March 13, 2018

The Better Tree Fort

Written by Jessica Scott Kerrin
Illustrated by Qin Leng
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
March 2018

Tree houses offer children a refuge from the everyday, a place to dream and create, to escape and grow, and to be whomever they choose, imaginary or their true selves.  But imagine if the building of that tree fort and sharing of it was a shared experience between father and son.  How much better is that true fort than a castle in the sky?
From The Better Tree Fort by Jessica Scott Kerrin, illus. by Qin Leng
 When Russell and his dad move to a new house with a massive maple tree in the backyard, the child suggests they build a tree fort.  Russell’s dad is obviously not a handy man with wood and tools and it takes many trips to the lumber and hardware store and much guidance from others for him to construct the tree fort.  Though it doesn’t have the special features Russell had in his plans like a balcony, slide, skylight and basket for hauling, Russell declares it to be perfect.
From The Better Tree Fort by Jessica Scott Kerrin, illus. by Qin Leng
Then, three houses down, a construction crew marches in and constructs a larger and more elaborate tree fort with all the bells and whistles.  Russell makes the acquaintance of Warren, the boy whose father had ordered the plans and hired the crew, and is invited in to view the spectacular house in the tree.  But is it really a better tree fort than Russell’s?
From The Better Tree Fort by Jessica Scott Kerrin, illus. by Qin Leng
Jessica Scott Kerrin’s message is not really about tree forts.  It’s about relationships, specifically a father and son relationship, and how nothing–not something bigger, better, bolder–could ever compensate for that unique connection and special bond.  Russell’s dad is not the kind who would pay someone to make his son’s dreams come true.  He’s the kind who tries to do it himself, no matter how arduous the task or clumsy and unimpressive the results.  This father and son don’t need to bling out a tree fort when they can enjoy the simple pleasures of peanut butter and jam sandwiches , birding from the open window, or sleeping in bags on the floor.  Warren has no idea no much he’s missing in his “better” tree fort.

I have reviewed numerous books illustrated by Qin Leng and she continues to astound me with the astuteness of her artwork for interpreting the text.  In The Better Tree Fort, Qin Leng’s ink, watercolour and pencil crayon illustrations lend an innocence of task and purpose to the story, making the building of the fort by father for son an intimate endeavour.  The construction of Warren’s turreted tree fort lacks the tenderness of relationship.  Not surprising, when Russell’s dad acknowledges that “There will always be a better tree fort,” Russell knows that it’s his father that is the best component of all.
From The Better Tree Fort by Jessica Scott Kerrin, illus. by Qin Leng

March 12, 2018

Where's Bunny?

Written by Theo Heras
Illustrated by Renné Benoit
Pajama Press
24 pp.
Ages 1-3
March 2018

Author Theo Heras and illustrator Renné Benoit's very young brother and sister from Hats On, Hats Off and Baby Cakes have returned in a story about getting ready for bed and the routines involved with that evening ritual.

The two never-named children (making it easy for any and every child to see themselves in the story and embrace the routines of healthy bedtime practices) know it is time for bed and begin to fulfil their rituals as listed in a "Bedtime Checklist" posted on the book's endpapers. First, they pick up their toys and put them away. Though the text includes the question "Where's Bunny?" young readers will be able to spot the rabbit nestled in a wagon. Next, it's bath time with play time in the warm water that "tickles toes" alongside a rubber ducky and a squirty sheep before washing hair, towelling off and ensuring Bunny is nearby. He is. Then bedecked in the softest of hooded plush robes, the two brush their teeth whilst Bunny watches on. (A second checklist on the back endpapers provides links to dental associations for proper techniques.)
From Where's Bunny? by Theo Heras, illus. by Renné Benoit
Then it's pajamas on, into bed, storytime and singing a song, all only with the big sister (who can't be more than 5) helping her little brother. A final hug and kiss and little brother is off to dreamland snuggling his own soft charge to his cheek.

