This Is Not a Valentine

I promised you all a Valentine’s Day post, and here it is. Even if I have to keep it brief.

Dear friends, I love you all so much that I’m going to tell you about a perfectly delicious new book, This Is Not a Valentine, by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins.

This Is Not a Valentine.jpgWhen I first saw the title, my mind shot back to one of the Changeling’s most enduring favourites, This Is Not a Picture Book!but for another Sergio Ruzzier book you’ll have to wait until April. (I can’t wait!) No, this is very different from Sergio Ruzzier, but they have one thing in common: this book is sweet and adorable without being saccharine or fluffy. It has a lot of substance and a lot of gentle wit.

First, a note about the illustrations, which are done in brush marker, gouache, graphite, pencil crayons, crayon, ink, and charcoal. If that sounds complicated, I’m guessing it was, but Lucy Ruth Cummins makes it look simple and childlike, without ever getting to “childish,” and she never lets the page get overwhelming. In fact, if her art reminds me of anyone’s, it’s of Christian Robinson’s: there’s the same “child” feel with a special flair that will delight the adult reader, too. I hope that’s a comparison that would give both artists pleasure; both of their work is stellar.

As for the text, well, I’ll try to give you a flavour of the book: it is not a Valentine… unless a Valentine communicates dedication, loyalty, and affection, in which case it absolutely is. It lacks glitter and lace and sticky candies– but it does have a ring won “in some machine at a grocery store” which “matches your best shoelaces,” a grubby bunch of dandelions, and a paper airplane thrown from the back of the line to the beloved at the front of the line. Most striking of all, of course, is the superhero cloak given from the lover to the beloved because “red is pretty good for superheroes, and you are my favorite one.” (Whereat my husband, hearing me read this aloud, interjected with an “awww!” It was a very sweet moment, indeed.)

You get the point. There aren’t any chocolates or phials of perfume and there’s a distinct lack of glitter or lace. But there’s love in every line of the book and in every illustration. Shy love, open love, direct love– and what it all comes down to is sharing. True love, our narrator instinctively knows, isn’t based on what fits in with the heart-shaped picture of Valentine’s Day we’re taught in kindergarten. No, love is expressed by sharing what we love, and what we expect our beloved (whether we’re talking about a beloved parent, child, sibling, or friend) to love. A sacrifice shows love. Thinking really hard about what our beloved would want shows love. A red superhero cape which the beloved will wear in every subsequent illustration shows love.

And that’s really a message worth sharing, whether with your child, friend, partner, parent, or whoever else is in your life. And that’s why I wanted to share this book with you. Because, dear and darling reader, I bet that if you’re reading this, you like picture books, and so I probably like you, too, and I want to share my joy with you. That is, after all, why I write this blog. Because I want to share bookish joy with you. So I’m just going to say thank you for being here, thank you for reading, and (a few days early) happy Valentine’s Day to you!

(And while you’re here, looking for Valentine’s Day books, I’ll also remind you of Lucky Lazlo, which I wrote about last year, and which is absolutely delightful.)

So, happy Valentine’s Day, and happy reading! And if you know of any particularly good Valentine’s Day books, share them in the comments below!

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I Am a Cat

Hello, old friend! Long time, no see. Well, here’s the thing: I did too much travelling (as you saw in my last post), so I had to make up the work time somehow. But does that mean I’m no longer reading new children’s books? I’ll give you a hint: the Changeling is still four and a half years old, and my personality hasn’t changed– I’m still attracted to anything shiny and new with words and pages involved.

Case in point: yesterday I had a doctor’s appointment in Brookline, and my little cousin will be celebrating his third birthday very soon, so I took the occasion to visit my favourite purveyor of fine children’s literature to get him a present. And a few other things, while I was at it. And since I’ve met the day’s word count, I feel free to tell you about it.

This book, I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein (her debut– and congratulations are due for such a strong first book!), is among the “few other things,” and I’m now slightly regretting that I didn’t get a copy of it for my little cousin as well as the one I got for the Changeling; he has a cat and I’m sure would enjoy it as much as he would the other two books I got him (an Alfie book and a book by the power duo Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett), so, well, I may be finding him a copy, too. (Don’t give me that look– my husband’s already tried it out on me and it doesn’t work. I am who I am, and I like to think that I am a Curator of Books.)

