by Rhea Tregebov
CHILDREN`s picture-books offer many pleasures, from the poetic joys of language play to the delicate rendering - or madcap joie de vivre - of the illustrations. However, one element of a child`s enjoyment of a picturebook that seems to be too often overlooked is whether or not the story makes sense. A comprehensible narrative flow that the child can follow is, to a great degree, what makes the story satisfying. Those books in which it is difficult or impossible to appreciate the relationship between cause and effect, and character and action, rob the child of much of the delight reading should offer. Beyond the question of delight, providing children with books that have a plot appropriate to their level of comprehension can play an important role in developing communications skills.
Getting it just right isn`t easy. Even the most skilled and talented author may have trouble finding the perfect fit for her young audience. Which brings us directly to Adele Wiseman`s posthumously published Puccini and the Prowlers (Nightwood, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth). Wiseman, who won the Governor General`s Award for her adult novel The Sacrifice, is held in high esteem by her Canadian readers. Puccini (Pucci for short) is a lovable pup who gets into hot water with his family for making a mistake common to many youngsters: he misunderstands a word, in this case, the word "prowlers." So Puccini becomes one of those yappy pups who bark at everyone and everything. Kim La Fave, one of my favourite illustrators, does a delightful job of accompanying Wiseman`s text.
Wiseman, not surprisingly, writes well and does a fine job of creating the endearing character of the little dog. The trouble for my seven-year-old son was that, despite his larger-than-average vocabulary, he too was in the dark as to the definition of "prowler." So he missed the joke, and it`s very frustrating for a child to have to stop the magical flow of the reading process for an explanation. My having to explain the core of the plot had the same effect as having to explain a joke: the good stuff gets lost in translation.
Margaret Springer`s A Royal Ball (McClelland & Stewart, 32 pages, $12.99 cloth) certainly lacks the linguistic finesse Wiseman so effortlessly achieves. It does a far better job, however, of providing a satisfying narrative. Two rival royal families (of a king and princes, and a queen and princesses) overcome their mutual distrust and suspicion via the antics of the royal pets. The tale moves smartly along and the moral of the story (don`t prejudge) is certainly nothing to which one could object. Tom O`Sullivan`s illustrations, while more than competent technically, had a slick, (dare I say it?) American feel that I found not in the least engaging. Except for a certain unease with any gender segregation per se, my son was perfectly happy with the story. I doubt, however, that this will be a book he asks for again and again: the depth simply isn`t there.
Gamal the Camel (Polestar, 40 pages, $16.95 cloth) is Kira Van Dusen`s first book, and it shows. This is yet another ecologically correct kids` book urging children to take personal responsibility for saving the planet, presumably without
benefit of adult assistance. A singing camel is befriended by an elephant and in turn helps local kids organize a protest against the ivory trade. The text is three times as long as necessary and I found myself skipping large sections while reading it aloud - always a bad sign. The logical inconsistencies in the narrative are not sustainable, given that fantasy is here awkwardly combined with heavy-handed political propagandizing. The illustrations by Anne De Grace are some compensation, though she seems to do much better with animals than with people. According to the publisher, an unspecified portion of the book`s sales will be donated to the Kenya Wildlife Fund. But Joyce Pool, coordinator of the Elephant Programme of the Kenya Wildlife Service, admits in her afterword that due to the successful ivory ban, the African elephant is in fact no longer endangered by poachers. Then why mislead the children?
Marie-Louise Gay has long been delighting readers with her extravagant, exuberant illustrations and wild yet lyrical texts. Perhaps because of my high expectations of her work, I found Mademoiselle Moon (Stoddart, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth) a disappointment. The illustrations are, as usual, of consummate artistry, and the story begins in a promising enough fashion. Mademoiselle Moon and Mister Sun are old friends - friends "since the dawn of time." Once creation is complete, however, the friends can meet only briefly at dawn or dusk. One day when the sun inexplicably has a day off (an eclipse?) he finds the moon disconsolate and
unemployed. Another moon (huh?) has taken her job. Eventually the sun gets her a job in a lighthouse, which seems like a case of underemployment if ever I`ve heard of one. Perhaps the recessionary message here is "be happy with what you can get." But the original, rather splendid mythic premise simply isn`t followed through. Once again, the lack of logical narration leaves the child confused and, hence, unengaged.
My son did enjoy the creation myth in Althea Trotman`s How the Starfish Got to the Sea (Sister Vision, 3 2 pages, $6.95 paper), a sequel to her How the East Pond Got Its Flowers. Origin tales seem to hold a special fascination for children, and Trotman tells the story directly and well. My son refused, however, to allow me to tell the story in Antiguan dialect, as it is written. My approximation clearly did no justice to the original, which was an unavoidable shame. The starfish story is enclosed in a frame set during the 19th century, a time of slavery in Antigua. This context will no doubt hold strong interest for adult readers. But the link between frame and central tale will, I`m afraid, be far too
subtle for most children and the lovely message will be lost without adult explanation. Only in rare moments do the accompanying black-and-white illustrations by Sasso match the quality of Trotman`s writing.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare the picturebooks above to Dan Yashinsky`s The Storyteller at Fault (Ragweed, 64 pages, $9.95 paper), which is written for older children (age eight to 12). Yashinsky is a well-known and talented storyteller, and clearly has no difficulty translating these talents to the written page. In the tradition of the Arabian Nights tales, the folk-tales and fables in The Storyteller at Fault are told by the teller to save his life. The capricious king in the story has transcribed all the storyteller`s tales (onto computer!), making the teller, as the capitalists say, redundant. Though at first I thought the framing device arch, there is something delightfully witty about a storyteller who writes of how writing "kills" the story.
When Yashinsky launches into his tales, all hesitations are put aside.
These stories have the weight, wisdom, and mystery of the folk-tale, and Yashinsky moves swiftly and gracefully through the architecture of the narrative. The stories carry a gravity and introspection rare in children`s literature. Because of this gravity, they may be inappropriate for some children younger than the suggested agegroup. My son was enthralled. My only dissatisfaction was with the accompanying illustrations by Nancy Cairine Pitt (mercifully, only one per story). Their poor quality is that much more noticeable when contrasted with Yashinsky`s superior accomplishment. The Storyteller at Fault is a book to treasure.