by Nancy Hundal, Stephen Taylor,
ISBN: 0002240122

Big Boy

by E. B. Lewis, Tololwa M. Mollel,
27 pages,
ISBN: 0395674034

My Homework Is in the Mail!

by Becky Citra,
80 pages,
ISBN: 0590244469

Wild in the City

by Jan Thornhill, Jan Thornhill,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0871569108

Mister Got to Go:
The Cat That Wouldn't Leave

by Lois Simmie, Cynthia Nugent,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0889951276


by Hazel Hutchins, Ruth Ohi,
32 pages,
ISBN: 1550373951

Sho & the Demons of the Deep

by Annouchka G. Galouchko, Annouchka G. Galouchko,
32 pages,
ISBN: 1550373986

Post Your Opinion
Children`s Books - More Irreverence, Please
by Phil Hall

As I write this, my seven-year-old, Brett, is asleep at my back on the futon. For her this is a weekend night on which to visit and sleep over at her dad's. For me this is another opportunity to watch her a while as she dreams and grows, another evening on which to type and worry the usual worries of parenthood-once-removed...

I'm thinking that in reactionary, conservative times-like these-liberal hope and the long memory have to hide out somewhere. Irreverence has to go underground, or up sideroads.

The children's books I've been reading lately are by James Ellroy and Lawrence Block. Their nightmares feel somehow more honest than the three-pieced News.

I have almost stopped shuddering at the reality-flip that has film actors portraying cartoon-like idiots while cartoons themselves are reviewed in depth for their social commentary. (Yeah, right.)

Perhaps children's books are the best safe houses for our counter-cultural hope, memory, and irreverence. On the evidence of the ones before me tonight, this could be true. And Brett's reactions to these new titles (as we have read them to each other these past few weekends) would also suggest that the best kid's books, instead of just pandering to the lies of the times, can actually keep reminding us of humane alternatives.

For instance, Tess, by Hazel Hutchins (illustrated by Ruth Ohi, Annick Press, 32 pages, $16.95 cloth, $5.95 paper), is a book about growing up on the prairie a generation or so ago. Because their family can't afford coal, Tess and her brother are sent out over the flatland to gather "malongo", better known as cow patties, for fuel. The family's shame does not keep the children from making a game out of finding the best patties. Tess gets good at choosing ones that are just dry enough to burn well and slowly, but not so old that they give no heat.

Brett's "Gross!" has been quickly followed by our current use of the word "malongo" instead of the other, more likely expletives. And luckily, this fall at our local fair we encountered a "cow patty throwing contest" that has helped to bring the story home, so to speak.

An adventure with coyotes figures into the plot, and there is nothing scatological about Ruth Ohi's soft, lovely illustrations.

I remember too well the old Sylvia Hotel at English Bay in Vancouver, and so Mister Got To Go: The Cat That Wouldn't Leave by Lois Simmie (illustrated by Cynthia Nugent, Red Deer College Press, 32 pages, $16.95 cloth), a story about a stray cat that adopts the Sylvia as its home, has led to other interesting stories about the stray cat (of sorts) I used to be when I lived in Vancouver before Brett was born.

Once again, as with the smell of "malongo" burning, it is the plight of the bedraggled cat seeking shelter from the incessant rain that makes this book interesting to my daughter and to me. The hotel manager, of course, says the cat has got to go as soon as the rain stops. Yeah, right. The rain continues. Years pass. The cat becomes an institution at that institution.

"Where do homeless people go when it rains?" Brett asks. Good question. We talk, and then read the book again.

In My Homework Is In The Mail, by Becky Citra (Scholastic Canada Ltd., 80 pages, $4.50 paper), a first junior novel for children ages six to nine, we again find ourselves on the west coast, and again we encounter the wild versus the tame, the city versus the country. Samantha Higgins and her family are leaving Vancouver on a back-to-the-bush move that means almost a journey back in time: horses, buggies, cowboys, log cabins, and correspondence school. Of course, Sam quickly learns to love the past that still exists if you go out looking for it. When Mrs. Gilly, Sam's teacher, offers her The Secret Garden, we realize the parallels between these two stories.

With great names for characters and animals alike (Caleb, Geezer, Mrs. McGinty, Cassandra), Brett enjoyed reading chunks of this chapter-book to me.

