Vikki VanSickle on Writing, Reading & Other Pipedreams

Everything I need to know in life, I learned from children's literature

Summer Days, Starry Nights Shortlisted for the 2015 Red Maple Award

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I could not be more thrilled to be among the fantastic writers on the 2015 Red Maple Award list. The OLA Forest of Reading is one of the largest children’s choice award programs in Canada and attending the Forest of Trees ceremony in Toronto is one of my favourite days of the year. If you have any doubt about the state of reading in this country, this is a program to check out. But don’t take my word for it:

 

If you get the chance to go to Harbourfront and witness the 8000+ school children screaming for their favourite book, I highly recommend it. You will leave grinning and feeling like the world is in excellent hands. Mark Medley did a fantastic article about the event in The National Post. Read it here.

I have created some resources to compliment the Summer Days, Starry Nights reading experience. Please check out my resources page to find:

-Discussion questions and a list of related activities

-Pinterest Inspiration board- Here you will find a collection of images that inspire the setting, the clothes, and some of the characters in the book

-Playlist- I have pulled together some videos of artists and musical groups that are mentioned in the book or inspired the characters of Bo, Gwen, and Johnny

I am also available for school visits and have a quantity of Summer Days, Starry Nights bookmarks available for your schools and libraries. Leave me a message in the comments and I’m happy to put together a package for you (while supplies last).

 

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Thank You for the Borderlands: RIP Zilpha Keatley Snyder

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Zilpha Keatley Snyder, 1927-2014

When I was a kid I got a box of books at a garage sale. I don’t remember how old I was. It was the summer, possibly between grades 3 and 4, or 4 and 5- but I do remember that box vividly. I discovered some of my favourite authors in that box: E. L. Konigsburg, Judy Blume, and my favourite author of all time- Zilpha Keatley Snyder. At the time, Snyder was the wild card. None of my friends had heard of her. I took great pleasure in recommending The Stanley books, The Egypt Game, The Witches of Worm, and her fantasy series Below the Root to everyone I knew. I still read and love Snyder’s books. She is my greatest inspiration as a writer of children’s fiction.

What I love about Snyder’s books is that they deal so well with things that happen in between, in the borderlands between ages, genres, and perspective. Her characters were often somewhere between childhood and adolescence and she wrote in the spaces between genres. She was never just realistic, just fantasy, just historical. On her website, she even has a category of books called “Border Line Fantasy.” Now there is a writer ahead of her time. Sometimes the magic in Snyder’s books was real, sometimes it had a logical (non magical) explanation. Sometimes the ghosts were literal, other times they were imagined. With Snyder’s fiction I was never sure what kind of book I was about to read, but I knew that no matter what the subject matter or the ending, I would love it.

Many people have said and will say much more eloquent, specific things about Snyder and her work, like this lovely piece from PW, for instance. But I wanted to add my voice to the chorus of accolades because you don’t love an author the way you love one as a child. She is the kind of author I want to be. Every time I sit down to write a little part of me wonders if my work stands up to hers, if it would belong on the same shelf. So here is a list of some of my Snyder favourites:

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The Witches of Worm is about an ugly cat, adopted and loved by a girl who discovers that the cat may be possessed by a witch. This is a book that can be enjoyed equally by cat lovers and cat haters, a rare feat of fiction indeed. The story and some very creepy spot illustrations make it an ideal Halloween read. I have a memory of staying up way to late to finish this in bed and scaring myself silly. And I am firmly on the cat lover end of the spectrum.

The Egypt Game is about a group of children who create an elaborate fort and game based on the myths of Ancient Egypt, an innocent game taking place in the shadow of a recent string of child murders. This is a masterful book in terms of plot, atmosphere, and relationships, likely why it was a Newbury honour book. But it also had tons of detail about Ancient Egypt, which I couldn’t get enough of at the time. I desperately wanted to play my own version of the Egypt Game.

The Changeling is about two girls who meet in the woods between their houses and become friends. Martha, shy and conservative, and Ivy, wild, imaginative, and fearless, who claims to be a changeling child left by the fairies with her family, constantly in trouble with the law. Sigh. Doesn’t every twelve year old girl want a friend like Ivy?

