This is Sadie

“What are you doing?” I ask her.

“I’m catching a cloud,” she replies.

“What are you going to do with the cloud?” I ask.

“I’m going to give one to you and one to Daddy.”

This is my Changeling.  And I know she’s not alone.

How do I know that she’s not alone?  Well, first of all, I’ve read excerpts from my own baby book, although I have to say that I wasn’t nearly as poetic as my daughter is.  I’ve also met other children.  But most of all I know she’s not alone because of a beautiful book which made its way into my heart almost as soon as I read it: This is Sadie, by Sara O’Leary and illustrated in gouache, watercolour, and pencil crayon by Julie Morstad.  Like so many books I love, I found this one at The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline.  I found this one, though, through my husband, who handed it to me with the words, “This is from Tundra Books and I think you’ll like it…”  By that point I’d already seen the cover illustration and I liked it.  You know that saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”?  I have found many lovely books by their covers alone, and this is one of them.  Take a look.

This is Sadie.jpg

To get back to our topic here, though, how do children develop the imaginations that surprise us so much?  How do they catch clouds and walk with the moon to the yarn store?  (If you know me, it’s about as surprising to you that the yarn store features in the Changeling’s imaginative play as that water is wet.)  Frankly, I have no idea how imagination develops; that’s a huge area of research which is ongoing and which I find practically impenetrable.  What’s more to the point here is that children are imaginative beings, and that it’s really worth it for us to treat that development with love and with respect.  This is Sadie shows us accurately how a child’s imagination works, and shows it not with amusement or condescension, but with warmth, admiration, and respect.  That’s why I love it so much, and that’s why I wholeheartedly recommend it here.

The story is of a girl named Sadie.  Sadie starts out the book in a box, but it only looks like a box– it’s actually “an enormous boat, crossing a wide, wide sea.”  Sailing in it, she’s “looking for land.  Only she’s not looking too hard.”  By the time she’s finished sailing all the way around her room, it’s still early in the day, not even time for breakfast.  So she has plenty of time for all of her other adventures, spent both with the friends who live on her street and the friends who live in her books.  What kinds of adventures does Sadie have?  She goes under the sea as a mermaid, she’s a boy raised by wolves, she goes to Wonderland, she’s a hero in fairy tales, she’s a bird in a tree (of course she has wings, you know).  Sadie’s imagination fills all her days to the bursting point, but although she loves her imaginative games, most of all she “likes stories, because you can make them from nothing at all.”

Do you remember when we talked about Leo: A Ghost Story?  If you liked the sound of that book, you’ll love this one.  You could see Leo as the specific story, and This is Sadie as the background.  Jane from Leo and Sadie could have been best friends, is what I’m saying here.  Whereas Leo tells the story of how an imaginative child looks from the outside, This is Sadie tells the story from her perspective.  Jane in Leo lives in a world with a mother who doesn’t think imaginary friends are worthwhile; Sadie stands alone in her story and flings herself into her games wholeheartedly.  Both books take imagination and imaginative play seriously, and both have great respect for children who blur the line between the real and the imaginary.  I can’t even tell you how thrilled I am to find more and more picture books which draw out imaginative play without patronizing it.

But what really distinguishes Sadie, what makes me say that she shows me that the Changeling isn’t alone?  I think it comes back to what I said about the story being told from Sadie’s perspective.  In it, you see how very completely her imagination imbues her whole life.  She gets up before breakfast and plays at sailing around her room in a ship, yes, but she also dives fully into the stories she reads: she’s a boy raised by wolves and she journeys into Wonderland.  (I love those moments because they remind me of how deeply I dived into the books I read when I was growing up… and, yes, I still do.)  Sadie grows wings to take her wherever she wants to go, but they always bring her home again.  Sadie’s imagination is gloriously free, but we get to see the specific places it takes her, and where it takes her is almost anywhere.  We go with Sadie, rather than expecting her to come to us.

