Saturday, December 18, 2010

Picture Book Roundup: What Ewan and I Are Currently Laughing Our Heads Off At

A recent article in the New York Times remarks on the decline in picture book sales in 2010, and posits that parents are hurrying their kindergarten and grade 1 children into "big kid" or chapter books in order to prepare them for academia.  Not in our house, mister!  I love picture books (what's not to love?  They have PICTURES!), and I love reading them with Ewan, my book-devouring second grader.  And I don't for one second subscribe to the idea that picture books will dumb him down.  In fact, I believe that the use of humour in many picture books can be way more sophisticated than in chapter books, because the interplay between text and picture is so open to dramatic possibility.  And don't even get me started on vocabulary--a little soporific lettuce, anyone?  So, here's a roundup of some of the smart and funny picture books Ewan and I have been kicking back with this week. 

Let's start will Melanie Watt, shall we?  Have I Got a Book for You! is a hilarious spoof of pushy salespeople, particularly those on T.V. infomercials.  The whole story is the salesman trying to sell us the book.  Talk about meta-fiction.  It wouldn't work half as well without the pictures, which show us:
1)  exactly how satisfied Mr. Al Foxword's previous customers are,
2)  why we should buy Al's book RIGHT NOW!, and
3) what we can do with not one, but two of Al's awesome books (or how about 742 of make the Book Fort you've always wanted!)
Ah, the delicious, ridiculous irony of it all....and by the way, gotta love that surprise on the last page!

Michael Ian Black's new book, A Pig Parade is a Terrible Idea, is kind of the opposite of Have I Got a Book For You!  This book assumes we're sold on a crazy idea ("Like most children, you have probably thought to yourself at one time or another, I bet a pig parade would be a lot of fun.") and goes to enormous lengths to persuade us of its potential for disaster.  Pigs don't march, they snuffle, and "snuffling is simply an inappropriate way to conduct yourself along a parade route.".  They won't wear those snappy majorette uniforms, and they prefer sad country ballads to "good, spirited marching-band music".   They also don't see the point of floats.  Even pig-themed floats.  And if you try explaining any of these things to a pig, "they just look at you as if you are speaking a language they do not understand."    Pictures showing pigs destroying marching band instruments and wreaking havoc with snappy majorette uniforms, never mind getting their snouts stuck in the used bubble gum on city sidewalks, clearly demonstrate that this writer knows what he's talking about. Ix-nay on the Pig Parade, already!

David Bruins and Hilary Leung's Ninja Cowboy Bear Presents the Way of the Ninja is a friendship story that illustrates what can happen when one member of a group  is more adventurous than the others. Ninja, cowboy and bear are friends.  "When they got together it usually led to merrymaking, buffoonery and hilarity."  But sometimes cowboy and bear are too sedate for rambunctious ninja.  When cowboy wants to paint, ninja wants to jump on beds.  When bear wants to pick flowers, ninja wants to climb trees and poke bee's nests.  To ninja, a swing isn't a swing, it's a launchpad.  Let's shoot for the stars!  But when cowboy and bear get hurt playing with ninja, he thinks they are poor sports.   How the spirited ninja learns to include his friends in  his wild play makes for a story that is both funny and sweet.

 And, last but definitely not least, Olivia Helps With Christmas.  As in all the Olivia books, the visuals are everything.  They show us every nuance of the drama, and with Olivia, we know there's got to be drama, yes?  The opening spread ('Twas the day before Christmas.  Olivia and her family had been out all morning, busy with last-minute shopping.  Olivia was exhausted, yet there was still so much to do.") features a picture of Olivia's Mom and Dad, juggling packages, trees and children but looking pretty spry, following a bedraggled, burnt-out Olivia, who, as Ewan delightedly points out, isn't carrying one single thing!    Christmas morning brings us a shot of Olivia and her two little brothers bounding downstairs, mouths open wide, beneath the dry line "noiselessly they crept down the stairs.".   My very favourite page is where we learn that "Some of Santa's offerings were better than others. Pajamas.  Skis!  Sweater.  Sled!  Booties.  Maracas!", with correspondingly glum and lively faces on the gift recipients.  Santas of the world, listen up:  sleds and maracas will trump pajamas and booties every time!   'Nuff said.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt set a very high bar for herself with her previous novel The Underneath, a richly magical tale set in the Texas bayou, which was lauded as a modern classic reminiscent of Sounder and The Yearling.  In my opinion it was much more sophisticated than these older stories, although it did center similarly around the emotional lives of animals and their vulnerability to human interference.   Keeper, published this year, is an equally lovely but lighter story, maintaining the depth and mystery of The Underneath but conjuring up a tone of poignancy rather than suspense and heartbreak. 

