River My Friend – Staff Review

In River My Friend, an extraordinary encounter has negative rather than positive effects. Gang-gang, the son of poor fisherfolk, has taken his life on the river for granted until he overhears his parents worrying about money. One day when he accompanies his mother to the market to sell fish, a wealthy woman stops and buys all of their catch; her servant tosses them a silver coin — far more than the fish are worth. Gang-gang becomes obsessed with finding silver coins to end his family’s poverty. He calls on the river for help, and one moonlit night sees the water covered with thousands of silver coins. (One does wonder how a boy who has spent all his life near the river could be so easily fooled by light glittering on water.) Frantically Gang-gang casts his net and draws it in, only to find it empty. His desperate plunge into the water to scoop up the coins in his hands almost leads to tragedy when he is swept downriver. Only as he recovers does Gang-gang realize he must begin to cast his net for fish, not for elusive silver coins. He is then able to appreciate his true relationship with the river, and to take his place as one of the wage-earners of the family. The story’s point that hard work is of greater value than luck is made rather baldly, yet the final solution is satisfying because it comes from Gang-gang himself.

All three illustrators bring a realistic style to stories that hint at the invisible magic of life. Alice Priestley’s colourful illustrations in Roses for Gita focus on Gita and the bright flowers she loves. Priestley’s plants surge with life, breaking through the boundaries of the pictures’ frames just as Gita’s friendship breaks through the boundaries that divide her and Mr. Flinch. Karen Rezuch’s illustrations similarly focus on the abundance of nature, and her fairies — beautiful, glowing children of many ages and races — are realistic enough to be believable. Ken Campbell’s paintings play with a number of intriguing perspectives to suggest much about the connections between Gang-gang and his parents and the river.

river

All three of these stories hint at the special nature of the relationship between humans and the natural world. Nature can be a friend, and can even draw humans closer to each other; but it can also be an implacable foe. River My Friend is the most overt and moralistic in this regard, and is less successful than the others in making its point gracefully.

These picture books all suggest that even ordinary lives can be touched by the extraordinary. Beneath the everyday layer of existence lies a kind of magic waiting to reveal new ways of seeing the world.

 

The Harvest Queen – Our Review

The Harvest Queen incorporates Celtic fairy magic into a story that highlights the closeness between Brigit and her grandmother. The last pumpkin of autumn has been saved for a special purpose: it is to become the head of Carlin, the Harvest Queen. Together Brigit and Grandma build Carlin from sunflower stalks, corn leaves, and other riches of the harvest.

They weave her a necklace of red beets for protection. When Grandma tells Brigit of how the fairies come to dance with Carlin, invisible to all but the one wearing a four-leaf clover, Brigit determines to find the magical leaf. As darkness falls, she sees the fairies dancing with Carlin and is almost caught in their circle. But she pulls Carlin’s skirt around her and claims the Queen’s beet necklace as protection, and the fairies leave her alone. Brigit’s experience may be a dream, but her reactions suggest that it marks a new maturity, and perhaps a new sense of identification with the female power that Carlin so clearly represents.

The tacit approval of her grandmother, and a hinted-at connection with her mother (who has a four-leaf-clover pendant) seals the pact of understanding between the generations. Carlin’s wild dance with the fairies and its revitalizing effect on the garden suggest fertility and abundance and the positive value of being female.

Roses for Gita – Our Review

Each of these recent picture books offers young readers a hint of something extraordinary. Relationships — between generations and between humans and the natural world — are pivotal in all three stories, and shifts in these relationships mark turning points in the characters’ lives. Although supernatural magic is hinted at in one of the books, it is the more ordinary magic of everyday life that proves most potent.

Roses for Gita, a sequel to Lights for Gita, involves a young immigrant girl’s quest to feel at home in her new country. She misses her grandmother Naniji terribly, and wants to plant a garden just like the one Naniji grows in India. Mr. Flinch, the old man next door, seems at first a fierce enemy until Gita hears him playing the violin in his garden and suddenly understands that his bluster hides a more sensitive nature. Gita’s gift of wind chimes seals their friendship, and Mr. Flinch promises to help her plant the First Rose in their new garden. Although this is a simple story, it highlights the magical way in which a simple gesture can transform a hostile neighbour into a friend. There is also a clear sense of the connections Gita discerns between her beloved Naniji and Mr. Flinch, who both share a deep love of gardens. Flowers form a bridge of understanding between Mr. Flinch and Gita, whose grandmother believes that flowers grow better when they are shared with others.