In any case, right now I’m sitting at my favourite working café, staring off vaguely into space and trying to figure out who wouldn’t enjoy this book. Well, there’s my father, I suppose: he’s allergic to cats both physically and spiritually. He can just barely endure mine, because they’re quiet and, frankly, afraid of people; they know he’s not a friend and never try to engage with him. But if it’s a cat, or has to do with cats, my father is generally opposed.

But I wonder if even he would smile over the cuteness that is I Am a Cat.

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Look at Simon on the cover there (Simon is the little grey kitty)! Isn’t he a sweetheart? Who could resist that face? Not even my father could deny his cuteness, this I believe.

But that’s not the question this book asks: it doesn’t care whether or not we find Simon cute, but whether or not he’s accepted into the cat clan with all of the other cats around him: Lion, Cheetah, Tiger, Puma, and Panther.

The story is simple: Simon is a cat, and declares himself to be so. The surrounding big felines respond with laughter, and then explain: Lion has a mane and is king of the beasts– that’s why he’s a cat. Panther is jet black and sleeps in trees– that’s why he’s a cat. And so on for all of the wildcats. But Simon is confused: each characteristic described is highly individual, he points out. What do they have in common that renders them cats? The animals respond: flat noses and long tails, sharp claws and eyes that can see in the dark. If that’s the case, Simon posits delicately, then, as he shares in those commonalities, he should be one of the family, too. The wildcats are briefly surprised, but then welcome him with open paws and they play and fall asleep together in a heap.

It really is a simple, straightforward book: the topic of belonging, a subject which is so frequently heartrending in MG, YA, and, frankly, in adult fiction, is tackled in a strong, direct, and self-confident tone here which keeps it fresh and original. After all, isn’t Tess of the D’Urbervilles about belonging to a clan (as I think I mentioned in my post about Quackers)? This book is just as effective an appeal to inclusiveness as Tess is, and by extension, and by its own lights, a strong indictment of gate-keeping. And yet, direct as the story is, its argument comes across without fanfare.

And, in fact, message aside, what I love in it– apart from Galia Bernstein’s lovely art, which is adorable without being cartoonish– is Simon’s personality. Partly this really is down to the art, which conveys the animals’ expressions with great economy of line, but it’s also in the straightforwardness of the text. Simon asks the obvious question: if each of you can have unique qualities and yet be part of the same family, why can’t I? And he makes this irrefutable argument directly and without any self-consciousness or seeming to feel humiliated by the big cats’ laughter. I cheered internally as he stood up for himself so politely and yet so strongly.

Simon is my new role-model. He doesn’t give a damn about whether others think he’s too short and chubby to be fast as a cheetah. He knows he’s not supposed to be a cheetah, so why should he be like a cheetah? He’s a cat. He doesn’t worry about what any of the others think of his distinctive qualities; he knows he’s a cat, and he will challenge the self-appointed authorities of catness on that point.

And yet, although I’ve teased out this message, I want to emphasize this point: this all comes across without any preaching. The surface story has you so wrapped up in Simon’s encounters from cat to cat that you’re just cheering him on; it’s only after the book was over that I started to think, “Hey, if Simon could face up to the other cats, well, why can’t I…?”

So, I want to encourage all of us to be like Simon: be straightforward, be direct, and state the truth. Who are you, really, and what or who is holding you back?

Also, it’s worth reiterating: this really is simply an adorable book.

And now I’ve got more work to do today. But watch out for a little something on February 14…

Stanotte… ha nevicato!

You know, I’m just going to admit to something: I’ve been grouchy lately. I have been balancing Things I Want To Do with Things I Don’t Want To Do, and, I repeat, it’s been making me grouchy. Some of it’s been just the usual: I don’t know many people who eagerly anticipate unpacking suitcases, for example. It’s just not a chore that gets people super excited, in my experience. But lots of people enjoy the travel which precedes that annoying task.

I hereby confess to the fact that I was extremely grouchy about the travel I undertook this winter. I take full responsibility for said travel: No one bought the ticket and dragged me to the airplane against my will. I sighed, bought the ticket, and got on the plane all of my own free will; I was just grouchy about it the whole time. Kudos go to my husband for putting up with a travel partner who said, “But I don’t have time for this!” at least a hundred times.

