Thursday, June 04, 2015

Marianne Dubuc

After multiple reading of the 'The Lion and the Bird', I wrote to Marianne Dubuc with some queries. She was very kind to reply back almost within a day. Thank you, Marianne Dubuc for writing back with a lot details.  

Here it goes - 

Query - Going through the book, I wondered if the book could have been just made as a wordless picture book. The picture by themselves seem to speak volumes, did they still need the extra words at all?
Marianne: You might have read that already, but I actually did the whole book in images first. I wanted to do it this way, so that I would tell story with the images as much as possible. But I also wanted to add words. Because I feel that sometimes the fact that there are so few words can emphasize the emptiness, the stillness or force the reader to look at the image and let it complete the phrase. When I read wordless books to my kids, I tend to talk a lot, say tons of words. With The Lion and The Bird, the reader has to read the few words on the page, ans then complete it if he wishes, but there is a rythm that is imposed by their presence. And I say all of this, but I can assure you that I had not thought all of this through while doing the book. It all kind of happened this way, and I then noticed the impact that so few words can have on the reading experience.My first intention was to let the images tell the story and then add words so that both could work together. But I think that they do more then simply work together... :)

Query - I read in your write up with Picture book makers that you liked to tell a story through animals. I loved the way you showed human emotions using a Lion. Was it easy to transfer human emotions to a lion or does our human minds play a role in pushing these images into the pictures based on our understanding of the story at that point? Would love to hear your views on this. 

Marianne: I don't really plan things when working on stories. They kind of happen the way they do... But I do use animals a lot in my work. I prefer to draw animals then humans. I think I give myself more freedom of interpretation with animals then with humans. And I guess that animals all have personality traits that are associated with them culturally. This helps to tell the story. When I ask kids which one, between the Lion and the Bird, is the strongest, based on the cover, they all say "the lion!!". And the weakest, more fragile one is always the bird. But once I have read the story, they say the Lion is more fragile in my story. And I explain that the fact that we think the Lion is usually strong, lets the story surprise us, and emphasizes the Lion's vulnerability. I don't know if I make sense, english is not my main language.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Where Do Our Baby Teeth Go?

Where Do Our Baby Teeth Go?
Tooth Stories from Around the World
by Vilasinee Bunnag
illustrated by Yasmin Doctor

With the resident first-grader losing teeth left and right, back-to-back, teeth have been in the limelight for the last few months.

He does not want to leave the baby teeth under the pillow for the tooth fairy as is the custom around these parts. He did write a note to that effect, in polite words, to the tooth fairy, so (s)he won't be disappointed.

He intends to collect all his baby teeth in a jar and keep them for future research.

Which got us thinking about this tradition of leaving the fallen baby tooth for the tooth fairy. And made us wonder what other such traditions are there related to baby teeth.

What do kids in other parts of the world do when their baby teeth fall out?

Just to answer such a question, this book presents tooth stories from around the world as the subtitle states.

The book starts out by asking 'Have you lost a tooth yet?' And explains a few facts about the 20 baby teeth, including the term "Diphyodont". Then, we embark on a journey around the world to learn about different traditions surrounding baby teeth. A map of the word shows the places we are visiting.

Starting in New York City, where of course the Tooth Fairy has the honors, we move to Mexico where Señor Raton scurries it away. In Brazil, Saint John takes care of it, while in South Korea kids get to throw it up in the air where a magpie catches it and brings a new strong tooth. We learn close to a dozen such traditions in different countries.

And since it's all about each child's own tooth story, the book ends with an invitation: "What's your tooth story?" and offers a Baby Teeth Diagram showing the placement of the mighty twenty.

The illustrations are bright and colorful. Two things that thrilled the resident seven year old: flag of each country tucked away in the illustrations, and peppering of words from other languages. He was chirping the Zulu greeting of "Sawubona"  and  the Swedish "Välkommen till Sverige".

Little nuances kept him interested - like, the drums on Nigeria page with their names "djembe" and "shekere", as well as factoids like "Dentists were working on smiles in Egypt as early as 3000 BC" and "China is a land of inventions. Fireworks and bristle toothbrush were invented there over 500 years ago."

