What I Read in 2016: Picture Books

I value my picture book collection the way that Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler values her files: deeply, though you wouldn’t know it by my lack of an ordered cataloging or shelving system. Here are some of the books published in 2016 that made it onto my shelves this year.

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Panda Pants  is a dialogue between a young panda and his father. The little Panda is set on a pair of pants. The father is unconvinced. The silliness is tempered by a dead-pan delivery and a touch of philosophy. Like Zen Shorts, if conceived by the Comedy Network.

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My Friend Maggie is another fantastic offering from Hannah E. Harrison. All of her books have the emotional realism of Kevin Henkes’ work and her illustrations GLOW. This book isn’t just kid-friendly, it strikes a deep, deep chord. I’m not a crier, but this book makes me tear up every darn time.

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Miss Moon lives in a beautiful, well-mannered world of dogs and dresses and boating parties that I would also love to live in. In Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess, Janet Hill’s collection of life lessons are accompanied by her distinctive oil-paintings and would be a great gift for dog lovers, graduates, or people with a taste for whimsy.

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Sara O’Leary is grand master of the list poem. In A Family is a Family is a Family she lists a wide range of families, accompanied by Qin Leng’s delicate illustrations of the small pleasures of domestic life.

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Jo Ellen Bogart’s quietly magnificent The White Cat and the Monk is an ode to work, peace, and stillness. Even non-cat lovers will admit that there is something delightful in a monk comparing his daily routine to that of his cat’s. Illustrator Sydney Smith does a great job getting into the head of a cat and demonstrates why his work keeps turning up on award lists.

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Lion Lessons is begging to be turned into a piece of theatre. A boy studies to be a lion with an actual lion. Simple, funny, genius. Jon Agee’s books are on my auto-buy list.

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Just when you thought there were no new ways to tell a first day of school story, Adam Rex comes along with the perspective of a new school building in School’s First Day of School. Christian Robinson’s bright, retro art helps make this brand new book feel like an old favourite.

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My favourite debut of the year is Ooko, by author-illustrator Esme Shapiro. Foxes abound in children’s books, but never has a fox been so sweetly delusional before. A quirky friendship story with a twist. Bonus human leg hair!

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Julia Sarda’s colour palette of rich jewel-tones and Goth-meets-Art Deco sensibility is an unexpected but brilliant pairing with Kyo Maclear’s fable about a list-making family. Maclear tends to be paired with airier, more whimsical illustrators, but The Liszts is proof that her canny text works just as well with a darker, earthier art style.

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In Scribble, child-whisperer Ruth Ohi imbues simple shapes (circle, square, and triangle) with matching personalities who are thrown for a loop (shape pun!) when scribble arrives. The book works on two levels, as both a story about learning to accept other’s differences and also as an ode to imagination.

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There will always be a desire for counting books and Lucy Ruth Cummin’s A Hungry Lion or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals adds an element of mystery and dark humour to this tried and true formula. In a post-Klassen/hat eat hat world you may think you know the twist…but DO you?

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Thanks to Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick I have always been drawn to topiaries (yes, even after The Shining). The Night Gardener features some pretty fantastic creations and captures a sense of wonder and possibility in a spare text accompanied by old-timey, sepia-toned illustrations.

Middle Grade Gift Suggestions 2016

Last week I got to talk to one of my favourite people, Ann Foster, about middle grade fiction. When not working at the Saskatoon Public Library recco-ing kids and teen books, she is writing about fashion in TV over at You Know You Love Fashion (currently chronicling the enviable wardrobe of Phryne Fisher) and spearheading a number of podcasts, including Radio Book Club and You Were Going to be Fantastic.

Ann and I met on a book jury and we still love to find reasons to talk about books. Now you can hear us do that in this episode of Radio Book Club. The topic was near and dear to my heart (middle grade!) and I was happy to wax poetic about my fail-safe picks for this holiday, featured above.