 

Dennis the Dragon vs Turtle Diary vs Follow the Moon

In Russell Hoban’s quietly magnificent book, Turtle Diary (Pan Books, 1975), one of the characters, an author of picture books for children, suffers a crisis of identity. She questions the activity of making books for children at its most basic level, asserting rather courageously that it is a spurious occupation, designed to “[get] the children to agree that [this] is indeed a world”:
Each new generation of children has to be told: “This is a world, this is what one does, one lives like this.” Maybe our constant fear is that a generation of children will come along and say: “This is not a world, this is nothing, there’s no way to live at all.” (100)
She is right, of course. We use books on children, often and often, to socialize them and encourage them to behave in ways we want them to behave (although I don’t believe there is any evidence whatsoever that books make children neat, polite, and civic-minded. Other people do that, or not, as the case may be). We also, more dangerously, need children to shore up and keep relatively intact our large, inchoate assumptions of how the world works, and how it should be, with all our biases, prejudices, and uncertainties thrown in for good measure. So we offer them books and songs and pictures and all the bright baubles of what we call “culture,” keeping our fingers crossed. We need them to be in cahoots with us, and as Russell Hoban (himself a gifted children’s author) knows, there is something suspect about the whole arrangement.

library book

If we accept that books are used in this way, as tools on children, and really theres no avoiding it, then in some deep unalterable way all children’s books are propaganda. This is true at such an instinctive level that we virtually take it for granted. And as it isn’t really an option to do without books altogether, we live with it. But we need to retain an awareness of the dangers of books with an agenda, and to remember that books can be so much more than propaganda, that at their best they open up the imagination rather than fencing it in with rules and prohibitions. Which is when they achieve poetry.

Two books about Dennis the dragon, by Adrian Raeside, illustrate this point. Raeside, a very good political cartoonist, had turned his pen to children’s books, and as one might expect from a cartoonist, whose job is, after all, to make points, these are books with an agenda. Dennis the Dragon may be summed up thus: Don’t Smoke. And Dennis and the Big Clean-Up says: Recycle. Worthy messages both. But when a book can be reduced in this way, when the only point of its existence is to carry a slogan into the world, it is not a good book, worthy messages notwithstanding. Fortunately, children know when they are being “lectured at” as a young friend of mine puts it, and they usually have the wit to ignore it.

Now Raeside is a clever and witty illustrator, and his dragon family is skilfully drawn and often quite funny. But the first book, originally written by Joan Raeside, the author’s mother, is by far the better written of the two: the verse in the second book is often quite lame and clumsy. And even allowing the politically correct subtexts of the books (which some people might be able to do), poor versification really cannot be tolerated in a children’s book. Raeside might, I feel, be a fine illustrator of someone else’s books. Here, however, he even defeats his own messages, for I must confess his smoky, slovenly, but cheerful family struck me as much more appealing characters than the self-righteous Dennis. They might smoke and litter, but hey, they sure seem like fun.

Theoretically, I suppose, the opposite end of the spectrum from books-with-a-noble-message is Nonsense. The whole point of nonsense is that it has no point. It is, well, nonsense. Perhaps this is why it is such a blessed relief. We aren’t supposed to learn anything from it, except, perhaps, something about the playful, giggly side of our language, its potential for fun. Hairs on Bears, by Geraldine Ryan-Lush, is supposed to be nonsense. A single long verse about a shedding dog, with wonderfully manic, almost surrealistic illustrations by Normand Cousineau, it details a problem everyone with a furry pet understands: hair. Nothing wrong with the concept, here, nothing at all. But the execution is weak. Because, yes, there’s nonsense and nonsense. Nonsense is language in a mirror, language reflecting on itself. You can’t ignore the details here, because the details are all there is. So when Ryan-Lush writes “They landed here/ They landed there/ They landed on/ most everywhere” I hear not only the hackneyed rhyme, but the offence against grammar. In fact, this is all I hear. Nonsense can, and indeed should, offend against reason (“‘Will you walk a little faster?’ said the whiting to a snail,/ ‘There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.'”) But it cannot commit solecism without a very good reason because language is all it is. Put limp rhyme and lazy grammar in a nonsense verse and it winks itself out of existence. It was never there at all.

Much better is Sheree Fitch, whose light-hearted rhymes in Toes in My Nose often ring with the laughter of nonsense:
Poor little Billy
Lost the button
From his belly.
Think that sounds
A little silly?
Well, just ask
His sister Shelley.
The book is a collection of light verse, on the small domestic subjects dear to the ears of young children: food, home, and whimsical minute fantasies like “The Wind Witch.” Fitch is not always in top form, sometimes lapsing into clichés and ending her poems weakly or arbitrarily, as if she just can’t think of anything else to say. But she strives against didacticism and has the nonsense poet’s ear for the rich vagaries of sound and sense in words.

