Melancholic Perfection: Jane, The Fox and Me Review


At this point Jane, The Fox & Me has collected so many accolades that I am just one more voice in the choir. The story of a girl who feels bullied and so retreats into the world of Jane Eyre only to be enchanted by a fox appeals to me in all possible ways. I loved the design of the book so much I almost bought it in the original French, despite my French skills being somewhat lacking. Thank goodness the smart cookies at Groundwood Books jumped all over a translation.

Fanny Britt’s text (translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou) is intense and internal and feels like a long-form poem. There were no obvious translation quirks, in fact the prose is quite rhythmic and has lovely poetic moments. Isabelle Arsenault is the perfect illustrator for this kind of prose, having worked with the lovely and lyrical Kyo Maclear on various projects in the past, such as my beloved Virginia Wolf. 

In Jane, The Fox & Me, our narrator Helene constantly refers to herself as fat, and the main source of her bullying seems to be about her weight. Yet in the illustrations she appears quite thin. Some critics have said that this misrepresentation is harmful to readers and that by calling a slim girl fat is perpetuates unattainable body issues. However, I interpreted this difference as reflective of how Helene (and many young girls) sees herself. We, the reader, see her as average, but she cannot see herself as anything but fat.


The muted colour-scheme does much to set a melancholic tone. Even the Jane Eyre sections, though punched up with brighter shades of red and blue, are quite somber. I also love the quirky French-ness of the book, which to be is summed up in a forest green bathing suit with sailboats. How French is that?

I love that Jane Eyre makes Helene happy. It is a rare bird that finds joy in this bleak tale, and yet adolescent girls time and time again find themselves siding with Jane. Perhaps it has something to do with the smart, miserable girl finding love. This book has no love angle but instead ends in new-found friendship.  Geraldine is a bit of a manic pixie dream friend, arriving in a cabin full of misfits and transforming them with her joy and kindness, but it does speak to how transformative a friendship can be at this age.

Jane, The Fox & Me is available now in hard cover from Groundwood Books.



If you’re in the Toronto area this Saturday, November 9th you can come celebrate books like this and more at the 35th Birthday Party Celebration for Groundwood Books at the Lillian H. Smith Library from 1-4pm. There will be crafts, readings, and birthday treats from the ever-festive Small Print Toronto.  I will be reading from a Marie-Louise Gay classic. Hint: it stars a cat. Would you expect anything less of me? See you there!


Picture Book Inspired DIY Projects: An Ode to My Roommate

My roommates are better than yours. I don’t say that boastfully, but out of much love and truth. Take for example, my she-roommate, Rebecca. In between running three camps and mentoring hundreds of young women every day, she makes the best birthday gifts.

It is a well known fact among those I love and those who read this blog that I love picture books. I love them so much I often wish I could live inside one. Rebecca is doing her very best to make this dream come true.

Exhibit A: HOW TO PAINT A PORTRAIT OF A BIRD by Jacques Prévert, ill. by Mordecai Gerstein

This illustrated version of a French poem in translation is one of my favourite picture books. This simple poem about creativity and patience has special relevance for me as a writer, and these delicate but colourful illustrations are perfection. Having listened to me gush at great length about this book and my undying love for it, Rebecca went ahead and embroidered a canvas for me for my birthday. Here it is, living happily atop my sassy teal typewriter, Miss Smitty*:

Rebecca is no amateur crafter. Check out the detail on the bird:

And the quotation:

Pure loveliness! As if that wasn’t amazing enough, we move onto this year’s gifts.

Exhibit B: CAT’S NIGHT OUT by Caroline Stutson, ill. by Jon Klassen

I’m not personally acquainted with wunderkind Jon Klassen, but if I was, this is the book he would have created for me, should he create picture books for his friends in his spare time. In short, it features cats in poodle skirts and saddle shoes dancing in an urban setting at night. Savvy Rebecca, knowing me well, took cues from Klassen and created me this amazing mug BY HAND! It features cats dancing…

…and a fun quotation from the book about cats dancing!

I’ll spare you all of the cat-related puns that come to mind, but this mug may be too pretty to use!

Exhibit C: WHEN YOU WERE SMALL by Sara O’leary, ill. by Julie Morstad

The subtle but dynamic pairing of O’leary and Morstad helped define the look and pedigree of Canada’s art-house picture book publisher Simply Read Books. When You Were Small, the first of three books featuring charming and inventive conversations between a parent and child that somehow manages to not be even the slightest bit twee, holds a special place in my heart.

