Captain and Mrs. Figg are lonely in their lighthouse until the babies arrive. Plain Noodles, by Betty Waterton,is one of the season's rich crop of books for children
LET'S BEGIN this year's Christmas wish list with the three best titles, books that are sure to garner awards later on. These jewels speak to both the adult reader and the child listener. The Name of the Tree (Groundwood, 36 pages, $14.95), by Celia Barker Lottridge, is a retelling of a Bantu tale. During a drought the animals must learn the name of a fruitladen tree in order to taste its abundant produce and thus live. This is a story of the wisdom of youth and old age, of perseverance and humility rewarded. Lottridge, a founding member of the Toronto Storytellers' School, exhibits a relish and appreciation for the sounds of words and the rhythms of the animals' gaits and speech. This is a well?honed story that demands oral recitation: "Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli," Slow speech mimics the weight of the oppressive heat: Ian Wallace's splendid illustrations symbolically and literally interpret the same measures.
The Name of the Tree is Wallace's best work to date. Symbol has always figured in his illustrations: here the fruit tree is painted as a rich, red, pulsating vein, truly a Tree of Life. Sere desert earth lives as scaly skin,' or bone. A gazelle's horns mirror the writhing curls of jungle branches and steamy heat hazes everything until the final storm. Wallace has skilfully matched Lottridge's text: together they've created a perfect picture?book.
David Booth has also collected marvellous sounds and evocations in Til All the Stars Have Fallen (Kids Can Press, 93 pages, $16.95), his selection of poetry written for children. In his thought?provoking introduction, he suggests, "Don't pick [the poems] apart (that hurts a poem)." Shape poems, different rhyming patterns, and subjects ranging from the seasons to geography to innermost thoughts and fears make this a rich treasury. The poets (who are all Canadian) range from Chief Dan George to Tim Wynne?Jones to Lois Simmie and each piece is illustrated in either soft watercolour washes or bold stencils by Kady MacDonald Denton. With a few deft ink lines a mosquito breathes, and the flick of an ink roller brings a nest of birds noisily to life. This is a book that will surely be read and reread.
Michael Solomon's design of Tales from Gold Mountain (Groundwood, 64 pages, $16.95), by Paul Yee, is as outstanding as the book's text. Eight original stories recall traditional folktales in their tension, expression of universal characteristics such as love and greed, and illumination of human foibles. North America was called "Gold Mountain" by the Chinese who came to work in the West. With humour and keen understanding of the immigrants' joys and fears, the stories identify the place of the Chinese in Canada during the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the goldrush. In "Me Friends of Kwan Ming," a greedy man literally eats until he bursts; "The Revenge of the Iron Chink" is a heart?stopping tale of power and control. Simon Ng's golden images of the characters are at once compelling and repulsive. The man about to explode is hilarious and frightening: the beauty of a young woman mirrors her purity of soul. Textures are as evident in the illustrations as they are in the tales themselves. The level of sophistication, in both story and picture, of Tales From Gold
Mountain provides entertainment for the adult, who will appreciate the excellence of the writing, and for the child, especially the older child who has some familiarity with folk?tales. Applause: for the writer, the illustrator, and designer.
New fiction this season deals, for the most part, with the past. Pit Pony (Gage, 117 pages, unpriced), by Joyce Barkhouse, is an interesting history lesson for the intermediate reader. It's 1902 and 11?year?old Willie Maclean lives in a coal?mining town of Cape Breton. This is the world of child labour, where a youngster may not see the light of day all week; where the landscape is black and the air grey with soot; and where schooling is an extravagance seldom available to the young. When his father and brother are injured in the mines, Willie must leave the classroom and work to support the family. Gem, a pit pony from Sable Island, becomes a constant companion, and a symbol of what Willie wants from life. The obligatory bad boy, Simon, makes Willie's life below ground miserable and also provides Willie with the opportunity to become a hero. Barkhouse handles the relationships in the novel with skill and sensitivity. Sub?plots, though slight, retain the reader's interest. A glossary explains the Gaelic expressions used throughout and illustrations provide further encouragement for the less agile reader.
Thirteen Never Changes (Scholastic, 142 pages, $3.95) is the latest in Budge Wilson's Blue Harbour series. Lorinda Dauphinee is now 13 and a grandmother she barely knew dies in Vancouver. Lorinda's inheritance is a diary kept by her grandmother between the ages of 10 and 34 and it is through the diary entries and Lorinda's parallel predicaments that she comes to love and respect a woman she never knew. Laura was a teen?ager during the Second World War. Her family took in an English child, one of 'thousands evacuated to Canada. The differences between Laura and Hilary, the English girl, play up the challenges their world is confronting. Each diary entry brings history alive for Lorinda. Dark curtains are pulled over Halifax windows, dolls are clutched by adolescents, rationing and enlisting are topics on everyone's lips: "What war is really about is a lot of crying," states one character. Sometimes the writing seems too worldly, too educated, for the young speakers; however, Wilson understands the need of any child, of the 1940s or the present day, for love, protection, and a home. Depictions of the parent?child relationship are a particular strength. Barriers disappear and friendships (leading to a surprising revelation), bring the story full circle.