Appelt is a literary writer and her style is an important part of the reading experience.  It's the kind of style you either like or you don't. This is a meandering story, which moves backwards and forwards in time and follows many different points of view.  The pacing is leisurely. The imagery is skilled and poetic.  This is not a book to race through, but a book to wander with and enjoy.  However, Appelt is not one to let her wanderings lead nowhere--she knows exactly where she is taking us.  She is taking us into the heart of family, into the heart of belonging.

Keeper is a ten-year-old girl having a bad day before a blue moon.  The problem is, blue moon days are rare and special, and the people Keeper loves most in the world have had dreams and wishes centered around this particular blue moon.  Signe wants to make her seductive blue moon crab gumbo.  Dogie wants to sing "marry me" to Signe.  Mr. Beauchamp wants to see his mysterious lost love, Jack, one last time.  But Keeper has ruined the gumbo, burned the gumbo pot, broken the ukelele and let the dog destroy Mr. Beauchamp's night-blooming cyrus.  Overwhelmed by her problems, Keeper decides to take a boat out to the sandbar at night to meet Meggie Marie, her mermaid mother, in hopes that a mother's love can help her solve her problems.  But in the dark of the night, Keeper's small boat is swept out to sea and she loses an oar.  There are no mermaids sparkling around the sandbar.  And despite the blue moon shining in the sky, Keeper can no longer find her way home. 

This is the kind of story where we experience loss only so we can also experience the joy of being found.   By the end of the story, Keeper has found her true mother, Dogie and Signe have found what they mean to each other, and Mr. Beauchamp...well, what he finds is most miraculous at all. I have to say that I took great pleasure in how matter-of-factly Appelt has woven the romance of these two old men, one with "wrinkles upon wrinkles" and one "as old as barnacles",  into her tale of inclusion.  The image of Mr. Beauchamp and Jacques de Mer holding hands was, for me,  one of the loveliest in this whole lovely story.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer

"Come on, love.  Come and join us", Thomas whispered.
"What did you say?" asked a familiar voice.
Thomas couldn't keep his eyes open, he was so sleepy.
"I said, 'Come on, love, come and join us,'" he murmured.
"Okay", said Jesus.  The Lord sat down on the edge of Thomas's bed. 

 This little book came out a few years ago, and I thought it was wonderful.  Every few years I start to wonder if it really is as good as I remember it, and I spend some time curled up with it again.  Yes, it is just as good.   

The Book of Everything was originally published in the Netherlands, where Guus Kuijer is a well established writer. I think it's one of the best examples of magic realism in children's fiction I've ever seen.  The mood Kuijer conjures up is hard to describe--the themes are shadowy and threatening, and Thomas, our child protagonist,  is very innocent, so we  feel protective of him.  At the same time, there are some  fiesty, powerful characters, like Aunt Pie and Mrs. van Amersfoort, who champion the side of right. There's a sense of  wonder and even humour at the unexpected occurances in the story, and just a hint of awe at the glimpses of the Divine we are privileged to see through Thomas's eyes.  This is a story where the biblical merges with the supernatural to unusual and beautiful effect.  As Patrice Kindl said, "this book glows". 

The Book of Everything is about the disconnection that can occur between God and religion.  It's about the pain that can hide in the heart of families living with abuse, the pain that mirrors the darkness of the world.  It's also about bravery and the secret of happiness.  It's about miracles and witchcraft.  But most of all, it's about Thomas, a young boy who sees things no one else can see,  a boy who wants to be happy when he grows up.  A boy who all the angels in heaven are hopelessly in love with.  And probably a few readers too.