I DON'T KNOW what it says about me, but out of all of the beautiful, glossy, radiant children's books I got for reviewing purposes, my six-year-old daughter has picked Ma Mere est bizarre (Ragweed, unpaginated, $5.95 paper) as her favourite. It is not a quiet favourite, mind you, but a resoundingly assured favourite, as in "I Love This Book, This Is the Best Book." Ma Mere est bizarre is a French translation by Raymonde Longval of My Mother Is Weird by Rachna Gilmore. It tells the story of a young girl's reactions to her mother's moods. It shouldn't surprise me that my daughter likes this book so much, as she is very fond of describing her own moods as well as other people's moods. Once, she was asked by an unsuspecting grown-up if she would like to be a writer like her mother when she grows up. She replied that no, she would never want to be a writer. "Writers," she said, "just sit there all day and get grumpy at the end" While this succeeded in producing a few pounds of mother-guilt, it still struck me as a very apt description of what it is to be a writer.
The mother in Ma Mere est bizarre is not a writer, but she sometimes wakes up weird and grumpy. And 1 mean weird. The girl describes her mother as having horns on her head, long, pointy teeth, and a voice like a jack-hammer. But after she has her first cup of coffee, the mother's horns and claws usually retract and her voice returns to its normal dulcet tones.
One morning, however, the toilet is blocked, the top of the girl's toybox breaks off, and there is no coffee in the house. The mother is in a foul mood and the girl, smart as a whip, decides to cut her losses and go and visit her friend Mane. Marie's mother is always nice. She never shouts, she has a honeyed voice, and she smells good. The trouble is that the girl has never visited Marie unannounced.
When she gets to Marie's house, she discovers that Marie's mother, who's been up all night with Marie's baby brother, also has her moods, exemplified by horns, claws, etc. Gilmore's writing strikes the perfect tone, and Brenda Jones's illustrations are hilarious. The story has a nice but realistic resolution, and Jones's illustration of the girl -and her mother hugging suggests the palpable energy of human connections.
Gail Chislett's Melinda's No's Cold (Annick, unpaginated, $14.95 cloth, $4.95 paper) goes for a different territory, the territory of fantasy and puns. It is effective because we can never underestimate how arbitrary and peculiar language seems to young children, and anything that plays around with dual meanings brings delightful shocks of recognition. Told in rhyming lines, this is the story of two sisters, Melinda and Cynthia Sweeting. They are unnaturally poised and well-behaved. until they get sick. Chislett has fun punning with the "no" in a nose cold, and plays around with the flying ("flew") in flu, and the various expressions of sickness.
(Throwing Lip could be throwing things around; the cold going into Melinda's chest could mean that it went into her chest of toys; getting hoarse suggests getting a little horse, and so on.) While all this may seem a little contrived, I am here to vouch that it cracked Lip my daughter. The illustrations by Helene Desputeaux are pretty and imaginative renderings of the puns. My only problem with them is that the descriptions of the girls are not reflected literally in the illustrations, and that Caused some frustration and confusion. A minor cavil. The book can serve as a nice catalyst for exploring other expressions and puns.
