration at play here, and not just of quality (the difference between a Caldecott Medalist who’s paid to do good work and whichever poor uncredited artist animated those videos), but of conception.  Egielski put immense powers of imagination into developing a whole world for this little song, and the videos really just want to, as it were, make it cute.

Shall I illustrate the point, as it were?  Well, take a pen.  Draw a circle with a smiley face on it.  Add eight straight lines around it, and one straight line going up.  Colour it your favourite colour.  Congratulations!  You’ve made your very own Cute [Insert Colour Here] Itsy Bitsy Spider!  Richard Egielski, by contrast, clearly sat down and thought out a world as nuanced as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  (Perhaps I exaggerate slightly.)  The spider is a little creature who lives in a world which is much larger than he is (a toddler can relate), and his friends are the other little creatures of his itsy bitsy world: beetles and dragonflies and so on.  Ordinary objects to us (cans, tea pots, and salt shakers, for example) are large to an itsy bitsy spider, so they become schools and shops and homes.  The creatures are dressed charmingly for their peregrinations around the town: top hats, canes, and bowties on an elderly beetle, and caps and overalls for our little protagonist.  One charming fellow gets a waistcoat: I approve.  The detail lends character and substance to an otherwise vapid story.  And the sturdy pop-ups?  Dear Lord, they’re charming.  Our little innocent climbs up the waterspout to “peek-a-boo!” (the Changeling says) from the top.  His mother is knitting a web behind the window to the side.  The rain unfolds downward, showing clouds above, each face on each rain drop individual in character, and then the itsy bits spider truly cascades out of the spout on the next page.  It’s almost dramatic in feeling, and the setting is, again, vivid in detail and texture.

I can’t say that the book has made me like the song, but it has made singing it with the Changeling much more pleasurable.  Of course, she has to sing the whole song for each page (Dear God: please let her learn to sing it verse by verse with each page speedily in our days, Amen.), but at least there’s plenty to look at and a world to learn as we slowly leaf through.  Compared to the lackluster dramatizations on YouTube, the genuine drama of learning a small creature’s life, world, and story is charming and almost exciting.

I still don’t like spiders, itsy bitsy or otherwise, and I’d still rather hear the Changeling sing almost anything else (well, maybe not “The Wheels on the Bus”), but I consider this little spider a buddy, and he has nothing to fear from Deborah Spider-Slayer.

A Bird Is a Bird

Dear Reader, do you ever get the feeling that you couldn’t recognize a hint from the universe even if it sent all the birds of the worlds to crap it straight onto your head?

First thing this morning the Changeling reminded me of my promise to take her to the museum today: “To see the snowy owl!”  I wrangled her into her clothes (the owl dress) and tried to think about a book to write about when we got back home.  After the museum (she begged for a sheet of bird stickers at the shop) we met her daddy for a snack at the lab: “And I saw the cardinal and the puffins and Great! Blue! Heron!  It eats fish!”   (And what was I going to write about?)  As an extra treat, the Changeling and I went to paint pottery!  She wanted to paint an owl.  (But what to write about?)  At home from our packed day, we had a nice supper, then story and bedtime.  The Changeling wanted A Bird Is a Bird, and as we snuggled before bed she listed all the birds she’d seen that day: owls, cardinals, tanagers, buntings (she asked me to sing “Bye, baby bunting”), herons, pelicans, puffins…

I left her room, slumped in a chair, and my husband rubbed my shoulder.  “I just can’t settle on a book to write about today, for some reason,” I complained.  “Write about A Bird Is a Bird,” he said promptly.


A Bird Is a Bird.jpg

Birds have really become part of the fabric of our days, and have been for so long at this point that it’s small wonder I didn’t really think of A Bird Is a Bird, text and illustrations by Lizzy Rockwell, in the same way that I don’t often think about my dearly beloved bathtub. Let’s see: I knew this was a book as essential to the Changeling as The Joy of Cooking is to my kitchen from the first moment the Changeling jubilantly snatched it straight from the hands of our brilliant children’s librarian (God bless all children’s librarians) who was saying, “Oh, if she likes birds…”   It just fit.  I’d bought our own copy before the book was due back to the library.  That was nearly a year ago (the Changeling wasn’t yet two years old), and it’s been rare that a week has gone by since then when we haven’t read this book at least once.

