The Dragon's Pearl

by Julie Lawson, Paul Morin,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0195408438

Finster Frets

by Kent Baker, H. Werner Zimmermann, H. Werner Zimmermann, H. Werner Zimmermann,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0195408993

The Snowcat

by Dayal K. Khalsa,
ISBN: 0517176467

Something from Nothing

by Phoebe Gilman,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0590472801

Two by Two

by Barbara Reid,
ISBN: 0590649426

A Prairie Alphabet

by Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet, Yvette Moore,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0887762921

My Grandfather Loved the Stars

by Julie Lawson, Judy McLaren,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0888783043

When Jeremiah Found Mrs. Ming

by Sharon Jennings, Mireille Levert,
24 pages,
ISBN: 1550372378

The Potter

by Jacolyn Caton,
ISBN: 1550500376

Story of Canada

by Janet Lunn, Christopher Moore, Alan Daniel,
320 pages,
ISBN: 1895555884

Post Your Opinion
Children's Books - Refrains and Recitals
by Marie Pfohl

SOON I'LL HAVE the pleasure of selecting some holiday gifts for my niece and nephew, the only children in my immediate family right now. More often than not those gifts are books; more often than not they want them read immediately after unwrapping them. Since I hope that their delight in reading won't ever disappear, I choose their books carefully. I taught preschoolers for many years and always enjoyed sharing the lure of the unfolding story and the magic of the illustrations with their open, inquisitive minds, and I can't imagine anyone of any age being immune to the joys of good books for children.

Several of this season's treasures are books I'd love to read to a young child (four to six years old). Finster Frets (Oxford, 32 pages, $7.95 paper) is a very engaging nonsense tale told with a lot of style. Kent Baker's playful language describes the plight of poor old Finster, who awakens one morning with a bird nest rooted to his head. Attempts by Finster's wife, Holly Berry, to rid him of his unwanted tenants are amusing, and H. Werner Zimmerman's watercolour illustrations are terrific, energetic, and not at all cutesy.

Preschoolers particularly like stories with repetition, and the next two books build their stories with refrains that will get them reciting along with the reader after a few run-throughs. In When Jeremiah Found Mrs. Ming (Annick, 24 pages, $15.95 cloth, $5.95 paper), Sharon Jennings finds solutions to the recurrent problem "I have nothing to do." When Jeremiah decides to help her work at various tasks, he changes her work to play, and every time Mrs. Ming plays along. Not only is Mrs. Ming an unbelievably patient and game adult, she's politically correct enough to tinker with cars. This book is quite a lot of fun and Mireille Levert's illustrations are quite sweet, with imaginative little surprises tucked in here and there. They are worth close study.

The pictures in Phoebe Gilman's Something from Nothing (North Winds/Scholastic, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth) are similarly intriguing. They depict a detailed cross-section of Jewish shtetl life along with a running subtext on the mouse family who share a human family's premises. This is a warm, cosy story about a boy and his blanket. When the blanket becomes worn, the boy's grandfather lovingly makes it into a series of smaller and smaller items until it is completely gone. Although I liked this story very much, I found the people in the illustrations a bit too Munchkin-like; this cuteness conflicted with the authenticity of the setting.

Two by Two (North Winds/Scholastic, 32 pages, $14-95 cloth) is Barbara Reid's sprightly poetic version of the Noah's Ark story, accompanied by her fascinating Plasticine illustrations. They could be the inspiration for many an afternoon project using the techniques in the pictures to develop kids' own ideas. This book plus some bright Plasticine would make a great stocking stuffer.

Books can often help parents and children to find ways to deal with change. A case in point is The Snowcat (Tundra, 24 pages, $16.95 cloth), a new book written and illustrated by the late Dayal Kaur Khalsa, whose completed paintings for this story were recently discovered. Her simple, Dick Bruna-like illustrations frame a story of loneliness, happiness, and loss. The snowcat, Elsie's only companion, melts when taken inside by the fire, but the pond created by its melting provides new enjoyments as the seasons change.

For older children (seven to 12), Julie Lawson's My Grandfather Loved the Stars (Beach Holme, 32 pages, $14-95 cloth) recounts many of the author's experiences with her own grandfather. Interwoven with the story of their outings are Chinese, Greek, and Native myths about the stars. The story is sensitively told, and Grandfather's tales about the stars and the cycle of life help his granddaughter to deal with his death. Judy McLaren's illustrations are somewhat uneven in quality, but they generally do convey the sense of wonder and affection that is the grandfather's legacy.

The Dragon's Pearl (Oxford, 32 pages, $17-95 cloth) is a dragon myth set in China. Julie Lawson's retelling of it is classic in style, but she nonetheless makes the protagonist Xiao Sheng's situation immediate and involving. Paul Morin's illustrations are sophisticated and luminous, albeit a touch too sombre, but they effectively intensify the reader's experience of the story. This book will be enjoyed by all ages.

A similar theme (how jealousy destroys) is explored in The Potter (Coteau, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth), by Jacolyn Caton, but this is a less successful fable. It's self-consciously and heavily moralistic, and I think the archetypal patriarchal potter is such an abstract character that children would find him unappealing. Pardon my literalness, but all ancient pots weren't made by one mad potter; the real stories of pots actually have a lot more to offer. Stephen McCallum's drawings are well done, with lovely textures and colours, but they can't make this artificial parable come alive.

On the other hand, A Prairie Alphabet (Tundra, 32 pages, $19.95 cloth) is effectively grounded in Yvette Moore's down-on-the-farm paintings of Prairie life. The text for C, for example, is "Craig sees a combine clearing a crop of canola." This richly detailed work and its choices of subject matter add up to quite a pleasure; each letter picture is also a puzzle containing additional objects starting with its letter. A Prairie Alphabet will make anyone yearn for the Prairies, and it will teach city kids a lot about rural life.

When my daughter was six, she demanded history stories with lunch. I tried to remember the most fascinating bits and served them along with the peanut butter sandwiches. I wish I'd had The Story of Canada (Lester/Key Porter, 320 pages, $35 cloth), by Janet Lunn and Christopher Moore. It's generally very well done, has an excellent narrative flow, does not gloss over the issues, and tries to be even-handed in dealing with them. The only time I really winced was when I read this sentence: "Manufacturers struggled to protect the environment while still providing the products Canadians expected to have." Huh? I must have missed the evening news that night! Nonetheless, this is a useful book and ought to be shared family reading, and the basis for family discussions. I wondered how the book would end, given our current constitutional confusion, but the authors found a positive ending. Check it out.


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