Grab a cup of your favourite hot seasonal beverage and take a listen:

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/smy9s-655461

Follow Ann on twitter to learn about her many bookish and pop-culture endeavors

Magical Contest Alert: Win a Custom Illustration of your Pet!

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How much do you love that little guy? Now imagine YOUR pet with the fantastic beasts treatment!

November is the month of fantastic beasts, and the good folks at Penguin Random House Canada are running a wonderful contest to celebrate all things magical.The prize? A signed copy of If I Had a Gryphon AND a custom illustration of your own beloved pet (with some magical additions) by illustrator Cale Atkinson! I wrote If I Had a Gryphon as a primer on the pleasures and perils of magical pet care after seeing the vast numbers of kids at storytime who were a tad too young for Harry Potter or the wonderful Candlewick “Ology” books (Dragonology, Mythology, etc).

To enter, tweet a picture of your pet using the hashtag #IfIHadaGryphon before November 25th, 11:59pm EST. You do *not* need to include the book in your picture, just your pet being adorable will do!

I  cannot wait to see all your pet photos in my twitterfeed.

Contest open to Canada & the United States. Full rules here.

 

 

Middle Grade Monday: The Wild Robot

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You may know Peter Brown as the author-illustrator of the very funny Children Make Terrible Pets, My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I Am Not) or the earnest and lovely The Curious Garden. In his first middle grade book The Wild Robot Brown asserts himself as a deft novelist, with a fresh twist on the classic survival story, told with insight and lots of heart.

The concept of a robot (Roz) waking up in the wilderness and learning to adapt is simple but genius. The novel unfolds as one might expect- animals are suspicious of robot, robot wins animals over, and in her hour of need those animals come to her aid- but the delight in this novel comes from Roz’s ingenuity and the Brown’s animal characters. At first the animals fear Roz, calling her unnatural and a monster. Roz patiently explains that she is a robot, not a monster, and wins over the creatures one by one by asking for their advice and assistance. She compliments opossum on his superb acting (i.e. playing dead) skills, enlists the beavers to help build her a lodge, takes gardening advice from the deer, etc.

Brown is very careful with his portrayal of animals. They are not so humanized that their natural instincts or qualities are ignored, but they are perhaps more cooperative than they would be in a nature documentary. Chitchat the squirrel is charmingly verbose and scatterbrained. Fink the fox is charming but sly. There are a number of truces the animals agree on- the daily Dawn Truce and a celebratory Party Truce- that allows natural enemies time and space to safely discuss island matters (what to do with Roz, how to survive a particularly harsh winter, etc). I love this concept. By providing the conceit of the truce, Brown is  able to be true to fox, badger, pike, and bear’s natural hunting instincts outside the safe space.

The most central relationship- and the one that allows Roz to develop the deepest understanding of friendship, parenthood, and love- is between Roz and her adopted “son,” Brightbill the gosling. Following an accident in which Roz kills the rest of Brightbill’s family before he is hatched, she assumes responsibility of the gosling’s care. The reader watches Brightbill grow from a runt to a champion flyer. Much of the poignancy of the novel comes from these two, such as the scene where the young goslings are being chased in the water by a hungry pike and Roz is watching, helpless, or the scene where they decide to switch Roz off to see what happens.

The narrator reminds us that because she is a robot, Roz does not have emotions. Her delivery is neutral, bordering on dead-pan which is both funny and endearing. Because Roz doesn’t have feelings the reader feels protective of her, and our empathy is cranked up into overdrive. Roz’s goal is to fit into her community. When the animals debate what her purpose is, she states that perhaps she is meant to help others. She starts to imitate the animals and starts acting like she has emotions, and by the end of the book we believe she does have them.