How can you not love how Julie Morstad depicts sweet and inquistive Henry, re-created here by Rebecca on my own, custom-made porridge bowl:

Or love Sara O’leary’s imaginative responses to every-day kid questions?

I am truly lucky to have such a talented, thoughtful friend in my life who knows me so well she can come up with gifts I would never even think to ask for. These gifts are not only lovely to look at (and functional!) but are personal, one of a kind, and precious to me. And yes, for those savvy readers out there, this Rebecca is the same Rebecca mentioned in the dedication of Love is a Four-Letter Word. For these gifts (and many other reasons), she deserves it, no?

*The wine bottle lamp was also made by a friend, the inimitable Michael David Reansbury, Library Tech Extraordinaire, who knows that I will enjoy wine with a cat on the label more than any other wine, simply on principle.

Introducing a New Canadian Picture Book Dream Team: Virginia Wolf Review

I have a rather impressive collection of picture books; some people buy art for their walls, I buy art for my shelves. Picture books serve a variety of purposes and can be many different things, but when text, image and package come together perfectly there is nothing more magical than a picture book. I don’t often review picture books, not because I don’t love them, but because they aren’t my specialty, but this one is so achingly beautiful I wanted to share it with the great wide world.

One day Vanessa’s sister Virginia wakes up in a terrible mood. She shouts at everyone, shies away from bright colours, and wants to be left alone. She is so wolfish that she has in fact turned INTO a wolf! Vanessa does everything she can to cheer her sister up- bringing her the cat, playing the violin, offering sweet treats- but nothing works. Eventually Virginia admits to wanting to fly away to a perfect place- Bloomsbury. Vanessa has never heard of Bloomsbury, but while Virginia sleeps, she paints a garden full of flowers and animals on the walls of the room, imagining what this perfect place must look like. When Virginia wakes up, she joins her sister in creating their own Bloomsbury and the two sisters go outside to play. Virginia’s mood has lifted, and she is back to being a girl again.

Virginia Wolf is not a typical subject for the picture book crowd. Virginia Wolf isn’t really a picture book biography, either. These books, though illustrated, tend be be text heavy and full of facts, aimed at a slighter older audience. Virginia Wolf will resonate with the 4-7  year old set in a way that traditional picture book biographies generally do not. Instead of a biography, it is a re-imagining of a moment in Wolf’s childhood, creating a portrait of the artist as a young child. You don’t need to know anything about the Wolf sisters to love the book, but fans will appreciate the subtle nods to their childhoods. On the most basic level, this is a story about a girl who has a bad day and how her sister brings her out of it. You don’t need to know Wolf’s stormy history of depression to appreciate the story. Children will delight at how Virginia’s mood actually turns her into a wolf, and the colourful and imaginative resolution.

This is a gorgeous and imaginative take on sisters, moods, and artistic expression. There are lots of books about children who throw fits, but this is far more imaginative and sensitive than a simple moral story about learning to control your temper. This is about bad moods or depression from a child’s perspective, and Vanessa’s solution is appropriately child-like and speaks to Virginia’s inner conflict, as well. Throughout the book Vanessa takes Virginia’s feelings seriously, never telling her to get over it or cheer up. What a lovely story about recognizing the feelings of others. There are other examples of books where children turn into animals, sometimes as a result of behaviour or a lesson they need to learn, but somehow the combination of these two skilled artists makes the book feel fresh.

Kyo Maclear must thank her lucky stars every day that she was paired with Isabelle Arsenault. Her text, though very clean and spare, has a touch of whimsy, and Arsenault is able to draw that out in her illustrations. During the doldrums phase of Wolf’s bad day, there are smudged charcoal drawings, long dark shadows with little colour and lots of white space on the page. As Vanessa begins to create Bloomsbury, her palette explodes with yellows, greens, and reds. The white space disappears almost completely, replaced by wild floral scenes that extend to the end of the page.

This is the second collaboration for Maclear and Arsenault,who made waves with Spork, about a little utensil who was not quite spoon, not quite fork (if you’ve read Maclear’s adult novel Stray Love– and you should, I reviewed it here– you know that the themes of belonging and being of mixed heritage come up frequently in her writing). Spork was cute and well-rendered, but Virgina Wolf takes their collaboration to a whole other level. Maclear & Arsenault* are a Canadian dream team producing dreamy picture books. If this book is not nominated for a Governor-General’s award I will be feeling rather wolfish myself.

Virginia Wolf is available now in hardcover from Kids Can Press.