The isolation of the child evacuee is further explored by Kit Pearson in The Sky is Falling (Viking Kestrell 248 pages, $16.95). In an afterword, the author gives the historical background: how 10,000 British children were sent to Canada during the Second World War. The children's sense of betrayal and the picture of a patriotism at once exhilarating and suffocating are amply illustrated in the story of the Stoakes children, Norah and Gavin, who arrive in Toronto.
In England pieces of shrapnel and prisoners of war were daily reminders of the realities of war. In Canada, the children are a focus for the curious interest of well?wishers eager to assist the war effort. Norah, who was sure her parents would never send their children away, is tired of singing "Rule Britannia," and she refuses to take care of her favoured brother. Her selfcentredness is both understandable and infuriating. Pearson takes too long getting the children on the boat and travelling to Canada, but once her characters arrive the story becomes more gripping. Like Budge Wilson, she fills her novel with bits of war information. Letters home are filled with exclamations over vocabulary differences, and holidays, both English and Canadian, are celebrated With enthusiasm. The "guest children" must learn to slough off the sorrows of war and get on with being children. Norah has a hard time doing this ? her life, like her letters, has been censored by the war; but new friendships and newfound freedoms bring her. childhood joys back in double measure.
The pictures of the Second World War rendered by Wilson and Pearson seem fit for the nursery set when the reader encounters Carol Matas's Jesper (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 160 pages, $10.95 paper). The opening lines deliver a punch: "I am to be executed. It will be soon. The Nazis are getting desperate, and as they get more desperate they get meaner."
Within a few paragraphs describing the horrible tortures carried out in the prison, the reader learns that the speaker is a teen?ager. Jesper is a companion novel for Matas's award?winning Lisa (1988); indeed, Lisa is recalled in this book as an influence in Jesper's life, his first love as well as his fellow soldier.
This story of the Danish resistance is compelling. The narration is swift, as Jesper moves back and forth between "then" (why he was arrested and what he did for the Resistance) and "now" (the time spent awaiting execution). This device would have been confusing in less skilled hands; Jesper's recounting of his story to keep his mind occupied while he painfully awaits the unknown is masterfully executed. Matas convincingly portrays the turmoil of adolescence: love, embarrassment, audacity, and fear are portrayed with vigour. Scenes continue to shock the reader out of a careless reading. How unfortunate, however, that the major confrontation scene between Jesper and his executioner suffers from a surfeit of coincidence. Matas spoiled her readers with earlier, better?shaped scenes. Still, one cannot deny the power and vigour of the subject matter and plot of this fine stylist.
ACTIVITY BOOKS are an increasingly profitable genre for children's book publishers and this season's lists offer entertainment for the scientifically or artistically inclined. The joy of the projects included in each of these titles is that the materials needed to complete the activities are for the most part readily available in the home at any time.
Discover: Mysteries of the Past and Present (Kids Can Press, 96 pages, $9.95), by Katherine Grier, brings history alive and dispels the image of a museum as a moth?ridden palace of paraphernalia past its prime. This Royal Ontario Museum book offers the kind of information that both repels and attracts kids. For example, the description of how thousands of bugs or bacteria eat the flesh off animal skeletons. needed for exhibition is the stuff of any self?respecting kid's dreams! Readers learn how scientists work, how we can learn from history, and humorously, what future scientists will think about our period of history when they dig up our houses our bathrooms, for instance.
Styrofoam, that bane of the recycler's existence, can indeed be recycled with joy as Rudi Haas demonstrates in Egg?Carton Zoo II (Oxford
University Press, 64 pages, $12.95). Ibis sequel to the successful Egg?Carton Zoo (1986) provides similar information but with more care and a more sophisticated presentation. Close?up photographs by Hans and Heike Blohm illustrate the process of creating miniature animals from the sections of carton.. Information about each animal's habitat and personality profiles the beasts as they emerge from the humps and bumps. Haas shows how to incorporate the menagerie in a colourful scene and includes directions for making jewellery, ornaments, and even a checker set from the finished zoo. Better?quality paper makes this second volume more inviting than the first and the quality photos make the beasties quite enchanting in colour and black?and?white.
