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Welcome to the January edition of Bookcase Bizarro! This month, we’re back with board books by Richard Van Camp and Julia Donaldson: one pick for the very young and another for older readers. Our regular picture book column has expanded to three reviewers, so we now feature a children’s writer, literacy tutor and early childhood educator all talking together about what makes books tick. We’ve got a magical middle grade spotlight, and an early reader picture book for the Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection. So without further ado, let’s dig into January’s picks.
Little You, by Richard Van Camp. Illustrated by Julie Flett. (Orca, Victoria, BC, 2013)
“Little you, little wonder. You are mighty, you are small.”
So begins Van Camp’s beautiful celebration of the joy new babies bring to their families, especially poignant this year in Canada, where so many unmarked children’s graves were found on the grounds of former residential schools. Van Camp’s book is all about familial love. Little eyes will be drawn to the strong colours and bold patterns in Flett’s illustrations, which evoke love and wonder on each page. (#TPL)
The Gruffalo’s Child, by Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. (Macmillan, London, 2004)
This is a good pick for older readers, who will identify with the restless curiousity of the gruffalo’s child, who leaves the warm family cave in search of adventure. When the little gruffalo comes across a weaker mouse, victory seems ensured until the trickster mouse outwits the little gruffalo. The rhyming text catches the humour of the predicament while the illustrations build on the little gruffalo’s sense of unease during their solitary walk through the deep, snowy woods. A great bedtime read. (Picture Book #TPL)
Oi Frog! By Kes Gray. Illustrated by Jim Field. (Hodder Children’s, London, 2014)
In this humourous book, know-it-all cat attempts to explain the many reasons why frog MUST sit on a log, not a sofa, chair, stool or any of the other objects the protesting frog suggests.
Cat and frog mirror the roles of a teacher (cat) and a questioning kid (frog), who pushes the boundaries to see if cat really does have an answer for everything. Besides being fun and hilarious, there is a surprise twist at the end that readers will love. The rhyming text (a vital, early building block for reading) plays with sound, allowing for different spellings of similar words while being very explicit about the meaning to avoid confusion for the reader.
Field’s illustrations portray cat’s world-weariness and Frog’s wide-eyed skepticism. If you’ve got a kid in your life who always asks ‘why?’ this is a book for both of you. (#TPL)
Drawn Together, by Minh Le. Illustrated by Dan Santat. (Disney Hyperion, New York, 2018)
Drawn Together starts and ends in text-less panels that accentuate the silences between a young boy and his Vietnamese grandfather. The boy is not pleased when his mother drops him off at his grandfather’s house for the day. Not only does Grandfather eat the wrong food and watch the wrong programs on TV, he only speaks Vietnamese, which the boy can’t understand. Convinced that he and his grandfather have nothing in common, the boy pulls out his sketchpad. It turns out that Grandfather has a sketchpad, too.
Each picture captures a wide range of emotions between the alienated boy and his grandfather, who really tries to connect with his grandson despite the language barrier. He makes his grandson a hot dog for lunch and sits with him on the couch but nothing works until he discovers a shared love of drawing with his grandson. East-meets-west styles by Caldecott medalist Dan Santat joyfully co-mingle on each page to illustrate their growing connection. The books shows how kids can work through a situation they don’t feel good about, and come to a solution with other people.
“Just when we’re getting closer,” Minh writes, “the the old distance comes roaring back.” Without a concrete example to show why this has occurred, this distance isn’t experienced by the reader. Still, grandson and grandfather re-connect powerfully in two sentences: “Now, after years of searching for the right words, we find ourselves happily speechless.”
The book offers a way to have a conversation with children about how to create connections with their relatives, while making the point that many older people have interests that are ageless. (#TPL)
Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales. (Neal Porter/Holiday House, New York, 2018)
This is a poetic story about a woman who’s forced to flee her country with her baby, and her experiences as a newly-arrived immigrant or migrante. Things are difficult and unfamiliar until she discovers the public library, where this strange new country opens up to her for the first time.
The illustrations in this book are absolutely stunning, conveying the woman’s experiences in dream-like panels and sequences bursting with movement and colour. Because the story’s narrator is an adult, we wonder if this book is aimed primarily at adults who are themselves recent immigrants and want to share this experience with their children. This book could also be paired with Anna McQuinn’s Lola at the Library for a more child-focused story about the magic of books. (#TPL)
The Legend of Rock, Papers, Scissors by Drew Daywalt. Illustrated by Adam Rex. (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, New York, 2017)
Rock, paper and scissors are super heroes…but none of them are happy. Life gets pretty boring when you always win, so rock, paper and scissors set out to search for challengers, each one of them hoping they will meet someone who can beat them.
Told very much in the style of a super hero comic, Daywalt’s use of language is fantastic, rich with adjectives and adverbs that beginning writers can use to learn sentence structure while enjoying a rollicking read at the same time. Rex’s larger-than-life art compliments the writing perfectly.
The story highlights aspects of competition that are not usually explored: that everyone wins and loses at different times, that the person who’s your match is not necessarily an enemy and that you can learn to handle an outcome that’s unknown. Our favourite moment? When scissors cut out a paper smile.
A fun story, good to read aloud and a smash hit among the 5-7 year old crowd. (#TPL)
The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection
The Lady with the Books: A Story Inspired by the Remarkable Works of Jella Lepman, by Kathy Stinson. Illustrated by Marie Lafrance. (Kids Can Press, Toronto, 2020)
This advanced picture book for early readers caught my attention with it’s subtle, beautifully told story and period illustrations.