My main objection to this book is its design and illustration. Several of the pictures show that Molly Bobak can draw, but too many of these coloured line drawings are simply muddy and inept, and detract considerably from the poems. Likewise, the use of different type faces for each title in the book makes it seem, not lively, but scattered and frantic. The design and illustrations together give the book an ill-conceived and patchy look: it lacks focus, doesn’t hold together with any integrity.

Finally, we have to consider two genuine picture books, where the pictures and the text are not merely indispensable to each other, but come together to form more than the sum of their parts. They both, in very different ways, exemplify what is meant when text and illustration are “well-married.” First is Bill Slavin’s The Cat Came Back, a traditional song about an oblivious and irrepressible feline who simply cannot be got rid of. Slavin’s light-palette watercolours depict the cat as a cousin to Dennis the dragon’s parents, a happy-go-lucky slob, fond of television and junk food. But of course there is the suggestion implicit in the book that persistent cats like this one “know” who belongs to them even before their owners are conscious of the bond. The cats choose. The humans involved simply take a longer or shorter time to realize it. This is a “soft” book, in tone, colour, and atmosphere a happy rollicking rhyme without any dark shadows. Even before the cyclone comes, we are assured no mere act of God could ruffle a hair on this cats tail.

By contrast, Follow the Moon, by Sarah Weeks, is a picture book with an edge. And its dark side, its shadow, gives it immense power. (Some people are like this too.) Follow the Moon is an extraordinary book. My first reaction to it was to read it again, and again, and again. It is a small but exceedingly satisfying tale married to amazingly lovely illustrations, and its effect is rich, vibrant, and moving. The design of the page and the elegant typeface add to its timeless aesthetic appeal. Now the interesting thing is that Follow the Moon, like Dennis the Dragon, might be called a book with a message. Here, in fact explicit in the author’s note, it runs something like this: Don’t interfere with sea-turtles on their way to the sea, or more generally, Be good to wild creatures. But the important distinction is that the message is not the raison d’être of the book. The book is a small story about two individuals, a sea-turtle and a boy who befriends him.

favorite hat

It is told from the turtle’s point of view. The dangers to hatchling sea-turtles are quite real, not simply from humans, but more often from other animal predators, as the illustrations make clear. So the suspense in the story is genuine as well. We feel how very long a journey it is from the nest to the sea. The text is a song, sung by the author in a tape accompanying the book (which is pleasant, but unnecessary. A book has its own integrity and doesnt need accoutrements). The words are not particularly explicit — it might be anyone talking, not just a sea-turtle. But this works in the book’s favour, because it gives Suzanne Duranceau room to work. And what work she does! Her finely-textured illustrations render both boy and turtle unique beings, and are never mawkish or sentimental.

Probably we cannot avoid indoctrinating children with books. Perhaps not all indoctrination is a bad thing. But I still feel uneasy with any book with an agenda separate from literary value and truth to its own structure. The best achievement of Follow the Moon is that its ultimate message speaks on the side of mystery: the world is a much larger place than we think. We understand little of it. It can be wondrous.

Not so dumb – Review

In his Chalmers and Jessie award-winning play, Not So Dumb, Lazarus explores a more insidious kind of collective bullying which children (and indeed adults) face when they differ from the crowd: social ostracism by one’s peers. Two years older but just as spunky, Binnie reappears with her ten-year-old compatriot Rocky in Lazarus’s imaginative exploration of the trials of the learning-disabled child. The dramatist accepted a commission to write the play from the Vancouver Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities when he discovered that his bubbly eight-year-old heroine from Schoolyard Gamesembodied many of the traits of the classic dyslexic. Drawing on his own troubled childhood experiences as the gifted class ‘nerd,’ the playwright created Victor, the earnest, exceptionally bright and lonely classroom day monitor as both a foil and an unlikely kindred spirit for the alienated duo, Binnie and Rocky.

