Monday, June 16, 2008

What Ewan's Loving: Johnny Boo and company

My son Ewan, who just turned five, really loves comics. Unfortunately many of them are just a bit too dense for him still, so he tends to get bored with non-action sections and skip a lot of the story. But I've been dropping into a really cool comic store recently, and have found some reading material that is absolutely just right for him. We've been reading Johnny Boo, the Best Little Ghost in the World by James Kochalka again and again. It's apparently the first book of a new series, and we're looking forward to future titles.

Johnny Boo is a little kid ghost who reminds me a bit of Casper, very friendly and affectionate, who gets into some dramatic and exciting situations. In this story Johnny Boo and his pet ghost Squiggle meet up with an ice cream monster, and when they offer him some of their secret ice cream he gulps it down so fast he accidentally eats Squiggle too. Fortunately the ice cream monster isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, and when Squiggle uses his Sqiggle Power, wiggling around in the monster's tummy, the monster burps him back up and all is well. The book is really visually appealing, with simple but rich blue and green landscapes and lots of dramatic body language, especially when the monster gets the burps. We love it.

Our other favourite find from this store is Geoffrey Hayes' Benny and Penny in Just Pretend. Benny is Penny's older brother, and his idea of a good time is standing in a box pretending to be a pirate on a pirate ship. Alone. Penny's idea of a good time is playing with big brother Benny. Benny's disdain is withering ("No! Pirates are brave, and you are a cry-baby.") but Penny does not give up, driving Benny to distraction until he finally bellows "Go away! You are a dumb, bad little sister!". It's so dramatic. Neither Ewan nor I can really believe he has actually said this. Penny starts to cry and Benny relents and offers to play hide-and-seek ("you hide in this box and I'll find you", he offers). Is Benny's change of heart to be trusted? Heck, no. He goes back to playing pirate and does not look for Penny. What a weasel.

Reconciliation comes when Benny realizes that he can't hear Penny. When he goes to check on her she's not in the box! He looks everywhere and when he finally finds her they end up being pirates together after all. Benny earnestly explains "Penny, before, when I called you a dumb, bad little sister...well, that was just pretend." Sheesh. I hope so.

The pictures are very sweet and lovely, with Benny and Penny portrayed as plump little mice with colourful clothes and surroundings and very expressive faces. The panels are generously sized and there is enough white space to let everything breathe. This story meets kids at exactly their level, and although I don't know a lot about these things, the quality of the book's production is obviously outstanding. A real winner.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

"Barry Lyga digs deep into the troubling territory of innocence and manipulation, trust and betrayal. Brave and unflinching, Boy Toy will grab hold of your heart and squeeze."

Tanya Lee Stone

Barry Lyga's first book, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, I liked a lot. His second, Boy Toy, just takes off from there and flies. I'm so impressed. All the more so since Lyga's plot takes us through, let's face it, downright seedy, sensationalistic, tabloid-material territory. "Female teacher has affair with 12-year-old boy!" just about sums up the plot. Despite the rave reviews, I was sure reading this book would make me feel all dirty and kind of guilty, like I'd been caught precipitating the collapse of Western civilization. But surprise...this book is so emotionally compelling, reading it becomes a deep and involving experience.

Not that Lyga isn't very explicit in his depiction of the relationship. He is. But we immediately see that, rather than being the stuff of fantasy, this relationship has left the book's main character, Josh, in ruins from the inside out. Five years later, he still makes students and teachers hostile and uncomfortable. He refers to himself as a "freak", "the kid who fucked a teacher in seventh grade...the kid who beats the shit out of anyone who looks at him cross-eyed." An opening scene shows him being suspended when he viciously punches his gym teacher, who has quietly hissed at him "Pick it up, Mendel! You never slept with me, so I ain't about to take it easy on you!".

