Vikki VanSickle on Writing, Reading & Other Pipedreams

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

The Twelve Books of Christmas: The Polar Express

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love read to me this magical masterpiece!

In some ways, it feels ridiculous adding this book to the list. The Polar Express is pretty much the first title that comes to mind when people talk about Christmas picture books. But I am of the staunch belief that just because something is popular and possibly canonical, doesn’t mean it should be ignored.*

For those who haven’t already been touched by this magical masterpiece, the story is quite simple: a train rolls up outside a young boy’s window on Christmas Eve and takes him, along with a number of other children, on a special ride to the North Pole**. There, the boy meets Santa and is allowed to choose one gift. Being the sensitive type, the boy asks for a bell from Santa’s sleigh. When it’s time to board the train home, the boy is devastated to discover that he has lost the bell. But this is a Christmas book, and when he awakes on Christmas morning, the boy finds that Santa has left the bell under the tree.

In a stroke a genius, the boy and his sister can hear the bell, but his parents hear nothing. The boy, also the narrator, mentions that as his friends grow up, they stop hearing the bell, but it still rings true for him, “as it does for all who truly believe.” What a perfect, metaphor for the complexities of faith, magic, belief, and growing up.

If I could be reincarnated as an author/illustrator, I would want to come back as Chris Van Allsburg. His books exist in that magical space between awake and dreaming where anything is possible, the strange is made believable, and the familiar is made strange. Much like Santa’s bell, his books resonate with children in a way that adults can’t really understand or hope to experience. The Polar Express perfectly captures, in text and illustration, what it means to believe in magic.

Needless to say, The Polar Express is a staple of not only my Christmas book collection, but my picture book collection. I recently bought the 25th anniversary edition, which comes with a beautifully produced audio version, fully orchestrated, and narrated by none other than Liam Neeson***.  Take it from me, reading along with Liam while sipping something Christmasy is a recipe for the perfect December evening.   

*This debate happens all the time with the Harry Potter books. Do you include them on Best Of lists, or do they exist on a completely separate plane that is beyond Best Of lists? There is a spot for Harry on my list, in any case.

**Shades of Starlight Express, a musical I loved as a child. Starlight Express came out in 1984 , The Polar Express in 1985. Coincidence, or conspiracy? Or rather, what was it about the early 80s and magical midnight train travel?

***Talk about kids lit mash-ups. Aslan reading The Polar Express? Too perfect for words.

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The Twelve Books of Christmas: Melrose and Croc Together at Christmas

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love read to me, this friendship story!

There are many stories about Melrose (a little yellow dog) and Croc (a little green crocodile), but this one is my favourite. Both Melrose and Croc are excited about Christmas, but wish they had someone to share the holidays with. A string of disappointments leads them both to a skating rink, where they crash into each other and a new friendship is formed.

 In general, Christmas books fall under three categories: religious/spiritual, the importance of friendship/community, and miracle stories. Like The Christmas Giant, this is a story about friendship. This story works well for children as young as 3 because the plot is straightforward, the language is very clear, and the emotion resonates with the anxieties of very young children. For example, when Croc arrives at the department store only to discover that Father Christmas is no longer there, Clark comments that, “Croc felt like crying, but he didn’t want people to see.” The simplicity and authenticity of that line gets me everytime.*

This is a very British story, in which Santa Claus is Father Christmas and everyone wishes each other ‘Happy Christmas.’ There is something about British storytelling that works very well with a snowy Christmas tale.  It helps that I have a weakness for animal characters that speak perfect Queen’s English

*Don’t worry. This terrible, horrible, no good very bad day has a lovely ending. It IS  a Christmas story, after all.

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The Twelve Books of Christmas: The Christmas Tapestry

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love read to me, this poignant Polacco!

Patricia Polacco’s books are an entire course of children’s literature unto themselves. They are a teacher’s dream- stories about communities coming together, triumph after hardship, and extraordinary acts committed by ordinary people. Her books are well-written, beautifully illustrated, and tug at the heartstrings. These strengths are perfectly suited for the tall task of Christmas book creation.

In The Christmas Tapestry, Jonathan’s father has taken over a ministry in Detriot and the whole family is preparing for their first Christmas when a  snowstorm ruins the wall behind the altar. Things start to look up when Jonathan and his father find a tapestry to cover the wall, bringing about a reunion between two Holocaust survivors who had used the hand-stitched cloth as their wedding canopy.

