MY SIX-YEAR-OLD KNOWS that many children's books arrive at our house because I write about them, but she has only just realized that my assessments can be less than complimentary. The idea that authors and illustrators might read my critical comments about their books bothers her so much that I was recently subjected to a lecture on the fundamentally inhumane nature of my work.
"How would you feel if someone did that to you?" she asked as a last resort when she realized she couldn't change my mind about the book we'd just finished. This is a question that should temper the work of any critic.
But I haven't changed my mind about that book.
Our discussion was precipitated by The King of Sleep (Doubleday, 24 pages, $8 paper), by Gilles Tibo, translated by Sheila Fischman. The king of the title, Roger 37, loves to sleep and to picnic. When he oversleeps, he misses the great interplanetary picnic and must contend with a bad-tempered sheep who throws a prolonged tantrum. The story ends ambiguously: the interplanetary picnic may arrive at King Roger 37's planet, or this might be a dream. The plot is a loose vehicle for Tibo's illustrations, which are interesting and technically proficient, but drab: grey predominates, with occasional splashes of subdued pastel colours, and the hollow skyscrapers in the background create an air of ftituristic alienation.
Santa Takes a Tumble (Doubleday, 24 pages, $8 paper) is also by Tibo, and translated by Sheila Fischman. The illustrations in this book are more colourful, but the narrative shares many of the problems of The King of Sleep. When out-of control mechanical reindeer cause Santa to fall out of his sleigh and into a big city, he is launched on what resembles an adult's anxiety nightmare. His coat is stolen, he is hit by a car, doctors wish to perform exploratory surgery simply to satisfy their curiosity, and - although elves promise to help Santa complete his Christmas mission - he is still waiting, permanently ensconced in the city, at the book's end. The suggestion that Santa might not deliver presents on Christmas violates the canon of early childhood beliefs, and parents may be left with some awkward explaining.
The King of Sleep and Santa Takes a Tumble seem to be written without due consideration for their intended audience. For young children, life is routinely filled with ambiguity and unresolved occurrences, so they need and expect clear resolutions in literature. The author who violates this expectation without cause leaves children unsatisfied and confused. Tibo is celebrated illustrator with undeniable talent, but these books show a need to think about narrative structure and audience expectations more carefully Rhea Tregebov's The Extraordinary Ordinary Everything Room (Second Story, 24 pages, $5.95 paper) is a more satisfying book. Like most kids, the preschooler Sasha collects things: so many things, that his room is transformed into a place that provides everything his friends require, even a mountain of Jello, a circus, and a magic wand. Helene Desputeaux's remarkably vivid illustrations bring this simple, well-told story to life in a way that is not soon forgotten.
In Christopher's Dream Car (Annick, 32 pages, $15.95 cloth, $5.95 paper), Andreas Greve describes the imaginative journey a little boy embarks on in a truck abandoned behind his grandparents' barn. Christopher's dream car takes him to a strange, sunny land, and back again before dinner. Greve's watercolour illustrations give the book a peaceful, summery feeling, and its nicely written, simple story is perfect for bedtime reading.
New from Maryann Kovalski is Take Me Out to the Ballgame (North Winds/Scholastic, 30 pages, $12.95 cloth). Its cast of characters, jenny, Joanna, and their intrepid Grandma, also sang their way through Wheels on the Bus and jingle Bells. When Grandma takes the girls to a baseball game, the words to the old song provide the plot for the story, but Kovalski's imaginative illustrations keep things from becoming predictable. The home team that is root, root, rooted for bears a remarkable, if covert, resemblance to the Toronto Blue jays, and the music and words to the song are included. Take Me Out to the Ballgame is great fun.