When Binnie and Rocky’s beloved reading teacher, Mrs. Smith, also a one-time ‘L.D.’ (73), fails to show up for their bi-weekly tutorial, the curious youngsters decide to pillage her filing cabinet in search of their own confidential assessments. Hobbled by their dyslexia and dysgraphia however, neither child can decipher her comments. When Victor catches them red-handed, the trio conflict, compare notes on the relative perils of not fitting in, and ultimately co-conspire to read and replace the files. In the process, Lazarus turns the concept of disability on its head, thereby revealing the special gifts inherent in all three children: Rocky’s sharp intelligence, as evidenced by his swift decoding of the colour filing system, and his mechanical deftness in fixing Victor’s tape-recorder; the cryptic wonder of Binnie’s ‘mirror writing’ — a process which baffles Victor when he tries his hand at it; and Victor’s talents as literary interpreter and sleuth. Not So Dumb not only sheds light on the misunderstood world of the exceptional child, but it demonstrates to its young audiences that kinship can blossom in the most unexpected places.

dumb

In Night Light, Lazarus blends social realism with fantasy in his delightful and insightful look at real and imaginary bullies. While ten-year-old Victor grapples by day with Farley, the soccer-ball-wielding, tough-talking schoolyard underachiever, his little sister Tara wrestles at bedtime with a terrifying reptilian, one-eyed monster, who emerges from the shadows of her dresser drawers. Like J.J. in I met a Bully on the Hill, Victor finds himself saddled with Farley’s homework as a means to stave off the bully’s physical onslaughts. Lazarus too lets Farley’s mask slip in order to illuminate what makes him tick: the bully’s worst fear, as Victor and Tara eventually discover, is failing to live up to the high academic standards set by his engineer father. Little Tara’s night visitations are preceded by nightmarish images of ‘needles and threads’ (118): their father has just been admitted to hospital for a routine hernia operation. With some comical empirical testing prompted by a book on children’s fears, both Victor and Tara ultimately befriend their harassers. Armed with new insights into Farley’s motivation, Victor evolves from scapegoat into amicable, if rigorous, tutor. When Tara realizes that her ‘creature’ has feelings too, she takes him under her wing, agrees to draw his portrait, and begins to give him English lessons. Lazarus makes marvellous comic use of dramatic irony in his depiction of the scary monster who just wants to be loved. In Night Light (which also won a Jessie Award), neither Farley nor ‘Goodge’ — as the Green Thumb monster was fondly dubbed — are what they appear to be. ‘Bullies,’ as Lazarus compassionately demonstrates, ‘are more scared than anybody’ (131).

Ostracism, non-conformity and peer pressure are central issues in Secrets, the final play in the Not So Dumb anthology. The playgrounds, teasing, and childhood banter of Lazarus’s earlier pieces are replaced with highschool parties, rumours, and rock music. Binnie, Rocky, Victor, and Susan return to the stage as worldly teenagers grappling with questions of sexuality, honesty, fidelity, and self-esteem. The play chronicles the disintegration of the teenage romance between childhood pals Binnie and Rocky, the unlikely but promising conjunction of Victor and Susan, and a step towards self-understanding for all four.Secrets is arguably the most dramatically complex in Lazarus’s quartet: it uses dovetailed plots, theatrical asides, doubled roles, and, expressionistic masks which serve to differentiate his non-conformist protagonists from the antagonistic, trendy in-crowd who dominate the social scene.

Secrets, as Lazarus’s resonant title suggests, is a play about hidden truths. Masked or not, in this complicated adolescent theatrical realm nobody is quite what he/she seems to be. Against the back-drop of a party at Victor’s house, Victor, Susan, Binnie and Rocky reveal their innermost selves — warts and all — to the audience and eventually to each other. Both Victor and Susan are victims of the teenage rumour-mill: he is presumed to be gay; she has been labelled sexually promiscuous; both are actually virgins. Left to their own devices to talk and dance in Tara’s bedroom, the two discover a genuine mutual attraction. Rocky and Binnie, on the other hand, have been sexually active together for some time. Not ready for monogamous commitment but afraid to hurt Binnie, Rocky has concealed a number of tacit sexual encounters from his doting, self-critical partner. When she finally discovers his infidelities, Binnie musters the necessary confidence to break up the relationship. ‘If we’re gonna learn anything from this god-awful night,’ she confides later to Susan, ‘it’s forget what they say. It’s the look in his eyes’ (201). The first step towards happiness is this confusing adolescent world, Lazarus implies in Secrets, is to look beneath the surface when you choose your friends; the second is to have the courage to make your own decisions. As Susan succinctly puts it at the play’s conclusion, ‘… let the cretins think whatever they want’ (205).