Anneliese and her brother Peter are wandering the streets of post-war Munich in search of food. The city lies in ruins and many go hungry. By accident, they stumble upon an exhibit of books hosted by Jella Lepman, a real life figure who really did travel around Germany in 1946, believing that books could help children connect with one another and prevent another war. The story is told through the eyes of Anneliese and Peter, who stumble in wonder upon the display, and slowly dare to imagine a better future amidst the rubble.
Stinson is an award-winning children’s author who deftly handles a subject that could easily become preachy in less-experienced hands. She trusts the children to tell the story of how the exhibit transformed them during a time when discarded orange peels were picked up from the sidewalk and devoured as a treat. The illustrations by Governor-General’s Award nominee Marie Lafrance are sharply evocative of the post-war period. Hopeful flashes of flowers, trees and book covers bloom amidst the dull greys and black lines of a bombed out landscape, and follow the children as colour comes back into their world.
The beautiful and hopeful story is best aimed at early readers who are in a better position to understand and appreciate the subtle nuances of the story. It would also be a great read-aloud choice for this age group. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Novel
The Gilded Girl, by Alyssa Colman. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2021)
Alyssa Colman’s The Gilded Girl is a dazzling re-telling of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, minus the paternalism and with a great deal more class consciousness.
In 1906 New York, Emma Harris is deposited at Miss Posterity’s Academy for Practical Magic by her wealthy father, a successful magical architect, who’s managing an ambitious project in San Francisco. Like Burnett’s Sarah Crewe, Emma adores her father and takes his worldview as gospel, including his assertion that as a Harris, Emma must learn to stand out. Unfortunately, his spoiling and coddling of Emma has only made her timid and unconfident. She’s extremely aware of how far behind she is in her studies compared to the other pupils, and secretly fears that she’ll be unable to ‘kindle’ her magic on her thirteenth birthday.
Enter Izzy O’Donnell, who works at the school as a servant. Through Izzy’s eyes, we see how galling Emma’s lack of awareness about her privilege really is, with many examples catalogued by Izzy. To make matters worse, Izzy is far more advanced and gifted in magic than Emma is but she’ll never get a chance to ‘kindle’ when she turns thirteen. Magic is confined to the upper classes, who control the knowledge of how to kindle it as well as all access to it. Ordinary people, including servants like Izzy, are forced to snuff out their magic before they can use it. Izzy believes that magic belongs to those who most need it, not to those who can pay for it. Magic would make it so much easier for Izzy to rescue her younger sister Maeve from the farm where she was placed after the two of them became orphans.
When Mr. Harris is lost in a San Francisco earthquake, Emma becomes a penniless orphan herself. An enraged Miss Posterity threatens to send her to the workhouse to pay off the debts she’s incurred. For the first time in her life, Emma must advocate for herself and manages to convince Miss Posterity to let her stay on at the school as a servant.
A furious Izzy discovers Emma, her hated nemesis, sleeping in her attic bedroom. She is angrier still when she is forced to train the unskilled Emma in her new duties, adding to her already heavy workload. A still grieving Emma is forced by painful circumstance to confront exactly how much she doesn’t know, including the extent of her father’s class prejudice when she becomes a servant herself. Her knowledge of the world expands when she witnesses working class protests on the streets and makes friends with Tom, a boy from an immigrant family who has a way with animals, like Dickon from Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
Only Izzy can teach Emma how to survive in a harsh and confusing new reality as a servant. Only Emma has the magical training and knowledge that Izzy needs if she’s going to kindle her own magic and save her sister. The girls forge an alliance based on a common goal: to kindle their magic together and escape a life of servitude at Miss Posterity’s school…with the help of a house dragon named Figgy.
Colman’s debut novel delivers a richly-imagined, magical world that explores the perils of poverty as well as the lack of insight and awareness that accompanies privilege. Yet Emma is no more Burnett’s too-good Sarah than Izzy is a subservient Becky. Emma’s privilege may have blinkered her views but her innate kindness is genuine, and her growing self-awareness provides a nice update to Sarah Crewe’s unbearable paternalism. Izzy has a clear-eyed view of social and economic injustice and she’s got more drive and ambition than Becky ever had. Both girls learn to respect each other despite their flaws.
Colman never gives us a romanticized view of poverty. At the same time, people are never portrayed as victims of circumstance but as fully-rounded characters exercising whatever agency is available to them. Like Burnett, Colman finds beauty in the surrounding world amidst the struggles but Colman’s friendships are between equals, with none of Sarah’s jarring ‘goodness’ or Becky’s fawning. The Gilded Girl follows the plot lines of the classic tale almost exactly, while supplying plenty of twists and easter eggs for those of us who are familiar with the original story. (My favourite easter egg? The beaded purse.) Nowhere is this more evident than in the thoroughly satisfying climax.
My only quarrel is with the wrap up, which I thought was too neat. Spoiler alert: I would have liked to have seen the return of a more chastened and humbled Mr. Harris, who was perhaps forced to dig his way out of financial ruin with Emma and Izzy as teachers.
Colman’s got a sequel coming out in Spring, 2022 (The Tarnished Garden) so anything’s possible. (#TPL)
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