Mother Nature Takes a Vacation

by Lydia Bailey,
ISBN: 0002237547

Moonbeam on a Cat's Ear

by Marie-Louise Gay, Marie-Louise Gay,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0773720537


by Sheila Dalton, Bob Beeson,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0920501753

Wisakyjak & the New World

by Adam Ballantyne, Annie D. Catterson,
ISBN: 0921254342

Runaway Row

by Lindsay Grater, Lindsay Grater,
24 pages,
ISBN: 1550372130


by Michael A. Kusugak, Vladyana Krykorka,
32 pages,
ISBN: 1550372297

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Children's Books - Balancing Acts
by Rhea Tregebov

CHILDREN'S PICTURE-BOOKS are a complex product of collaboration: a balance among author, artist, and, designer; text, illustration, and layout. My experience of children's picture-books is twofold, that of both consumer and producer. As an author, I've seen how the "story" is a product of both text and image. I've learned how my text in the writing, is shaped by an awareness of what illustration can do; how it can enlarge and enrich the story; how the images can silently speak. I've also seen how the design of the book, which determines the relationship between text and image on the page, can enhance or detract from the book's power, from the story itself. As a consumer, I've been able to observe with my own child (and his friends) that how well the balance among text, image, and design is achieved can make or break a book, from the point of view of both the child and the parent.

My six-year-old was, characteristically, in a rush to read Lindsay Grater's Runaway Row (Annick, 24 pages, $15.95 cloth, $5.95 paper), and we dove into the book without my having had the chance to note the details of its publication. I was so puzzled by the lack of correspondence between illustrations and story on these frantically crowded pages that the thought occurred to me that the illustrator hadn't even read the text. Why, for instance, is there a picture of a little girl standing rather forlornly in the house that is about to be abandoned, when the text has a little boy calling out goodbye? In what should be the most exciting and dramatic moment in the story, the protagonist row-houses are hardly even visible. When the text tells us that the houses lift off the ground to begin their joyride to the eventual safety of the countryside, we get what appears to be only an aerial view of the industrial landscape they are leaving. It took three readings before I was able to note the tiny figures of the rowhouses at the foot of one of the buildings. (In case other readers assume from this that I am a visual idiot, let me hasten to add that my architect husband also missed them.)

Runaway Row was both written and illustrated by Lindsay Grater. I don't know whether author or publisher is to blame, but the book's packed design undermines the effectiveness of both story and illustrations, which are not without their charm. If parents have difficulty "reading" the relationship of text to illustration in such a book, how is the child of five or six - for whom the book is intended, and whose visual literacy is far less developed - to have any entrance whatsoever to the book? The chaotic layout is made worse by the unpleasant italic typeface used for the text. What a shame that a potentially engaging story (and Grater is clearly talented as an illustrator, though her text could have used more polish) is muddled through poor design.

The issue of an overcrowded design also arises, though with less serious consequences, in Sheila Dalton and Bob Beeson's Bubblemania (Orca, 32 pages, $8.95 paper). This is a beautifully silly book whose illustrations are as engaging as its text. It is designed for two- to five-year-olds, but the text and illustrations of this giant bubble fantasy are so energetic (in a Munschian, ga-boing, ga-boing way) that my son was completely taken with it. The book functions on a number of levels: it works equally well for toddlers who are learning to count, pre-schoolers who will enjoy the verse, and early readers who can manage the text quite nicely on their own. The problem is, once again, design. I'm searching for adjectives here, having used up quite a few in my comments on the previous book. "Hectic" perhaps does it. Many pages have three illustrations squeezed in. The text, though printed in a far more acceptable typeface, is also jammed into the page. In the calmer pages, one can appreciate Beeson's amiable and amusing characters. Dalton's text has the requisite sound effects and repetition (especially helpful for early readers), and I think they pretty much carry the day. Despite the book's busyness, these qualities enable it to avoid a general incomprehensibility.