Annouchka Gravel Galouchko, the storyteller as well as the illustrator of Sho and the Demons of the Deep (Annick Press, 32 pages, $17.95 library binding), has an intricate, playful, and dazzling art style that I remember from The Nutmeg Princess, another fine book illustrated by her, which I reviewed here a year or so ago. The text this time is presented in a calligraphic script that complements the art work and also suits a Japanese tale, which is about the ecology of dreaming: where can people safely dispose of their nightmares? If we carelessly dump them into the ocean, like our garbage, in time the waves will become "burdened by people's sorrows." (The popular-mysteries-big-kid's-books I also read, mentioned above, were certainly on my mind as I read out loud about this plague of nightmares.)

This book is also about the invention of kites, and the origins of kite-flying as a sport. (Let your demon dreams soar!) The art work has won plenty of awards with both Brett and me.

There are untold stories in every intricate fish and kimono. The tsunami waves are dedicated to Hokusai, Japan's great wave painter.

Though Big Boy, an African adventure by Tololwa M. Mollel (illustrated by E. B. Lewis, Stoddart, 28 pages, $18.95 cloth), is undercut by turning out to have all been a dream, it is fun to follow Oli the Giant as he learns that being the baby of the family isn't so bad after all. Oli is sick of not being as old or as big as his older brother, Mbachu, so he decides to go on an adventure of his own. Turned huge by Tunukia-zawadi, the magical bird, Oli proceeds to demand cast-iron shoes (that are way too hot), and a big drum on which he pounds forth the song of his new-found size:

I'm so big I broke a giant baobab tuntun!

One step took me home from the woods tuntun!

And one sneeze set off a stampe-e-ede tuntun!

And one jump started a mountain slide tuntun!

Alas, he wakes up under that baobab tree, and is grateful to be carried home by his mother.

A short glossary of words in Kiswahili, Tanzania's national language, is appended. And, as is only fitting, this is a big book in format as well as myth.

Eloquent, quietly coloured drawings are combined in Puddleduck, by Nancy Hundal (illustrated by Stephen Taylor, HarperCollin, unpaginated, $17.00 cloth), with a text that Brett found a bit confusing. It's hard to tell whether Bianca's Puddleduck is a real duck or a stuffed one-but that's an intended confusion. Because the duck has gone missing before the story starts, the time sequence at first is awkward. Because waiting is the only real action of the story, the only emotion evoked is nostalgia, concluding as it does with a grown-up Bianca telling the story of Puddleduck to her own little girl. (I hope she also reads Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck to her.)

Perhaps this is another one of those books that grandparents will like more than the grandchildren they buy it for.

Wild in the City, by Jan Thornhill (Owl Books, unpaginated, $14.95 cloth), is a stiffly illustrated information book that introduces children to some of the wild creatures that live in our cities: raccoons (of course), skunks, toads, kestrels, sparrows, squirrels, mourning cloak butterflies, robins, bats, nighthawks (not the ones in the all-night doughnut shops).

There is no mention of gulls, pigeons, cockroaches, rats, mice, head lice (which are rampant at school just now), various viruses... Just as well, I guess, because once the list becomes exhaustive, we humans begin to seem like the interlopers, instead of the other way round.

To be fair, these illustrations of wild creatures are stiff and tame for a reason: they are partially a puzzle. We are told to look in each drawing to find a hidden letter that will, in the course of the book, spell out the name of the house cat who lives "in two worlds-indoors and out."

Brett and I (with added assistance from her mother, mid-week) have not yet been able to crack the code and discover that darn cat's name. ("Malongo!" is the name we have begun to call it amongst ourselves.)

At the back of this book there is further information about each animal, and an invitation to look closely for signs of them even in our own back yards...

Anyway, by now you can see where I'm going with this: all of these books, whether by appealing to dreams or the past, whether concerned with the rural or the imaginary, can be read as reminders and appeals for respect for the marginal. More power to the simple, threatened, and non-progressive virtues! Or as Annouchka Gravel Galouchko puts it, may our nightmares become kites!

One of the ingredients that I mentioned initially is sadly scarce in all of these books, even considering how I choose to read them-irreverence, which is so appealing to children and adults alike, and so healthy in many ways, and such a fine defence against pomposity and bull. More irreverence would help most of our stories.

But, still, noticing how these books all invite Brett onto by-ways-I am pleased and encouraged to follow...


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