The same question comes to mind with this one as with Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds: is this a natural history book, and, if so, what makes this different from all other natural history books?  In this case, the clear answer is, yes, it’s a natural history book.  It doesn’t have a fictional narrative arc; its purpose is evidently to educate the young reader about birds; it’s plain, straightforward natural history.  There’s no whimsy here, not even a hint of the fantastic.  What distinguishes it from others is the more interesting question.

In this case, I think it’s a rather subtle point: the sheer, quiet pleasure the book takes in talking to you.  This book could have been written for my Changeling.  She’s a quiet, passionate sort, and takes her interests very seriously.  A Bird Is a Bird loves birds, and really, really wants to tell you about them in a careful, logical and very precise way.  The Changeling likewise loves birds, and sits (wriggles?) as a disciple to receive the book’s teachings.  We start with a general framework (“A bird may be tall.  A bird may be small.” p.5.), and build to more specific points: birds have beaks, wings, and start out in eggs.  But then what about the platypus, or flies, or snakes?  What is it that’s truly specific to birds?  Feathers!  (Bounce! goes the disciple.)  As I said, there’s no fictional narrative arc to carry you through this book, but the arc is there, nonetheless, and it builds slowly and steadily to its logical climax: Feathers!  It’s remarkably clear, satisfying, and, the word I keep coming back to, precise.  This is a book which will teach you that delightful feeling of satisfaction in fact-based research.  If you like building blocks of discovery, and think it can be beautiful, this is the book for you and your child.

The logic and precision are exactly why this book has lasted so well: even a year ago, the Changeling was able to keep up with the limited prose, and the exquisite, clear illustrations (Audubon, eat your heart out!).  These past few months she’s been able to see the link between the birds she sees at the museum and the birds she sees in the book.  In fact, she associates the two so strongly that she asked why they didn’t have A Bird Is a Bird at the gift shop (excellent question, oh Harvard Museum of Natural History!).  I expect that in another year, if she remains interested in birds, she’ll be able to pick up on some more complex details, perhaps the differences between males and females, since she was already pretty excited to see “Mr. and Mrs. Mallard” in here.  I don’t see this being a book for a particularly limited range of ages.  The publisher recommends it for ages 3-7.  Well, as we’ve seen you can go younger (we started reading it at 18 months, for the record).  I’m no expert at the older range there, but I’d say 7 sounds about the upper limit I’d expect.  (Caveat: I’m terrible at thinking about age limits for books.  Maybe I’ll write more about that another time.)

There’s one more thing I want to emphasize here: I’ve come back a few times to dwelling on how lovely this book is, and how serious it is.  I’ve seen a number of natural history books out there for children which either have illustrations which could belong in Nature, Science, Cell, or Scientific American.  They’re, well, scientific.  Often they’re photographs or photo-realism.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course– it’s science!  The books are often excellent and the illustrations suit them perfectly.  But I can’t say they speak to me, and the Changeling doesn’t seem to find them so stimulating either.  Others, often pitched towards younger children, have cartoon-like pictures.  They’re also fine, even if they aren’t particularly precise.  They can be very cute.  They don’t do much for me, either, and none have had staying power with the Changeling.  This one, though, is simply beautiful.  The illustrations are lovely, accurate, and take the reader seriously.  The reader, here represented by the Changeling, responds by taking the book and the subject seriously.  I plead, falling on my knees, for more children’s science or natural science books to take both the subject and the audience seriously, and to try to convey the natural beauty of the topic with both sensitivity and accuracy.  In short: why the hell can’t more science books be pretty to look at, dammit?

Madlenka’s Dog

I’ve known ever since I started writing here that I really, really wanted to talk about Peter Sís.  The only question was where to start?  Which book?  I pulled them all off the shelf and pondered the feast before me.  Ice Cream Summer makes me giddy just to look at it, and that’s the latest, too, so it has that going for it.  Starry Messenger was one of the early ones, the art is extraordinary, and it’s positively inspirational.  I think the first one of his I saw was The Pilot and the Little Prince, and that remains a favourite.  I finally picked up the most battered, though: the one which has been hugged, read by every person in this house over and over, which has dried tears and elicited giggles out of the depths of sadness and exhaustion (both the toddler’s and the adults’!), which has been lost and found more times than I can count, and gotten tangled in bedclothes bedtime after bedtime.  In other words, this book has gotten accolades higher than the Pulitzer, Booker, Newbery, Caldecott, and Nobel Prize for Literature combined: Madlenka’s Dog, written and illustrated by Peter Sís, has won love.