I was just that charming a companion.

That said, once we reached Rome (our destination), I took a deep breath, said to myself and my husband, “If I’m here, I may as well enjoy it,” and we sketched out a plan. The plan was to take it easy, see the city, get some work done, and bring back a shitload of paper. I think we did a good job of tackling all of the above. (We… got some paper, yes.) (From three different stores, including Il Papiro and Fabriano.) (We take paper seriously in my family.)

One other thing we did was to visit a children’s store which was half books, half toys, and entirely charming. And while we were there, I saw a book carefully wrapped in plastic, and my heart started to beat a little faster.

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Stanotte… ha nevicato! by Steffie Brocoli (originally published in French as Il a neigé ce matin!)

I snapped it up in a hot second and brought it carefully home with us, where I’ve been showing it to everyone I think will be remotely interested. And either people have learned to humour me, or else it really does make people sit up and take notice. As they turn the pages, they murmur to themselves, “Would you look at that? Oh, that’s charming! It’s so restrained. Look at that use of colour!”

And I get it, because I had very similar responses myself. What I don’t know how to do is to convey to you just how captivating this book is, and my hesitation is due to one particular challenge: the entire aesthetic of the book is predicated on texture, not colour. Further, it’s basically wordless. So everything depends on textured white paper, and white textured paper is really hard to get across on a computer screen. Normally if I want you to admire an illustration, I grab my phone take a (generally fairly crappy) picture, and post it here for you to admire. How can I do that for embossed white paper? But it’s my moral duty to share beautiful children’s books with you, so here we are.

The way the book works is like this:

You open it up, and see tiny footprints embedded in the page, leading to a little textured leaf. Then you lift the leaf and– ah! beneath it is a bright, colourful bird. You flip the page. There are three coloured flowers and another set of footprints leading to a bush, and behind the bush– a hedgehog! And so it goes. Each page sets up a little puzzle, the very simplest of puzzles, and a bright surprise behind a flap. It’s ingenious, charming, and uplifting.

Stanotte hedgehog (2)

(I stole this picture from Steffie Brocoli’s excellent website because it’s a much better quality picture than I was able to get!)

The question, I think, is: Uplifting? Why uplifting? And I don’t have a deep answer for you because it’s all very simple. We’re turning pages through a white, quiet world, and in that white, quiet world we find the occasional surprise of bright, cheery colour, all jewel tones shining through the snow. That feels exciting. It feels good. It feels like when you’re trudging along being grouchy– and suddenly you discover a beautiful book and everything feels worthwhile again.

So, I just wanted to share that simple joy with you. Usually I post links for places to buy books I share with you, but I bought this one in a tiny shop in Rome. If you’re really intrigued and want a copy of your own, here’s the French publisher and here’s the Italian. Good luck! (I agree with your private thought right now that it’s worth tracking down a copy of your own. Go for it.)

Best of 2017

I’ve been quite the absentee blogger this past while, and I apologize for that.  Frankly, things have just been a bit heavy and work has been intense (good! but intense, yes).  December, however, is upon us and I didn’t want to leave 2017 behind without a bit of a chat.

It’s been a strange year!  Difficult in terms of how the world goes, but really astonishingly good in terms of children’s books.  I mean, stupendously good.  And from what I’ve seen and heard, 2018 is going to be at least as good.  There are so many talented authors, illustrators, and editors at work that it really warms my heart.  Whatever else is going on right now, there are good people at work, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

I want to highlight that good work with a little look at some of the best books of 2017.  I was going to do a “Best Three Books” but I was struggling to narrow it down to three, so I’ll be doing a “Best Five” because that was as low as I was willing to go.

Here we go:

Karl, Get Out of the Garden! Karl Get Out of the GardenThis was one of the earliest books I fell in love with this year, and I continue to love it.  It’s exactly the kind of book Charlesbridge does best, and it’s one of the reasons I love them so much.  It’s offbeat, eye-opening, and educational without being didactic.  It tells the story of Karl, the boy who wants to spend all his time in the garden and ends up doing exactly that– and naming the plants therein for posterity!  I love how it rearranges the way you think about gardens and science so that the next time you see a lilac bush, for example, you’ll catch yourself thinking, “I wonder what Linnaeus would call it?”  It’s clever and beautiful, and, in true Charlesbridge fashion, as interesting to the adult reader as the child, but without ever forgetting that its primary audience is the child.