We find out that Josh was almost jailed at age 13 for attempting to sexually assault a close female friend who wanted to kiss him. Her terrified reaction, and Josh's shock and bewilderment at having caused it, are what finally end up bringing Josh's situation to light. The scenes at the police station are jarring:

"Purdy kept firing questions at me, looking for details, when suddenly, out of the blue, he said, "What kind of birth control did you two use, Josh? Was she on the pill? Did she make you wear a condom? Do you know what a condom is?

And I knew, but I wasn't going to say because suddenly it wasn't that I didn't want to speak, it was that I couldn't speak. My stomach and my heart had twisted up and risen to my throat and I thought I was about to puke them both up...because I'd never even thought about birth control and Eve had never brought it up and I was just twelve when it all happened so how was I supposed to think of these things and oh my God what if I was going to be a father--"

At age 18, Josh has only one friend, his relationship to his parents is still strained, and he is unable to form emotional or even sexual ties with other women. He has constant flashbacks and carries the guilt of believing that he seduced his teacher and not the other way around, a teacher who is now in jail for what happened between them. And when Eve, his teacher, is let out of jail early for good behavior, Josh really falls apart. Now he could bump into her at any time.

There are so many piercing moments here. Lyga excels at bringing to life all the complexity of Eve's manipulation of Josh, his growing feelings of fear, shame and excitement that she so skillfully plays off, his immaturity and vulnerability to her experience. At its heart, however, it is about Josh slowly and painfully beginning to move on, one small step at a time. A strong, thought-provoking book.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

"I only feel like myself when I am alone."

Peter Cameron's newest book, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, had me hooked so deeply I didn't want to go to work, sleep or eat until it was finished. This is one of the most intelligent, sharp, subtle books about depression that I have ever read. The publisher is comparing it to Catcher in the Rye. Personally, I think it's way better. (Better cover, too. Doesn't that picture speak volumes? And I love the title. It's all perfect. Just perfect.) I don't think the depression that Cameron is writing about here is coming-of-age, figuring-out-who-you-are angst. It goes deeper than that. It is truly existential, the deadening, deep-down pain you feel when you just can't connect to the people in your life, even those that love you. This is a novel that smashes teen issue books right out of the ballpark.

"I knew she wanted to help me. I knew she was my mother and loved me and I didn't want to be mean, but there was something else inside me, something hard and stubborn that was mean. It just bugged me that she thought if I was gay she could do something to help, like give me a Band-Aid or something...I knew I was gay, but I had never done anything gay and I didn't know if I ever would. I couldn't imagine it, I couldn't imagine doing something intimate and sexual with another person. I could barely talk to other people, so how was I supposed to have sex with them? So I was only theoretically, potentially homosexual."

James Sveck, the book's 18-year-old hero (or antihero) is astutely intelligent, observant, intense, and so disconnected he cannot handle a high school trip to Washington without panicking and going awol. ("I was the missing misfit" he tells his psychologist when she is trying to pry the story out of him.) His only connected relationship is with his grandmother, whose defining interest in decorum is similar to James' defining interest in correct use of language, and whom he visits when he needs to feel understood and comforted. His traumas--such as what he saw outside the window of his manhattan high school on 9/11--are difficult for him to articulate even to himself. His parents are pushing him to go to university, hoping that he will blossom when surrounded by peers of equal intellect. James freezes at the very thought of four years of interaction with other people. A telling moment comes when James, expressing a deeply buried attraction for an employee of his mother's, makes up a false profile on a dating site to attract him. When John finds out that the gay Sorbonne graduate who now works in Sotheby's art department is in fact really James, he is furious in a way that leaves James even more alone.

My heart was with James all the way through, even while I could see all the ways he was pushing people out ( for example, with his habit of turning conversations about emotion into arguments about linguistics). Cameron made me really want James to come to terms with himself and with other people. The ambiguous ending leaves me hoping that perhaps he will.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Hilary McKay's Casson Family

I really, really love Hilary McKay's Casson family books. When I saw the newly released Forever Rose (last of the Casson books, according to McKay, who wants to quit while she's ahead) I grabbed it and gobbled it down in two days. And then I went back and reread all the others, starting with Saffy's Angel. They were all just as good the second time around.