Madlenka's Dog.jpg

The Changeling and I found this book at our natural home in Boston, the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline.  It turns out that the owner is friendly with Peter Sís (he did all the lovely artwork for their website, and for a poster for the store), and she definitely shared her excitement about his work with us: almost all of our Sís books have come from there. I’m pretty sure this is one of the books which the Changeling had to carry with her out of the store, into the car, and hold the whole way home.  I don’t mind: it means she’s less likely to get carsick.  (Odd, isn’t it?  If I read in the car: beware, beware!  If she has a book, it’s all clear.  Maybe it’s because she can’t read yet?)  Please forgive that ever so slightly tasteless digression; the point is that Madlenka’s Dog was instantly engrossing.

What’s interesting is that, in many ways, this is the simplest of books: a girl named Madlenka wants a dog.  That’s it, really.  So what makes it so engrossing?

Well, for one thing, whether or not you specifically want a dog (maybe you want a cat, or a particularly beautiful book, or your own house, or just someone to love…) who among us doesn’t want something?  Maybe, speaking to adults who shuffle their feet and mumble, “It’s not so bad, really, I mean, I’d like a dog one day, but I can cope,” a better word to use is “longing.”  I’m sure there’s something you long for– and so does Madlenka, and so does your child, if you have one.  This isn’t What Pet Should I Get? (not meant critically– the Changeling enjoys that book, too), which is about the excitement of choosing an animal.  No, this is an exploration of the universal longing for that one thing you love deep in your gut.

Let’s start with that word “universal.”  Both my husband I were particularly hooked by the opening to this book: “In the universe, on a planet…”  That’s right: this book about a girl who wants a dog starts by a little meditation on the cosmos.  (Honestly, that’s the only reason I feel justified in plunging into the serious analytics here; Peter Sís totally started it, dude, OK?)  Before bringing us specifically to the girl named Madlenka, we start with the most general of the general.  Even when we do meet Madlenka, she takes us on a walk around her block inspiring everyone she meets to remember their own childhood dog.  Once she meets her friend, Cleopatra, who has a similar longing for a horse, they plunge into a dreamworld with their imaginary pets, until called back to reality: “Madlenka! Come home…”  And all of the dogs of her walk’s dreaming go with her.  In short: while Madlenka is our emotional link here, she’s really a window onto the whole universe’s love and longing.  I smile, even laugh, when I read this with the Changeling, but I never put it down without feeling a little wistful: “It’s true, I really do love…”  And then I give my Changeling an extra-big hug while she says, “And I think I want a cat first, and then we’ll have a dog.  Do you want a bird?”  “Yes,” I say, “but I love you best.”

I think you’ve gotten the general impression of the Changeling’s review already, but how does she engage with Madlenka’s Dog?  I mean, apart from dragging it off the shelf, “reading” it to the cat, and pulling it up onto my lap?  Well, she knows it at least half by heart, and, when we’re curled up reading it, even if she’s half-asleep she’ll know when it’s time to jump up and open the flaps to find the dogs.  As she opens the flaps she’ll tell stories about the dogs, and name them.  (They’re all named Remy, except for the black and white one who “looks sort of like Penny,” our cat.)  She asks all about the huge two-page spread pictures showing Madlenka and Cleopatra playing together: “Are they in Egypt?  Are those the sca-rab bee-tuls?  Scarab beetles, yes!  And let’s find the rabbits on the next page…”  But the part that always makes my heart throb a little is the softening in her voice at the last page when she sees Madlenka at the door and says: “Look, all the dogs came with her…”

This is a beautiful book, and I’ve stopped trying to protect it too much.  The Changeling is generally gentle with books, but toddler-love still leaves its marks, and maybe one day we’ll need a second copy.  I don’t mind.  I think Madlenka would be flattered that the Changeling, and her parents, share her dreams.


Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds

I’m a Canadian girl, born and bred, and by “bred” I mean “brought up reading all the classics of Canadian children’s literature.”  After a few years living in the USA, I know perfectly well that when I tell Americans that I get a fixed, frozen smile while my polite interlocutor rapidly shuffles through the bookshelves of memory while thinking, “Crap, what did I miss?”  Let me save you the pain of that moment: Phoebe Gilman’s Something from Nothing definitely made it south of the border, and so did Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever (give me a second, even typing the title brings tears to my eyes), so you may have heard of those.  Both authors wrote lots of other fantastic books which aren’t so common here, and maybe I’ll write about them and all the other great ones (like Dennis Lee, ooh, and Borrowed Black) another time.  The problem is, lots of Canadian books really just don’t make it south of that irritating border.  That’s why I was totally thrilled when, on two separate occasions, I got home with books I’d grabbed from prominent, face-out displays at the Harvard Book Store, opened them up, and saw they came from Kids Can Press!  Good on you, Kids Can Press, for getting your excellent books down here where I can buy them.  Let us scatter our writings across the world: bread, circuses, and good books for everyone!

Let’s talk about one of those books: Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, text and illustrations by Marianne Dubuc; translated by Yvette Ghione.  This book is simply charming.  Let me start by complimenting the translator: I had no idea I was reading a translation until I finished the book, flipped to see who had published it, and read: “English translation by Yvette Ghione.”  Please keep translating, Yvette, OK?  You make me want to read the French just to see if it can be as smooth and sometimes witty as your translation.

Mr. Postmouse's Rounds.jpg

But what makes this book stand out for me as a book?  Well, the story is about a mouse who takes the post to all the other animals around and then brings the last package home and it turns out it’s a gift for his son, Milo.  (Yes, a narrow, logical-minded reader might ask why he carried the package around with him all day instead of hiding it under the bed or something, but let’s not be that way, OK?  Maybe he just forgot he had it at the bottom of his cart.  Shut up and read the story.)  It’s a simple, straightforward story, and Marianne Dubuc uses it in an ingenious way: she takes the reader along with her to learn about various animal homes.  Let’s look at a rabbit burrow, or a snake’s house, or a squirrel’s nest, or various birds’ nests!

Well, that’s cute, but don’t we have nature books to do that?  There are all kinds of great Eyewitness books, or A Bird Is a Bird, or any number of others, right?  Well, that’s what I love about this one: it’s not a nature book.  It never forgets that it’s a whimsical, charming work of fiction.  The rabbits have a nice house above ground with a rooftop garden… and then a ladder leading down to various burrows beneath the ground, including a cute and clever lavatory.  It’s a sensible lavatory: you get a chance to look at rabbit poop.  It’s a nonsensical lavatory: do rabbits normally sit on a toilet reading the newspaper?  The birds each have their own rather fantastical nests, including the thieving magpie’s den with a “WANTED” poster on the tree.  In short, each page has a nugget or two of natural sciences if you want that (Mr. Postmouse is thrilled he doesn’t have to go to Mr. Snake’s house, his natural predator), but happily plunges into the absurd, too (Mr. Postmouse stops for lunch with his friend Mr. Dragon).  And yet the whole work has the same kind of natural logic that you find in Richard Scarry’s books: it makes sense in its own world, and is rich, full, and textured.

Mr. Postmouse has another special meaning to me: this is the first book the Changeling chose entirely for herself.  She spotted it on the display, made a beeline for it, grabbed it down, begged me to read it to her, and instantly said, “This is the book I want to take home with me.”  (Of course I said yes.  I mean, I’m writing about it right now, aren’t I?  And, oh all right, my heart melted within me.  I’m only a book-loving mama, I’m not made of stone, y’know.)  So, that’s the heart of the Changeling’s review here: it grabbed her immediately.  From what she tells me about it, I’d say she loves the richness of detail in the illustrations as much as I do: “And there’s a bird!  And the bird has a swing!  It’s a yellow bird.  And there’s apples!  Is that a tree and an umbrella?  The umbrella is beside the tree.”

Each page is full of things to explore, so let me warn you: this isn’t a quick book to read.  This is a book for cuddles, and giggles, and a leisurely chat as you go from animal house to animal house.  Let Mr. Postmouse show you around, and check out each bit of sense and nonsense as you go.

And Kids Can Press?  Please keep doing what you’re doing, and maybe pass on a few tips to Nimbus and the others up there.