While the concept is lovely, the only thing I would've preferred to be different is the font and color of the text - especially the white text on a darker background, and the all caps font made it difficult to read.

[Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book. The opinions shared here are my own. The images shared here are from the review copy sent to me.]

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Lion and The Bird

The Lion and the Bird.
By Marianne Dubuc

Sometimes, one comes across a book that is charmingly simple and heart warming. A book that makes one pore into it again and again, finding a new nuance every time one looks at it. 

The Lion and The Bird is a book of friendship, seasonal nature of life, the yin & yang, loneliness & camaraderie. Life offers it all. This is a book that says the external environment hardly matters-  If one finds true friendship, the winter is like spring. If ones loved ones are not around, even the most colourful spring season is cold and bleak. 

The autumn is almost on and the lion is working his patch of land, gathering the fallen leaves when he notices an injured bird(among many flying away to warmer lands). The bird is hurt. The lion takes in the bird, keeps it warm and develops a wonderful friendship with it. They enjoy the winter and suddenly the whiteness of the winter seems colourful. When it is spring again, the bird yearns to go back with its group of birds as they return back to their home.  

The number of pages are more (54 as against the usual 36 pages). The extra pages adds gravitas to the whole story. There are many pages that do not require any words. The design of the page conveys it all. There is a page where the birds flies away and the lion looks forlornly. The lion is illustrated same as ever before, but the page conveys the loneliness of the lion.  The lion is depicted smaller in size, whereas the bird is depicted much larger compared to other pages. I wonder how long it took to illustrate and design this one single page - to convey the mood effortlessly. 

Every page is designed and illustrated with a lot of care and thought. It almost seems like the words used in the picture book are not needed at all. The words are used sparingly, but, I felt that they can probably be left out completely. 

I kept going back to the lion's face depicted in various pages. In some the lion appears forlorn, in some sprightly, in some enthusiastic, in some content. If one notices closely the lion's face is depicted almost exactly the same in all these pages. Then from where do these emotions come out. Do we as readers, sense the emotion of the picture and force our emotions on the page or is it a subtle magic of line used in the illustrations?

This book is a work of art. A book for all ages. If I may add, a book more for adults than for kids. A book that will grow within you. A book that might provide a ray of hope for that lonely day when all seems bleak. 

A book that might turn out to be a classic.

Review by Sathish

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Nayanika Mahtani, after being an investment banker, has been following the right side of her brain and is a copywriter by day and a storyteller by night.

She has just penned Ambushed , published by Puffin. An adventure story set in tiger territory in the Himalayan foothills, it is meant for the 9+ reader. The foreword is written by Valmik Thapar, who suggests this book should be part of school reading.

All royalties go to Tiger Watch, an NGO in Rajasthan, for a school set up for the children of tribal (ex) poachers, to give them a window to alternate livelihood.

Let us begin with the title of the book- 'Ambushed'- a great pun given the spotlight on tigers and the storyline of the book. Tell us more!

This wasn’t actually the original title of the book, but we needed to change the earlier one as it was similar to a title that had just been launched. The credit for choosing this out of all the options I gave, goes to the Puffin team!  The title ‘Ambushed’ held the thrill of not knowing what’s lurking around the corner. City-bred gadget geek Tara is ambushed when her Dad springs the surprise of going on a tiger tracking vacation in the Himalayan forests, and maybe even moving there for good! Tara’s socialite mother orchestrates her own ambush when she springs her surprise(s), sometimes unknowingly! A group of tigers is also called an ‘ambush’; and it also of course refers to the technique used by the tiger to catch its prey. Satya, the 13 year old son of a poacher, who has tracked tigers all his life, is a master at this craft. And without giving away too much of the plot, let’s just say that there are several ambushes quietly waiting to happen as we go!

The mother is a bit too flaky/pretentious to begin with. Is she based on someone you know? (No names needed of course!!)

Hmmm…maybe not one person in particular, but I have definitely encountered the likes of Sushma “Call me Sue” Tripathi! In fact, though she may be an over-the-top specimen, I think she reflects so many of us who choose our experiences based on how impressive they will appear, on say Facebook, to our peer group.  And this holds true even in the context of some of the bigger life choices we make. Which is why Sushma is aghast when her banker husband wants to quit the City to go and live in a forest. For Sue Tripathi, life is a race -with no forests near the finish line!