Survival stories are not a new middle grade trope, but they seem to be popping up this year in a variety of re-imagined ways. In Pax we have a boy and a fox learning to survive without each other in environments completely outside of their element. Roz, never having other experiences, believes the island is her home and adjusts to it accordingly. For example, when Roz learns about camouflage she covers herself in mud and plants, resulting in a poignant illustration of a walking, robot-shaped garden. After an accident causes her to lose a foot, the animals help fashion her a new one out of wood, sap and vines. There is something about the camaraderie on the island reminded me of E.B. White, particularly The Trumpet of the Swan. There are also hints of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Giant and even Disney’s Bambi.

Brown’s prose is straightforward and without artifice. He does not milk emotional moments. At times he points out maxims or greater truths, but they are presented without fanfare. In this way he emulates Roz, but he also gets to the brutal truth of the animal world. There is no dressing up or philosophizing on good or bad, right or wrong. The world is what it is.

I would be remiss if i did not mention the gorgeous packaging featuring lush Pacific- Northwest greens and the very simple silhouette of Roz on the mountain. There are effective spot illustrations inside, though I found myself wishing they were in colour, or featured in tipped-in illustrated plates. The Wild Robot is a classic in the making and worthy of such luxury treatment. It has already garnered four starred reviews and will win over the hearts of readers as well. Like Roz, Peter Brown has entered into a new  landscape and is not only surviving, but thriving. Justifiably so!

The Wild Robot is available now from Little, Brown.

Kids’ Books Recommendations- Classical 96.3 FM

BookBday

This week is my book birthday and boy am I spoiled girl! Check out the incredible cake made by colleague Barb, senior manager of advertising and design at Penguin Random House Canada. It was just as delicious as it was beautiful and certainly made this author feel loved.

On Thursday I dropped by the Classical 96.3 FM studios to chat about my book, If I Had a Gryphon, as well as some of my fave new books from PRH Canada. A version of this segment will air tonight, Friday February 12th, around 7:30. If you’re not in the GTA you can check it out online here.

Over-scheduled Andrew by Ashley Spires

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How do I love Ashely Spires‘ latest book? Let me count the ways. Humour? Check. Adorable characters? Check. Timely and relatable scenario? Check. Bagpipes? French film club? Musical Theatre? Check, check, check. This story about an over-scheduled chickadee will feel familiar to busy families. A good book is the start of a conversation, and Over-scheduled Andrew encourages families to talk about the pleasures of slowing down and being “free to be distracted.”

Miss Moon: Wise Words From a Dog Governess by Janet Hill

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It’s hard to come up with an age range for this beauty of a book because it truly is for everyone. The pairing of Stratford-based artist Janet Hill‘s lush oil paintings of sophisticated Miss Moon and her dog charges romping around their estate on an island off the coast of France with pithy life lessons will hit the spot for so many people: children, dog-lovers, art collectors, recent graduates. True story: while prepping for this interview I spent alot of time drooling over Janet Hill’s etsy shop and purchased myself this print, which is how I’d like to think I look when reading *my* Nancy Drews:

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For older readers, I chose two books on a theme that feels especially pertinent in these long winter months: survival.

The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence

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Canadian writers have defined the survival narrative. Iain Lawrence‘s latest is a contemporary addition to the literary canon of Man. vs. Nature, pitting Chris and Frank against the wild when they are stranded off the Alaskan coast after a boating accident. The book is gritty and tense, with welcome moments of comedic relief in the form of antics from a raven named Thursday. A wonderful companion for the millions of Hatchet (Gary Paulsen) fans out there.

The Rule of Three: Will to Survive by Eric Walters

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Child-whisperer, Order of Canada recipient and best-selling author Eric Walters is at his best with this “it could happen to you” survival story of a suburban neighbourhood dealing with a drastic lifestyle change after all power (computers, phones, automotive, etc) is cut and shows no sign of ever coming back. The dangers here come from people, not environmental or weather-related factors of The Skeleton Tree. The first book in this series, The Rule of Three, earned Eric the 2015 Red Maple award and readers have been impatiently waiting this concluding installment.

Thanks for having me, Classic 96.3 FM!

