July 17, 2019

Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden

Written by Andrew Larsen
Illustrated by Anne Villeneuve
Kids Can Press
978-1-77138-917-4
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
May 2019

There will be many kids whose summer vacation will include hanging out with relatives, away from home. But if that away-from-home holiday is also based in the wide-openness of unstructured time without benefit of anchors such as immediate family and friends, it may seem insurmountable or boring. Still, sometimes it's necessary to take a chance on beginning something new for growth to happen.
From Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden by Andrew Larsen, illus. by Anne Villeneuve
Vincent has been sent to stay with his Aunt Mimi for the summer while his mother recuperates from an operation. A box of dirt balls from a secret admirer–"Are you sure this secret person even likes you?" I say. "They gave you a box of dirt!"–adds to the grayness of Vincent's new surroundings until he makes the acquaintance of Toma. As an icebreaker, Vincent brings down some of the dirt balls and suggests they throw them over the tall brick wall into the empty lot. An elderly man whom Toma calls Mr. Grumpypants  is watchful of their distraction.
From Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden by Andrew Larsen, illus. by Anne Villeneuve
What begins as a tiresome holiday becomes a summer with a new friend, playing ball, reading comics, visiting the ice cream truck and more when Mr. Grumpypants points out to the boys, balcony to balcony, that the empty lot is starting to green. In fact, Mr. Grumpypants whose name is Marco is a kindly gardener who helps the boys water the garden through the fence and teaches them about the flowers that had been sheltered in the dirt balls.

But when Vincent's mother feels well enough to have him home, he's saddened to leave everyone and the garden behind. Thankfully there's much to occupy a child before their next summer holiday and it will be a wonderful surprise when Vincent and Toma are reunited again and extend their gardening into something even more special.
From Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden by Andrew Larsen, illus. by Anne Villeneuve
Like his earlier picture book, See You Next Year (Owlkids, 2015), Andrew Larsen gets into the head of children on summer holidays. In Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden, Andrew Larsen emphasizes the turnaround from the gloomy unknown of new place to a brightness that comes from belonging. That goes for both Vincent and the apparently worthless dirt balls. It is the unknown that makes for the dullness. But, with time and a little nurturing, the new friendship and the piles of dirt blossom into something invaluable.

Though I know that Anne Villeneuve, author-illustrator of Loula is Leaving for Africa (Kids Can Press, 2013) and other books, typically uses ink and watercolour, it seems highly appropriate to use those two media in a picture book in which colourful blooms sprout from soil balls. By emphasizing the black ink in her opening illustrations with only celadon and rose to relieve the gloom, Anne Villeneuve hints at the coming of verdant green and colourful florals. Moreover, with her wonderful assortment of people and animals, from a toddler with his mother to other children, middle-aged persons and the elderly Marco, Anne Villeneuve brings life to a community in which children and flowers can grow.

Many may dismiss unstructured summers in urban settings as flat and uninspired for children but Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden makes it clear that sometimes the incredible can sprout from very little.

July 16, 2019

Dancing with Daisy

Written by Jan L. Coates
Illustrated by Josée Bisaillon
Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides
978-1-927917206
44 pp.
Ages 4-8
June 2019

Dancing with Daisy is a grandfather's story told to a grandchild intrigued by an album of old photos and memories. It's also a a fisherman's story so you know it might be a bit of a tall tale.
From Dancing with Daisy, text by Jan L. Coates, art by Josée Bisaillon
"Back in '62 it was, a frosty fall day." So begins this fisherman's tale of the onslaught of Hurricane Daisy as she "came roaring up the coast. She whirled and spun and whipped the waves into such a frenzy, they started leaping straight up onto the deck."
From Dancing with Daisy, text by Jan L. Coates, art by Josée Bisaillon
In true tall tale fashion, the grandfather exaggerates Daisy's impact as she  throws him onto an island and tugs and grabs at him to draw him into a dance. His wrinkles are the result of Daisy trying to bribe him with dollars that sliced into his skin and created scars. His arthritic hands came from clutching the branches of the tree and his blue veins resulted from her freezing cold breath. His raspy voice came from barking communications with a seal washed up on shore and he lost his hair when Daisy grabbed at his hair, playing "He loves me, he loves me not."
From Dancing with Daisy, text by Jan L. Coates, art by Josée Bisaillon
He returned to shore first on a handcrafted raft and then upon his own home's red roof, walking seven back-breaking miles before losing his teeth that ended up as icebergs. Daisy only abandoned her quest to dance with the man after "Nana went out and gave her a good talking to."
From Dancing with Daisy, text by Jan L. Coates, art by Josée Bisaillon
The grandfather undoubtedly remembers every detail of his harrowing assault on his fishing boat while besieged by Hurricane Daisy which tracked through the Maritimes in early October of 1962. It took six lives in Canada and smashed fishing boats, piers, and buildings with its rainfall and high winds. But the grandfather of Jan L. Coates's story protects his grandchild from the devastating truths of Daisy's impact and instead makes it into a tall tale that explains his aging, its own overwhelming trial, even ending with a good laugh.

