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

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

Puss Jekyll

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!

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.