Below the Root is the first book in The Green Sky fantasy series that takes place on a planet entirely covered by trees. I was not an avid fantasy reader but I could not get enough of this book. At the time it was one of the most beautiful, saddest stories I had read. I remember begging (badgering might be more accurate) the children’s librarian at the Woodstock Public Library to order it in because it wasn’t in our system.

The Stanley Family series, beginning with The Headless Cupid, is essentially a loose collection of stories about a blended family learning to get along and live together, with a good dose of mystery and suspense thrown in. These bear the hallmark of 1970s-1980s realistic children’s fiction that was issues driven, made extremely popular by Judy Blume. I wanted very badly to be part of the Stanley family’s antics.

Libby on Wednesday is about a girl who lives in an old mansion (this is a common theme in Snyder’s books) and has to put up with a group of eccentric writers who live and work there. This sounded like heaven to me and I couldn’t understand Libby’s reluctance to join their writer’s group. Despite this difference of opinion, I quite liked Libby and I loved this book. Also, as I learned as an adult, her depiction of writers’ workshops is spot on.

Season of Ponies is about a girl who meets a boy who lives with a herd of magical ponies. This sounds an awful lot like a premise for many of those glittery, sparkly early chapter books “for girls” about ponies, but the story is much deeper, earthier, and has a touch of The Secret Garden to it. Even I, avowedly not a horsey person, wanted to find Ponyboy and his horses.

The Velvet Room is about a girl who discovers a tunnel to a secret abandoned mansion full of turrets, plush window seats, and libraries. This place could have been dreamed up by Anne Shirley. Basically everything I ever wanted to find when I was nine years old.

The Truth About Stone Hollow is essentially a friendship story disguised as a ghost story, but it excels on both counts. Plus adding “The Truth” to any title pretty much guaranteed that I would read it. I loved (and still love) an implied lie. Who doesn’t want to find out the truth about things?

I’m not sad that Snyder has died because she had a long life and a wonderful career. What I hope is that people will stumble across eulogies and posts like this and feel inspired to pick up one of her books. You won’t regret it; she was a master.

 

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Feeling Halloweenish: 4 Spooky Books

It’s my favourite time of year! Pumpkins, black cats everywhere, clever costumes, and amazing ghost stories. What’s not to love about Halloween? Here is a round-up of some spooky, atmospheric and down-right terrifying books perfect for those of us who wait all year for October:

The Swallow by Charis Cotter

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If you’ve read Summer Days, Starry Nights you know I love the sixties. This period in Toronto is evocatively portrayed in this moody, unsettling ghost story by Canadian author Charis Cotter. The atmosphere reminded me of Janet Lunn’s old-school storey Double Spell, peopled with well-rounded Kit Pearson-esque characters.It’s hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. The stuffy, cloying house was particularly vivid, as was Polly’s large, rambunctious extended family. I will say that as an avid reader of ghost stories, this was a refreshing take on the genre. It is just as much a friendship story between two lonely girls as it is a spooky read.  Cotter captures the anxieties and frustrations of tweens very well.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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This collection of graphic (as in illustrated) short stories was pitch perfect. Emily Carroll is an acclaimed Canadian cartoonist/illustrator and I fully expected her art to be stunning. What I did not expect was her superb pacing and knack for telling really, REALLY scary stories. Definitely not the faint of heart, this collection is about the dark side of humanity as much as it is about ghosts, monsters, and ghouls. Her stories feel classic, like Poe or Irving, but they are original contributions to a tricky to navigate canon. This is definitely a book I will return to every October.