Town Is by the Sea

Town Is by the SeaTown Is by the Sea is the first of the Canadian books on this list, but it won’t be the last.  It’s the story of a boy in Cape Breton, and his life by the sea as his father works in the coal mines.  I remember rhapsodizing in my original post about the blurring of light and dark in the story (the light of the sun sparkling on the sea, the darkness of the mines).  The illustrations emphasize that quality in the text to perfection.  I remember, too, thinking that it was too young for my four-year-old Changeling.  That’s true, too; it’s geared towards an older audience.  And the Changeling loves it despite that.  And I love it.  I love that we love it together, each on our own level.

How to Make Friends with a Ghost

How to Make Friends with a Ghost

OK, here’s another Canadian one, from Tundra this time.  If you know me, you’ve probably heard me complain about the lack of good new Hallowe’en stories.  I remember a ton of old ones from my childhood, but I didn’t see new ones in stores.  This one is new, original, witty and sweet at the same time.  It’s a guide to being friends with a ghost throughout one’s life and beyond– and the lessons in here work just as well for living friends as for friends whose lives may be in the past tense.  It’s just a tiny bit gross and a teensy bit spooky, but my Changeling, who is currently hyper-sensitive to being scared, loves it, so I don’t think it could be called scary.  And we enjoyed reading it even past Hallowe’en!

The Glass Town Game

The Glass Town Game

The disadvantage of a novel over picture books is that it takes actual time to read and reread them.  One of the sorrows of my life at present is that I don’t have time to reread The Glass Town Game.  It’s so rich, so densely packed with history and literary and artistic allusions that I’m dying to read it again, really thoroughly, and unpack all of the hints that Cat Valente has woven into the text.  The story is of the Brontë children and the games they played, but virtually all of the 19th C seems to make its way into the book in some fashion or other.  And it does so without ever disrupting the fact that the story belongs to the children and the games they played.  It’s genius.  You should read it, and reread it, if possible.

Shelter

Shelter

Dear readers, this last one (another Canadian one– hello, Kids Can Press!) is going on my list of books to give to almost everyone.  It’s a story about seeking and sharing shelter, about selfishness and generosity, about loving one’s neighbour as oneself.  It’s warm and touching without ever being saccharine or denying the cruel realism that not everyone will be generous.  When the big bear tells the little bear that maybe the cold hillside will be more welcoming than the animal homes where they’ve been denied shelter– well, my heart twisted in my chest a little.  It’s a wonderful conversation starter with a child.  My Changeling noticed that the animals who said they didn’t have food to share actually did have plenty of food according to the illustration, and so we had a chat about lying and sharing.  In short, it’s both beautiful as a story and literature and a good way to start some difficult conversations with children.  It’s a keeper.

And so ends this little review of some of the best books in 2017!  It is by no means exhaustive, but these are the ones which sprang to my mind when I sat down to write.  What are some of your favourite books from this past year?  Did you discover anything new?

Winners!

First of all, a big thank you to everyone who participated in this giveaway.  Your warm and thoughtful comments about ending walls and promoting generosity and kindness were positively inspiring.

I have emailed the three lucky winners and will be putting the packages in the mail next week.

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Thank you again, and who knows?  Maybe I’ll post an actual book review here next week!  That would be nice, wouldn’t it?  Meanwhile, happy Friday, happy weekend, and happy reading!

 

Fight the Wall Giveaway Reminder!

Hi, everyone!  This is just a reminder that my Fight the Wall Giveaway is currently ongoing.  You can drop your name in the hat either by commenting on the giveaway post or by emailing me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com before Friday, December 1, 2017 at noon.  I will email the winners shortly after that time.  In the meantime, check out the original post, submit your name, and wait to see how fate decides the outcome!

As always, feel free to share the post around with anyone who has kids you think would enjoy one of these excellent books.

Fight the Wall Giveaway

Today I posted about Peter Sís’s incredible book, The Wall.  In my post, you may have noted that I was concerned about Walls of all kinds, and that I objected to Walls impinging on our freedom.  So, I thought, what can we do about it?  Well, I answered myself, we can read with our children.  So I want to have a giveaway here (it’s been a long time since we last had a giveaway!) to promote fighting those Walls and teach our children to reach out to each other instead of sequestering ourselves.