Truly, I can see why McKay feels that this is a good place to leave the Cassons. So much is resolved here: Caddy resurfaces after a year's absence with a mysterious bundle temporarily called Buttercup, David is thrown out of his home by his shrewish mother and takes refuge in the embrace of the Casson clan (Rose's embrace is a mite prickly, mind you--David still can't compare with Tom), and after mom Eve catches pneumonia painting in the shed, dad Bill finally decides to come home for good. It's clear that the older Casson kids are either grown up or well on their way--probably why Rose, the youngest, is the natural focal point of this last volume.

I've been thinking about some of the reasons I find reading about the Cassons so comforting. I think it is partly a fascination with the chaos that abounds in their home. The Casson house is hugely, gloriously untidy. Somehow, this mess seems connected to their creativity. No one fusses when Rose spends weeks drawing a mural of the family all over the kitchen walls; indeed, her Mom happily shoves aside furniture to make more room for it, and when Rose is done, her mother and siblings cover it with spray sealer out of respect for her endeavor. Likewise, Caddy is free to keep enormous guinea pig hutches for generations of pet guinea pigs all over the back yard. Meals may be haphazard, cakes may go up in smoke, and diamond and platinum engagement rings may get lost in the masses of stuff lying about, but guess who's home all the Casson kids' friends want to hang out in? You got it. It's kind of a kids' dream home. Unlike my house, where, inexplicably, the mess doesn't add a bit of warmth, coziness or relaxation, but only shows how chronically disorganized and pressed for time I am and makes everyone, including me, crabby.

The other quality that McKay conveys so well in these books is the particular support a loving family can give each member. The Casson home, without making a big fuss about it, is a loving, caring home. I love all the little ways the kids look out for each other, and include each other in their lives. I love how Eve sees so much good in all of her children, and, without pushing, lets them grow and become their best selves. I love the funny moments each book is so full of, and the more sober, serious moments too. And I love how McKay intertwines them so beautifully. I'm sure I'll re-read Forever Rose very, very soon.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Stones, Bones and Stitches: Storytelling Through Inuit Art

When I was growing up, the only art I could relate to was representational. Anything abstract,allegorical or symbolic was beyond my comfort level and outside my understanding. I had a strong preference for art that was not only classic but also "beautiful", whether Michaelangelo's clean, gorgeous sculptures or the luxurious, aristocratic portraits of Gainsborough. I definitely did not "get" inuit art until at least my 30s. (When I say "get" I mean not "understand" but "see the beauty in".) Today's kids are lucky--this skillfully written and photographed book is, I think, a matchless introduction to a form of art which is perhaps not immediately accessible to those of us outside the inuit culture.

Shelley Falconer and Shawna White are curators at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. They have selected six artists and eight works of art to explore, from sculpture to prints to textile art. I think the sculptures have the strongest presence here. Look, for example, at The Migration by Joe Talirunili. This is one of a series of sculptures the artist has created out of his childhood experience of moving from one camp to the next with his family as the seasons changed. These trips were arduous and terrifying: in one, forty of his family members drowned when the boat was destroyed; in another, the trip lasted so long that "Joe recalls his mother saying that they might have to eat one another because they were so hungry!". The haunting faces in the sculpture capture the memory of the family crammed in together, survival at stake. To me, this sculpture converges the historic and cultural experience of inuit life on the land with a larger, mythic story. The text, which describes Joe's childhood journeys, his family life, and details about the construction of the boat and clothing seen in the sculpture add to our experience of Joe's art.

All the art showcased in Stones, Bones and Stitches--and it is indeed varied, considering it is such a select sample--is given plenty of context. Even the information on the art materials is fascinating. For example, we learn that many inuit sculptors quarry their own stone, an involved and dangerous process. And that whalebone must be at least 50 to 100 years old before a sculptor can work with it (fresh whalebone is too oily and smelly). We are told stories of demonic spirits and shamans who travel to the moon. We see the past and present come together. A rich book that succeeds in that difficult enterprise--communicating between cultures.