You have drawn from conservationists for the book but did you meet any ex-poachers as part of the research for the book? How was the experience?

In all the school sessions that Puffin arranged, I told the kids that it was a poacher (and a tiger) who compelled me to write this book. And it was true! The seed for this story came from an article in the National Geographic that had the photograph of a jailed tribal (Moghiya) poacher and a tiger – and that image just wouldn’t leave my head. To me, they both – the tiger and the tribal poacher- were hopelessly trapped. I started researching Moghiya poachers. To start with, most of my research happened online. I spent days reading about the history of the Moghiyas – and how they retreated into the forests when Emperor Akbar besieged Ranthambhore. Today, they are the world’s best tiger trackers – employed (for a pittance) to kill tigers by an international illegal wildlife trade mafia.  They remain a marginalised tribe with no other means of livelihood.

Last April, I met with ex-poachers’ families at Dhonk, a craft collective run by Divya Khandal, to offer alternate employment opportunities to Moghiyas. It was an incredibly moving experience, to say the least– and the hope in those eyes will stay with me forever.

The unlikely friendship and collaboration between kids from completely different backgrounds- do we as parents let it happen in real life?

Not easily, in most cases! In today’s world, I find that not only our kids, but even we as adults, end up interacting with those who have such similar backgrounds, education and outlooks, that, in my view, it saps creativity, originality and makes for very dull conversation!
As a family, we have lived in India, Africa and now in the UK and our daughters have interacted with children from completely diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and been the richer for it, I think.

The tribal boy in the book (Satya), is based on a little boy called Satto-who is the son of the lady who used to come to clean our house. Despite our best efforts, he refused to go to school. So I started seating him along my (then pre-school) children and keeping them occupied, while his mother did her work.

Satto never ceased to amaze me! He had spent his early years in the village where his grandfather was a carpenter – and could whittle a block of wood into almost any shape you named, whistling nonchalantly. He found the lot of us pretty unimpressive I’m sure, but the one thing that earned his unadulterated awe was the computer. He would watch it entranced by the unlimited possibilities it held!

How did the association with Tiger Watch come about?

The person who heads up Tiger Watch is a reluctant tiger hero, a conservation biologist called Dr. Dharmendra Khandal, who has dedicated his life to the cause of the tiger. (His equally committed wife Divya runs Dhonk – as I mentioned earlier). It was his interview in the National Geographic -that I mentioned earlier -that set me off on this journey.

After I finished writing the first draft of the book, I felt I just had to visit a tiger reserve to experience first-hand what Tara feels on seeing a wild tiger. I had been to several tiger reserves over the years, but had only seen tiger tracks and tails, never a tiger.

Over the Easter holidays last year, our family headed to Ranthambhore.

We saw not one but 8 wild tigers in 3 days – including a tigress who had very recently given birth to 3 cubs (who have found their way into the book too!) It was as if the tigers had allowed me into their world. And I felt I had to honour that. And the only (small) way I knew was by donating my book’s royalties to the school Tiger Watch had set up for ex-poachers’ kids, to give them a window to alternate livelihoods.

What next from your pen/ keyboard?

Am currently finishing work on a film script in a completely different genre. And on the book front, there are a dozen different crazy ideas jostling for space in my head. I’ll wait for one of them to nudge out the rest and refuse to budge and then take it from there, hopefully!

What are your favourite books on the theme of conservation/ animal rights for kids?

Some that have touched my heart include Born to Run, Running Wild (in fact so many others as well by Morpurgo), Watership Down, Black Beauty and Charlotte’s Web.
As Strawberry, the rabbit in Watership Down, says:
“Animals don't behave like men,' he said. 'If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.”

That, for me, says it all.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Architecture According to Pigeons

Yes you read that right! Pigeons indeed!

Think about it. Pigeons are everywhere. They don't soar high up in the skies like hawks and eagles, and are not earth-bound either. In fact they are built to fly just high enough to be able to land on most man-made buildings and perch up there. So why not view some famous works of architecture through their eyes?