 

The Maestro: A Novel

“Maestro” derives from the Latin magister or master, a teacher of art or more specifically a master composer or conductor. In Tim Wynne-Jones’ award-winning novel, “maestro” refers most obviously to Nathaniel Orlando Gow, the musical genius with the eccentricity of a Glenn Gould. Gow tells young Burl Crow, a boy with the survival instincts of a Huck Finn (and a Pap to boot), to call him Maestro, and when Burl asks if that’s “like a conductor,” he replies: “Oh, more than just a conductor. Master, Teacher” (54). He then teaches Burl to play four cords of “Silence in Heaven,” part of the oratorio he is writing. Master and teacher, Gow teaches Burl and Burl masters the four cords. On the other hand, Gow does not teach Burl to play the piano, nor does Burl master the instrument. Gow is a master of the instrument, and Burl teaches him something about himself. Both conduct themselves badly, but both have composure. Each grows his own way, and neither crows about it. They are tricksters both. They create lives from out of the wilderness of their own souls. And this is what The Maestro is all about: creation. Or more precisely, creation through performance. To perform well, this is the thing devoutly to be wished. And wishing has to do with desire, and desire is perpetual wishing, never satisfied, never closed. The Maestro is like a game, never truly over. Like the Book of Revelation, about which Gow is writing his oratorio, this novel expresses itself in mystery. It thrives on paradox.

I begin by attempting to capture the whirligig effect of the book’s richness. But while this respects the complexity of the writing, it plays unfair with the book’s plot. Wynne-Jones has written a beautiful book that is both many-layered and accessible. It tells the story of Burl Crow, fourteen years old and a “fierce dreamer.” Burl’s life is hard. His father is a braggart who beats his son. His mother loses herself in a fog of pills and alcohol. Burl retreats into his imagination; he stores his inner life with secrets, and desires release from the pain and anxiety of his outer life. Like so many of his fellow characters in Canadian fiction, Burl runs away into the northern woods, into the harsh environment of pines and sumachs and poplars and rocks and cold wilderness lakes. He makes his way to a place named Ghost Lake where he finds an isolated cabin with one inhabitant, the eccentric musical genius, Nathaniel Gow. The two of them forge a rather uneasy and tenuous relationship built upon desire, Burl’s desire to escape an intolerable home life and find a father and Gows desire to find himself. Each imagines he has found what he lacked, but each is mistaken and midway through the book, after a crisis of sorts, Gow decides to return to Toronto, at least for a while.

maestro

Gow’s leaving precipitates the second half of the narrative which recounts Burl’s struggle to stay at the Ghost Lake cabin. Needless to say, the book has its quota of thrills, the most exciting and harrowing of which occur when Burl’s brutal father, Cal, finds his son and disturbs the peace and ghostly stillness of the lake and its cabin. Burl confronts his father and in doing so confronts his demon. The book comes to an assured, if uneasy, ending in which Burl finds a new set of parents, not perhaps the ones he would have wanted, but an acceptable compromise nonetheless.

“Compromise” is a word that conjures our sense of Canada and Canadians, and this is a redolently Canadian book. Its themes of identity, place and the connection between the two are familiar from Canadian literature and art. And this is fine. But the book offers so much more. Its prose is dense and its themes move into challenging areas for young readers. Not the least elusive of these themes is the book’s love affair with story itself. References to romance, to fairytale, to storytelling, and lying abound in the book. As the second part of the book progresses, we see just how a subject is constructed through a combination of happenstance, assumption, craft, desire, and expectation. In short, our subjectivity is a story we construct or others construct for us. In fact, self and other are complicit in this construction of the subject, the self. Both Burl and Gow try to remove themselves from public view, to retreat into selves only they can know, but in doing this they discover that such selves are non-existent. The self is a function of what others see in the self, what others make of the self. We have to forge identities through others. We are public figures whether we want to be or not. Life’s a messy business and all we can do is keep cleaning it up.

 

The Tempest

How does one develop a love of Shakespeare in young children? By reading them the magnificent rendering which author Ann Beneduce and illustrator Gennady Spirin have provided in The Tempest. Ms. Beneduce has distilled the essence of the play into a 32-page picture book,  emaining faithful to the plot and characters as Shakespeare wrote them. For clarity’s sake she has moved one or two scenes around, but the feeling of Shakespeare’s greatest play is there-the baseness of Caliban; Miranda’s wide-eyed innocence; Ferdinand’s immediate love and  evotion to her; Prospero’s vengeance forgotten and forgiveness extended; and the delectable, barely controlled Ariel darting here and there. Beneduce has written a tale to fascinate any child.

Having long been a great admirer of Gennady Spirin’s work, I was thrilled and delighted with his meticulous, highly romantic, Italian  enaissance figures and costumes. His Ariel, with long, pointed wings, looks like an angel right out of an ancient icon, and the deep, textured richness of the costumes will make readers feel they are sitting in the theater. The half-man, half-fish Caliban is appropriately delegated to just a few scenes, but is just as frightening as if he sat at the bottom of every page. There are so many delightful visual asides that I cannot begin to go into them here. So I’ll simply tell you that this is one of the outstanding books of the year so far, and you would be terribly remiss not to include it in your child’s library.