One of the wonderful things about these imaginative journeys is that they cross age barriers: how old is Sadie?  I’m not sure.  She’s young, but she knows Alice in Wonderland, which suggests that she’s old enough to read chapter books.  And yet playing at having wings is one of the earliest pieces of imaginative play I remember from my Changeling– that and rocking her plushies to sleep.  The Changeling identifies with Sadie now, but I can imagine her continuing to identify with Sadie for years to come as she starts to read stories on her own.  And I look forward to reading it and talking about it with the Changeling for many years to come.

Sadie, in other words, shows us just how far and how deep the imagination can run, and how much it can add to our everyday lives.  She shows us that if you can imagine the little things– flying and boats and stories– that you can imagine the big things– mercy and compassion and what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes– and that’s how human beings make progress.  That’s why I try to treat the Changeling’s imagination with respect, and that’s why I’m so thrilled to find books which back us up.

Now it’s time for us all to pause for a moment– pause and imagine a story.  As Sadie tells us, you can make one from nothing at all.

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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.

Grandma and the Pirates

It’s Patriots’ Day here in Massachusetts, so, patriotic Canadian that I am, I’m going to give you another book by one of my favourite Canadian authors, Phoebe Gilman: Grandma and the Pirates.

Grandma and the Pirates

Dear God.  I know I say this for every single Phoebe Gilman book, but this might really be my favourite.  The Balloon Tree speaks to me through its aesthetic, that fourteenth-century richness of line and detail and colour.  The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs has a totally kick-ass protagonist who jumps in headfirst and figures out details later.  Grandma and the Pirates speaks to me through its story, and particularly through the cleverness of Melissa, who wins the day.  But you might be asking yourselves why Phoebe Gilman merits a third post here– I’ve already written about The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs and The Balloon Tree, after all.  These are all by the same author, so what’s so new or different about this one?  Why bother?

I forgive you for asking the question.  After all, people probably asked Homer’s reviewer back in the day: “People already know about The Iliad, dude!  If they liked it, they’ll go for his Odyssey, too.  Why bother?”  Here’s the thing, though: these books are out of print, mostly.  I admit to having a sort of missionary spirit about them.  I am a Phoebe Gilman evangelist.  If I can do my small part to keep anyone thinking about these wonderful books, I will be satisfied.  As for this one, what sets it apart is its audacity and cleverness: let’s be audacious and write about as many of Phoebe Gilman’s books as we want, even if there’s someone with a furrowed brow or rolling eyes asking why.  Let’s prove them wrong.  This book is totally worth talking about.

From its opening line, this book is teasing and daring: “It was because of her wonderful noodle pudding that Grandma met the pirates.”  What can we glean from this line?  Noodle pudding and pirates.  Have you ever seen such a juxtaposition of opposites?  Dante, eat your heart out!  But that balance is at the heart of the book.  While Grandma is cooking a noodle pudding for Oliver, the parrot, Melissa is out in the field picking buttercups and daisies.  What an idyll!  Grandma wears a white cap with a pink bow.  Melissa wears a buttercup-yellow dress with dainty white frills at the cuffs.  There are roses clambering around the cottage window.  It’s all lovely and calm and clean and you hardly notice the pirate ship in the bay near the house…

But they smell the noodles and row ashore to get them: “Yo, ho!  Yum, yum!  We smell noodles!  We want some.  Yo, ho!  Yum, yum!  Look out noodles, here we come!”  And they enjoy the noodles so much that…

Pirate Sack.jpg

I grabbed that page for you because to me it gets across so much of what makes Phoebe Gilman a genius.  Which is to say that it’s one of my favourite pages and I love it.  Notice again the juxtaposition of the heimlich and the unheimlich: cozy comfort food, and theft; the warmest and safest things in life, and the coldest and darkest; home, and being torn from home.  But you hardly think about that black sack gaping in the corner while you’re bouncing along with the delicious rhymes and pictures.  I remember staring at that page for ages, parsing the pictures, when I was a child.  And now the Changeling does the same thing, so I get to experience it all over again through her eyes.  Yes, it makes me choke up a little.

