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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Gustave, written by Remy Simard and illustrated by Pierre Pratt. Translated by Shelley Tanaka. Groundwood Books, 2014. $18.95 ages 4 and up

"So I cried.
I  cried all day long.
I couldn't go back home.
Not without Gustave.
What would I say to
my mother?
She always told us
not to go too far.
To play close to home.
But we didn't listen
to her."

This is another book that generated much discussion for our jury last year. It begins in great sadness for Gustave is gone - eaten by a cat. The two mouse friends are out on an adventure. They have strayed far from home when they suddenly meet up with a cat. They are surprised and terribly frightened! In a selfless move, Gustave attracts the attention of their tormentor. That allows our young mouse narrator the opportunity for escape. When he comes back, the cat is gone. So, sadly, is Gustave.

Alone and mourning, the mouse spends the day crying and worrying about sharing the news with his mother. She had warned them many times, entreating them to stay close to home. But, they craved adventure and further pastures. Off they went. Now, the survivor must deal with the anguish of sharing the news concerning his best friend. He walks slowly through dark urban streets alone. As he approaches the warm light of their mousehole, he fears his mother's wrath.

He need not worry. As he cries puddles of tears while explaining what has happened, his mother is not surprised and offers comfort for his loss. She expresses her love for Gustave as well. She holds her son all the while he is crying out his anguish. Then, she leads him to her closet where she finds a new companion, who greatly resembles his friend. His name is Harry and he is stuffed mouse.

"You will never be Gustave,"
I tell him.
"I know," he seems to say."

They like each other.

The India ink and gouache artwork done by the very talented Pierre Pratt is sombre and haunting, absolutely fitting with the subject of death. He creates huge landscapes that allow readers to see the tiny mouse and feel his sadness in the midst of such a huge loss. Once home with his mother, the dark tones lighten to match the warmth of her support and her thoughtful and loving gift.



Here in the Garden, written and illustrated by Briony Stewart. Kane Miller, Publishers Group Canada. 2015. $16.50 ages 3 and up

"You'd help me plant
seedlings in the garden
as we chatted and hummed
like the birds.
My breath is making mist
on the rain-dotted windows
and I wish that you were here."

His time in the garden is pleasant. For the boy who is there, it is also a reminder of someone he is missing. Throughout the seasons he and his friend spent many hours together sharing the joys of growth and abundance, the sunshine and the rain.

As he works on the garden for a new year without his friend, he filters through the many memories they shared. His heart is aching, but being in the garden is a perfect place to feel the joy to be found in nature - just the way the two of them always did. It is a gentle and beautiful way to help those who have experienced the loss of a loving pet.

The watercolor artwork is as gentle and telling as is her story. The sense of movement and the muted palette bring a closeness to the boy and his world that is touching. A reminder of his beloved pet is there in many small ways, on every page. While it is a story about the sadness felt, it is also a tender celebration of the life they shared.

Touching and memorable, it is a welcome addition to those books you want to share when dealing with loss.                                                                           

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Little Gardener, written and illustrated by Emily Hughes. Flying Eye Books. 2015. $i22.50 ages 4 and up

"Only, he wasn't much
good at gardening. It
wasn't like he didn't work

He worked hard,
very, very hard.

He was just too little.
But there was one thing ... "

This little gardener and I have much in common. We both want our garden (well, my yard) to be inviting and verdant. It can be hard work, and no matter how hard one might try, that work causes concern and some anxious moments.

At the beginning of the our visit to his garden, it doesn't look like much. It's very big; he's very small (think Thumbelina) and no matter how hard he works, that work is never done. As a result, the garden is looking bedraggled and plants are dying. There is one saving grace - a stunning, red zinnia. It is what gives him hope and keeps the gardener working as hard as he does. He loves this place he calls home.

After working morning, afternoon and night:

"Still, the garden was dying.
He would have no home.
He would have no supper.
He would have no joy."

Just before succumbing to a month long restorative sleep, he makes a wish. While no one hears the wish, someone does notice the zinnia. It gives her hope as well. The young girl, and her equally young helper, work daily while the little gardener sleeps. When he finally wakes up, his garden is transformed.

Emily Hughes works with colored pencils to create the beautiful spreads that show readers what hard work and a love of growing things can accomplish. There is joy immeasurable for the little gardener whose home it is.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible. Written and illustrated by Ursula Vernon. Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin. 2015. $16.99 ages 8 and up

"There is a power that all mothers possess, although some of them rarely use it, to wake their children from a profound sleep. Queen Hamsterbone gritted her teeth, took a deep breath, and yelled: "IT'S TIME TO GET UP!" Harriet shot out of bed with her sword, swung it wildly over her head, realized that it was her mother, and dropped the sword on her own foot."