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

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This collection of poems based on fairy tales isn’t strictly Halloweenish, but it does suit the creepy, atmospheric October vibe. One of my favourite poetry collections is Transformations by Anne Sexton, which also retells fairy tales. Poisoned Apples is distinctly modern, with references to selfies, social media, etc, but witches and curses and classic fairytale tropes abound in this thought-provoking collection. Heppermann weaves in reflections on female teenage sexuality, empowerment, consent, and body image, with a number of startling images revolving around eating disorders. Poetry can have a particularly strong impact of teenagers, and with the word feminism being bandied about in the media these days, this collection provides an intimate space for personal reflection. Personal favourites include: Nature Lesson, Red-handed, and Transformation.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

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I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again. Auxier (another Canadian! Why are we so good at scary?) has a gorgeous command of language and he practically paints the story of two Irish orphans working in the world’s creepiest house with his words. This book lends itself well to reading aloud but can be equally enjoyed curled up in a chair with a mug of something warm. Like all good ghost stories, there are questions of life and death, right or wrong, and love, above all else, reigns supreme. A classic in the making.

What are your Halloween favourites?

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Fall 2014 Events- TPL, INSPIRE and Blue Heron Studio

Interested in marketing and publicity? Got a story up your sleeve you are dying to tell? Or would you just like to hear me read from one of my books? I have a number of fall events lined up. Hope to see you out there in the wild!

 

TPL Teens: Young Voices Conference

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Saturday, October 25th, 9-4pm, Toronto Reference Library

PANEL: HOW TO GET PUBLISHED

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WORKSHOP: HOW TO BREAK THE RULES

2:15-3:30

 

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Inspire Toronto International Book Fair is the new kid on the block in terms of literary events. For a one-time admission fee you can access three days of panels, book signings, and author interviews with the likes of Meg Wolitzer, Sylvia Day, Jon Klassen, and yours truly.

Saturday, November 15th, 3-4pm

Panel, Young Narrators in Contemporary Literature (also with Claire Cameron and Heather A. Clark)

Spark Stage

 

Sunday, November 16th, 4:30-5:00pm

Reading, Summer Days, Starry Nights ; Days That End in Y

TD Children’s Stage

 

Blue Heron Studio Workshops

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Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge is one of my favourite independent bookstores. Featuring a curated selection of books and an impressive roster of events and workshops, they are a destination for book lovers. I’m holding three workshops over the course of one weekend.

 

INSPIRED WRITING FOR KIDS

This is for kids who are interested in writing. There are stories all around us, waiting to be told. In this workshop kids will learn how to find ideas and develop stories by breaking all the so-called writing rules.

Saturday, November 29, 2-4pm

Ages 9-14

More info and registration here

 

INTRO TO MARKETING AND PUBLICITY

Writing a book is half the battle. In the digital age, effective self promotion isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. Many people feel overwhelmed by social media. Let me show you simple ways to develop your brand and make meaningful connections.

Sunday, November 30, 11am-1pm

Teens & adults

More info and registration here

 

ADULTS WRITING FOR THE CHILDREN’S MARKET

This frank, informal and interactive session includes writing and editorial tips and a look at the Canadian children’s book market from multiple perspectives.

Sunday, November 30, 2-4pm

Adults

More info and registration here

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YA to the Rescue: On Therese Casgrain & A Mad, Wicked Folly

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This disturbing piece of news about the Harper government erasing Canadian feminist and women’s rights activist Therese Casgrain’s name from an award (not to mention that her image was also removed from the $50 bill in 2012) made me feel many things. Angry, obviously. But also disappointed, uneasy, and incredulous. It’s easy to take the enormous achievements of Therese Casgrain and The Famous Five  for granted. This shameful debacle made me think of one of the best books about the struggles of the suffragette movement (also one of my favourite books of 2014): A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller.

Vicky is kicked out of her fancy French school when word of her posing nude gets round to the staff. She returns to London only to find her parents less than sympathetic. She is given an ultimatum: marry well, therefore erasing her scandalous past, or move to a remote town and become a spinster. What Vicky really wants is to be an artist, but the only way she can possibly pursue these dreams is to compromise by marrying the not-so-awful Edmund. But then a few choice encounters with members of the suffragette movement and a poor (but charming) police officer have Vicky second guessing everything.