Hide and Sneak (Annick, 32 pages, $14-95 cloth, $4.95 paper) walks a very thin line between an overwrought and a coherent design. The illustrator, Vladyana Krykorka, spent her summer holidays in Rankin Inlet with Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak and his family, and the illustrations make it evident that she was able to absorb some of the northern atmosphere that is central to Kusugak's tale. Krykorka is a marvellous colourist, but some of the illustrations have an awkward feel - she seems to have difficulty expressing movement in the human figures. A further problem with the art is that the Ijirak, a leprechaun-like creature that is the catalyst for the plot, isn't drawn in a way that seems consistent with Kusugak's description in the text. On the design front, Annick has given this book an irritatingly skinny and cramped typeface, and the decorative borders around each illustration could be a problem, given the crowded text. However, the colours used are harmonious, and since the borders carry a purely decorative and not a narrative function, the page doesn't feel embattled. Kusugak's text is sheer delight, doing a very nice tightrope act itself between the contemporary northern context and the traditional legend at the core of the story.

Marie-Louise Gay takes the risk of utilising an extremely sophisticated style of illustration for very young readers. But since she is a consummate artist of page design, the interplay of layout, text, and illustration in her reissued Moonbeam on a Cat's Ear (Stoddart, 32 pages, $6.95 paper) is not merely coherent, but brilliant. Delightful things happen at the edge and beyond the border of the illustrations - a mouse snoozes in striped pyjamas; the little red-haired boy Toby Toby loses his shoe; the little girl's cat (and the mouse) peek out from "behind" the foreground illustration.

Gay has also written the text in verse for Moonbeam on a Cat's Ear, and it is marvellous poetry. Gay's use of rhyme and metre is so effective that the words have an inevitable feel to them, a hypnotic effect that only such poets as Dennis Lee and Gay seem able to create. (When my son was three he committed Gay's Rainy Day Magic to memory after having heard it read twice.) The large, readable typeface only adds to the pleasure of the text and, again, makes it easy going for early readers, thus expanding the lifespan of the book.

Gay's style of illustration is diametrically opposed to that of Sylvie Daigneault, the artist for Lydia Bailey's Mother Nature Takes a Vacation (Alligator Press/HarperCollins, 32 pages, $15.95 paper). Daigneault's very conservative, finely drawn style is a stark contrast to Gay's exuberant antics. While I am, in general, more attracted to Gay's approach, Daigneault's does seem appropriate for Mother Nature Takes a Vacation, which is a modem fairy tale. (My only quibble with her work is the elongated, distorted head of Sue, the protagonist, which looks disconcertingly like that of a new-born who had a tough time in labour.) And the book's design is beautiful, with ample white space, an elegant typeface, and a balanced, readable layout.

The story is a welcome departure from the expected. I have to admit I cringed at the thought of yet another ecologically correct children's book. But this one places its environmentally aware (and feminist) agenda at the service of a well-told, attractive, and engaging starry. Bailey is a talented writer who has managed a perfect blend of contemporary message and reference with the formula and structure of the traditional fable.

Sometimes design is everything. Sadly, children have grown so accustomed to the polished, full-colour picture-book that publications that do not conform to this standard can't compete. My son refused to even look at Wisakyjak and the New World (Penumbra, 48 pages, $9.95 paper), by the Cree storyteller Adam Ballantyne, with woodcuts by Annie Downes Catterson. The book's ultraconservative design and stiff, grim, black-and-white woodcut illustrations were clearly an insuperable barrier to him. This is sad, because Wisakyjak and the New World is a wonderful story splendidly told. Wisakyjak is one of the incarnations of the Trickster; in this tale, he is a Noah figure who re-establishes the natural world after the devastation of a flood.

According to the introduction, Adam Ballantyne was an elder of the Peter Ballantyne Band of the Woodland Cree. In 193 7 he told the story in Cree to an American schoolteacher named Prentice G. Downes, who edited and transcribed it. Downes knew little Cree, so the story was translated for him by band members who spoke English. By publishing this book, Penumbra Press seems to have thrown itself blithely into the eye of the hurricane regarding the appropriation of Native leg-ends and myths. While Ballantyne is identified as the author, the copyright of the book rests with the illustrator, Annie Downes Catterson (Downes's daughter), and with the press. With little background myself in Native mythology, I have no idea of how faithful Downes's rendering is to the original, or how much the parallels between this and the Noah myth have been shaped by Downes's own cultural background. I was certainly not assisted in any way by the introduction by Robert Cockburn: it has a dusty, academic quality, as though Native culture were an artefact in a museum. The inappropriate presentation, both in terms of design and introduction, may, unfortunately, deny a fine book the audience it deserves.


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