I’m going to give you, my dear readers, three books, each of which teaches something valuable to our children.  The rules are simple:

  1. Post in the comments saying you want to be entered, or email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com.
  2. I will choose the winners by a random number generator and, if you win, I’ll email you to arrange getting the book to you.
  3. All books will be coming directly from me, Deborah.  I have no sponsors for this.  It’s just me and you!
  4. If you DO NOT WANT one of the books (for whatever reason), tell me, and I’ll exclude you from the draw for that book.  Otherwise, everyone will be considered for each book– 1 book per person, though, so if you win once, I’ll exclude you from the draw for the next book.
  5. Everyone is eligible.  Anywhere in the world.  No Walls!
  6. Deadline is Friday, December 1st at noon.

What do I want from you?  Your promise that you’ll read the book with a child.  Any questions?  Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com.  Share widely!  Send this post to your friends, family, whoever!  Let’s spread good books and knock down Walls.

Now, here are the books:

1) To promote diversity: I, Too, Am Americaby Langston Hughes, illustrated by Bryan Collier.

2) To promote generosity among strangers: Shelter, by Céline Claire, illustrated by Qin Leng.

3) To knock down Walls: The Wall, by Peter Sís.

The Wall.jpg

All right, that’s it!  Email me or comment below, and I’ll look forward to choosing the winner on December 1!

 

The Wall

There are a number of things you all know about me by now.  You know I’m a little crazy about children’s books, obviously.  You’ve probably figured out that I’m a bleeding-heart Canadian liberal, and I’ll tell you for free that I’m also easy to bring to tears with any sad book (ask my mother about when I first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles).  And you know that I’m a huge, huge fan of Peter Sís: Ice Cream Summer and Madlenka’s Dog.  All of that comes into play in this post about Peter Sís’s wonderful book The Wall.

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Folks, this book was amazing.  Just plain amazing.  It did the best thing a book can do for me: it opened my mind and my heart, and, when I finished reading, I realized just how little I knew, and how much I felt.  If you thought you knew something about the USSR or about growing up under an oppressive regime, stop right there (unless, you know, you really did grow up under an oppressive regime) and take the time to read this book.  I guarantee that you’ll have learned something new by the end of it.

First of all, I want you to understand that this book was published in 2007.  Usually I write about either classics or, most frequently, about really new books, but I wanted to tell you about this one for two reasons: a) I just read it a few days ago, and, as I said, it had a profound effect on me, and b) it seems uncannily resonant right now, in the current political climate in the USA.

But what is the book?  Well, it’s half memoirs, half history lesson, and, together, the two halves form a seething yet incredibly lucid ball of ideas and ideals.  What do I mean?  The memoirs and history are easy to show.  The ideas and ideals emanate in a more nuanced fashion, but we’ll get there.  Let’s start with an overview of what Peter Sís says, and then we’ll go back and talk about how he says it.

Peter Sís starts with himself as a child, an ordinary child who loves to draw.  And then we go into a multi-panel explanation of the world he lives in.  Here, I’ll show you a crappy phone picture of what it looks like.  The actual book looks a thousand times better:

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I’ll draw your attention to a few things: Note that your eyes are first drawn to the big red star on the upper right and to the baby pictures in the middle of the left page (or at least that was my experience).  The baby looks so normal and happy, and the main text on the bottom of the pages is likewise normal development.  And the splashes of red have no context yet.  Then you read the annotations and notice the framing pictures: invasions, militia, and oppression become clear.  Turn the page, and, gradually, the semblance of normalcy deteriorates as well: “He drew shapes,” as you see above, becomes “He drew tanks. He drew wars.”  It’s heart-wrenching, especially as you read in an annotation, “Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students.  Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves.”  The illustrations remain grey with splashes of red, deceptively simple, but the text grows steadily grimmer.

You might think that it would be tough to read a whole book like that, but Peter Sís is way ahead of you:

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In case you weren’t getting the message already, this page bursts out of the book, with a real sense of emergency.  And the ensuing page is radically different, defining the image you’ve just seen.  He moves from the grey and red panels to a set of snippets, all dated, from his journals.  1954: “We’re supporting world peace by not eating meat on Thursdays.”  September 1963: “My school visited the Mausoleum to view the embalmed body of the first working-class Communist President of Czechoslovakia, Comrade Klement Gottwald.  It was scary.”