I seem to have a deep attachment to Tundra Books, and the folks at Tundra seem to have a deep attachment to winter. (William Kurelek's Prairie Winters and scenes in Canadian Childhoods come to mind.) Toronto offers few delights in winter: most often the light is like a grey wash that hangs over the city for months. In contrast, so many of my Montreal childhood memories are full of physical hallucinations of snow falling, of snow pushed into huge banks, of the crunch of boots on packed snow, of snow folding over mansard roofs and fences and cars like whipped cream. Roch Carrier's A Happy New Year's Day (Tundra, 24 pages, $14.95 cloth) is a nice antidote to the grey wash. The illustrations by Gilles Pelletier are beautiful examples of the deceptively naive Quebecois folk-style. They capture, like no illustrations I have ever seen, a child's drawing perspective, and are consequently incredibly evocative. His details are fabulous, and his stiff-limbed people with noseless faces are alive with a child's feeling. I found myself staring at his illustrations over and over again, getting involved in the shimmering details of every scene. This is wonderful stuff, and it is what makes Carrier's text come alive. The original version of A Happy New Year's Day was published in the Montreal Gazette, and the story is a simple remembrance of a New Year's Day in 1941 when the writer was four years old. It is straightforward, not as self-consciously humorous or charming as Carrier's usual writing, but the customs are worth recalling, as is the sense of ritual and occasion around this particular holiday. When asked for her opinion of this book, my daughter took a deep breath, and paused. "This is," she said, "a beautiful book"
Although What Do the Fairies Do with All Those Teeth (North Winds/Scholastic, 24 pages, $13.95 cloth, $4.95 paper) was declared "a baby book," it nevertheless delighted a six-year-old. With just a few words to a page, it is intended for the younger set, and the story by Michel Luppens (translated by Jane Brierley) is simply a series of whimsical questions about the fate of all those baby teeth, e.g. do the fairies string them into necklaces?, make them into saws? It's the funny illustrations by the Governor General's Award-winner Philippe Beha that make this book such kin. His fairies are squat, mischievous grinning things who look like they're having a lark.
Fans of the poet P. K. Page will be interested in Wisdom from Nonsense Land (Porcepic, unpaginated, $9.95 paper). This lovely little book is a reproduction of a book her parents, Lionel and Rose Page, made for her and her cousins. Lionel wrote the little, old-fashioned verses - homilies, really - in 1918 while serving in the trenches, and Rose did the watercolours on rag paper that she then stitched together. The conceit of the verses has to do with various beasts (The Hiccup, The Accident, The Greed, The Tummy Ache, The Temper) or delights (The joy, The Smile, The Littlesleep, The Love and Fun) that can visit a child and what the child should do with them. The watercolours have the tender quality of home-made things, and the production qualities of this strangely moving little artefact are very good. The sensibility is very much of its time; the writer divides various states of being into good or bad things, whereas we are much more likely to accept states of being as weathers that come and go. But there is nothing harsh or punitive here. It's interesting to see what two obviously exceptional parents would create for their child during what must have been an acutely stressful time. My daughter was quite intrigued by the whole thing.
The last three books I'm going to mention have many things to recommend them, but they didn't grab us like the others did. The story in Travels for Two: Stories and Lies from My Childhood (Annick, unpaginated, $16.95 cloth, $6.95 paper) strains a little bit too much for my taste, but it is beautifully illustrated by Stephane Poulin, who also wrote the text. It's the story of a mother who wins a trip for two to a cruise in the tropics, and the mother decides to take the whole family. They hide away in a plane, parachute down to a desert island, and have various simple adventures. The story just kind of sits there in a resplendent production.
Charlotte Hutchinson's Mr. Sweetums Wears Pink (Ragweed, unpaginated, $5.95 paper) concerns a cat, Mr. Sweetums, who belongs to three frilly sisters who like to dress him up in fluffy pink. He is mortified by all this attention, but when they dress him up as a ballerina, Mr. Sweetums discovers a passion for ballet. Brenda Jones, who did the illustrations for Ma Mere est bizarre, does a good, humorous job, and Hutchinson's writing is okay, but it's one of those books that feels too self consciously cute.
Waiting for the Whales (Orca, 32 pages, $16.95 cloth) on the other hand, was deemed beautiful, but sad. An elderly man who lives alone on the West Coast is passionately attached to the orca whales he sees from his house. His daughter and
grandchild come and live with him, and he passes on his knowledge to his grandchild. The grandfather dies. The story, by Sheryl McFarlane, does its best to show as the book jacket suggests, that "aging and death is only part of a greater cycle of rebirth and continuity." It was interesting to see my daughter's reaction to this. She appreciated being taken seriously as a reader, but found the story too sad. Her reaction to death at this point is that it is not fair. A greater understanding of the cycle of life may only be possible when the wane is already on. The text is accompanied by Ron Lightburn's serene, "realistic" air-brushed illustrations, and they contribute to the quiet, stark, felt tone of the story.