I have always been a fan of new takes on old stories - specifically, fairy tales. In this novel, Ursula Vernon uses the Sleeping Beauty tale and many of its elements to engage a brand new audience. It is the first in what is meant to be a series of adventures starring the persistently upbeat and no-nonsense Harriet Hamsterbone.

At her birth she is the victim of a curse involving  a hamster wheel. An evil and indignant mouse named Ratshade curses Harriet with an extremely long sleep at 12, all because she wasn't invited to the christening. Sound familiar? That changes pretty quickly. Being a modern and progressive hamster princess who pooh-poohs the norms in princess behavior, Harriet likes fractions and checkers, swordplay, and solo rides around her realm.

Harriet's parents love her with abandon, and worry daily about her future. They are bent on finding  a suitable prince to save her from the curse that threatens her. The caveat to the curse is that Harriet cannot die prior to the curse's promise. We learn quickly that her parents need not spend one moment worrying about their very accomplished heir. In fact, when she learns at 10 that she is the recipient of Ratshade's curse, she couldn't be happier.

"Until I'm twelve,
nothing can touch me!
The curse needs me alive until
I'm twelve, or it can't

"Um ... "


She spends the following two years participating in all manner of dangerous and exhilarating activities, glorying in that invincibility. When things go awry, Harriet proves her mettle as a brave and brilliant leader, focused on saving all that she loves.

The text is complimented with speech bubbles and graphic artwork that will have readers rolling with laughter, determined to share each observation and pronouncement made by the endearing heroine. She is a princess to be admired and honored ... isn't that what we want from our regal leaders?

Bring on Book 2!!!

How To Draw a Dragon, written and illustrated by Douglas Florian. Beach Lane Books, Simon & Schuster. 2015. $21.99 ages 4 and up

when they wake,
are grumpy.
And their heads
are rather bumpy.

Soothe your dragon
with a song
as you draw his
teeth so long."

I have long been an admirer of Douglas Florian and his work. I think that I have a copy of almost all of the more than 30 books he has created. They all  remain on my shelves despite constant culling to keep only the best! So, I was keen to see a copy of How To Draw A Dragon. There are few subjects that young readers find more attractive.

The opening endpapers show the recognizable parts of a dragon, and a few versions of how they might be drawn. If you are anything like me, you will probably immediately flip to the back endpapers to see if they are the same. Surprise! They are not; however, they do have elements from our initial introduction.

The children within in the book change with every turn of the page. Each turn offers a new look dragon, a glimpse at the neighborhood, and uncountable details. Each one of those children has somehow persuaded a dragon to pose for them.  The dragons, in turn, manage to get the child's  creative juices flowing as they draw what they see.

We are encouraged by the author to recognize that there is some inherent danger in being so close to a dragon, and to be careful when drawing particular parts as we go. The spreads are filled with color, of all different hues depending on the dragon being drawn. Advice is given freely:

"Draw your dragon's pointed spines
using lots of jagged lines.

While your dragon's laying eggs,
take the time to draw her legs."

Using mixed-media collage for his wonderful artwork encourages readers to pay close attention to the colors, patterns, expressions, and textures. He makes his images seem as if they have been created by the children themselves - a quite brilliant accomplishment, but not surprising when you know his other work. What an invitation for readers to head off and draw their own dragons!

Don't miss the final gatefold which provides the real reason for the advice given. Then read it again, and the let the imagination determine what's to follow. You need this book!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Boats for Papa, written and illustrated by Jessixa Bagley. A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2015. $20.50 ages 4 and up

"A few days later it was Buckley's birthday. He and Mama had a glorious time. She gave him a brand new set of paints and brushes for making his boats. That evening, Buckley and Mama went for a walk. Buckley brought along the little boat ... "

Living in an idyllic ocean environment, Buckley and his mama love to explore the shore for driftwood. Using his many found treasures he builds things. His favorite of all activities is boat building - boats that he makes especially for his papa.

For his birthday celebration, Buckley and his mama have a beach picnic and she gifts him a set of brushes and paints to help with his hobby. Later in the day, he and mama take a stroll so that Buckley can send a boat to his papa.

"I'm going to send my boat to Papa. If it doesn't come back
to shore, I'll know he got it!" said Buckley as he placed his
little boat in the water. They watched it bob up and down
as the tide carried it gently out to sea."

He wants to send more. His mother agrees.