Theo Heras makes her text simple and readable for those just learning to decipher books, and it is sweetly appropriate for a concept book about bedtime routines. Many concept books tend to be flat, emphasizing only the concept in the simplest of texts. Thankfully Theo Heras does more than just assert a concept. There is a story here, one of sibling affection and a young child's bond to his stuffed animal, that is elevated with Renné Benoit's artwork. The children are so beautiful and angelic with their bright faces and cowlicked hair, and their surroundings are as soft and inviting to the reader as to the children. From Bunny with his carrot-topped hat and the towels and robes and bedcovers, Renné Benoit draws readers into the warmth of the children's home and lives and asks them to stay for a bit.
From Where's Bunny? by Theo Heras, illus. by Renné Benoit
Another invitation that is extended to readers comes by way of Pajama Press's unique picture book format for the very young: a padded cover with rounded corners, and extra-heavy paper. It has been a winner since its first use. More embraceable than the board books typical for the very young, these softly padded books make for a sweet tactile experience to reading. If the affection so captivated in Renné Benoit's watercolour and digital artwork could extend beyond the siblings, it would be sure to include their books. Like the words and the art of Where's Bunny?, the book says, "Hug me" and the very young will be sure to oblige at least once before lights out.
From Where's Bunny? by Theo Heras, illus. by Renné Benoit

March 08, 2018

Sleepy Bird

Written and illustrated by Jeremy Tankard
Scholastic Press
32 pp.
Ages 3-5
March 2018

It's late.  Why isn't Bird sleeping?!
From Sleepy Bird by Jeremy Tankard
Bird is not sleepy, or so he thinks.  He wants to play and party and seeks out each of his animal friends to keep him company.  Each one tells him it's bedtime and recommends a sleep aid like hugging a blankie (that from Fox), or reading a bedtime story (Beaver), snuggling with a stuffie (Rabbit), singing a lullaby (Raccoon) or counting sheep (obviously from Sheep).  But he poohpoohs their suggestions, storming off like he often does (remember, he was Grumpy Bird in his first book).
From Sleepy Bird by Jeremy Tankard
But, after a little while, he is reduced to tears and questioning empathically "WHY SHOULD I GO TO SLEEP?"  His friends, ever faithful, come running and support their dear friend with all the recommendations they'd made earlier, helping their feathered companion find a way to dreamland.
From Sleepy Bird by Jeremy Tankard
What parent doesn't know the child who will not go to sleep?  In fact, they will recognize the crankiness, protestations, and eventual winding down of a little one, and their own ploys used to help a child fall into slumber.  Undoubtedly they will also recognize some comments made by Bird's friends, especially "I thought he'd NEVER fall asleep," as proclaimed by Fox.  But it's Bird's responses that always have me laughing. (I think, Jeremy Tankard, there's a Funny Bird in your future.) Bird's replies to his friends, ever escalating in their intensity, include "Blankie shmankie", "Are you TRYING to give me nightmares?" and to Sheep's suggestion of counting sheep: "HOW CAN YOU GET SLEEPY COUNTING TO ONE?"

But, as clever as the text is and as pertinent as its theme, Sleepy Bird will grab readers and non-readers with its bold and colourful illustrations.  Jeremy Tankard's wacky characters are as familiar now as Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit and Mo Willems's Elephant and Piggie and we love everything about them: their vibrant colours, coarse lines and clean shapes as well as their expressive poses and faces. What is more is that Jeremy Tankard's landscapes of splatterings of flowers, rocks, and trees amidst enormous ground-level stars and a moon provide a surreal contrast to a very commonplace story i.e. putting a reluctant child to bed.

So, the next time you have to help little ones find their way to rest, grab those blankies and stuffies and read Sleepy Bird.  I can't assure you that they'll go to sleep but you'll at least enjoy the attempt until they decide for themselves that sleep is best.