As we continue the story, things begin to change– more colour creeps in through the grey and red as more news from outside creeps in through the Iron Curtain: “Slowly he started to question.  He painted what he wanted to– in secret.”  And then comes the Prague Spring of 1968, and, with it, the seemingly endless possibilities of art, travel, music… the Beatles.  Peter Sís tells us of travelling Europe, of growing his hair, of starting a rock band.

And then it’s all over.  “Russian tanks were everywhere.”  I watched the returning oppression with a breaking heart: was it worse than having never tasted freedom?  But Peter Sís doesn’t let you think that, not for long.  We witness his debate: should he continue to draw, as his drawings could be used against him, or else: “But he had to draw.  Sharing the dreams gave him hope.”  And, we find, he wasn’t alone.  The colour continues to suffuse the grey panels as ordinary citizens paint a wall– the soldiers erase their art– and the citizens repaint it– again and again.

And so it goes: June 1977, “Rumors, rumors, rumors.  Everyone suspects everyone else of being an informer.  Can we hope things are ever going to get better?”  A series of pictures follow depicting the greyness of despair, and the colour of hope.

And, of course, things do get better, eventually: “On November 9, 1989, the wall fell.”

I’m barely ashamed to tell you that, when I turned the page and saw those words, saw the image accompanying them– my eyes teared up a little.  I’m not Czech.  I have no connection to Peter Sís’s world or childhood.  But I was so caught up in wanting to see the young Peter Sís break free of oppression and gain the right to draw what he wanted that at that sign of freedom I was truly emotional.  (Also: see above re: bleeding-heart Canadian liberal who’s easy to bring to tears.)

I’ve already gone on at length about what the book contains, and you’ve seen the cross between memoirs and history as we talked about the contents.  But I promised you could also see a roiling mass of ideas and ideals.  I think those have already come through pretty clearly, as well, but just to pin them down: if you care at all about freedom, particularly creative freedom (art, music, writing) then you’ll respond immediately to young Peter Sís’s frustrations growing up under an oppressive regime.  The Wall he talks about isn’t just the physical Wall or even the ideological Wall of the Iron Curtain: it’s a Wall in people’s minds, banning ideas, thoughts, desires– and, by implication, forcing people to sequester those thoughts in a different part of the brain, to try to kill them.  But people and ideas are strong, resilient, and, at the first sign of light, the ideas germinate and begin to grow.

This book has been haunting me for days.  We may not be talking about building a physical Wall just this second (although it’s never far from the current political discourse), but we’re seeing a lot of Walls these days, and they worry me: Walls between the rich and poor, men and women, and, what I increasingly fear, Walls in our discourse between truths and untruths.  This is not an easy time.  Frankly, it’s a really hard time.  It’s hard to keep working.  But this book teaches us to keep on working, keep on dreaming, and to never, ever stop fighting against Walls.  (I’m going to link you to it again: The Wall.)

Shelter

The first thing I have to explain is that I love Wednesdays.  Wednesday is “ballet day” at my house: I pick up my daughter from Pre-K a little early, take her to ballet, she has class for 45 minutes (which allows me to get a cup of tea or relax for a bit), and then we have a nice walk home during which she usually shows me all of her ballet moves.  I love it, the Changeling loves it, and all is well with the world.

Usually I go to a café during her class and write some letters to friends (45 minutes is a bit too short for real work, so I catch up on correspondence instead), but today I had another job.  I went to the Harvard Book Store to pick up a present for a friend, and since I was there I decided to spend the time perusing the picture book shelves for any books I might have missed.  I did it slowly, publisher by publisher (Chronicle Books, Candlewick, Charlesbridge, Kids Can Press…) browsing for books I had missed, or else for books I’d heard of but never looked through (guys– Princess and the Peas from Charlesbridge is as great as I’d expected).  45 minutes sped by quickly, let me tell you!