I am a big Downton Abbey fan. Sybil is by far my favourite Crawley. What’s not to like about her progressive attitude, rebellious fashion choices (those harem pants!), or willingness to get her hands dirty in the name of helping others? There’s a lot of Sybil in the protagonist of this decadent historical YA novel, Vicky. She doesn’t start off as a suffragette, rather she becomes involved in their movement after a series of encounters with various individuals. Although she has strong feelings on women artists, she doesn’t immediately make the connection to the parallel political struggle. This felt true to a head-strong, self-centred (in a good way) teenage heroine. I liked this progression. It was well-paced and felt natural.

The supporting cast is excellent. There are no straight-up villains. Thought at many times I wanted to slap certain characters, Waller sheds light on their motivations and the result is nuanced, believable characters. If we want teenagers to be passionate about history and the struggles of our ancestors, there is no better way than to present them in an accessible, engaging, yet accurate manner. The book includes a fascinating historical note that outlines just how vicious the struggle became. Fans of detailed historical fiction and readers who are looking for an accurate portrayal of what women went through to get the vote will love this rich, compelling story.

A Mad, Wicked Folly is available in hard cover now from Penguin Canada.

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Nina LaCour, Patron Saint of California: Everything Leads to You Review

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This blog is in danger of becoming a Nina LaCour fansite, but I can’t  help gushing about her books. Her latest might just be her best one yet.

When Emi’s senior year ends, her brother gives her the keys to his sweet apartment for the summer, telling her to use the space and the time to make something extraordinary. Two opportunities arise, the first when Emi is offered her dream job as a production designer on an indie film, a project she truly believes in, and the second when an estate sale at the house of a reclusive Hollywood legend leads her to his secret granddaughter.

The love story, between two women, is tender and engaging, fraught with tension but without a lot of drama. The book isn’t about being a lesbian in love, but about love full stop. The more books we have where issues of diversity are seamlessly woven into the narrative and not singled out as “other” the  better. The novel is also about Emi growing into herself as an artist and a young professional. I particularly enjoyed the moment where Emi butts heads with her boss only to realize that her boss was right and she was wrong. Who hasn’t had that moment of creative righteousness, only to be humbled later on? This is a lesson we all can learn, particularly a young generation of people who have been told that everything they do is miraculous.

It is fitting that this book is about the magic and fantasy of the movies. The narrative unfolds like a fantastic indie film, the kind of movie I am always seeking but can never seem to find: funny, warm, character-driven, and gorgeous to look at. And nary a manic pixie dream girl in sight! It is a particular accomplishment to create such a lasting visual impression considering this is a novel with no visuals to speak of, only the ones LaCour conjures with her pristine language.

Everything Leads to You is about details, something I have always thought LaCour does better than her contemporaries. Just as Emi scours flea markets and auctions for the perfect couch or markets for the perfect botanical, one gets the feeling that LaCour has been just as careful in how she selects her words. There is something deliciously meta in the way that we get to experience LaCour creating a world in which Emi creates worlds.

I hope California adopts LaCour as their state laureate. In all three of her novels the topography and spirit of California is so strong it transcends setting and becomes a character. Francesca Lia Block made a name for herself as a sort of poet laureate or voice for LA, and I’ve come to associate LaCour with California at large. More, please!

Everything Leads to You is available now in hard cover from Penguin Canada.

 

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What to Read This Summer: Middle Grade

Here are some great recent/upcoming middle grade titles for the tween in your life, or, if you’re like me, your own inner tween:

 

The Glass Sentence

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Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series gets comped  a lot in fantasy, but this is the only book I’ve read in recent memory that lives up to it in terms of richness, ingenuity, and political intrigue. This is a gorgeous literary offering about a world that has been split up across time after the Great Disruption, meaning that different time eras are living next to each other. The various time zones/states have been living in relative harmony, although paranoia and suspicion has head to the borders being closed. I could just as easily have included this in the YA list, though technically it is middle grade. The finished copy of this book has all the wondrous trappings that book fetishists like me crave: maps, a velum slipcase, and embossing!

 

The Night Gardener

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Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? The latest book from Canuck Jonathan Auxier offers Irish orphans, a derelict Victorian mansion, a ghostly gardener and a potentially evil tree. Auxier’s language is perfect for reading aloud- though make sure your campers/children/friends are not faint of heart.