Josée Bisaillon's art is a wonderful accompaniment to Jan L. Coates's story, taking readers to the Atlantic coast of colourful buildings, cold grey waters and tumultuous weather through her illustrations of watercolours, pastels, pencil and cut paper. Presenting the wind is a formidable task but Josée Bisaillon conveys movement and power in the water and the sky without restraint. It may be scary and mighty but it's still playful in its dance, and with the affectionate closeness of grandparent and child, Dancing with Daisy becomes more intergenerational tale, even if a little tall, than recall of a disaster.

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Running the Goat Books & Broadsides shares a video of Jan L. Coates discussing her story and background for Dancing with Daisy on YouTube.

Uploaded to YouTube by Running the Goat on June 27, 2019.

July 15, 2019

Beastly Puzzles: A Brain-Boggling Animal Guessing Game

Written by Rachel Poliquin
Illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler
Kids Can Press
978-1-77138-913-6
32 pp.
Ages 7-10
May 2019

Every book can be considered interactive, being an interplay of communication between reader and text and illustrations, but some, like Beastly Puzzles, demand more of the reader. In fact, there's no skimming over words or art in Beastly Puzzles because every little bit of each double-spread with fold-out requires attention to detail and problem-solving skills extraordinaire to answer the question What animal could you make with...?
From Beastly Puzzles: A Brain-Boggling Animal Guessing Game, text by Rachel Poliquin, art by Byron Eggenschwiler
The first animal puzzle provides seven clues in a billiard room of purple shades and tints. The clues are: dinosaur feet, black toenails, three billiard balls, a hose, the speed of a greyhound, several feather dusters and a lion-killing kick. They are a perplexing assortment of clues so Rachel Poliquin provides more details in a "Here's a hint" that is actually more than just one. I won't reveal what feathered animal is showcased beneath the foldout but information about it's morphology, behaviour and more are explained in terms of those seven clues. Thirteen animals which include mammals, birds, crustaceans, fish, amphibians, reptiles and insects are featured throughout the book, extending around the world. 
From Beastly Puzzles: A Brain-Boggling Animal Guessing Game, text by Rachel Poliquin, art by Byron Eggenschwiler
The clues are tough and Rachel Poliquin is accurate in calling them "brain-boggling." I could not guess a single animal but, rather than being frustrated, I was fascinated by learning interesting facts about over a dozen animals and seeing the connections between the clues provided and the characteristics depicted. Kids who love learning about animals will appreciate this unique presentation but puzzle-lovers will similarly be entranced by the marvelous riddles embedded in Byron Eggenschwiler's monochromatic illustrations of rooms, inside and out, of a large house.  Only the clues and the hidden animals are enriched with colour to highlight their importance so little ones won't have to search for the clues, only interpret them, and that is hard enough.

Whether you're travelling for the summer and want to occupy a little one, or have an animal lover who would revel in the unique learning that Beastly Puzzles presents, this picture book will be a hit of information–there is a lesson in natural history and a glossary–and entertainment.