But her grandmother’s cries at being kidnapped alert Melissa, who doesn’t quite make it in time.  She waits quietly until dark to go after the pirates, and this is our first sign of Melissa’s cleverness: “They’ll be eating all day,” she said to herself. “I’ll wait until dark.  It will be safer to rescue Grandma and Oliver then.”  Remember: this is the girl who was out in a field picking buttercups and daisies.  Now she’s chasing pirates, but not like some idiot hero swinging his sword and running headlong into traps: she waits, she watches, she deduces, she thinks.  And so she waits and swims out to the ship by the light of the moon.  Unfortunately the pirates wake up as she attempts to rescue her family, and she’s kidnapped, too.  Over and over again she comes up with clever plans to escape– lowering a boat as the pirates count treasure, hiding in treasure chests, etc.  But they’re caught and kept.  Meanwhile, she learns to sail the ship, and that’s where she gets her brightest idea: she makes a fake treasure map and acts distraught when the pirates steal it from her.  And, as they head off on a wild goose chase, she and her grandmother and Oliver the parrot make off with the ship.

There’s nothing quite so satisfying to me as reading about cleverness in children’s books, especially a clever female protagonist.  Princess Leora is clever in The Balloon Tree, but what wins her the day is her courage.  I love courage, and Melissa is definitely brave enough and to spare, but meeting a clever girl in a book is always a delight.  Melissa isn’t just clever, though: she learns and develops throughout the book until she’s smarter than everyone around her.  Here, let me show you the page where she comes up with her plan:

Plan.jpg

Melissa isn’t the same girl who picked buttercups and daises in a field any longer.  She’s always been brave– dropping her flowers and running to the rescue isn’t the act of a coward.  She’s always been smart– she waited until dark to put her rescue plan to work.  But she’s watched and learned here and turned her lessons on their head: she knows the ship, she knows the pirates, and now she’s going to use that knowledge to excellent effect.  In other words, she’s learned something from and of the pirates.  They aren’t the brightest bulbs in the box, and she knows this, but she also knows their brute stupidity is hard to outwit by normal plans.  Play into their games, though, and you can move them where they need to be for you to make your own plans.

She’s a smart cookie, that Melissa, and that bold intellect is what sets this book apart.  So see if you can find a copy to suit you at that Abebooks link above, and set out to sea with Melissa.  See if you come back the same person you went away, or whether you’ll never again be able to pick buttercups and daisies without scanning the horizon for a ship with a black sail…

The Nutcracker

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

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

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

Nutcracker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Winnie

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

Finding Winnie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borrowed Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Balloon Tree

We’ve talked about Phoebe Gilman before, haven’t we?  We talked about how I loved that she inspired us to do, to jump in and try things out.  Well, one of the best proofs of that I can think of is Phoebe Gilman’s first book, The Balloon Tree.  Already an artist, Phoebe made up a story for her daughter one day, and they liked it so much she wrote it down and illustrated it.  She persisted in the face of multiple rejections, and all of her wonderful books are the result.  She tells the story of how the book came to be in more detail here, along with some other fun tidbits.

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In addition to being a truly wonderful book in its own right, and unfairly good for a first book, The Balloon Tree has particular resonance for me as the book where I finally found the aesthetic which has stayed with me my whole life.  Look at these two pictures.  This is from the book (apologies for the cellphone shot in bad lighting):

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And this is from my ketubah, Jewish marriage certificate, commissioned from the marvellous Laya Crust:

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No influence whatsoever, nope!  And if you see any resemblance to Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry then you’re completely… accurate.

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If you accuse me of just filling this blog post with images I want to stare at for hours, you’re also accurate.  But it’s a funny thing: I had no idea about the Très Riches Heures or of medieval art or of anything to do with art when I was a kid first reading this book with my mother.  And yet, here I am studying 14th- and 15th-century poetry, works from the period (more or less) which would have inspired Phoebe Gilman.  If I wanted, I could probably blame my life’s work so far on her.  I’m responsible for the unfinished dissertation, though.

