Vikki VanSickle on Writing, Reading & Other Pipedreams

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

Melancholic Perfection: Jane, The Fox and Me Review

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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.

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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.

BOOK PARTY ALERT!

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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!

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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.

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Sibling Revelry: Looking for Me Review

Edith is the middle child in a long line of brothers and sisters. When she is asked to write a poem about her family, Edith’s teacher points out that she has forgotten an important person: Edith herself. So lies the crux of this lovely little novel. Through a series of free verse (and a few more traditionally structured) poems, Edith chronicles the ups and downs of her family as she attempts to define her place in 1930s Baltimore.

This sweet book has a lot going for it.  This is an era that isn’t over done and the immigrant story still feels contemporary. Some of the monetary issues that were all too common place during the depression ring true in this period of recession. Author Betsy R. Rosenthal, who draws on her own family’s history (including family photos and a short afterward), does a good job exploring the various forms of sibling relationships. Sometimes Edith is ‘the Little Mother,’ looking after her younger siblings, and other times she is treated like Cinderella by her haughty older sister. No matter what your birth order is, there is a poem in here that you can relate to. There is a lot of strife and a lot of love in the family and the author does a good job giving a balanced view of family life.

There is some tragedy, which is handled with enough sensitivity that younger readers won’t be traumatized, but I appreciated how Rosenthal didn’t shy away from issues such as grief and a parent’s depression and how these things affected the family.  Some of the poems rhymed, which removed me from the narrative and somewhat disrupted the flow of the story, but this was a fairly minor issue and I doubt many kids would be as distracted by it as I was. Overall the book felt quite light and was a refreshing read.

This book made me think of this recent article in Publisher’s Weekly online about the lack of lighter-fare for the early middle grade reader. Looking for Me fits this niche to a degree, but has a bit more weigh than some of the early chapter books listed in the article. It’s a good book for young readers (6-8) who are advanced or older readers (9-12) who may be struggling. The large font, concise story, and prose-poetry format is accessible and non-intimidating. The family has a ‘Little Rascals’ camaraderie that reminded me of Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm and the movie Lost in Yonkers (an underrated family film set in the early 1940s featuring a scene-stealing Mike Damus). The family’s Jewish background and recent immigrant status also brought to mind The All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor.

Looking for Me will be available on hard cover in April from Houghton Mifflin Books, distributed but Thomas Allen Ltd in Canada.

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Packing A lot of Punch:There is No Long Distance Now Review

I spent a large portion of last Thursday tidying up my cubicle, which means shifting piles of ARCS from one shelf to another.* In the shuffle I found There is No Long Distance Now: Very Short Stories by poet and National Book Award finalist Naomi Shihab Nye.  It was exactly the kind of palette cleanser I was looking for. I cannot gush enough about this book.

Sometimes I don’t have the time to invest in a long novel, but I still need something to read that is satisfying and engaging. The short story is an elusive beast. A good one can take your breath away or make you feel as though you’ve been punched in the stomach. Both happened to  me again and again while reading this collection. Nye’s stories touch on grief, ghosts, racism, hope, depression, family, love, teachers, football, and everything in between. Stand-outs include Mailbox, about a girl who sends sympathy cards to her beloved choir director’s widow every Monday for her entire life and Allied with Green, about a girl’s love of all things green, a poetic story that contains one of the best lines I’ve read in awhile: “Tend was a more important verb than most people realize.” How true.

This book ideal for teens who want to be writers. It is a great place to start discussions about creativity, language, and form. Some of the stories are connected, some are not. Some feel very much in the voice of a teenager, others felt wise and poetic. It reminded me a bit of Sandra Cisnero’s wonderful The House on Mango Street. Both books occupy that funny space between YA and adult fiction and celebrate a love of language by skillful writers with a coming-of-age focus. This is the kind of collection I look forward to cracking open again, at which point I will probably find new insights. I desperately want Nye to write a YA novel. A peek at her back list promises other collections, both poetry and short fiction, to treasure. Some of the stories in this particular collection, though complete, felt like teasers for a bigger project. One can only hope that’s what she’s working on now.

There is No Long Distance Now is available in hardcover from Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

*I know, I know. It’s a rough job, but someone has to do it.

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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.

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The Twelve Books of Christmas: Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love read to me, this rhyming charmer!

There is nothing like a good rhyming text. When verse is well done, it’s hard not to get caught up in the rhythm of the story. A rhyming text should be fun to read aloud, and listeners are just as delighted by the word play as they are with the the story. This is definitely the case in Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.

The story begins when Mr. Willowby discovers that his Christmas tree is much too big for his house. So he cuts off the top and passes it off to his maid, who takes it home to her family only to discover that it’s too big for her house, so she cuts off  the top and so begins a domino effect in which the Christmas tree makes its way through a number of families, human and animal alike. Robert Barry’s whimsical illustrations perfectly suit his boisterous text and clever concept.