 

The Circus Dogs of Prague

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I was totally charmed by Rachelle Delaney’s first book about JR and the embassy dogs and the second is just as fun. Readers who prefer their middle grade fiction gentle, funny, and classic will love this series about dogs who travel the world and solve mysteries in exotic European capitals. This would make a great family read aloud, particularly for a reader adept at doing doggie voices.

 

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek 

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I’ve already raved about this teen memoir (which is technically YA), but I think in the hands of a 12 year old girl this funny, warm and smart treatise on what it means to be popular could work miracles. An ideal graduation gift for kids moving from middle school to high school.

 

A Snicker of Magic

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Author Natalie Lloyd does some fun things with language and description in this quirky read about magic lost and found. Readers who revel in words and their bookish-ness will have so much fun with this book. A little bit Chocolat (minus adult themes and Johnny Depp), a little bit fairy-tale, you really can’t go wrong with a town called Midnight Gulch and a protagonist named Felicity Pickle.

The Thickety

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What a great title! This complex middle grade tale has two of my favourite things: witches and a mysterious forest. In fact this is the second book on this list alone that features a spooky wood (The Night Gardener has The Sour Woods). Kay and her brother Taff have grown up shunned by their community after their mother is convicted of witchcraft. And when I say shunned I mean shunned. Some of the discrimination they face is cruel and upsetting. The only thing people fear more than witchcraft is the strange, dark wood that seems to be slowly overtaking the island. But Kay has always felt that the forest has called to her, and one day she ventures in…

Don’t be misled by it’s fairy-tale themes, this is a dark, harrowing tale that is more Brothers Grimm than Frozen.

Happy Reading!

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How Does a Story Grow?

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The lovely Kyo Maclear, author of inventive picture books such as Virginia Wolf, Mr. Flux, Spork, Julia, Child and luminous adult fiction (Stray Love, The Letter Opener) tagged me to take part in this tour about the writer’s process. Here goes!

1) What am I working on?

Two things! I’m going through a round of edits on my first picture book, to be published by Tundra Books in the near future, and finishing up an outline for a new middle grade novel that is decidedly X-Files-ish.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Voice is what sets books apart. Finding the right voice for a story can be challenging, but when you get it right, the story just sings. My voice isn’t any better or worse than any other writers’, but it is completely my own. When I taught creative writing I would tell my students that there is no such thing as a new idea, but what makes each story special is how it is told. I could give the same general outline to ten people and they would give me ten very different stories.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I veer towards the 9-12 age group because it was an important reading age for me personally.The middle grade years  were the richest reading years of my life. I was the furthest thing from a book snob, I would read anything and everything. In some ways, I am writing for my 11 year old self. I often stop and ask myself, “Do I like this story now? Would I have liked it when I was 11?”  I also think this time period is crucial in developing  identity and outlook on life. I am a big believer that what you read as a kid shapes who you will become as an adult (this might be a direct quote from You’ve Got Mail…)

4) How does your writing process work?

Normally I ruminate on something small- a name, a sentence, an image- until it becomes part of a greater story. The rumination (or percolation process, as I like to think of it) can take a loooong time. I think about a story until I get to the point where I absolutely must write it down or bust. I tend not to write in order, instead I jump into the scenes that interest me the most. Then I fill in necessary scenes as they crop up. This can make for some painful editing  sessions, but it keeps me engaged and on my toes and allows for those lovely surprises that happen while writing.

Next week, three of my favourite writers will be tackling the same questions:

Susin Nielsen has many adoring fans, but I count myself among her BIGGEST fans. Her books make me laugh, gasp, cringe and cheer. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

Megan Crewe is another Canuck I admire. Her books have big, speculative premises (ghosts, pandemics, alien invasions) but at the core, her stories are about the everyday realities of life.

