Picture-perfect tales: new Canadian kids’ fare delights the eye and ear

There are around 400 children’s books published every year in Canada, and the editors of Maclean’s recommend several good titles from 1997. They include ‘The Fishing Summer,’ ‘The Enormous Potato,’ ‘Dippers,’ ‘Alligator Baby’ and ‘Circus.’
The qualities that make for a good book are generally the same whether the work is intended for young children, adolescents or adults. Language that instantly grabs readers or gently draws them in, characters that are quietly believable or delightfully outrageous, a plot that subtly poses as many questions as it answers–all those elements are as necessary for a simple picture book as for adult fiction. And, of course, for kids, eye-catching artwork always helps. In Canada, nearly 400 children’s and young-adult books were published this year–a fact being celebrated during Children’s Book Week, Nov. 1 to 8. To mark that event, Maclean’s editors and writers select a few of the noteworthy titles:

The Fishing Summer (Groundwood, $15.95) conjures up a vivid portrait of a time in Atlantic Canada that has now mostly disappeared. In language that is simple but never patronizing, the author recounts how an eight-year-old boy comes of age after stowing away on his uncles’ fishing boat. The warm presence of an extended family runs Eke a heartbeat through the narrative, as the child learns how to bait nets, jig for cod–and what to do after tumbling into the frigid water. The sun-drenched, painterly illustrations, by theatre designer Ange Zhang, capture the action at every turn.

The Enormous Potato (Kids Can Press, $14.95) proves the enormous appeal of daisy-chain repetition to young listeners. The humorous folktale describes how every member of the family–even the tiniest mouse–is needed to dig up the huge vegetable. Dusan Petricic’s cartoonish drawings and watercolors offer comic support to Aubrey Davis’s simple but effective words. A delight to read aloud to young listeners, it also works as a read-it-yourself story for beginners.

Barbara Nichol’s Dippers (Tundra, $17.95) offers the beguiling tale of eight-year-old Margaret’s summer of 1912–the same year that brings an influx of strange furry creatures to Toronto. Shrew-like, with large, leathery wings, they arrive during a heat wave and their appearance coincides with an illness that afflicts Margaret’s younger sister, Louise. Told as a recollection, Margaret’s colloquial voice is so convincing that the fantastical elements of the story blend easily with the everyday ordinariness she evokes. Barry Moser’s haunting illustrations perfectly match the tone of the book, with its quiet celebration of the mysterious and the mundane. A highly original tale for children 8 and up.

The Party (Scholastic, $17.99) marks another coup for award-winning plasticine artist Barbara Reid. Her rhyming rendition of a family picnic in honor of Gran’s 90th birthday gives a knee-high view of a summer’s day that lures both child and parent into its carefree thrall. An under-the-table hideout beneath a spread of devilled eggs, bean salad and green jellied fruit is among the evocative scenes that last right through to the familiar sleepy car ride home. A treat for the four-to-eight-year-old set.

Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko score a hit with Alligator Baby (Scholastic, $12.99), another collaboration in which their take-control kids rescue silly parents from implausible situations–this time a couple who have a baby at the zoo instead of the hospital. “That is not my baby brother,” Kristen quite rightly asserts about an alligator, a seal and a gorilla each wrapped up in a receiving blanket. Loopy illustrations help tickle the toddler’s sense of logic until Kristen cycles home with the real baby.

More inspired silliness comes from Loris Lesynskj’s Ogre Fun (Annick, $5.95), a verse story about a bored boy ogre trying to scare up a little excitement. Lesynski, who both writes, and illustrates her nonsense tales, shows here the same energetic rhythms and comic expressiveness that made her 1996 Boy Soup so popular.

Franklin’s New Friend (Kids Can Press, $12.95, paper $4.95) hits just the right note on the ever-present schoolyard drama of rejection and acceptance. With a bit of prodding, Franklin overcomes his fear of a moose that moves into the neighborhood, and helps his new buddy join his circle of friends. Paulette Bourgeois’s gentle words and Brenda Clark’s bright drawings convince without overpowering, while painlessly exploring prejudice and the shock of new experiences.

Fresh, funny and instructive, Erik the Viking Sheep (Scholastic, $6.99) by Elizabeth Creith is a lighthearted tale about a red Icelandic sheep who nurses his imagination while in quarantine, then bores his humorless Canadian counterparts with Viking stories after he is let loose to join them. First lonely, then a laughingstock, Erik triumphs in the end. Linda Hendry’s fluffy drawings of lambs in Norse helmets add to the story’s charm.