For more fun, check out the 1995 TV film based on the book starring such bright lights as Robert Downey Jr, the late Leslie Nielsen, and Stockard Channing. Yes, that’s right- Robert Downey Jr, in a children’s Christmas movie. Now you’ve heard everything.

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Re-thinking the Poetry Collection: Think Again

Perfectly moody cover for "Think Again"

When you work in a bookstore every day is like Christmas, especially when a shipment of new titles from Kids Can Press comes in! The first new book to catch my eye was Think Again. This book has so many of my favourite things I’m not sure where to begin. Poetry! Line drawings! Beautiful design! KCP Poetry! Let the gushing commence!

 Firstly, Julie Morstad. Oh how I love Julie’s illustrations. Somehow her images manage to be both melancholic and whimsical. There is a Gorey-ish tone to the illustrations in this book, and yet I am simultaneously reminded of Shel Silverstein’s wacky line drawings. How does she do that? In the world of children’s literature, Julie is most well known as the illustrator of the award-winning When You Were Small, which was the recipient of the 2007 Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award. Julie’s work has also been featured on album covers , graced art galleries, and even spruced up a wall or two.

Julie’s spare images work well with the simplicity of JonArno Lawson’s lovely poems.  Each poem is four lines long, having the effect of haiku; quiet observations on life that make the reader go “Hmmm.” Which brings me to the second amazing thing about this book- it’s published by KCP Poetry, the imprint that brought us the sublime and award winning Owl and the Pussycat, as envisioned by Stephane Jorisch, and more recently, My Letter to The World and Other Poems, a sampling of Emily Dickinson’s work illustrated with haunting acumen by Isabelle Arsenault. This little-imprint-that-could has garnered much critical acclaim and deserves a standing ovation for presenting poetry to young readers. I have the entire Visions in Poetry collection on my personal bookshelf, and each title is as brilliant as the next. So it’s not surprising that Think Again, a thoughtful and beautifully designed little book, is brought to you by the very same people.

Think Again is not just a collection of poetry. To the careful observer there is a story that develops between the poems, assisted by the illustrations, of a young man and young woman who meet, fall in love, and then part ways. At least I think they part ways. Part of the genuis of the book is the subtleties. Each reader will take their own version of events away from the poems.

Consider pages 16 and 17- two poems, on opposing pages, accompanied by the boy and the girl, each sitting on their own rock, separated by a narrow river, and of course, the divide between the pages. Although the poems (“My Dad” and “Are You Worried”) can be read and enjoyed independently, their placement and Morstad’s visual creates a conversation between the two. This particular combination of text and image capture that delicious moment in a relationship where people open up and share intimate thoughts with each other for the first time.

I can see this book appealing to young teens and aspiring writers and artists. This is the kind of book I would have loved to receive as a 13 year old, bookish and starry-eyed and ready to taste the world. It would make a lovely gift for a young person at an important moment in his or her life, whether it be a birthday, graduation, or a “just because” gift for someone who is having a rough go of it in the wilds of adolescence. 

Want a second opinion? Check out the Quill’s review!

Think Again, by JonArno Lawson and Julie Morstad, is available now from KCP Poetry, an imprint of Kids Can Press.

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A Touch of Red for a Winter’s Day

From "Red Sings From the Treetops"

A few weeks ago, while alphabetizing the poetry section at the store, I came across Red Sings from Treetops, a most extraordinary work of picture book art. Pamela Zagarenski’s art is vibrant and surprising. She has a playful, very European style. Every time I open the book, something new pops out at me in the illustrations. Her work captures the essence of Joyce Sidman’s loving and original ode to both seasons and colours. I have read a lot of poetry, and what makes Sidman stand out from the rest is the fresh and surprising imagery she conjures with her pristine and thoughtful word choice.  I’m still mooning over this image:

In the winter woods,

Gray and Brown

hold hands.

Their brilliant sisters—

Red, Orange, and Yellow—

have all gone home.

Gray and Brown sway shyly,

the only beauties left.

The teacher in me is reeling with all the potential creative projects that stem from this book. What does yellow smell like in spring, in winter? Which colour is the meanest? Which one is the life of the party? What sound does purple make in a snowstorm? It is a wonder I was able to get back to work.

Red Sings from Treetops is one of those books that demands reverence. You must find a friend, sit, and take turns reading it aloud to each other. I’m not the only one who loves this book. Check out the glowing blogger reviews at Shelf Elf , Fuse#8, and  7Imp . Just this week it was named one of the Caldecott Honor books. Well done, Houghton Mifflin, well done.

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