Now, let’s think a little more about this 14th- or 15th-century influence.  (And, no, I don’t think I’m taking this too seriously.  I’m a freaking academic, people!  Academics never think they’re taking things too seriously.  That’s how we ended up with Middlemarch.)  Excuse my alter-ego; she gets a little worked up.  The point is that there’s the aesthetic from the illustrations and the story itself, and I think it’s fun to look at how they line up.

The story goes like this: Princess Leora, who loves balloons, lives with her father, the king, in a lovely castle in a small, happy kingdom.  Happy, except for her uncle, the grouchy Archduke, whose appearance was drawn from Jan van Eyck’s portrait of Arnolfini:

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When Leora’s father leaves for a tournament in a neighbouring kingdom, he leaves the Archduke in charge, with Leora to help him.  In case of any problems, he tells Leora to release a bunch of balloons from the tower and he’ll see them and come home.  The Archduke imprisons Leora in her chamber and orders all balloons to be popped, but she escapes to the Wizard and has him tell her how to solve the problem: she has to find one whole balloon before the moon fades and plant it in the courtyard while speaking a magic verse.  She does, and the tree starts bearing balloons as the sun rises, thus summoning her father and saving the kingdom.

It’s a charming story, but with echoes of much, much older, darker stories.  I’m warning you again: I’m an academic, and there’s no help for it.  I could talk about how heart-warming the story is.  How brave Leora is, and how great it is to have a strong girl winning the day.  I could talk about how we all love balloons (except for my husband and father) and how fun the balloons are in this book.  And that’s all true.  But I’ve been waiting for years to think about whether the pictures are an overlay on a modern story, or whether there are older resonances to match the pictures, and I think there are.

Let’s start with the imprisonment in the chamber: how common is that?  Very common. If you want the 14th C illustration to go with it, look up Charles d’Orléans as pictured in a manuscript of his own poetry (BL Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73).  If you want a more apt historical comparison, there were fears in England in the 12th century that Prince John would steal the kingdom while Richard Coeur de Lion was imprisoned overseas.  Queen Eleanor, their mother, was kept under house arrest for years.  In my own area of study, Wales, imprisonment of family members was commonplace in family struggles over territory. Usurpation and imprisonment were occupational hazards of being nobility or royalty.

Thus, miraculous escapes from tyrannical rulers become a common aspect of folklore.  There’s the story of Richard’s escape, of course, and then think about the story of King Arthur having all babies slain in an attempt to get rid of the baby who was to be his own downfall, his son Mordred.  We’ve even got a Merlin equivalent in our story!  It’s a gruesome story, and comparing killing babies to the attempt to pop all the balloons seems tasteless, but, well, it came to mind, I’m afraid.  Of course, the Arthur story is just a free retelling of the Massacre of Innocents, which itself has strong overtones of the Egyptians killing all baby boys in Exodus.  These stories always go farther back, somehow.

My point being that I think there are, if you’re willing to way overextend things, hints of historical undertones– even overtones!– to the story as well as the art.  But it’s a fun book, not a serious or scary one.  And that, too, spans both the art and the story, and that’s where we come to the balloons and the kick-ass Leora, and the kids helping kids to save the day.  Any royalty from the 14th century would have killed to have Leora on their side.  No, really, they would have killed, so maybe step back a little.  And get a weapon.  They would probably castrate your husband or send your wife to a convent, too.  They weren’t nice; they wanted to win.  Point being, someone with Leora’s courage and persistence is like the answer to those old historical problem stories’ prayers, and let’s not forget the friends who help her: the Wizard and the little boy in the cottage who sweetly gives up his last balloon to Leora.  It’s a historical story turned into a modern fairy tale with a kick-ass female child heroine saving the day.  And her daddy the king wears glasses, and she has cute bedroom slippers.