Each new boat is more beautiful than the last. He keeps the best to send to his papa. One year later, as they are celebrating Buckley's next birthday, he rushes back to their cabin to get forgotten paper to add a note to his newest 'boat for Papa'. He makes a sad discovery - and shows his understanding with the thoughtful note and boat his mama later discovers as she is walking the beach alone.

Buckley and his mama are both dealing with loss. The way that is handled in this beautiful story is a triumph for debut author Jessixa Bagley. With warm, detailed artwork she sets her story in peaceful environs awash with earthy natural tones, and gives both time to heal and honor Papa. There are so many lovely moments, tinged with both sadness and hope. Truly lovely.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Such a Little Mouse, written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Stephanie Yue. Orchard Books, Scholastic. 2015. $18.99 ages 3 and up

"He sees a snail
climbing up a fern.
He watches the busy bees
on the clover blossoms.
"Busy, busy, bizzzzzz,"
say the bees.
He hears a woodpecker,
hammering a tree."

Following an engaging little mouse through the seasons from spring to winter is the premise for this lovely new book from master poet Alice Schertle. I look forward to each new publication, knowing that it is sure to engage readers and make a great read aloud for little ones.

He may be little but, he is an explorer. Each day he resolutely leaves his burrow in search of adventure in the big wide world. He listens to the many sounds, admires the sights, and manages to bring home a morsel to be stored in his warm, cozy hole. He does the same thing in summer. He stops to watch, to visit as he explores, and returns home with another item for his storeroom.

As leaves turn color and begin to blow around, he leaves his home to note the rustling sounds of falling leaves and to feel the nip in the air. There are many observations to make about the coming winter ... his meadow friends are preparing for its arrival. His storeroom is full.

When he pokes his head out at his first glimpse of winter, he knows exactly what to do.

"Back he goes, down
into his warm hole.
He makes a loaf of acorn bread.
He makes seed-and-watercress soup.
He snuggles up under
a little moss blanket
with a book of mouse tales."

There he stays ... until spring.

What an invitation this is for Ms. Schertle's young audience to get outside and make some discoveries of their own. Her text is repetitive and structured. Stephanie Yue paints a playful picture of nature, making it attractive and inviting for her audience. Her pages are filled with energy and warmth, allowing  us a close look at the meadow that is this little mouse's home.

A Tale of Two Beasts, written and illustrated by Fiona Roberton. Kane MIller, Publisthers Group Canada. 2015. $12.99 ages 4 and up

"But then a small furry shadow appeared at the foot of my bed. The strange little beast had returned. He seemed quite pleased to see me, and I began to think that maybe, just maybe ...

... he wasn't that strange after all."

I love stories told from variety in point of view. When they are told as well as this one is, it makes a big impact on readers. It also provides mentoring for young writers when it comes to telling their own stories.

The first voice is that of Beast One - a young girl. In first person voice she describes a walk from her grandmother's house through the woods. From behind a tree she notices a small beast (a gray squirrel) moaning sorrowfully on a nearby tree branch. She saves him, wraps him up and takes him home where he is coddled, dressed, fed and given a new home. He is put on display for all of her friends, but doesn't seem all that happy. When he leaves abruptly, she worries and frets. To her surprise, he returns and convinces her to go back to the woods with him.

That is when we are told the second part of the story - from the perspective of The Terrible Beast.
He explains that he was singing, not moaning, when he was 'AMBUSHED' by another terrible beast. That beast growls, hogties him and takes him home to her lair. His life with her is miserable:

"She showed me off to a herd of even wilder beasts, who were just as terrible as she was."

His escape is a success and life returns to normal, until he remembers the hat he wore and wonders if it might keep him dry in rainstorms. He sneaks back to get it. As we know from the first part, his return is noticed. It leads to a romp together in the woods, and a warm and heartfelt realization.

The artist keeps the art almost identical for each character, but for the small, telling details that clearly show their differing views. It's a feast for the eyes and the heart.

Monday, August 24, 2015

llama llama gram and grandpa, written and illustrated by Anna Dewdney. Viking, Penguin. 2015. $20.99 ages 2 and up

"Who will take good care
of Llama?
Llama Llama's Gram and
Bag and fuzzy?
In the car!
Buckle up!
The drive seems far ...

Hugs and kisses.
Big hellos ... "

In this newest adventure, Llama Llama is off to have his first sleepover. His mama helps him pack his bag, while sharing his excitement for the visit with Gram and Grandpa. A long ride in the car, a quick goodbye, and the three are ready to settle in. They have a snack, unpack his bag and make a distressing discovery.