Our winged narrator from London, Mr Speck Lee Tailfeather, starts by introducing himself and tells us the story of symbiosis of our two species, albeit not always a pleasant one. He says he wants to set the record right - they are not necessarily pests, and would like to take us on a journey to nineteen structures from a bird's POV. A bird's eye view, in other words.

Mr Tailfeather heads south to Canterbury Cathedral, a towering structure first built in the 6th century, and the seat of the Church of England ever since. He talks about why a cathedral is built the way it is, the history of this particular place of worship and also a snapshot of 21st century life around the place.

He then flies straight over the Channel to Eiffel Tower. The Parisian skyline fascinates him and he talks about the city's past and present, smoothly weaving in the story of Gustav Eiffel's masterpiece. He also visits the Pompidou Centre which is an 'inside-out' building - all the staircases, plumbing, service conduits are outside the building!

After stopping to admire a medieval church in Eastern France, he heads to Barcelona. And you guessed it, he stops atop La Sagrada Familia! Having recently been there, I can completely relate to the awe this work-in-progress evokes from our speckled friend.

On to Venice and to the many wonderful architectural gems this watery warren offers, like San Giorgio Maggiore. My own memories of this place are centred around a beautiful old church near the Grande Canal, where we were lucky enough to attend a concert by a string quartet. Never has Vivaldi's Four Seasons been played in a more appropriate setting!

Mr.T now heads to Rome. How can you go to Italy and not go to this absolutely stunning city?! In my opinion, the entire place is a museum. Every street has something fascinating to gawk at. Our friend tells us about the Colosseum and its gory past.

He now takes a break from all that flying and decides to take a lesson on bridges. Various types, with examples. The civil engineer in me wishes we had this book back in the B.Tech. days. Bet Prof Kalyanaraman would have completely fallen in love with it!

The next leg of our journey takes us to the 'mysterious mathematical miracle a.k.a The Great Pyramid of Giza', and to the Sphinx.

On to India, because how can you ignore that 'tear on the cheek of time' as Tagore described it, when you are talking about architectural marvels?! It is the one man-made structure that you can describe as 'beautiful', so perfect are the proportions of its different parts. Tailfeather's reaction is exactly the same as countless visitors to the Taj - whether it is visiting heads of state or the common tourist - of open-mouthed wonder.

We then head north to the Great Wall of China, and then to Japan to rather quirky church - one I'd never heard of, the Church of Light. Simple concept but so brilliant!

Further east to the Sydney Opera House or the 'Hungry Beaks Hall' as Tailfeather calls it. Here too I read facts about this structure that I did not know of. Often the back-stories of places make it even more interesting!

Over and across the Pacific, and you land on the Americas. First stop Brazil. Next a lesson about the various skyscrapers that the continent is famous for, and a comparison with others from around the world. Then to the unusual 'Fallingwater' in Pittsburg, the Chrysler building in New York and finally the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA.

Having covered the entire globe, Tailfeather bids us farewell with a parting gift - a few more pages of facts about the buildings we have covered. These pages are like a synopsis of sorts and make it a complete book.

The author Stella "Pigeon Whisperer" Gurney's narrative is friendly and is bound to evoke chuckles and guffaws, and at the same time it is packed with facts. The illustrations by Natsko Seki are a clever juxtaposition of photographs and watercolours and CAD drawings, with cartoons and speech bubbles. This quirky book will make a wonderful gift to anyone - child or adult.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Grandfather Gandhi

Grandfather Gandhi

by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus
illustrated by Evan Turk
published by Simon and Schuster

Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, gave a talk that Bethany Hegedus attended, just after she was trying to find her bearings post-9/11. She was immediately inspired by the stories, one in particular about channeling anger; she wanted to bring it to the kids. So, she wrote to Arun Gandhi and thus the literary collaboration was born to bring us this amazing book that offers multiple layers and lessons.

And, Evan Turk was only 12 years old when the collaboration began. By the time the book was acquired for publication about a decade later, Turk had fortuitously graduated from the Parsons School of Design in NYC and presented the winning sample that completed the book's visual presentation.