Are those just cute details and wish-fulfillment, though?  I don’t think so.  I think this is a story with roots, I really do.  Artistic roots, historical story roots: they give the story depth.  But the real depth is in how they’re used, and that comes from Phoebe Gilman’s own brain and own brush.  The generosity, persistence, and strength of Leora and her father are much more important than the fear the old noble families of Europe lived with.  They provide motivation for Leora to show her mettle, that’s all.  And the beauty?  That’s important, but rubber ducks in a warm family environment are more cuddly, in the end.  Both matter.  Both are important.  But let’s not underestimate the sweetness in the illustrations of the king hugging Leora: after all, the real motivation in the story is family love, and Leora shows us that’s worth preserving.

But the balloons are worth preserving, too.  Kids?  Go get your parents to blow up some balloons.  I’ll get one for my Changeling.

Red is Best

It’s cold and rainy and grey today in Cambridge.  I’d hope it’s warmer where you are, except that I know this rain is good for my garden, and maybe your garden needs rain, too.  But nothing apart from my garden wants rain.  I know I don’t.  I look outside and run to put on the kettle, wrap up in covers, and my eyes drowse over.  I want soup and oatmeal and homemade bread, but I don’t want to leave my little cocoon.  So I do the reading equivalent of oatmeal and fresh bread: childhood favourites.  There are so many of them: Matthew and the Midnight Tow TruckFreight Train, and, of course, today’s book for us, one which is quoted almost daily in our house… Red is Best, by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Robin Baird Lewis.

Red is Best

This is a Canadian classic, and one which is fortuitously available (although not widely known) in the USA.  I link you to Barnes and Noble, for example.  I’d say that this unwonted availability is because the book is so damned good, but that would be insulting to reams of other damned good books.  That said, the book truly is wonderful.  Why?  Well, this morning my daughter was painting– here, want to see her work of artistic genius?

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Isn’t it beautiful?  It’s a peacock for her daddy because she loves him.  (I’m not bragging, why do you say I’m bragging?)  But what I want to point out is that the base is red.  Her first paint choice was red, “Because red is best!”  This didn’t deter her from giving purple and brown their due after the red foundation was completed, naturally, since each of them is her “best of colours” in addition to red, green, blue, and yellow, but red paint had her chanting and dancing and painting.  It got her excited.

Why is this?  Well, first of all, red’s a pretty excellent colour.  Red is bright and glowing and dramatic and beautiful.  I’m a big fan of red.  Red is fire and flowers and hearts and jewels.  Red is dangerous and rich and lovely and warm.  I consider it inherently beautiful and harder to screw up than yellow, for example, which can be a very strong colour in the right hands, or a pasty, weak one in the wrong hands.  Who wants a pasty, weak colour on a day like today?  On a grey day you want warm red alpaca mittens, or red flannel pyjamas, or a snuggly red sweater.  Red warms you up.  So, yes, I may be somewhat predisposed in both the colour and the book’s favour.  That said, green is my best of colours (my snuggly sweaters are green, being honest, not red), so I refuse to own to complete prejudice here.

The real charm in the colour for the Changeling probably comes from the book as much as from the colour itself, however.  I do think red lends itself to the book, that without the brightness and warmth of a perfect, primary colour red the book would have a different character altogether, but the book defines something other than the value of a colour: it legitimizes a child’s preferences.  And, since it says it’s OK to love red best, the Changeling loves both book and colour: they tell her it’s OK to love something best of all.

Wait, I just realized you may not have read the book yet.  My poor reader, why didn’t you tell me earlier?  I forget that some people struggled through deprivation, not having memorized Red is Best at an early age.  Let me tell you all about it, and you can be part of the cool kids’ club.  There’s a girl, Kelly, who loves red.  Her mother doesn’t get it.  Over and over again her mother tries to get Kelly to wear her blue coat because it’s warmer, her white stockings because they match her dress, or paint with orange because there’s not much red left.  Kelly patiently explains that she needs the red ones for many reasons: she can be Red Riding Hood in her red jacket; she jumps higher in her red stockings; and her red paint puts singing in her head.  Whatever the situation, Kelly always has an answer why she needs red, but it’s all summed up in the final declaration, the declaration which is echoed in our house almost daily: “I like red, because red is best.”