IF I HAD A GRYPHON: EVENTS!

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What’s in the bag? Do you know any young pet detectives who could help me solve a magical mystery?

I’ve been gathering props and breaking out the vocal exercises all in preparation for events and storytimes across Ontario for IF I HAD A GRYPHON. Come join me (and maybe a magical creature or two) on the following dates for stories & activities:

Tuesday, Feb 9th, 10:30am, Chapters Brampton, Storytime & Signing 

Saturday, Feb 13th, 11am, Chapters Ajax, Storytime & Signing 

Sunday, Feb 14th, 11am, Indigo Yonge & Eglinton, Storytime & Signing 

Saturday, Feb 20th, 2-3:30pm, TPL Lillian H Smith Branch, Book Launch  Storytime

Saturday, Feb 27th, 11am, Chapters Guelph, Storytime & Signing 

Sunday, Feb 28th, 2pm, Cardboard Castles, Creemore, ON, Storytime & Signing

Monday, Feb 29th, 6pm, Thornton Public Library, Storytime & Signing

Saturday, March 5th, 11am Chapters Milton, Storytime & Signing

Saturday, March 12th, 10:30-noon, Woodstock Public Library, Storytime & Signing

Middle Grade Monday: Pax

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I have always wanted a Direwolf of my own, so perhaps it is of no surprise that the last two books I’ve read have featured wild dogs: wolves in Wolf Wilder and foxes in Pax. What better way to explore humanity, our relationship with the wilderness, and our kinship with animals?

I am a long-time Sara Pennypacker fan. I greatly admire an author who can swing from laugh out loud, pitch-perfect early chapter books (hello, Clementine!) to elegiac, sophisticated and heart-rending middle grade novels (enter Pax). The novel alternates between the perspectives of Pax (a fox) and Peter (a boy). Pax’s sections quiver with life and observation of the natural world. Peter’s ache with yearning and a frisson of rage. The balance creates excellent suspense and makes for tense yet thoroughly enjoyable reading.

There is a hint of The Fox and the Hound in this narrative about a boy who must turn his beloved Fox who is thoroughly domesticated loose in the wild. The opening chapter, in which Peter is forced to leave Pax at the side of the road and drive off with his father, cuts deep and lets the reader know that they are in for some emotional reading. Pax’s loyalty, good heart, and ignorance of both the wilderness and war makes him both martyr and potential victim, yet it is these same qualities that allow him to grow and ultimately triumph.

At times I was far more worried about Peter- wracked with guilt, trying desperately to not turn out like his angry, violent father, and truly alone in the world- until he meets Vola. An ex-soldier, sequestering herself in the woods partially to come to terms with her actions and partially to remember who she was before the war, Vola constantly references the “cost” of war. The war that is coming is never defined, but one gets the sense that it is happening now. Pennypacker deftly illustrates this cost on the land and wildlife, something that I think is often overlooked in books. Pax’s experiences and descriptions of burnt grass and soiled water hammer the message home. A convincing argument could be made that people are bad, and Pax’s new friend Bristle certainly has many reasons why she doesn’t trust them. But Peter proves that some people can be trusted, that fox and people can coexist. If only we could get over our inclination towards war.

Pax is not an easy book. Bones and hearts break and heavy truths are learned. But it is beautiful and moving. Fair warning to anyone who has loved a pet, some sections will be hard to read. I found myself on the verge of tears for much of Pax. But don’t be afraid of an emotional read- in fact we should be telling children not to be afraid of an emotional read. True catharsis through reading is rare but powerful.

Pax is available in hard cover from Harper Collins.

*I read an ARC of this book which did not contain much in the way of artwork and so I cannot comment on Klassen’s illustrations, yet I imagine they will do much to establish tone and deepen the emotional resonance of Pax as his work did in The Nest. Pro tip/trend alert: if you want to elevate a middle grade novel to the level of contemporary classic, make sure you have illustrations.