The story is set in Gandhiji's Sevagram where 12-year old Arun arrives for a visit. He is nervous about his much-revered grandfather and resents that the life there is without electricity or plumbing, and that the food is just bland boiled pumpkin. But most of all, he resents that he has to share his grandfather with so many people who always surround him.

When playing a soccer match with the local kids at the Sevagram, Arun is shoved by an older boy, making him miss the goal. An infuriated Arun picks up a rock with full intention of using it, to return the hurt that the older boy had inflicted, inadvertently or not. Arun imagines the puzzled stares of his fellow players wondering how, being Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, he could get so angry. This is the turning point in the story that leaves us with a lasting lesson.

When Arun finally gets to talk to Mahatma about this incident, full of guilt and shame, Gandhiji surprises him by saying that he gets angry too, and that anger is like electricity. "Anger can strike, like lightning, and split a living tree in two. Or it can be channeled, transformed. A switch can be flipped and it can shed light like a lamp." Arun is amazed at the realization that when his grandfather gets angry, he doesn't lash out but works to make lasting changes. "...anger can illuminate. It can turn darkness into light."

The illustrations are full of emotion, bold, raw, and complex, brilliantly complementing the story and bringing symbolic imagery. The mixed media collage uses fabric for clothing Gandhiji and Arun in the pictures- clean, white and simple; the communal eating scene has shiny foil for pitchers and plates and utensils; Arun's anger when he picks up the rock comes across as a tangled mass of yarn in black, almost living, vicious. The page showing a fluffy strand of fiber being spun into yarn in a charka, with threads everywhere and other people laying down, with the charka spokes making them look like the Vitruvian man projects a harmonious movement and cooperation.

Both the seven and ten year old really liked this book and its message. "Why did Arun pick up that rock?" is a question they kept asking, not wanting to believe Arun was capable of hitting someone with it. "Why did they not have electricity? Why did they eat only pumpkin mush? Why did his dad have to clean everybody's toilet?" While they did not grow up with a reverence and affection for the Mahatma like I did, they have heard enough stories about him from me regarding Indian Independence Movement that they were happy to see the softer, familial side of this person who is larger-than-life even today.

[image source:]

The Fourteenth Goldfish

Title : The Fourteenth Goldfish
Author : Jennifer L. Holm
Age Group : 8 to 12

We all identify with some form of inertia of change, quite often in our lives. The comfort that familiarity of things extends, is incomparable and sometimes it takes a lot to step out of the cocoon of the comfort zone. Eleven year old, Ellie is experiencing just the same inertia when her life in middle school is turning out to be nothing less than overwhelming. She misses everything about her fifth grade from her best friend Brianna to her dear goldfish.

One fine day a strange teenage boy shows up in the house along with her mom. He is quite bizarre and authoritarian but strangely resembles her maternal grandpa Melvin, who is a scientist. Has grandpa Melvin actually found the secret to mortality? One can imagine how the narrative would progress when a septuagenarian mind resides in a teenage body. He needs to be driven to places, he needs to attend the middle school along with Ellie, but he also wants to pursue his research to make his scientific community recognise his discovery - worthy of at least a Nobel prize. But the problems are aplenty. His lab is no longer accessible to him and the lab's security guard will not allow any weird looking teenager near the premises. How will he get his sample from the lab refrigerator? He created this sample from T.melvinus, a unique species of jellyfish.

The author Jennifer Holm has tried to work on various different themes through the narrative. The treatment has been light but some very relevant topics and issues are being discussed in the story - eternal desire to remain at the peak of one's life, harmonious separation between parents, single parent homes, changing equations among friends and friendships, identifying one's passion, school issues and so on.

Ellie the protagonist is sketched as a believable character who seems to have adjusted well to her parents' amicably parted ways. While going through accelerated pace of changes in her own life post elementary school and understanding reverse changes in her grandpa; she gets introduced to her own natural passion for science. She starts enjoying the opening up of the whole new world to herself when she experiences science pervading every mundane stuff and activity.