Wonderstruck 11 (CBC Enterprises, 96 pages, unpriced), by Bob McDonald and Eric Grace, is sure to please the viewers of McDonald's television program. After all, viewers' questions provided the initial material for this book of activities and information. Credit is given where credit is due: McDonald and Grace cover topics as disparate as the right way to lie down on a bed of nails and the way to get ketchup out of the bottle (quickly).
Here is science to be done, not just read about. The large and straightforward layout makes the book easy for young readers to use: one wishes, however, that the same effort had been put into the illustrations. The two very different illustration styles are not compatible, and indeed, detract from the interesting activities and trivia bits. And the heavy inking makes it impossible to read one page without seeing bits of the next two pages coming through. Nevertheless, McDonald's viewers have inspired some home?science projects that will no doubt spawn even more how?and?why requests.
Picture book offerings are vibrant with greens and golds. Marie?Louise Gay entices her readers with Fat Charlie's Circus (Stoddart, 32 pages, $14.95). Charlie's flaming red hair and little paunch recall a true clown's costume and he does indeed want to be in the circus. Charlie's imaginative play enables him to avoid housework and entertain his faithful audience (his cat). Destruction follows him as he attempts to juggle plates and walk the clothes?line. Sister Dorothy is an "I'm telling Mother" kind of sibling, the kind of kid that makes running away to join the circus an even more enticing possibility. It's when Charlie decides to climb a tree and dive into a small glass of water that the story heats up.
The late Dayal Kaur Khalsa has filled the pages of Julian (Tundra, 24 pages, $17.95) with the rich patterns of the countryside. The adult narrator recalls earlier days when she lived in the country with her cats and Julian, supposedly a guard dog. He's a good hunter, all right. The trouble is that Julian chases everything but the groundhogs he is supposed to catch. The cats are a particular source of irritation to him. Troublesome as he is, however, Julian endears himself to his owner, especially after he saves a cat's life. As with all her books, Khalsa based the story on actual events in her life and filled each page with images from her past. Brilliant colours and busy wallpaper patterns provide the country house with personality. Illustrations filled with pots of steaming coffee and trays of fresh doughnuts conjure up the world of Julian and his boundless energy with satisfying details.
Brenda Clark's illustrations for Little Fingerling (Kids Can Press, 32 pages, $12.95) are wonderful renderings with the rich colours of Oriental fabrics and the textures of wooden boxes and cherry blossoms. The text is by Monica Hughes, who is best known for her young adult? novels. Last summer she published her 20th, The Refuge, a tale of a modern?day secret garden walled in by warehouses. Here she retells the Japanese folk?tale *of Issun Boshi, a thumb?size hero. Her detailed descriptions enhance rather than overload the story. The simplicity of the plot is matched by Clark's symbols and strokes. Both author and illustrator have striven to produce an authentic Japanese ambience and have been extremely successful. Their research has brought history alive in a picture?book. "Cute" is a rather pejorative word when applied by reviewers to a picture?book. And it's hard to go wrong with pages filled with warm cuddly babies all pink and dimpled, some publishers think. Surely a "soft" sell. Well, Plain Noodles (Groundwood, 32 pages, $12.95), by Betty Waterton, is most certainly "cute" done right, a pastel confection sure to delight tiny giftrippers. And it's wonderful. Captain and Mrs. Figg (even the two "g"s are pleasing to see and say) tend a lighthouse and miss their grown children, who have become a circus act. Mrs. Figg's trip to the beach, however, soon cures her blues. A boatload of babies, directed by the impish Rosie, turns Mrs. Figg's life topsy?turvy: what will they eat? Joanne Fitzgerald's illustrations capture the chaos of the Figg household without being too sweet. Waterton's story is humorous, charming, and, dare one say it? unremittingly cute.
A Gift From Saint Francis (Kids Can Press, 40 pages, $14.95), by Joanne Cole, brings our list back to the Christmas scene: it is the story of the first creche. Eight hundred years ago Francis dedicated his life to God and through his diligence he gained many followers. While on a pilgrimage, Francis helped create the first living creche in order to honour Christ's birthday and after his death the custom was continued as a symbol of hope, peace, and joy.
Cole's text is evocative of the simplicity of the medieval times and the serenity of spirit so intrinsic to the Franciscans then and now. The illustrations by Michele Lemieux are done in a limited palette of jewel?tones. Her study of medieval art, architecture, and daily life is apparent everywhere. The people are homely, the textured paper is utilized to give depth to fabrics, the positioning of buildings and characters recalls 13th?century oils. A Gift From Saint Francis is a handsome Book of Hours with which to contemplate the meaning of Christmas.