GUEST WRITERS for this column tend to shamelessly employ the expertise and verbal gems of their children, and I, too, have been guilty of these same shadowy labour tactics. I, too, have gotten my child to tell me which books in my reviewing pile were, in her opinion, stink-bombs or definite keepers. While quoting her at some length I have adopted a breezy, confident, ironic parental tone.
It occurs to me that the reverse of this would be for my daughter to be given a chance to review eight new first novels. She would ask me to read and critique them for her. Then she would get me to write down what I said, plus her comments: "Dad left book number three on the floor in the bathroom. He would only spell what he thought of book number six. Coffee rings decorate the once excellent dust-jacket of book number one."
The little lesson for me here is that our discussions of books never can get very far from our lives while we are reading them. For instance, being recently separated, living near but not with my daughter now, I read this batch of books very differently from the way Brett and I read our last batch.
Of course, she still has her opinions the really good ones must go home with her, and then I must beg to borrow them if I am ever going to meet my deadline. But now that ironic parental tone sounds blustery, and what the books say to us both is different.
Take Kids Can Press's In My Neighbourhood series of "books about community workers" (please!). Canadian Police Officers (32 pages, $11.95 cloth), and Canadian Postal Workers (3 2 pages, $11.95 cloth), both written by Paulette Bourgeois and illustrated by Kim LaFave, are published in honour of our country's 125th anniversary. Both books are humourless and careful not to offend like Canada? (Perhaps this similarity is what they mean as an honour.)
Canadian Police Officers touches my parental guilt in a way it never would have before. It makes an attempt at plot, but the bicycle thieves and their bathetic raccoon look-alikes give way to descriptions of what police wear and do, and in turn these descriptions give way to direct warnings to children about not going with strangers. The advice is right and necessary, but do "the Bests" have to be the family that gets burglarized, for heaven's sake? You see what I mean: choking-up at a lousy text. My professional distance has copped a plea, so to speak.
Canadian Postal Workers is a bit better. The plot survives throughout. At least the grandmother gets her birthday card from her grandson. (Where's mine?)
These two books remind me very much of some of those "hi-ho, hi-ho, we're off to vote for the Labour Party" children's books that the British are fond of. The illustrations, also, are reminiscent of Quentin Blake's scrawled watercolour drawings in Roald Dahl's books.
Brett's favourite in this batch, and my favourite too, is Jill and the Jogero (Annick, 24 pages, $14.95 cloth, $4.95 paper), written by Richard Thompson and illustrated by Francoise Durham-Moulin. This book makes perfect sense out of the invented words of children who are just learning to write. Well, shall we say, more than perfect sense? What is a Jogero, you ask? That's exactly what Jill's dad wanted to know.
Well, it's pink, can swallow itself, loves to GEJJIC bicycles ... oh, let's see if I can help you understand: I am GEJJICING a piece of toast right now. Get the idea? This Jogero also loves to BOJ the neighbours, which means to juggle all three of them high in the air.
Throughout all of these antics Jill's dad does not get mad. In fact I don't think he believes what Jill keeps running in to tell him.
This is just such a funny book. It will probably have you and your child adding words like ZAXXXIL to your vocabulary. The illustrations are giggily OOLOPED as well. Both the author and artist here have obviously gotten inside the playing sensibilities of children. I wish there were more such books; they are so useful for encouraging play.
In contrast, Kate's Castle (Oxford University Press, 32 pages, $16.95 cloth), is about solemn, solitary play, and will likely appeal to children who are a bit older than Jill, when they reach that age when they are comfortable playing for hours by themselves, without imaginary friends. We are introduced to Katy at the beach, where she is building a sand castle, adding shells to its parapets, drawing whales in the sand.
The text, by Julie Lawson, is a rhyming variation on "The House That Jack Built," in the sense that lines to the rhyme are added as Kate adds items to her castle. The illustrations, by Frances Tyrrell, are full-page, pale, realistic watercolours of mostly blues and yellows.
My new-found parental guilt comes in here also. I wonder as I read Kate's Castle: "Why are there no adults in sight? Surely she isn't alone on that beach? Where are the other children? The lifeguard ?"
Stephen Eaton Hume's Midnight on the Farm (Oxford University Press, 24 pages, $15.95 cloth) is also a moody, dreamy, quiet sort of book. The title pretty well explains the whole story. White horses curl up together under a tree, a cat arches, a tap drips. The sentences get quieter and quieter, until on the final page a boy is sleeping upright in a pose from the last century, one knee raised, his arm around a serious, bowtied bear who stares straight ahead, resolutely awake.
Regolo Ricci's illustrations, like Frances Tyrrell's, also span full pages, sometimes double pages. Rich, dark blues and silvers dominate.
Both of these Oxford offerings are the sort of books that grandparents give their grandchildren, because the illustrations and the moods evoked remind them of the books they read so long ago. Brett and I both find them OK. They are not built for encouraging whoops, but rather, snores. So as bedtime fare they may serve better than Jill and the Jogero. Unless bedjumping is in order.
Columbus's Cat (Maxwell MacMillan, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth), by Graham Bardell, is a large book with dynamic illustrations. Once again, the title tells it all. Once again, this is a traditional story that smells of dated styles. Not only is this the usual construct whereby an important human event develops by means of a pathetic fallacy concerning animals who are only tangentially involved, but, alas, the story does not even bow to current concerns about Columbus's imperialistic crimes. The "Indians" are naked and friendly, but they misunderstand. Our Captain's passion is for gold above all else. The cat saves the bag of gold from going overboard in a storm, and so gets to sit on the throne beside Queen Isabella. You get the idea, I'm sure, because, as I say, it's an old one.
This is the kind of book that takes a lot of discussion time as you read it to your child, because you have to keep explaining that, for example, those fronds are there because the artist wanted to cover from view the bums and breasts of the Natives in his drawing. Why? Well, he perhaps thought that readers would be offended. But why? Indeed.
Despite these difficulties, I must repeat, though, that Bardell's accompanying illustrations are vibrant, dramatic, and panoramically fluid.
The Nutmeg Princess (Annick, 32 pages, $15.95 cloth, $5.95 paper), by Richardo Keen-Douglass, has a similar problem, in that its story is stilted and unexciting while Annouchka Galouchko's illustrations are glorious and worth the price of the book. Galouchko has embellished way beyond this plain story of greed and belief. She acknowledges an early interest in Iranian carpet designs, and her paintings evoke such tapestries. Intricate, magical, they build little details within little details. I am reminded of bill bissett's pen and paint work, for its naive vibrancy, and of P. K. Page's unearthly garden drawings. Beautiful. Poetic.
Because it is fall and back-to-school season, I should also mention two new activity books: Circles: Shapes in Math, Science and Nature (Kids Can, 80 pages, $10.95 paper), written by Catherine Sheldrick Ross and illustrated by Bill Slavin; and The Chickadee Book of Puzzles and Fun (Greey de Pencier, 32 pages, $4.95 paper), by Debi Perna. Both seem good and useful.
Circles is dense with crafty ideas and illustrated in that quick pen and brushdab style of Quentin Blake, whom I mentioned above. The Chickadee Book yearns to be carved into with a fat pencil.
But I'll hold off judging these ones fully until after Brett gets her hands on them during her next sleep-over. Which reminds me, I have to give her back that copy of Jill and the Jogero when I pick her up at daycare this afternoon ...