The highlight of the book is how Ellie progresses from being resistant to change to accepting the same graciously and finding it rather interesting. Being a sensible and sensitive girl, she realises how even her mother needs to move on from past experience and to open up doors to what new the life has to offer. She beautifully manages to convey to her grandpa the futility of his discovery, of holding on to one stage of life. Subtle mention of (im)mortality, life and death, fear of ageing - make the narrative quite rich at various levels, but all these are dealt with in such an unassuming manner that one tends to fall in love with how it is done. New body, old mind in one character of Melvin makes for a hilarious and interesting read -  he fumes on the late return of Ellie's mother, spends extra time in bathroom, wears ponytail holders borrowed from his granddaughter, looks for acne cream in the bathroom, doesn't have to any old-age issues with his sight and teeth and so on. 

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold

Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold

by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Rick Allen
published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Filled with vivid illustrations and exuberant form poetry, the book is a delight to behold and experience, as it takes us on an excursion into the winter life of the creatures living in the extreme north.

Joyce Sidman, a master poet, has invited the kids to experience the magic of winter, as well as its harshness.

I’m a big brown moose,
I’m a rascally moose,
I’m a moose with a tough, shaggy hide;
and I kick and I prance
in a long-legged dance
with my moose-mama close by my side.

We instantly love this baby moose who is not afraid to tough it out in the tundra.

Chickadees song in collective voice is energizing.

From dawn to dusk in darkling air
we glean and gulp and pluck and snare,
then find a roost that’s snug and tight
to brave the long and frozen night.

Image Source: HMH Young Readers

Not just animals, but plants are celebrated as well - skunk cabbage gets a dedicated triolet.

Skunk cabbage peeks up through the snow:
the first flower in the wood.
Wreathed in an eerie purple glow,
up through the slick of soggy snow,
smelling of rotten buffalo,

Even the snowflake!

Snowflake wakes,
arms outstretched,
lace sprouting from fingertips

Leaps, laughing
in a dizzy cloud,
a pinwheel gathering glitter

The Whole World is Melting leaves us with the warmth and hope of Spring.

Printmaker extraordinaire, Rick Allen, adds intricate detail via the linoleum blocks cut precisely to present the exact image that livens up the poems. The hours of work involved in making these block prints is astounding but even more astounding is the results! Each page is a work of art that is simply brilliant!

Sidebar on each page provides notes about the animals.

We dream of housing a copy of this book on our bookshelf soon. Also by Joyce Sidman, the Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night is a treat to read as well.

[image source: houghton mifflin]

Friday, May 08, 2015

Four picture books about loss

How do you explain death to a child? And how do you help them deal with the pain and grief that follows the loss of a loved one? Here are a handful of books that take very different approaches to the idea of death and coming to terms with loss.

The Heart and the Bottle
Written and Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Publisher: Harper Collins Children’s Books
Ages: All

I’ve loved every one of Jeffers’ books till date, and this one bowled me over too. The Heart.. is about a little girl, filled with curiosity and a love for exploring the world around her. When the elderly relative she is attached to, dies, she deals with her grief by putting her heart in a bottle. It takes the pain away, but also her curiosity, her sense of wonder , her love for learning. She grows into adulthood this way, feeling nothing but the growing weight of the bottle around her neck. Until one day, she meets a little girl much like the one she used to be, who nudges her awake. But is it too late - will her heart ever be free of its bottle? With just a handful of words, and delightful minimalist spreads, Jeffers gives us a story about the healing powers of love and hope. For me, it was also a book about the importance of feeling grief, learning to deal with it - and the redemptive, utterly lifesaving powers of parenthood as well.

Always and Forever
Written by Alan Durant
Illustrated by Debi Gliori
Publisher: Doubleday
Ages: 3+

If only someone had given this book to the little girl from The Heart and the Bottle

Fox, Otter, Mole and Hare share a house in the woods, with Fox as the gentle paterfamilias. But then he falls ill, and passes on. Otter, Mole and Hare are heartbroken; they recede into their grief and as winter approaches, the little house is gripped by silence and sadness. Then Squirrel pays a visit and somehow, the conversation turns to all the funny things Fox used to do. As they three housemates laugh together for the first time in ages, they find their grief lift, replaced by warm memories of the friend they have lost, and think up ways to keep him alive in their memories – a special garden in his honour, a bench in his favourite spot, a pie he loved. A lovely book about hope and the light at the end of the tunnel that is heartbreak, all brought to life through Debi Gliori’s wonderful watercolours.