I hear you, Kelly.  Even though red isn’t my “best of colours,” I get it, I really do.  In fact, I think we all get it.  I think we’ve all had moments when we loved something so wholly and completely that it didn’t matter if the mittens had holes or the boots weren’t right for the weather or if we’d already poured juice in the other cup.  We wanted those mittens, that pair of boots, or this cup right here.  For adults, I think we sometimes deny ourselves what we want (or argue with our children that they can’t wear the same underwear three days in a row) because we’re very sensible now.  For Kelly, she has the absolute clarity of a three-year-old.  Red is best.  That means the red mittens are best, and why would I wear anything else?

As I don’t need to tell you, it is very, very difficult to argue with a three-year-old’s logic.  This isn’t because they aren’t logical enough; it’s because they’re so absolutely logical.  Why would you wear second-best if first-best is right here?  The question is practically unanswerable.  The adult response is usually to try to prove that the first-best isn’t really so much the best after all.  This doesn’t often go very well.  The child knows what’s best: “I like red, because red is best.”  (What does work for me, all you parents out there, is to explain that the first-best needs a time out for some reason: needs to take a bath so it’s ready for tomorrow, or needs a nap, or whatever I can devise.  The Changeling knows what’s best; that’s unarguable.  But sometimes best needs a break, and she can understand that.  Our daily parenting tip is now finished.  You’re welcome!)

The charm of this book is that it’s reassuring to both parents and child: it validates the child’s views, while sympathizing with the unseen parent’s frustrations.  We’ve all been there: “Why do you need to wear your rain boots?  It’s sunny and warm!  Why do you need to eat only cheese?  We have plenty of other food!”  Oh, we’ve all been there, all of us, whether as parents or as children.  But how often does a kid get told that it’s OK?  Usually they hear amusement or frustration, and parents, even if we deep-down kind of sympathize, feel faced with obstinacy or tears, and we worry about being judged if we do let the kid out in rain boots when it’s too snowy or too sunny.  (I’m totally writing from personal experience right now, yes.)

It’s glorious to be shown reality in a case like this.  Just shown it, no judgment calls at all.  Looking it in the face, I say: “Yes, I’ve been there.  Both as the child and the parent.  And, you know what?  It’s OK.  It’s OK to say yes to the kid.  If need be, it’s OK to say no.  And it’s OK for each of us to feel frustrated.  And it’s OK to laugh.  And it’s OK.  We’re not alone.”

I like this book, because it warms me when I’m cold.  And today I’m going to read it to myself, because I love this book best right now.  And that’s OK!

Giant: or Waiting for the Thursday Boat

This is a very Canadian one.  It’s Canadian in so many ways because it’s written by Bob Munsch and illustrated by Gilles Tibo and the story is about Ireland, the original homeland of so many Canadians, or ancestors of Canadians today.  That’s why I’m writing about it here today, on St. Patrick’s Day.  I want to give a little bow to the day, and so, to do honour to the saint, I’m writing about the giant who fought with him and the child who gently mediated between them, as told in a book you’re going to have a hard time tracking down: Giant: or Waiting for the Thursday Boat.  (That’s an AbeBooks link for you– the easiest place to find this book.)

Giant

This is a perfect St. Patrick’s Day story: it’s not preachy or silly and there’s no bloody huge shamrocks anywhere in sight.  Instead, it’s a story about knowing who you are, understanding others, and getting along with each other.  St. Patrick isn’t perfect in this story– except that he’s a perfect saint.  The giant, McKeon, isn’t perfect, either– except that he’s a perfect giant.  And, in the story, they have to learn this, about themselves and each other, and, once they do, they can be reconciled.