July 12, 2019

The Almost Epic Squad: Super Sketchy

Written by Lesley Livingston
Illustrated by Britt Wilson
Scholastic Canada
978-1-4431-5785-8
181 pp.
Ages 8-13
July 2019

In this newest installment of The Almost Epic Squad, a series of multi-authored middle-grade novels that blend humour, mystery and fantasy, Lesley Livingston introduces Daisy Kildare, one of the four babies exposed to reidium at the Dimly, Manitoba hospital. Like her cohorts Jessica Flem and Gary Lundborg from Kevin Sylvester's Mucus Mayhem (2018) and Ted Staunton's What Blows Up (2019) respectively, Daisy is reaching puberty and unknowingly coming into her almost-epic superpowers. If only she knew how to control hers and stay safe from those who want to take advantage of them. 

Daisy has always tried to figure what she's good at and now that she has to choose a May long-weekend activity camp, she's decided that art will be her destiny. Her efforts are generally not very good until she grabs one of the old promotional pencils from the Dimly Bulb Company. Immediately she feels a tingle and a zap and her below-par art becomes extraordinary and is touted by Mrs. Winklehorn, the art teacher, as "an abstract-Impressionist-absurdist gem." (pg. 22) Kip Winklehorn, a parkour disaster, makes Daisy's acquaintance at camp and tells her that he's always heard that Dimly is well-known for its light bulbs, graphite and Splotnik, a liquor that originated in the Balkan country of Pianvia, and how all were revered by artists. Daisy could certainly use some help as her first drawing assignment at camp is a bust until she feels that familiar tingle and jolt and becomes the pineapple she is drawing.
From The Almost Epic Squad: Super Sketchy by Lesley Livingston, illus. by Britt Wilson
Fortunately, Kip, a kind-hearted boy–he has a three-legged, one-eyed rescue marmot named Percy–comes to her rescue.
...Daisy had somehow managed to turn herself into a tropical fruit. And Kip wasn't about to just leave her there to ripen. (pg. 58)
He discovers that if he erases Daisy's drawing, she will turn back to her human self. It would seem that Daisy's destiny was not art but rather transmogrification.
From The Almost Epic Squad: Super Sketchy by Lesley Livingston, illus. by Britt Wilson
Meanwhile, in a subterranean hideout in the Okanagan valley, Dr. Gavin Bafflegab is working in his Cryptolair to prove the existence of cryptids, creatures of folklore and legend.  He is working for the Boss, the elusive costume-wearing evil queenpin who has been tracking the four Dimly kids, and intends to raise an army of cryptids to secure control over the world. When his research associate a.k.a. lab rat Gerald recognizes Daisy from his time with Dr. Fassbinder, the doctor who'd been testing the Dimly babies from the time of their ir-redium-ation, he and Dr. Bafflegab kidnap Percy to entice Daisy to use her power for them.

In a silly amalgam of characters, plot and action, Lesley Livingston makes Super Sketchy into a caper of kids trying to figure out their skills, including superpowers, amidst the nefarious plans of evil researchers and masterminds and rats and a boisterous assortment of creatures such as Bigfoot, a yeti, Ogopogo, gremlins and goblins.
"...you never want to make a gremlin mad. But you NEVER want to make a goblin mad. Gremlins will just pinch you while you sleep. Goblins will delete your bank account." (pg. 152)
Kids will laugh themselves silly while understanding the need to find something that they're good at. They'll clap for a marmot's rescue, question a rat's motives, and they'll cheer for Bigfoot and his friends. And still Lesley Livingston will leave them wanting to know more about the Boss, a bizarre invitation to a potluck picnic and just what Bernard Cheeper, Department C Projects Coordination, wants from the Almost Epic Squad. With the final volume in The Almost Epic Squad series, Irresistible from Richard Scrimger, due out in October, it won't be long to wait.

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For readers who will want to read the whole series, here is a list of all titles in The Almost Epic Squad:

Mucus Mayhem by Kevin Sylvester (Sept., 2018) Reviewed here
What Blows Up by Ted Staunton (Jan., 2019) Reviewed here
Super Sketchy by Lesley Livingston (July, 2019)
Irresistible by Richard Scrimger (Oct., 2019)

July 10, 2019

Little Red Reading Hood and the Misread Wolf

Written by Troy Wilson
Illustrated by Ilaria Campana
Running Press Kids
978-0-7624-9266-4
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
July 2019