March 06, 2018

The Marrow Thieves

Written by Cherie Dimaline
Dancing Cat Books/Cormorant
231 pp.
Ages 14+
Poisoning your own drinking water, changing the air so much the earth shook and melted and crumbled, harvesting a race for medicine. (pg. 47)
This is the world in which Frenchie is trying to survive.  After his father had gone with the Council to the Southern Metropolitan City, hopeful of enacting some change, and their mom passed, it was just Frenchie and his older brother Mitch evading the Recruiters, truancy officers seeking Indigenous people to place in their new version of residential schools.  Seems that, though all were highly impacted by the stresses of water shortages, climatic shifts and conflict, non-Indigenous people lost the ability to dream and sought out Indigenous Peoples for their bone marrow as a source for that ability.  What actually happened in the schools, though, was the stuff of rumours and nightmares.

When Mitch sacrifices himself to the Recruiters to save Frenchie, the teen heads north and joins a  group headed by a man named Miigwans and the Elder Minerva, along with teens Chi-Boy and Wab, twelve-year-old twins Tree and Zheegwon, and a young boy Slopper and seven-year-old RiRi.  Along with a new arrival, Rose, the mixed group of Cree, Métis and more, from the east coast and the west lands and everywhere in between, work to stay safe, learn "old-timey" skills like hunting and homesteading but also language which has been lost.  Each comes with their own creation story, framing their lives with the scars of their histories and the jewels of their heritage.  How they will outrun their pasts and those who seek to harm them while making some future in a world gone terribly wrong can only be told by those telling the story and dreaming.

While the environmental degradation alone could result in the dystopia of The Marrow Thieves, it is but a fraction of the agony of the world Cherie Dimaline has created.  It is a world that has gone beyond decline and into catastrophic collapse.  The heinous racism against Aboriginal Peoples coupled with the carnage perpetrated against them is terrifying but not unfamiliar.  By telling this story in a dystopian world set decades into the future, Cherie Dimaline tells much more about the past.  Still, within that horror, there is a wisdom of self and others, a pocket of compassion and understanding that might be the only hope.
"...running only works of you're moving towards something, not away. Otherwise, you'll never get anywhere." (pg. 217)
Moreover, Cherie Dimaline tells it with such depth of feeling and imagery that The Marrow Thieves becomes a lyrical epic.
Out here stars were perforations revealing the bleached skeleton of the universe through a collection of tiny holes. And surrounded by these silent trees, beside a calming fire, I watched the bones dance.  This was our medicine, these bones, and I opened up and took it all in. And dreamed of north. (pg. 9)
The accolades for The Marrow Thieves have been robust and far-reaching.  They include winning the 2017 Governor General for Young People's Literature and the 2017 Kirkus Prize; a nomination for the Forest of Reading's White Pine Award; selection as The Globe and Mail Best Book; and most recently selection for CBC's 2018 Canada Reads battle of the books. The Marrow Thieves deserves each honour and more as does its creator Cherie Dimaline for weaving a cautionary story of sorrow and history with a future that still has a sliver of reverie.

March 02, 2018

Sugar and Snails

Written by Sarah Tsiang
Illustrated by Sonja Wimmer
Annick Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
March 2018

Though many nursery rhymes have some dark meaning behind them,  I like to think the old English nursery rhyme about boys being made of “frogs and snails and puppy dog tails” and girls being made of “sugar and spice and everything nice” was an innocent poem people may have used to poke fun at the differences between boys and girls.  Then again, maybe not.  But Sarah Tsiang takes the sexism out of that nursery rhyme and shows us that boys and girls can be just about anything they want to be.

From Sugar and Snails
by Sarah Tsiang 
illus. by Sonja Wimmer
Sugar and Snails begins with an embroidered piece of stitchery with the old rhyme on it, and then page by page a grandfather unravels that saying for his grandchildren after the boy wonders about sweet boys such as himself.  The elderly man suggests a myriad of things boys and girls could be as he pretends to recall how the rhyme goes.  But as he suggests things, the grandchildren recognize that they just don't fit.  She doesn't like dresses, and he doesn't like frogs.  There's rocks and butterfly socks, rain boots and whales, and even dirt and lemon dessert.  Any of these could be assigned to either child or both.  It's an equal opportunity rhyme of a menagerie of delights, which ends with the grandfather proclaiming to them, "Dangnamit, I give up.  What in the heck are you made of?" and the stitches of the embroidery being unravelled by little hands.
From Sugar and Snails
by Sarah Tsiang 
illus. by Sonja Wimmer