In Jeremiah Learns to Read (Scholastic, $16.99), Jo Ellen Bogart’s timeless prose is complemented by touching oil paintings done by the husband-and-wife team of Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson. That the artists paint side by side on one canvas may have something to do with the warmth and dignity that resides on each page of this role-model classic about a well-loved elderly farmer who joins children in the local schoolhouse when he decides to learn how to read.

The Long Road Home (Tundra, $17.99) is the fourth book by Nicar-aguan artist and immigrant Luis Garay, who depicts his childhood arrival in Canada with a sombre yet vibrant palette. The story of Jose’s disorientation, integration and eventual nostalgia for home after his refugee’s journey from Central America is suitable fare for older children, especially those who live in a big city or may have immigrant history in their own families.

Simon at the Circus (Tundra, $10.99, paper $5.99) is the 10th in this magical preschooler series about a little boy’s mostly imaginary adventures. The books are written and illustrated by Quebecer Gilles Tibo, whose soft-focus watercolors have made him this year’s Canadian nominee for the international Hans Christian Andersen prize and a French-language contender for the Governor General’s Literary Award for his latest Simon effort. Here, the would-be ringmaster overcomes obstacles put up by some unruly barnyard friends as he tries to create a circus.

Deliciously creepy-crawly, Gilbert de la frogponde: A Swamp Story (Whitecap, $17.95) probably Wouldn’t work as bedtime fare–it’s more likely to induce giggling fits than sleep. Newcomer Jennifer Rae’s first book, suitable for kids up to 8, tells the irresistibly silly story of Gilbert, a frog so fat from gorging on insects that he cannot swim. When two gourmet chefs spot his potential as a plat du jour, the fast-talking Gilbert convinces them to try his diet instead: “Centipede Salade’s divine for something fresh and light. But watch out for Mosquito Quiche–I itched and scratched all night!” Rose Cowles’s delirious illustrations complement Rae’s text perfectly.

Little Toby and the Big Hair (Doubleday, $16.95) also wins with whimsy, but this book–a collaboration between mother-daughter team Eugenie and Kim Fernandes, appropriate for children between 3 and 8–goes for a sweeter kind of fantasy. Toby, as depicted in Kim Fernandes’s exuberant sculptures made from modelling clay is a feisty redhead who insists on growing out her hair. So abundant is her red mane that puppies frolic in it, turtles get tangled in it, and, eventually, a Noah’s ark collection of animals have to carry it for her. Toby comicly explores the importance of self-expression.

It is difficult to imagine a more enticing story, or more ravishing illustrations, than those found in Lady Kaguya’s Secret: A Japanese Tale (Annick, $19.95). After discovering the haunting legend of the love between the moon princess and the emperor, artist Jirina Marton travelled to Japan to do further research. The result is an exquisite book, suitable for school-age children, which recounts the tale of a baby who is discovered in a grove of bamboo by an elderly couple, and who grows up to become a woman possessing extraordinary intelligence, beauty –and a secret. Marton’s 35 oil pastels, inspired by traditional Japanese art, are enchanting.

Linda Granfield’s Circus (Groundwood, $19.95) is a superb achievement by an author who specializes in making historical artifacts come alive. Here, aided by illustrations ranging from Roman mosaics to 19th-century handbills, Granfield weaves together the strands that formed the classic circus. She notes the excitement aroused by exotic animals–the sensational arrival of an elephant in Boston in 1797 included the claim that it daily “drank 30 bottles of porter, drawing the corks with its trunk.” Granfield also includes a full airing of the modern controversy over animal acts.

Silent Night: The Song from Heaven (Tundra, $17.99) is classic Granfield again, the third of her excellent contextual presentations of individual literary works. Having previously tackled the story behind the hymn Amazing Grace and John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields, the author now explores one of the world’s best-loved Christmas carols. When a church organ breaks down oil Christmas Eve, 1818, in a small Austrian village, the frustrated parish priest and his organist collaborate on a new song. By evening. they had created Stille Nacht, now translated into more than 100 languages. Exquisite black-and-gold illustrations in scherenschnitt. the cut-paper art popular at the time, by Swiss-Canadians Nelly and Ernst Hofer, perfectly complement the carol’s stark beauty.

Beauty–lush, color-saturated Cezanne-like beauty–is the most striking quality of Fern Hill (Red Deer College, $17.95). Alberta painter Murray Kimber creates a visual lyricism to match Dylin Thomas’s famous poem of lost childhood dreams. While Kimber’s gorgeous brushwork and design sense makes this book a keeper, it seems unlikely that the text will be accessible to most young readers. A present, perhaps, for collectors.

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