In this day and age when parents are concerned with their children's safety and outdoor play is closely monitored, when and how do children experience adventure, test their mettle and exercise their imagination? One place might be in books. While I wouldn't argue that this vicarious alternative is the best or only venue, books can be wonderful and magical places to go. Already well-known, Stella and Sam, Madelenka, and Bun Bun take off for new misadventures in three recent picture books for children aged three to five.
In Stella, Fairy of the Forest, Stella and little brother Sam take to the forest looking for fairies. This landscape is unlike the dark, foreboding woods of fairy tales. In her characteristic visual style, Gay creates a bright, sunny world with fluffy white clouds cleverly echoing the scene below, and gently rolling hills and glens and bubbling brooks. Even the trees, which tower high above the daring duo, allow sunlight to filter through.
Sam is catching on. His questions to Stella still project his lack of surety and experience as compared to his older and wiser big sister's, but his imagination is beginning to bloom. They venture deeper and deeper into their enchanted forest with nary a hint of an adult nearby. And there they rest and make wishes in a protective and idyllic place.
Madlenka's magic world, in Madlenka's Dog, is the city block on which she lives. Sis begins wordlessly, illustrating a globe with a red dot. On successive pages, the dot becomes Madlenka's neighbourhood. In this second book about the intrepid wanderer, Madlenka wants a dog. With lines suggesting a bark, a sniff, and a wagging tail, Sis offers readers, and Madlenka too, an invisible dog. Leash secured, Madlenka and her pet venture out. On their walk, they meet Madlenka's neighbours all of whom remember their dogs from childhood. In a lift-the-flap format, readers discover each of the different dogs underneath. The story and the text are minimal.
Where Sis excels is in visual presentation. Even here, one might argue he is a minimalist, but that is not entirely correct. On a second or third look, the incredible sophistication and complexity of the illustrations becomes apparent. Sis' genius is in the design of the book as a whole and each page as part of that whole.
An example is his use of colour: Madlenka's neighbourhood is cast in shades of grey and blue, while Madlenka is in full colour as are the memories of her neighbours.
Madlenka meets her friend Cleopatra who has an
imaginary horse. Together the girls play in a courtyard where the world of make believe comes alive. Satisfied with her day of play, Madlenka retraces her steps. Her block appears to be suspended in the clouds. She safely returns home enriched by the day's encounters.
The real world is charged by a child's imagination in Princess Bun Bun, turning it into a scary place and offering tools for the child to cope. On a family visit to Uncle Dave's condominium, Castle Apartments, Bun Bun, who has begun to walk by herself, toddles into an open elevator. Quick-thinking older sister Winifred jumps in just as the doors close. As the elevator stops on floor after floor, Winifred imagines different people waiting for it in fairy-world termsła monster, a witch, a princessłall the while soothing Bun Bun. When they reach the top, Winifred discovers not a knight in shining armour but Uncle Dave who returns the girls safely to their parents. This is the one book of the three in which an adult, deus-ex-machina style, intrudes on the child's imaginary world.
Scrimger, the author of several humourous books for older children as well as Bun Bun's Birthday, describes rather than tells the story leaving illustrator Gillian Johnson little room to expand the story visually. The real world is always in view for the reader. While Winifred sees the monster, the child reader knows that it is really a dog, and so on. The watercolour illustrations are generous double-page spreads with lots of white space, but the magic just does not quite happen.
What is interesting about these three books with such vastly different approaches to the child's imagination is how they all rely on fairy tale or folklore. Stella, Sam, Madlenka and Winifred know about fairies, knights, dragons and princesses. These are children who have been read to and their imaginations have been fired by stories. Their readers in turn will more deeply appreciate the stories because of these references. In this day and age, we adults in providing love and protection for our children might also offer escape through books and step aside to allow the children to venture into their own magical worlds.
Theo Heras is a children's librarian in Toronto and a partner in MaryContrary Associates