Fuzzy Llama is not in his backpack, Mama is nowhere to be seen - Llama is no longer happy with this new situation. To distract him, Gram and Grandpa take him outside where he helps with mowing and the garden. A niggling thought comes to mind:

"Llama's having fun.
But ... oh ...

Fuzzy is still left at home.
Maybe Fuzzy feels alone?"

Off to the workshop they go to build a little chair - another reminder that Fuzzy is not along for the visit. Soon, it's time to prepare dinner. Llama is a great help, the food is delicious, and the starlit night is a wondrous sight. Then, it's time to get ready for bed. Why so sad, young Llama?

He needs Fuzzy before he can go to sleep! No worries. Grandpa has the perfect solution.

Anna Dewdney deftly captures the feelings of the young in her Llama Llama books which make them perennial favorites for reading aloud. They tackle the issues of illness, bullying, sharing, waiting, homesickness, and anger. This one is perfect to be sharing for the upcoming Grandparents Day on September 13!

Sonya's Chickens, written and illustrated by Phoebe Wahl. Tundra Books, Random House. 2015. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"Sonya took her job of tending to the chickens very seriously, and they grew quickly into gawky pullets. As her mama and papa went about their duties of the farm, Sonya was proud to do her part. Everywhere Sonya went, her little birds were at her heels, peeping loudly. Every morning, Sonya would rise to the crow of the old rooster ... "

We meet the three little chicks on the same day Sonya does. She assures the three that she will be their 'mama'. She cares for them inside until they are ready to go outside into their chicken house in the farmyard. Sonya works hard, as does everyone on the farm. In her care, the chickens are healthy and good layers.

One night Sonya hears a ruckus in the farmyard. She quietly leaves the house to investigate the source of all the noise. She makes an alarming discovery - one of her chickens is missing. In the midst of her tears, her father's strong arms enfold  her and she cries out her sadness.

Sonya wants an explanation. Her papa patiently explains that anger at the fox who stole her chicken may be misplaced. A fox is only trying to care for hiss family. It may seem unfair. He tells her a story:

"He works hard every day to find food to
bring home to his babies. Most of the time
he can find mice and moles, but sometimes
 the fox needs a big meal for his family, so he
does everything he can to find one. He didn't
know or care that it was our chicken he took.
He just saw a chance to feed his family."

Papa is so attentive to Sonya's sadness while helping her to understand loss. They have a short service of remembrance for the lost chicken, allowing Sonya to move on with the two chickens she has left. They repair the chicken house, and get the back to the business of collecting eggs for the family's meals.

Phoebe Wall uses watercolor, collage, and colored pencil to give her story warmth and appeal. She uses peaceful scenes of both families - human and fox - to help her young audience see that both provide love and care. In her farmyard scenes she allows a close look at the work that is required to raise chickens.

I like this story of love and loss, and its connections within the natural world.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Jessica's Box, written and illustrated by Peter Carnavas. Kane Miller, Publishers Group Canada. 2015. $16.50 ages 4 and up

"At first, nobody noticed.
But by lunchtime, a crowd
of curious children had
gathered. Jessica reached
into the box.


Some children laughed.
Some tried not to.
Others just walked away."

While we are thinking about the return to school in upcoming weeks, we need to be aware that for some children the first day of school can be pretty daunting. Whether it's a brand new school and a fresh start, a return to old friends and familiar settings, or the very first day ever in any school, there are fears to be faced, concerns addressed and a plan devised.

Jessica is so excited about her first day of school, she can't sleep. When the new day dawns, her family is very supportive. They offer advice and help her make a plan. Her teddy in a box should invite conversation, encourage curiosity, and help her make new friends. The plan backfires when she opens the box, and some of her classmates laugh and walk away.

Jessica talks with her mom about her miserable day. Another plan is made. Next day, her cupcake-filled box seems just right. Cupcakes gone, not even a thank you; Jessica is determined to try again. The third day she takes her dog to school to a chorus of delight - until the groundskeeper passes by with the news that dogs are not allowed at school. He takes Doris home.

Feeling blue, she turns to Dad for advice. What can he say? Together they contemplate space and the wonder of being together (without words). It's up to Jessica to decide what to do next. On the fourth morning, she takes an empty box. When she puts it over her head, she discovers that it does exactly what she has wanted from the very first day.

Jessica’s disability is irrelevant to the story and is not mentioned at all, nor is her aboriginal heritage.  Peter Carnavas allows his readers to make many discoveries for themselves through his wonderful artwork which is fraught with feelings, and surely will encourage conversation. It is done quietly, carefully and memorably. It is going on my 'keeper' shelf!