Readers know that you can find all the answers you need in books and Little Red Reading Hood, who loves red and reading, proves that books are also the means for surviving life and making friends.
From Little Red Reading Hood and the Misread Wolf by Troy Wilson, illus. by Ilaria Campana
When little Red learns that her grandmother, who'd sewn her a special hood embellished with letters and books, is ill, the child makes a special treat for her and heads off to deliver it. Along the way she meets a wolf and, following the directions in books, she maintains eye contact and backs away slowly before distracting it with hand movements and throwing rocks. Though he'd tried to tell her he just wanted...something, he slinks off dejected. But at her grandmother's house, she finds the wolf already there and in disguise, lounging in bed. Red's books had already taught her "what to do if you encounter a wolf dressed as a grandparent" and she proceeds to point out his large features. The wolf goes along with her until he becomes frustrated and lunges for her basket as she runs out.
From Little Red Reading Hood and the Misread Wolf by Troy Wilson, illus. by Ilaria Campana
The smell that had so entranced him? The smell of a new book. He begs her to read to him. But Red is perplexed. None of her books had told her "What to do if a wolf sniffs the book you made for Grandma, asks you to read it, and doesn't once try to eat you." When he finally helps Grandma from the armoire and Red is preparing to read to both of them, the woodsman arrives with his axe held high. After Grandma shelters the cowering wolf and Red explains, the group settle at Grandma's bed to share the book Red had brought.

In this twisted fairy tale, Troy Wilson extols the wisdom to be found in books while also recognizing that we often judge–wolves, people, books–on their outward appearances. Sure the wolf looks large and menacing but he is but a lover of books–don't we all love that new book smell?!–and of having someone read to him.  Fortunately, little Red reads the situation well before the wolf is hurt and in turn learns a lesson about not jumping to judgements.
From Little Red Reading Hood and the Misread Wolf by Troy Wilson, illus. by Ilaria Campana
I love a good fractured fairy tale, one that takes a popular fairy tale and turns it on its head. Victoria's Troy Wilson takes the story of Little Red Riding Hood and reshapes it to emphasize the importance of reading and a love of books with a caveat that "you can't judge a book by its cover." He plays up the fun and leaves the darkness of the original tale behind. Similarly, the artwork by Italy's Ilaria Campana attends to some of the original story with the dark woods through which Red travels, the size of the wolf and more while lightening it with the dramatic expressions and uniquely shaped bodies of her characters, the homey indoor settings, and even a ubiquitous little robin.

Little Red Reading Hood and the Misread Wolf removes the darkness that is prevalent in so many cautionary tales of yore and heralds fierce women, compassionate understanding and caution to stereotyping. Books can teach everything and anything, can't they?

July 08, 2019

No Help Wanted!

Written and illustrated by Ruth Ohi
North Winds Press (Scholastic Canada)
978-1-4431-6360-6
32 pp.
Ages 3-8
July 2019

Posy would be considered a keener, though in the adult world we might think of her as a bit of a control freak. She insists on taking control of any situation regardless of the efforts others make to share and support. So when Posy is tasked with the classroom job of taking care of their fish Bluey, Posy is all in. She feeds him, reads to him, sings to him and presents him with popsicle-puppet performances. (There are free downloadable pdfs of the jellyfish and fish shapes used, as well as a mask.) But when others offer to join in with their own puppets or play vet, Posy's signs of "Private" and "Keep Out!" make it clear that she is all Bluey needs.
From No Help Wanted! by Ruth Ohi
But, when Bluey starts to look unwell, regardless of Posy's extraordinary efforts, including a full-scale–love the pun!–fish-themed musical, Posy hides his fish bowl behind books, thinking that everyone would blame her.  It's not until she see Bluey resting at the bottom of the bowl that Posy recognizes the need to ask for help. With kindness, the kids ask "What can we do?" and "How can we help?" and come to Posy and Bluey's rescue.
From No Help Wanted! by Ruth Ohi
While Ruth Ohi's artwork was first introduced to youngCanLit readers via the text of others, I'm so glad that she has been writing her own picture books for many years now. From her Chicken, Pig, Cow series, or Fox and Squirrel books, or her many stand-alone picture books, Ruth Ohi always blends important messages about teamwork, compassion, and friendship with text and illustrations that are designed for young, young readers. These stories could be the basis of any character education program. Moreover by ensuring that there is no hyperbole or exhaustive language that reaches beyond the reading abilities and comprehension of her readers. Ruth Ohi sees and tells the story from the perspective children need in order to appreciate the message. As adults, we recognize Posy's enthusiasm for Bluey as somewhat high-handed but young children will just see it as bossy. What they will also see is that bossy kids need to learn how to work with others and that a little help is always welcome and not always a condemnation of efforts made.
From No Help Wanted! by Ruth Ohi (Image retrieved from http://www.ruthohi.com/books-recent#/no-help-wanted/)
Though her text is faultless, precise and communicative, it's still Ruth Ohi's illustrations that will draw children into the story. They will see themselves among the many children of different skin tones and hair types, of different abilities and personalities. One boy is in a wheelchair, a girl wears glasses, and some are shyer relative to Posy's exuberance. In fact, the class itself could be any class from kindergarten with its role-play props, or a Grade 1 or 2 class with numerous books and kids who can read and write. Moreover, by choosing a palette of pencil crayons and watercolours that are light and soft, Ruth Ohi makes sure that the message is swimming in subtlety and far more peaceful than one emboldened in colour and text.