The Christmas Tapestry takes the idea of the Christmas miracle to a whole new level. Much like Elijah’s Angel, the overall message in The Christmas Tapestry, as it is in all of Polacco’s books, is of peace and tolerace. The kicker is in the author’s note, which references a number of real-life sources for the story, which is sure to warm the heart of even the most sceptical Scrooge.

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The Twelve Books of Christmas: Shall I Knit You a Hat?

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love read to me, this quirky heartwarmer!

This is a lovely reminder that Christmas is about the people we share it with. When she hears about a blizzard, Mother Rabbit makes a special winter hat just for Little Rabbit. He loves his hat so much, he decides that all of their friends should receive lovely, handmade knit objects for Christmas. Mother Rabbit and Little Rabbit design a unique creation for all the special people in their lives. At first, the animals don’t know what to make of her quirky creations. But it turns out they are just right for a snowy day.

Kate Klise’s language is gentle and lovely. You can feel the love and respect Mother and Little Rabbit have for their friends in her careful choice of diction. M. Sarah Klise’s illustrations are vivid and rich, adding extra warmth to this cozy story. For all you knitters out there, the book comes with a pattern so you can make your own hat for your own Little (or Big) Rabbit.  

This book strikes a chord with me because like the animals in this story, I am also lucky to be surrounded by many thoughtful, special people in my life who are especially skilled at selecting (or making) the perfect personalized gift. One of those such people is my multi-talented roommate*, who provides the world wide web with a daily dose of men’s style at Daily Haberdashery. With out urban family Christmas just around the corner, I look forward to our own cozy Christmas, which is sure to be as lovely as the one depicted in this sweet, off-beat gem.

*I actually have two multi-talented roommates who both happen to be online, one doing the crafty thing, the other the fashion thing. I am fortunate to live with such wonderful, creative, supportive people.

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The Twelve Books of Christmas: Elijah’s Angel

On the third day of Christmas, my true love read to me…this Chrismukkah* classic!

This is just as much a Hanukkah book as a Christmas book. In fact what I love the most about this story, is how it celebrates both faiths. Elijah is a local barber with a gift for carving. Michael loves spending time at Elijah’s barbershop, watching him carve, and doing some whittling of his own. He wants nothing more than to save up and buy one of Elijah’s carved animals, but when Elijah gives him an angel carved especially for him, Michael doesn’t know what to do. What is a Jewish boy supposed to do with a graven image of a Christian angel?

Author Michael J. Rosen has created a beautiful story about friendship, regardless of differences in age, ethnicity, or religion.  If there was ever a single story that encapsulates ‘peace on earth,’ this book is it. Rosen’s language is rounded and soft and his story is sensitively told. Michael’s anxiety about not wanting to anger God but also not wanting to hurt Elijah’s feelings is believable and touchingly rendered. Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s paintings are richly coloured and full of warmth.

 And if all that isn’t enough for you, the character of Elijah in the book is based on a real man, Elijah Pierce (1892-1948), who was a friend and mentor to both author and illustrator. Robinson and Rosen have created a beautiful gift to honour a dear friend. Children will love knowing that the story is rooted in reality, which makes the story even more toucing.

*Wikipedia assures me that this is a term real people use, not just characters from the now defunct TV show The O.C.


The Twelve Books of Christmas: The Christmas Giant

On the second day of Christmas, my true love read to me this crafty classic!

 Humphrey the giant and Leetree the elf have a lovely friendship. Not only are they the best of friends, they have the distinguished job of making the wrapping paper for all of Santa’s gifts. This concept allows author/illustrator Steve Light to create some of the cutest and craftiest problem-solving illustrations I’ve ever seen. Adorable elf  wearing  stamps on his feet to decorate wrapping paper? Yes, please! But once their job is done, Humphrey and Leetree are sad. That is until Santa entrusts them with the momentus task of growing and caring this year’s holiday tree for Christmastown. But when an unexpected disaster occurs, Humphry and Leetree find themselves improvising, and the result is both clever and satisfying.

Light’s simple, effective text emphasizes opposites in a complimentary way. Humphrey and Leetree may be opposites, but together they are the perfect team. When caring for the tree, Humphrey trims the high branches and Leetree trims the low ones. Humphrey moves the big rocks, and Leetree pulls the small weeds. There is much fun to be had with this text. Light provides lots of opportunity for playful voices and interaction when reading aloud.

This is just as much a book about friendship and problem solving as it is about Christmas. Don’t forget, picture books are not just for kids! The Christmas Giant is an excellent gift for the crafty adults on your list. I know my crafty roommate just loves it. Her work is just as adorable as Humphrey and Leetree’s creations. Check it out here.