Sarah Tsiang makes Sugar and Snails a wacky speculative poem that attempts, amusingly though foolishly, to differentiate between boys and girls.  But it's German artist Sonja Wimmer's surreal illustrations that bring that outrageousness to the forefront.  Sonja Wimmer, who illustrated Belle DeMont's wonderful I Love My Purse (Annick, 2017), lends wonderful fluidity and connectedness between the children and that which might define either of them, with a frisson of humour and folly. 

From Sugar and Snails
by Sarah Tsiang 
illus. by Sonja Wimmer

If Sugar and Snails teaches us anything, it's that labelling is restrictive and inappropriate, and children, girls, boys or non-binary, should just be themselves, no matter what an old rhyme proposes.

March 01, 2018

Lucky Me

Written by Lora Rozler
Illustrated by Jan Dolby
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
32 pp.
Ages 8-12
February 2018

I always loved those posters that would communicate a single message in different languages, whether it be Welcome, Hello or Thank you.  Lucky Me is like an expanded and illustrated version of the Thank You poster, sharing the many events for which children might express gratitude in various languages.

The text of Lucky Me is a series of statements about experiences for which children in Canada might be  grateful, whether it be treasures big and small, being able to ask question, tasty pancakes , another candle on a birthday cake, playing in the snow, or having a friend by your side.  For each, the term for “thank you” is giving in another language, identifying how to pronounce it as well as the language used.  Lucky Me is like an international thesaurus of thanks.
From Lucky Me 
by Lora Rozler 
illus. by Jan Dolby
With 32 languages covered (English, Armenian, Romanian, Greek, Japanese, Tagalog, Hebrew, Cree, Spanish, Portuguese, Somali, Mandarin, Dutch, Finnish, Polish, Arabic, Hindi, Swahili, Tamil, Vietnamese, Korean, Hungarian, Russian, Albanian, Italian, Persian, Cantonese, Punjabi, German, Turkish, Urdu and French), Lora Rozler has covered most continents and the children from the diverse cultures within though the children are very much ensconced in a Canadian setting.  Still children will see themselves outdoors, at home, at school and the many places they experience life.  Jan Dolby, whose gave life to Joyce Grant’s Gabby in Gabby (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013) and her follow up books (Gabby Drama Queen and Gabby Wonder Girl) energizes Lora Rozler’s text with children who are lively and effusive in their activities alone and with others.  They’re open to life and can see the worth in all their experiences.
From Lucky Me 
by Lora Rozler 
illus. by Jan Dolby
While I might have liked to have seen more children who appreciate the quiet of contemplation rather than always activity, the wide variety of experiences and ways of saying thank you demonstrate that we all have much for which we should be grateful and a single book would probably never be enough.  Fortunately, Lora Rozler and Jan Dolby have given children a very, very good start to seeing all for which they could be exclaiming “Lucky Me.”  
From Lucky Me 
by Lora Rozler 
illus. by Jan Dolby

February 28, 2018

Picture the Sky: Art show and sale (Toronto, ON)

Last August, 

author/illustrator Barbara Reid

the Queen of plasticine art

launched her newest picture book

Picture the Sky
Written and illustrated by Barbara Reid
Scholastic Canada
32 pp.
Ages 3-8

Now youngCanLit readers and art enthusiasts can enjoy
  Picture the Sky
through Barbara Reid's amazing art 

in an Art Show and Sale

which runs from

  Saturday, March 3, 2018 - Thursday, April 12, 2018


special events 

on the official launch day

Sunday, March 4, 2018

1 p.m.:  Launch of the Art Show and Sale
2 p.m.:  Story time


The Young Welcome Centre
Evergreen Brick Works
550 Bayview Avenue
Toronto, ON