The whole time I had a feeling there was a book I wanted.  You see, I’ve been busy, busy, busy lately, and bold colours and animated text weren’t what I wanted.  Don’t get me wrong: I love super active books like Who Done It? and This Is Not a Picture Book!, but today I needed something to slow down and think a little.  And I found Shelter, by Céline Claire and Qin Leng, from Kids Can Press.  I want to start out by saying kudos for the production values of this book: everything about it is beautiful, from the leaves on the endpapers to the spot art showing a ladybug sheltered under a leaf.  I love a pretty book, and this was appealing from the moment I picked it up: my busy feeling slipped away and I relaxed.  Just look at this cover!  (And, well, I always feel a patriotic glow when I see Kids Can doing well on this side of the border.)

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So what is the book about?  It starts off with a general view of the animal world, watching different creatures waking up in the morning, and then focusing in on them as they prepare for an oncoming storm: we see the individual animal families gathering wood and food and generally making preparations.  Then we meet one of our main characters: ‘”What if others are still outside?” Little Fox asks.’  Two figures emerge from the frost as he speaks, and these two strangers go from house to house, seeking shelter from the storm.  They ask for warmth at one house, food at another, and light at a third.  Each time they’re turned away with a lame excuse, even from the Foxes’ door.  Little Fox, however, runs after the strangers, who turn out to be Big Brother and Little Brother Bear,  with a lantern, concerned about them.

When the snow becomes heavy, the Foxes’ den collapses and they become the family without shelter, barred from their own home.  I could be coy here, but I won’t be: Little Fox sees a light in the distance: the lantern he gave to the strangers!  The strangers had built a shelter and share it with the Fox family.  It may not be the most luxurious home, but when we share with each other, the implication goes, it’s amazing how even a small act of generosity can make all the difference.

It was exactly what I was looking for– gentle, heartwarming, and not preachy in the least.  Much as I loved the story and the message of the book, though, I want to draw your attention to something I truly love to see done well: the interaction between the art and the text.

A note about the art style, first: it is so dreamy yet precise and vivid, with a deceptively simple use of line, that it reminds me of Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books.  Qin Leng works with what might be my very favourite combination of media: pen and ink and watercolour.  That combination is absolutely perfect for this gentle story.

The effect of the art might be dreamy, but that doesn’t make it passive.  In fact, the art plays a singularly active role in the storytelling.  It is easy to see that there must have been considerable close collaboration between all parties working on this story as the work was underway, because, honestly, if the text were removed from the page (or if you’re a four-year-old who can’t quite read yet, in the Changeling’s case), the illustrations still tell you quite a lot of the story, and even fill you in on details that aren’t explicit in the text.  I can’t quite explain this without illustration, of course, so take a look at this spread (sorry it’s late and I couldn’t get decent light– I think you can see what’s going on, at least, but the illustration is a thousand times better in person):

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You see the strangers at the door, asking for something.  The family is cuddled in front of a roaring fire, the father standing and shouting back at the strangers.  The text informs us that the strangers are seeking warmth, and the father is saying, “Our fire is out.  Try next door.”  As I was reading it with the Changeling, I asked her what she thought, and she pointed out the fire.  The text might not have been legible to her, but she could fill in the gaps perfectly.  On a more subtle level, notice the characters.  The text is so low-key and subtle that they aren’t individually named or introduced, and yet by the genius of its interaction with the art, each character is fully realized.

Why is this important?  I could say, simply, that it makes the book prettier and more interesting, or I could say that it’s just a tour-de-force, an exemplar of the power of collaboration between art and language.  These are all true.  But in this book, the impact is undeniable: the text is gentle and limited and the art carries a lot of the nuance.  What this means is that it’s not up to the text to say that the animals were lying to the strangers when they turned the bears away from their homes.  This is made evident by the illustrations, but the harsh, preachy words, “they lied,” aren’t there.  We see, we understand, but without being jolted out of the world of the book.  I’m not saying that the text is lazy while the art does the work: I’m saying that it’s like weaving, with the text as the warp and the illustrations as the weft.  They’re inseparable, and each thread depends on the others for structural integrity.

Simply put, this is a beautiful book, an ideal of its kind.  It’s also timely, in an unfortunately evergreen sort of way.  Right now, as we debate issues surrounding immigration and refugees on the world stage, this gentle story which unflinchingly discusses the need for shelter, the denial of shelter, and, ultimately, the sharing of shelter, is a perfect introduction to generosity and why it’s needed.  And so, as the holidays creep up, maybe consider getting a few copies for the children in your life and start a conversation or two.