The Twelve Books of Christmas: Wombat Divine

It is Christmas, a season of lists and countdowns (among other things). So to satisfy my need to list things, I present The Twelve Books of Christmas. I will be blogging about my 12 favourite seasonal books, in no particular order. So without further adieu…

On the first day of Christmas, my true love read to me…this Mem Fox classic!

For those who are looking for a gentle Christmas story with traditional content AND Australian animals, look no further than this sweet Aussie story about lovable Wombat who desperately wants a role in the nativity play. Kerry Argent’s warm illustrations perfectly capture the hope and enthusiasm of roly-poly wombat as he inadvertently causes havoc at every stage of the rehearsal process. Your heart will go out to poor wombat as the roles become fewer. But there is a role that wombat is perfectly suited for…and it is arguably the most important role of all.

Mem Fox’s text is sensitive, gently humourous, and contains a satisfying conclusion. Not that this is surprising. The sublime Mem rarely takes a mis-step where picture books are concerned. But equally enchanting are Kerry Argent’s illustrations. She is especially good with faces. Wombat’s expression will tug at your heartstrings and make you laugh out loud.

FYI- Wombat Divine would make an excellent puppet play, should you be so inclined…

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Ode to the Long Format Picture Book: Snook Alone

Even a cat person like me can fall in love with a face like this

This post could just as easily be an ode to Timothy Basil Ering, the master illustrator who gives such warmth and wonder to this story.Mr. Erling is the man who gave those charming, inquisitive features to Kate DiCamillo’s littlest hero from The Tale of Despereaux. He is also responsible for the artfully scribbled, chaotic mess that is Frog Belly Rat Bone. Let’s not forget Necks Out for Adventure, an odd but touching  story about a “wiggleskin”* (clam) who risks his life to find his family. It is safe to say that Erling is quirky.

His illustrations combined with Marilyn Nelson’s poignant text makes for a beautiful piece of picture book art. Snook is a little dog who lives with an old monk, Abba Jacob. Their lives are quiet and predictable until Abba Jacob is asked by the Society for the Preservation of St. Brandon’s Atoll to assist with the cataloging of plant and animal species on a series of islands. Snook accompanies Abba Jacob, only to be accidentally left behind on the island of Avocaire. Fear not, gentle readers- monk and dog are reunited in the end, as depicted in the most lovely image of joy ever to grace a children’s picture book.

 Marilyn Nelson’s text is full of lush description and genuine reverence of the natural world. The setting is exotic and provides excellent source material for an author with an aptitude for poetry. Nelson introduces all sorts of plants and animals that young readers (or listeners) will no doubt want to learn more about. In fact, the story reads as an ode to the natural world. While his beloved master is around, Snook is content to be his shadow, following at his heels and hunting mice and rats.  But when left to his own devices, Snook’s routine changes, as does his outlook on life. His days are full of the sights and sounds of turtles, sharks, tropical plants and a truly terrifying land crab. Snook’s separation from Abba Jacob is gutting, but it is during this separation that his eyes are truly opened to the wonders of the world. It also makes their eventual reunion that much more poignant. Snook Alone is perhaps a meaningful story for parents who are teaching their children to deal with separation anxieties.  

I love longer format picture books. They make great family read alouds, the kind of book you want to keep on hand for rainy days at the cottage or cold nights by the fireplace at Christmas. Some of my favourites include The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico and featuring divine illustrations by Angela Barrett and Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep, Eleanor Farjeon and Charlotte Voake’s ode to skipping. I would even go so far as to include Shawn Tan’s innovative Tales From Outer Suburbia on this list, though the style and format is more pastiche than it is a traditional narrative. Snook Alone is a welcome addition to this collection of artful and heartfelt comfort reads.

Snook Alone is available now in hard cover from Candlewick Press.

*Most adorable moniker for a not-so-adorable creature

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She Shoots, She Scores: Splinters

Something tells me Hayley Wickenheiser would approve

It seems every season each Canadian publisher has something hockey-related to offer. Most of these books fall under non-fiction or boy-friendly middle grade. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the number of hockey books for kids that are published in Canada. But a Cinderella story featuring a disadvantaged hockey phenom? That is different.