*Has there ever been a more Canadian pairing of names? ‘Maclear & Arsenault’ sounds like it could have been the subtitle for the film Bon Cop, Bad Cop.

Porcupines are the New Penguins: Picture Book Trend

A few years ago it seemed like every other picture book featured penguins, and why not? Penguins can be cute, funny, resourceful, family-oriented, quirky, survivors, or figures of environmental tragedy. Think of Tacky the Penguin, Oliver Jeffer’s Lost and Found, Karma Wilson’s Don’t Be Afraid, Little Pip and many other books featuring penguin protagonists. Thanks to movies like Happy Feet and March of the Penguins, you couldn’t help but see them everywhere.

Lately I feel like I’ve been seeing less penguins and more porcupines. I get it- porcupines, at least when rendered in children’s book illustration- are adorable. I mean look at that image of Pearl! So cute, so joyous! So perfect for picture books!  There is much fun to be had with the prickly/difficult to love aspect of the porcupine, and not being able to give or receive hugs is especially tragic to the under 6 set.

From Paul Schmid we have the adorable Hugs from Pearl, the protagonist featured above, soon to be followed by Percy’s Big Idea:

A sketch from the up-coming Percy's Big Idea

New Canadian Christmas classic A Porcupine in a Pine Tree by Helaine Becker replaces the stuffy old partridge of 12 Days of Christmas Lore with an almost cuddly looking porcupine, as rendered by Werner Zimmerman:

Mr. Prickles: A Quill-Fated Love Story (Kara LeReau and Scott Magoon) is the story of two porcupines who find love despite trials and tribulations (in the form of some mean-spirited woodland creatures) along the way:

All of these recent books owe much to the 1989 classic A Porcupine Named Fluffy, interestingly enough brought to you by Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger, the same team who created the Tacky the Penguin books. Clearly this duo has a magical ability to create picture book trends:

Fluffy is rocking some rad hair in this cover

And just in case you were concerned that the cute factor of porcupines was being misrepresented, here is a video of a young porcupine with the hiccups that will put your fears to rest. Why are animals infinitely more adorable when they have the hiccups?

At the Top of my Christmas Book List: Zoe’s Christmas List Review

Christmas book lovers are a divided bunch. On one side, you have the people who actively seek out a new Christmas picture book for their collection every year. This is a particularly lovely tradition and one that I partake in with my 28 year old roommate (you’re never too old for picture books). Then you have those staunch traditionalists who prefer the tried and true classics and think new Christmas books are just a savvy marketing ploy to get people to buy more books (is this really such a bad thing? Can you have TOO many books?) To both groups I present Zoe’s Christmas List, a lovely book sure to please both camps.

You may know Zoe and Beans from the delightful series of the same name by Mick and Chloe Inkpen (yes, THAT Mick Inkpen of Kipper and Wibbly Pig fame. Chloe is his uber-talented daughter) Zoe is an imaginative toddler with Oliver-Jeffers-esque stick legs and Beans is her scruffy dog. In Zoe’s Christmas List, the pair head off to the North Pole to ensure that Father Christmas (British for Santa) gets her Christmas list which has only one entry: a Kylie Kurlz doll. Along the way they run into perhaps the cutest polar bear in children’s illustration. Because he seems lost, Zoe invites him along on the journey. They make it to the North Pole, but a storm blows up and the intrepid trio has a near disaster on the way home.

As with all of the Zoe and Beans books, Zoe’s Christmas List is about friendship. Kylie Kurlz, the doll of Zoe’s dreams and the only thing on her list, is forgotten when Little Bear is in danger. Finding a new friend is the best gift of all, though Father Christmas comes through in the end with a surprise for Zoe.  The design of this book is exquisite, starting off fairly sparse and then becoming busier and busier as the snow storm gets worse. I especially love the pages on which Zoe, Beans and Little Bear are reflected in the water. There is a delightful three page fold-out featuring Little Bear’s marathon swim

How can you not love Zoe and Beans?

The Inkpens do some fun things with language while keeping the story simple and straight forward. The narrator imparts important lessons without seeming condescending, such as “Did you know that when sticky tape gets wet it loses all it’s stick?” This is the kind of practical lesson a young child appreciates. I also enjoyed the moment of internal rhyme when Zoe offers Little Bear a sandwich: “Ham? Or jam?” You can read this to a very young child (2 or 3), but older children (5 or 6) will find the story just as comforting and charming. Zoe’s Christmas List is a  much welcome addition to my Christmas collection, and it will be to yours, too.