There are many ways to send a message to children and No Help Wanted! finds an affable way in words and art to demonstrate that everyone at one time or another needs a little help and it's okay to ask.
From No Help Wanted! by Ruth Ohi

July 04, 2019

Little Juniper Makes It Big

Written and illustrated by Aidan Cassie
Farrar Straus Giroux
978-0-374-31045-5
40 pp.
Ages 4-8
July 2019

Juniper is a little raccoon and she's tired of being so little. She sees the disadvantages of being small in a world made by adults for adults. Everything seems to be too high for her to reach, whether it be the sink, the door knob or an elusive jar of cookies. Even when she puts her engineering skills to work, with springboards and stilts, hoppers and heighteners, and cranes and catapults and balloons, "Juniper's efforts fell short.
From Little Juniper Makes It Big by Aidan Cassie
At school, Juniper realizes that she is actually of average size and even far larger than new student Clove whose size does not hinder her efforts at all. When Clove invites Juniper to her home, the raccoon anticipates lessons in "un-smallness" but she is pleasantly surprised to learn that, at "Clove's home, Juniper was adult-size."
From Little Juniper Makes It Big by Aidan Cassie
Still, it's that grass-is-always-greener scenario because Juniper soon recognizes that she can't enjoy fun activities like swinging, playing dress-up, bouncing on the bed and even playing hide-and-seek when she's far larger than Clove. Nevertheless, Juniper's sleepover at Clove's helps her recognize how her own home was "very, nearly, almost perfect!"
From Little Juniper Makes It Big by Aidan Cassie
Children are always in such a hurry to get bigger, older, taller and have more responsibilities, and the storytelling in Little Juniper Makes It Big suggests, without admonishing, that it's perfectly normal to see another world as more desirable. However, Juniper finally gets the message with the help of the even smaller Clove, whose optimism and determination abound, that her world is perfect for her right now.

Aidan Cassie, whose first picture book, Sterling, Best Dog Ever (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018) won the 2019 Joan Betty Stuchner–Oy Vey!–Funniest Children's Book Award in the picture book/board book category, again blends the humour of childhood innocence and the determination to be more, or at least our very best. Juniper sees her world as limiting because of her size but, with a change in perspective, courtesy of a tiny squirrel with a voluminous personality and oodles of spirit, Juniper is able to appreciate her home and life in new ways. That's a very positive message, heightened with the humour and charm of Aidan Cassie's illustrations. I was won over by her artwork in Sterling, Best Dog Ever and Little Juniper Makes It Big introduces us to a new gang of cartoon animals in engrossing settings. (Check out the cottage-like setting of the bathroom below.) Her characters have joy and frustration amidst the normalcy of family, home, and school and even little humans will be able to identify with them.  By creating empathy for cute animals who are experiencing what our own children may also be encountering, Aidan Cassie has found a way to teach, delight, reassure and entertain our youngest who just want to make it big too.

From Little Juniper Makes It Big by Aidan Cassie