But what is the story?  I’ll give you an overview since it’s so hard to find, and St. Patrick’s Day is the perfect day for storytelling, anyway, as I think Synge would agree.

McKeon, the giant, has gotten angry for the first time in his life.  St. Patrick has been throwing the snakes, elves, and other giants out of Ireland, and they were McKeon’s friends.  McKeon decides to confront St. Patrick, and off he goes.  St. Patrick puts up church bells, and McKeon tears them down, until one day all the church bells are gone and St. Patrick warns McKeon that God is angry and will be coming on the Thursday boat.  So McKeon goes to wait for the boat.  First, a little fishing boat with a little girl in it comes in.  McKeon asks the girl if she’s seen God, because he wants to pound Him into applesauce.

“I’ve never seen God pounded into applesauce,” said the little girl. “I think I’ll stay and watch,” and she sat down beside McKeon.

Well, I think you know who she is, don’t you?  But McKeon doesn’t.  So, then three other boats come in succession: each bears a man richer and more powerful than the last, but none are God.  McKeon is disappointed, but the little girl tells him,

“Mr. McKeon, […] it looks like God is not going to fight.  You’re the world’s best giant and even God would have to agree with that.  Why don’t you stop pounding people and go back to being friendly?”

Well, McKeon agrees, since he never liked being angry, anyway.

The next day the little girl tells him that St. Patrick has gone to heaven and is throwing out all the giants and elves and snakes and filling the place up with church bells.  McKeon picks up the little girl and jumps into heaven.  He lands right beside St. Patrick and starts throwing out church bells.  St. Patrick is upset, and starts running up to the biggest, fanciest houses he can find in heaven, looking for God.  McKeon points out that the smallest house has an angel out front, and suggests they go there to complain about each other.  They go in, and find– you guessed it, right?  Yes, the little girl, sitting with all the elves, giants, and snakes.  And then:

She looked at them and said, “Saints are for hanging up church bells and giants are for tearing them down.  That’s just the way it is.  Why don’t you two try getting along?”

And they all agree to that.

It’s a great story.  More importantly, the emphasis is on the story itself, and on its characters, not on messages or Irishness or anything else which would distract from the greatness of the story.  This book has all the qualities of the best novels without in any fashion compromising its accessibility to children.  Most striking is its subtlety.  It never goes into any religious issues, but they’re there: “I’m just doing what God wants,” St. Patrick tells McKeon– ooh, boy, big can of worms!  It never says that the little girl is God, but it’s pretty clear she is: I remember being so proud of myself for recognizing that when I was little.  It never says whether McKeon or St. Patrick is right— and we never do know.  They both are.  Neither is.  And that open question is the whole point: we don’t always have to know what’s right, but we should try to get along despite our differences (remember when I said this was a really Canadian book?).

That’s big stuff to hand to a child.  But, as I said, the book is accessible.  Bob Munsch’s writing is at its best here: open and clever and honest.  You can see that from the quotes I embedded above.  But what really helps with this book’s tone and accessibility is the art.  Gilles Tibo, who used airbrush painting and coloured pencils in this book, is a genius at his work.  He combines precision and subtlety in equal measure here, echoing the story perfectly.  The lines of his work have vigour and precision– look at McKeon’s jaw in the cover above, or at the rugged line of the tree trunk.  But the misty background, or the nubbly texture of the characters’ clothing, or the light-and-dark play of the apple leaves, all show a certain relaxation of rules: when is this book taking place? what is the law here? what is religion here? what is right here?  The art echoes the story, again without preaching: by showing, not telling.  And it does it all with engaging colours and figures and apples and fish, so that even my toddler knows and loves the pictures.

I was so happy to find a copy of this book so I could read it with my Changeling on St. Patrick’s Day, but on reading it again I found myself thinking that I should read it more often with her.  It’s fun, it’s engaging, but it’s also smart and beautiful and has good things to say.  And, frankly?  I enjoyed reading it as an adult.  So, child or not, maybe try to get your hands on this one, if you can.

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.)