Also from North Winds comes In My Backyard (32 pages, $12.95 cloth), by John De Vries, with illustrations by Werner Zimmermann. This story is told in the first person and in verse. The first half of the book describes the problem of discovering a place to keep a frog that the little male protagonist has found, and the last half shows the boy and his dog playing together with various toys after the frog is moved into the dog's house. Zimmermann's gentle illustrations are full of colour and humour, but De Vries's plot is a bit disjointed. I was left with the impression that the second half of the book, which includes the play scenes, was extended just to provide the desired number of pages.
Little girls, even those who ought to be permanently encased in denim, have a fascination with clothes - especially pink, frilly clothes - that resists the influence of even the most feminist of mothers. This is the basis of Diane Carmel Leger's Rosette and the Muddy River (Orca, 32 pages, $8.95 paper). Little Rosette is always perfectly dressed and perfectly clean until she encounters the irresistible mud of the Fundy tidal flats on the banks of the Petitcodiac River, which itself Sounds like a frilly undergarment. Rosette's conversion from spotless prig to mud puppy is thoroughly satisfying, and the book reflects the landscape and culture of Acadian New Brunswick, just as Pamela Cambiazo's illustrations resemble regional folk art. At a time when the regions of Canada seem so insular, it is encouraging to see Orca, a Pacific Coast press, publish this Atlantic Coast story.
Also from Atlantic Canada are three new books from Breakwater. Naughty Scamper Meets the Bush Monster (32 pages, $8.95 paper), by Penny Wooding, is the story of a horse who is frightened by what turns out to he a garbage bag thrown into a bush. Wooding's brightly Coloured oil-pastel illustrations on black paper are creative and arresting. The publisher's recommended age range is four to eight, but with its simple language, formulaic plot, and anthropomorphized animals, Naughty Scamper will probably appeal most to the preschool set.
In Jeremy Jeckles Hates Freckles (32 pages, $8.95 paper), by Geraldine RyanLush, Jeremy does various things to try to rid himself of his freckles - until their presence suddenly vaults him to stardom. By the time he discovers that life is lonely at the top, the freckles have vanished, and so he returns to a normal life. Ryan-Lush bases her humour on the prejudices of her audience: children's dislike of unusual foods and the tendency to ridicule those who are different, for example. Ideally, books should take children beyond those prejudices, not pander to them; but Kathy Kaulbach's illustrations do capture motion nicely.
Creative manipulation of the English language for the sheer joy of it is one of the salient features of Newfoundland culture. Since poetry lends itself readily to wordplay, it is not surprising that Newfoundlanders produce some remarkably playful children's poetry. At Pittman's On a Wing and a Wish (32 pages, $14.95 cloth) plays with the unique names of Neufoundland's many seabirds in nursery rhyme-type verse. Pittman's rhythms, playful imagery, -and imaginative rhymes make this book one of the best collections of Canadian poetry for young children, although a little less gender stereotyping would have been welcome. A list of the birds' Newfoundland and common names is included at the back of the book, but On a Wing and a Wish would have been more interesting and more accessible to mainlanders - if the birds had been discussed in a brief introduction. Veselina Tomova, a talented Bulgarian artist who arrived in Newfoundland two years ago, provides subtle, detailed illustrations that greatly enhance the book.
Diane Dawber's collection of poems, My Underwear's Inside Out (Quarry, 64 pages, $8.95 paper), is aimed at a slightly older crowd. The book's short discussions of the production of poems will be useful in the classroom, but Dawber's poetry lacks that careful attention to rhythm, imagery, and the selection of words that distinguishes poetry from prose. In fact, these poems read exactly like prose.
Poetry for young adults is mostly uncharted territory. Into this void comes the Nova Scotian poet Maxine Tynes with Save the World for Me (Pottersfield, 80 pages, $8.95 paper). Tynes, a high-school English teacher, reveals a deep Understanding of adolescents in this book. Her best poems capture the feelings and experiences of her readers without Self-consciousness. But, perhaps because she is a teacher, the poems dealing with issues such as drugs and sexual abuse are too direct and didactic. This criticism aside, Save the World for Me is a brave work that should find a receptive audience of young readers.