The Cinderella in this charmer by Kevin Sylvester is Cindy Winters, a resourceful and talented girl who plays hockey at every chance she gets. But leagues are expensive (how true), and so she scrimps and saves until she can afford to pay her own way into a local league. The step sisters in this tale are the goon-like Blister sisters, whose biased mother also happens to be the coach. When super-star Charmaine Prince announces the formation of an all-star team, Cindy fully expects to be sidelined once again. But then her fairy goaltender arrives to save the day, complete with new skates, new uniform, and a gleaming Zamboni to really arrive in style.

Fairytales are bent every which way these days to fit an author’s concept. This is not always successful. The unlikely combination of hockey and Cinderella is a winning example of fairytale adaptation done right. Kevin Sylvester makes all sorts of cheeky nods to the original Cinderella. Prince Charming, for example, becomes Coach Charmaine Prince. When given brand new skates, Cindy quips, “Not glass?” to which her fairy goaltender replies, “Not very practical for hockey.”

Splinters mixes the whimsy of fairytale with the action of hockey. It’s a great family book; one that everyone will enjoy reading. In addition to feel-good fairytale justice, there is adrenalin boosting action, culminating in a countdown and final goal that will make listeners want to stand up and cheer.  Sylvester’s narrative style is clean and full of keenly made observations. For example, hockey makes Cindy’s “feet tingle, her hands twitch, and her heart race.”  Sylvester’s illustrations are funny and charming and perfectly compliment his warm-hearted text.

With this crowd pleaser and the release of the second title in the Neil Flambé series, Neil Flambé and the Aztec AbductionKevin Sylvester is poised at the beginning of a very good year. I have had the pleasure of seeing him in action when he dropped by the Flying Dragon to talk to our after school bookclub, and believe me when I tell you that a Kevin Sylvester presentation is not to be missed. Stop by Word on the Street in Toronto on Sunday, September 26th at 4:00pm to see what I mean.*

Splinters will be available in hard cover from Tundra Books on September 13th.

*Coincidentally, I will be hosting the kids’ tent, so be sure to say hello!

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2010 Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

This one is probably the closest race, sort of like the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actress, which is always the most varied and interesting collection of performances in any given year.

The Delicious Bug is playful and fun and makes kids laugh out loud. Janet Perlman, she of the fabulous Penguin fairytale books (The Penguin and the Pea, Cinderella Penguin, The Emperor Penguin’s New Clothes) brings her trademark oddball sense of humour to this tale of two frogs debating over who saw dinner first. This is an adaptation of the Oscar-nominated Perlman’s animated short, Dinner for Two. Prepare to giggle!

Me and You is probably the most charming  picture book I’ve read all year. It’s a simple, tender story of two friends, a rabbit and a pig, wanting to be more like the other. In anyone else’s hands this story could come off as excessively cutesy or sweet, but Genevieve Coté is a genius. Her touch is light and comedic and her style is instantly recognizable. I love her illustrations so much I even have some of her French language books, such as La Grande Aventure d’un Petit Mouton Noir , despite my previously mentioned abysmal French.

You’re Mean, Lily-Jean combines the talents of two major players in the Canadian picture book world, Frieda Wishinsky, who (along with Marie Louise Gay) took home this prize for Please, Louise! in 2008, and Kady MacDonald Denton, who also has the distinction of creating the whimsical graphics for the store. Wishinsky’s stories combine genuine childhood experiences with just the right amount of whimsy, whether the protagonist is dealing with annoying siblings or a bossy neighbour. She is sensitive to children’s anxieties, and MacDonald Denton’s expressive characters are a perfect match for Wishinsky’s well-rounded protagonists.

Our Corner Grocery Store, by debut author and TPL librarian Joanne Schwartz and illustrator Laura Beingessener is the most traditional of the books on this list,  and a favourite among  the many grandparents who purchased this book for their grandchildren at the store this Christmas. It was warmly embraced for it’s portrayal of a community within an urban setting. Certainly kids everywhere can relate to the idea of a family run business in their midst, and the muted colours and gentle language make this a cozy, comforting read with lots of illustrative detail for kids to pore over.

Timmerman Was Here, with its echoes of Miss Rumphius, is a quiet story about a girl dealing with the displacement of her beloved grandfather, and also a cautionary tale about judging others too harshly. The storytelling is subtle and requires a more experienced reader to fully grasp the many levels the book is working on. It would be an excellent book for a grade one or two class room read aloud, with lots of points for discussion. The rich, saturated colours of illustrator Nicholas Debon’s palette adds to both the young protagonist’s mood and the sense of mystery in the book.

Verdict?  Too close for this gal to call! One thing is for sure, the Canadian picture book is in great shape!

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