 

 

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Tiger Eyes & Days That End in Y: I Heart the CBC

There are a million and one reasons to love the CBC, including this right here:

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First of all, what a total thrill to be featured on The Next Chapter, a fantastic program that has taught me so much about books, writers, and Canadian literature in particular. Shelagh Rogers is warm, funny, and a fantastic broadcaster. Secondly, there is NO praise more moving to me than to be compared to Judy Blume, who is arguably the most important contemporary writer for children. Big thanks to Brian Francis, a great author, blogger, and gentleman, for the shout-out. If you haven’t already done so, go pick up a copy of Fruit or Natural Order now. Among many astute observations, he has this to say about Days That End in Y:

“It’s about a father who is absent who comes back to town to seek reconciliation with his daughter, but it’s also about this girl’s relationship with her mother. That is what Vikki and Judy’s books are about: both these mother characters make mistakes and their daughters are reconciling to these mistakes, and understanding that their mother was doing the best she could do at that stage in her life.”

Listen to the full interview here

 

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What to Read This Summer- Picture Books

I have a soft spot for (and two entire bookshelves dedicated to) picture books. This summer reading list was probably the most fun to prepare. Whether you like mermaids, food, Jill Barber, cats, dinosaurs or meta-fiction, there is definitely a picture book out there for you and the wee ones in your life. Here are a few of my recent favourites:

The Mermaid and the Shoe

The Mermaid and the Shoe

Just about everything in this gorgeous book makes my heart explode. I love the sheer quirkiness of a mermaid (who, like all mermaids, has no feet) falling in love with a shoe. Poor Minnow seems to be the least talented of her 50 sisters, until an unusual object sends her on a quest and it turns out her talent is being an adventurer. There are echoes of the traditional Little Mermaid story, but K.G. Campbell‘s story has a much lighter and modern touch. IE: no one dies, no one gives up her voice for a man, King Triton is a real stand-up guy. If you’re a fan of fairytales, you’re going to love this subtle and lovely treat.

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Puss Jekyll Cat Hyde

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This hilarious book was pointed out to me by a dear friend and colleague who found it funny even though she claims to “not be a cat person”. Puss is loving, gentle and sweet. Cat is moody, prone to hunting, and destructive. Anyone who has lived with a cat will appreciate the humour in this story, which describes the duality of the internet’s favourite pet. The Puss/Cat dichotomy also presents some fun opportunities for read- alouds, ie someone reads Puss, someone else reads Cat, hilarity ensues!

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If You Happen to Have a Dinosaur

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Canadian treasure Linda Bailey is a skilled and funny writer of picture books. Colin Jack is up to the challenge of illustrating this very funny list of the various household uses of a dinosaur. This book belongs to that category of picture books where the reader is encouraged to think outside the box. Reading it brought to mind a favourite camp game of mine, “This is not a pencil, this is…” in which the group goes about re-imagining the pencil and its endless uses. This one will spark a lot of fun and multiple readings.

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Music is for Everyone

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I love Jill Barber’s music so it follows that I would love her picture books as well. But what makes this exploration of the breadth of music special are the illustrations by Sydney Smith (most recently of the Sheree Fitch picture book re-issues from Nimbus). He captures a folksy, 1970s vibe that seems appropriate for the spirit of the book- think School House Rock, but with a wider colour palette.

Julia, Child

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Oh what a difference punctuation makes! If the combination of Canadian gems Julie Morstad and Kyo Maclear doesn’t fill your heart with joy I don’t know what will. As she did in Virginia Wolf and Mr. Flux, Maclear takes a real life figure (in this case, Julia Child) and imagines a whimsical moment in her life. This book will instill a love of food and kitchen play as readers join a young Julia and her amazingly hip friend Simca on various food adventures. As a side note, I would wear every single one of Simca’s outfits IRL. Every. Single. One.

Open This Little Book

Open This Book

No picture book list is complete without at least one title from Chronicle Books.  They are the Anthropologie of publishers, offering crafty, unique books as art titles that somehow bear the Chronicle stamp despite being vastly different. At first glance I thought, ‘Here we go, another book about books, how many of these do we need?” I should have paid more attention to the fact that the innovative Suzy Lee was at the visual helm. Open This Little Book consists of a a series of books that introduce colours while getting successively smaller. It goes beyond the story within a story motif and will be treasured by adults and children alike. Check out the trailer below to get a sense of the magic:

 

Happy reading!

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