||Bound For The Beach
by Allison Sutherland
FOR THE RIGHT sort of child, the long months of summer freedom provide a chance to read, and read, and read. Up trees, sprawled on a beach, hidden in tall, uncut hay, or defiantly indoors on the most beautiful of summer days. Those who are still unable to decipher for themselves the treasures contained within those sheaves of hieroglyphics will pester their caregivers with the cry "Read this! OK, then when?" And authors, illustrators, publishers, libraries, bookshops, and parents strain to provide the materials of delight.
Lindsay Grater offers The Hippos at the Seashore (Lester, 32 pages, $16.95 cloth), and one wishes she hadn`t. This is a dreadful book. A hippopotamus family rents a cottage by the sea, discovers it to be dilapidated, fixes it with 11 sticky tape and glue," and is certain that the holiday will be lovely. But why hippos? one asks irritably. What are they doing on a beach instead of in some nice muddy river? Perhaps Grater believes their cylindrical corpulent mass on the page represents all that is dismayingly bourgeois? Perhaps she is commenting on the sad plight of recent immigrants who try to become summer cottagers? I fear not. I suspect that she has not taken the picture-book form seriously enough, for this has no nuances, no apparent love of language, and no care with pictorial detail. The book`s only redeeming feature is that it is politically incorrect (Mum paints, Dad exercises, sister doesn`t like dirty clothes). It is refreshing to encounter gender stereotypes of an earlier, more innocent age.
Unfortunately, this does not seem to be deliberate, but only part of the book`s overall sloppiness.
Annick Press sometimes produces picture-books whose liberal didacticism is too overt, but Maryke Barnes`s Setting Wonder Free (Annick, 24 pages, $14.95 Cloth) invites you to experience its world, and doesn`t preach. Gently illustrated by Jirina Marton, the story is simple enough: an outgrown rockinghorse, "Wonder," is given away to a neighbour`s child. My household contains a nine-year-old who parts with possessions only with great anguish, and he took a rather sour bias against this book. His reaction shows an engagement that can only be produced by work that has been done seriously and well. The tension between mother and daughter, who do not "always say what they think," is delicately indicated, and finally, when Wonder is no longer part of the household, Barnes deftly depicts the peaceful sorrow that all painful but correct decisions contain. This book satisfies and enriches the reader at more than one level, and even children who are officially too old for picture-books will find themselves affected by it.
Eugenie Fernandes gives us Waves in the Bathtub (North Winds, 32 pages, $14-95 cloth). One of my earliest memories is of being spanked for flooding the floor by sliding down the sloping back of our huge claw-footed bathtub into the water. Kady`s mother is not the killjoy that mine was. Octopuses, polar bears, dolphins, and other deep-sea denizens frolic with Kady and her cat (who seems ambivalent about the experience) in this bouncy account of bathtime. Music for the text`s song is provided, and readers are encouraged to make up their own verses. Like all competent literature, this sort of book flows from the printed page into real life; the ablutions of both parents and children can be enhanced by its exuberant nonsense.
Paula Fitzgerald`s One of the Many Stories About the King (Penumbra, 40 pages, $12.95 paper) is a "Iongpoem" telling of King Rigel, who rules a domain of unimaginable extent, wealth, wisdom, and felicity, and leaves it all in search of an angel "whose eyes were a miracle of light and love." Visually, this is a handsome item; the baroque and intricate drawings by Debra Hanson, a Stratford Festival stage designer, twine into the text to excellent effect, on creamy, opulent paper. But the text comes across as an exercise in pretentious self-importance badly needing an editor. There are missed opportunities (when a mythic character abandons his sword the episode should be described, not mentioned in passing); clumsy phrasing ("The other thing King Rigel did was whenever he met a poet..."); and the climax is woefully glib ("The vast universe was no longer vast, it was simply a single reality of oneness"). It`s a pity, for occasionally there is a nice acid subliminal humour ("he loved beautiful women, and they loved the king too") and the plot has potential.
For those with access to the ocean, Diane Swanson`s Squirts and Snails and Skinny Green Tails (Whitecap, 64 pages, $8.95 paper) is an adequate compendium of seashore activities, strong on safety and ecological sensitivity. It has some limitations, for we`re not told
the geographical zones that the sea creatures inhabit. Nor is there any mention of jellyfish, a prominent feature of the Nova Scotian seaside we frequented; I would be devoutly grateful for any book that suggests activities connected with jellyfish, other than shrieking when they are encountered afloat, or squealing "EEEUGH! Gross!" after they have beached themselves. Illustrated in the cartoon idiom by Warren Clark.
Cartooning for Kids (Greey de Pencier, 64 pages, $8.95 paper), by Marge Lightfoot, has useful tips. I was glad to see a caution about speech bal. loons: write the words first, then draw the balloon around them trying to squinch text into a pre-existing shape is frustrating. The usual stuff about shapes textures, lettering, facial expressions, etc., is covered appealingly, but there is not quite enough about body propor. tions, movement (our opposite arms and legs usually move together, a fact that tends to escape the beginner`s notice), or the difficulties of depicting the human hand.
Formac Publishing has undertaken to provide "first novels" for those who have gotten the hang of reading but are not quite capable of tackling Charlotte`s Web et al. A generation ago these items were called "high interest-low vocabulary" and tended to be simplified versions of regular books - to the point of removing all that made the original creation rich and fine. In the late `70s this type of book began to be treated as an independent art form, and the results have often been splendid. Illustrations are profuse in these "first novels." In our own childhoods, most novels for children were illustrated as a matter of course, but no longer. Remember the pictures in the Narnia books? Alice`s Adventures in Wonderland? wind in the Willows? Swallows and Amazons "First novels" have kept alive the tradition of supportive illustrations, rather than those equally or more important than the text, as in the picture-book form.
Formac`s "first novels" are Arthur Throws a Tantrum, by Ginette Anfousse, Mooch Gets Jealous and Mickey Mite Goes to School, both by Gilles Gauthier, and Maddie Wants Music, by Louise Leblanc (all 61 pages, $5.95 paper). They have been well translated from the French by Sarah Cummins, and each is fun, fast-moving, engaging, and immediately gratifying to the young reader. Particularly admirable is the way that characterization and social issues (a slow learner, a single-parent family, etc.) are handled; every word must count in this form, and these writers are all skilful at indicating subtext with effective economy. My one quibble would be their uniformity. They are all realistic, but this form can also handle fantasy, ghost tales, sport stoties, whodunits, historical fiction, science fiction....And the drawings (by Pierre-Andre Derome, Anne Villeneuve, and MarieLouise Gay) are all in the messychaos mode. More variety needed there, too.
Leslie Choyce, refugee from the States, yearround surfer, publisher, editor, and author of good-quality adult fare as well as several books for teenagers, has a ripsnorter of a tale in Clearcut Danger (Formac, 132 pages, $8.95 paper). A couple of adolescents, one a Micmac, suspect that the proposed opening of a pulp mill in their town is not unqualified good news - a suspicion that proves to be well founded. The writing is not up to Choyce`s usual standard, but he has done such a good job with the plot that one can almost forgive him. Our nineyear-old and I enjoyed reading it aloud; those 10 and up will find it a pageturner to read alone.