SOMEHOW I got all through childhood with very little love for picture-books. To me they were for people who couldn't read. That all changed with my own stint as a parent. I remember with awe the day my partner brought home two great piles of oddly shaped hardcovers from the local library. Quickly I learned picture-books are great connectors. You sit a full-grown man down with a tiny toddler in his tap and if you have a really good picture-book you suddenly have commentate. Few art forms can stretch their appeal to include such a diversity of ages and backgrounds. On one level, of course, there is the power of the art, which, if it is evocative enough, transcends text and reaches all. But if you've chosen your picture-book really well, you might have one of those gems of minimal language that impart music, poetry, parable, and magic all at once.
This cannot be said, unfortunately, of The Fabulous Chocolate Chip Cookie Machine (Moonstone, 24 pages, $7.95 paper), by Michelle Illiatovitch. My elder son grabbed this book and started reading it himself before I could get to it. His taste has grown in recent years to include role-playing quest manuals, comic books, and Tolkien, but he still loves a picture-book. Upon reading this one, though, he uttered an expletive that I would not be proud to print here. Reading the book myself later I understood his reaction. The story is awkwardly told, with unnecessary asides and inexplicable transformations. I am a surrealist. I love the leap of language and idea, but I could not jump with this one. In fact I wondered at first if a page might be missing. In one paragraph they are putting chocolate chips in someone's ear and in the next - without invocation of magic, or explanation of sorcery, or follow-up of any kind the children are turned into thin-tizzy robots who successfully make a whole whack of chocolate-chip cookies. Of course this culinary result is attractive to a broad range of sweet-toothed children, but to my mind it's inappropriately achieved. Unfortunately Jackie Garlick's illustrations do little to enliven this experience. They are colourful but awkwardly rendered. I disliked this book, but in all fairness I must report that my four-year-old asked me to read it again.
Thelma Poirier's The Bead Pot (Pemmican, 40 pages, $9.95 paper) tells the story of a Cree great-grandmother who upon her death bequeaths to her granddaughter a pouch that has the mysterious ability to refill itself overnight with new beads. This is an evocative image, and in the hands of a more experienced storyteller it might have been developed more fully. There is some merit to the simplicity of the story as it is, but it cries out for more tension and conflict. Nona Foster's crayon illustrations are inconsistent in quality, but are at their best when capturing the transformations of landscape and people over a 20th-century lifetime.
My experience of ferry-boat rides on the coast of British Columbia is regrettably limited and admittedly romanticized. Greta Guzek's "child's paint-box" renderings of The Ferryboat Ride (Nightwood/Harbour, 28 pages, $14.95 cloth) effortlessly convey some of the beauties and magic of this world of islands and boats and whales Robert Perry has the enviable task of knocking off some barebones four-line rhyming quatrains to accompany these magical depictions. He does this with unobtrusive simplicity and the occasional clever line, such as "Do you believe / in ferry tales / of seeing pods / of flying whales".
For slightly older children, Doctor Knickerbocker and Other Rhymes (Kids Can, 72 pages, $16.95 cloth) brings together "more than one hundred of the best, funniest, most memorable and naughtiest schoolyard rhymes." Collected by the children's literature and drama specialist David Booth and his 12-year-old son, Jay, these rhymes vary from tum-of-the-century doggerel to a parody of a modern-day Smarties ad. Lamentably missing from the collection is the Brian Mulroney variation on the Tiny Toons song that I've heard identical versions of from coast to coast. Other modem commercial song parodies might have made this a more immediate and naughtier collection, but one suspects the omission is as much a matter of copyright and economics as it is of taste. For anyone looking for wild lyric beauty or transcendent poetic wisdoms, this book is not the place to go; but if you just want some of the sauce and disrespect of the child folk-mind, dip in and browse, not only through the verses but through the abundant black-and-white illustrations provided by Maryann Kovalski.
Also for older children is The Snoring Log Mystery (Polestar, 96 pages, $10.95 paper), written by Todd Lee and illustrated by Jim Brennan. This book is not really a mystery in the traditional sense. Fortunately it's not a snore, either. Told in an amiable, simple style, these anecdotes of wilderness experience blend fact and folklore to recreate a 1950s childhood spent on a ranch in the Cariboo area of B.C. There are tales of bears, shrews, timber wolves, geese, hummingbirds, and porcupines that resonate with the authenticity of real-life experience. Along the way they communicate a reverence for and engagement with nature that is rarely overstated or preachy.
The Official Kids' Book of Baseball (Random House, 144 pages, $12.95 paper) will fill you in and catch you up on everything you never thought you'd need to know about baseball. Accessibly written by Godfrey P. Jordan, nicely laid out and welt illustrated, it includes tips on how to play and what equipment to use, along with a brief history and some fascinating but little-known facts about the game. For those of us who were only recently introduced to such terms as R. B. I. and at-bat the book contains a handy dictionary of baseball terms, which my elder son has already successfully utilized several times. Did you know that most balls are used only once during a professional game and that the average team goes through 12,000 balls in a season? That's a tot of balls!
Milan Tytla's Come to Your Senses (All Eleven of Them) (Annick, 96 pages, $9.95 paper) offers children a chance to experiment with their senses using "readily available household items." In the process Tytla, who is an experimental psychologist specializing in vision, offers facts about the senses that children will find fascinating and useful. My children, for instance, were very gratified to discover that children have "many more tastebuds" than adults. This is a fact that has been recalled several times since, usually at the supper table. Given that the book offers a somewhat serious examination of the equipment we use to decode and interpret "reality," it is remarkable how much fun it also provides. True to their advertising, the experiments are easy, convincing, and can usually be conducted with readily obtainable, inexpensive materials and a minimum of muck. Come to Your Senses is a first-rate activity book with plenty of easily digestible food for the mind that gives children first-hand experiential lessons in the relativity and foibles of our sensory equipment. Attractively laid out with ample black-and-white drawings by Chum McLeod and plenty of browsing panels and asides, it is sure to enlighten and interest not only children, but also any adults lucky enough to be reading along with them.