Looking for other great contemporary Christmas books? Try one of these, from my 2010 Twelve Books of Christmas Round-up:

The Christmas Giant

Wombat Divine

Elijah’s Angel

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree

The Christmas Magic

Double the Tails, Double the Fun:The Melancholic Mermaid

I am so excited to introduce you to this marvelous new picture book written by a dear and talented friend of mine. At it’s heart, The Melancholic Mermaid is about two children who feel outcast due to physical abnormalities coming to terms with themselves through an unlikely and touching friendship. It is also funny, magical, and marks the arrival of an exciting new voice in Canadian picturebooks, Kallie George.

Maude is a merbaby born with two tails. Even though her parents insist this is a blessing, she feels quite the opposite. Tony is a boy with webbed hands. Fate brings them together at a cruel circus, where Tony is forced to clean Maude’s tank and realizes that those bubbles rising from her face are tears. Together, the two of them make a brave dash for the ocean, in search of their own personal brand of happily ever after.

It is clear that George is a student of fairytale masters such as Hans Christian Anderson and Oscar Wilde. The narrative style and structure of her story, which is divided into sections with such lovely titles as “The Tears of Bubbles and How They Began,” are very traditional.  What makes this tale contemporary is the inclusion of loving adults, in the form of Maude’s devoted parents. Generally good parenting is hard to come by in fairytales, a fact which is brilliantly parodied in the title of a recent collection of fairytales for adults, My Mother She Ate me, My Father He Killed Me. There is also a happy ending  for both Maude and Tony, though not a romantic one, and the absense of a horrible bloody death, something that can not be said about the Grimm’s or Anderson’s fairytales.

George’s gift is her imagination, which is evidenced not only by her concepts and storytelling, but by her language. It is fresh and charming, though never cutesy. She has the ability to surprise and delight the reader with unexpected turns of phrase. This makes it an excellent read aloud. Lucky for George, Abigail Halpin’s illustration are well suited to her story; both dreamy and understated, which allows the text to shine.

There has been a lot of debate lately regarding whether or not picture books are dying out. According to articles like this one, parents are pushing their children to read novels at a younger age, therefore shrinking the already small window of time that children enjoy picture books. This saddens me. Picture books are lovingly crafted and mutli-layered works of art that celebrate story, language, art, and design. Sharing a picture book with a child is one of the things an e-reader will never be able to simulate. I don’t understand why learning to read at an earlier age and books with pictures are suddenly mutually exclusive, but perhaps the stop-gap will be filled by well-crafted longer format picturebooks like The Melancholic Mermaid.

Having known and worked with Kallie for a number of years I could not be more proud. This is truly a book to treasure, and I know many young people (and their parents!) who will not only enjoy The Melancholic Mermaid, but beg for multiple readings.

The Melancholic Mermaid is available now from Simply Read Books.

Haiku vs Twitter: Guyku

January has started with a bang! With so much going on, it’s easy to feel a little snowed in AND snowed under, which is why Guyku was such a lovely reprieve. There is nothing as satisfying as a really great haiku poem. I would like to think that we are on the brink of a haiku-volution. Surely a generation that has been so quick to embrace 140 characters in the form of tweets can appreciate a haiku, which at first glance is similar in length but is so much more satisfying to the soul than twitter?

 Bob Raczka’s poems are arranged in seasons, which is common among poetry books for children. Less common is the ease of which he combines a playful spirit, love of the natural world, and wonder in the strict form of the haiku. His poems flow so naturally that I had to double check to make sure he was adhereing to the haiku rules. Just try reading this without smiling:

Hey, who turned off all
the crickets? I’m not ready
for summer to end

Or this:

If this puddle could
talk, I think it would tell me
to splash my sister

Raczka’s tone is perfectly suited to illustrator Peter H. Reynolds, most well known for The Dot, Ish, and So Few of Me, though he has written and illustrated a host of other enjoyable books. His is the rare ability to write picturebooks that speak to both adults and children, in which the message is strong but the method is delicate. 
There is a folksy sort of wisdom in this book (not in a Sarah Palin’s Alaska kind of way, more in a hotdogs and summer dams and tree climing kind of way) that I worry is becoming foreign for many children these days. With the rampant overscheduling of our children and the push for them to achieve more at an earlier and earlier age, I worry that the only frog catching and bike racing and tree climbing that kids will do is vicariously through  reading books such as Guyku. The world Reynolds and Raczka create is fun, simple and full of rural pleasures- don’t let this world become extinct! You can start by sharing this lovely book with a guy (or girl) in your own life.