The Sad Book
Written by Michael Rosen
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Ages: All

Written by Michael Rosen after the death of his teenaged son, The Sad Book is devastating in its siply-worded portrayal of grief. Rosen honestly opens up about his suffering, about the things he does when sadness strikes, the anger that engulfs him, the brave face he must sometimes fake so people will not pity him. Sometimes I'm sad and I don’t know why.", says Rosen.  It's just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.”  I liked the way the book affirms the need to grieve, even as people around you tell you to 'put a brave face on it'.  Grief, he adds, does not go away. You can never really be free from the loss you have suffered. "Sad is anywhere”, says Rosen."It comes along and finds you.” His sorrow  is reflected in Quentin Blake’s bleak pen and ink illustrations, and it is hard not to be moved by the poet's words. And yet, by the end - and what a lovely, unexpected end it is! - even Rosen discovers hope. 

Shaker Lane
Written and Illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen
Publisher: Viking Kestrel
Ages: 6+

Shaker Lane isn’t about the death of a person, but something even greater and, therefore, sadder – it chronicles the slow demise of a  community.  Considered one of the Provensen’s finest books, it  is based on a real life community near the area the book’s creators lived in, one they watched change over thirty five years. At first, second and even third glance, Shaker Lane really doesn’t impress- its residents are dirt poor, their houses are shabby, the yards strewn with rubbish, mangy dogs and weeds. “Aker, baker, poorhouse shaker!” yell the kids from the passing schoolbus. It doesn’t even mean much to the rest of the town. But then, one by one, the book introduces us to its residents – old Mr. Van Sloop and his army of stray dogs; the Whipple twins who help out with yard work; Big Jake, the handyman; the kids, dogs, pet ducks. And just like that, you see the quiet heart that beats under Shaker Lane’s shabby hand-me-down skin. It’s also, sadly, a heart without much of a fight left  in it – when the city council takes over the land to build a reservoir, the residents quietly give up their ramshackle houses and their lives and move away. Time moves on; water, progress and middleclass suburbia move into the place that was once Shaker Lane. And you wouldn’t know the place, except…

Spare text, beautiful spreads and with a surprise ending I didn’t see coming, Shaker Lane is a wonderful book about change, loss,  new beginnings – and resilience as well.  Read this in tandem with Window and Belonging, Jeannie Baker’s stunning wordless chronicles about changing communities.

Three Wordless Picture Books

Fox's Garden
by Princesse Camcam
published by Enchanted Lion Books (2014)

A (soon-to-be?) mommy fox wanders to the edge of a snowy forest hoping to find shelter in one of the homes bordering that area. She is chased away repeatedly by grown-ups.

A kid watches all this and notices the fox entering their greenhouse. He takes a basket of food and offers it to the fox, who is now nursing her four pups.

He goes back to his room. A nice touch here is a picture showing the drawing of a fox on the kid's wall by the bed, not to mention the vintage decor.

The fox is finally ready to move on, followed by her four pups. She leaps into the kid's room (when he is not there) and leaves a surprise garden for him right on his little rug.

When I read that Princesse Camcam (aka Camille Garoche) assembled cut-paper dioramas and lit it strategically and photographed it to make the pictures in this book, I was blown away. It looks hauntingly magical, yet softly transcendental, as the power of a simple act of kindness dawns on us.

by  Raúl Colón
published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (2014)

A boy sits on his bed in his room, a book in hand which simply says 'Africa' with an African Elephant on the cover. A large sketchbook is by his bed. We gather he might be home sick when we notice the medicine-like bottle on his night stand.

Next we see him, still on his bed, sketchbook on his lap, intently drawing. Five identical pictures of varying sizes zooming towards us alerts us to the possibility that something magical might be happening in the next pages.

Sure enough, with his easel and sketchbook and art paraphernalia, plus a canteen of water and some sandwiches, his signature safari hat on his head, the kid is in the African savanna waving to a friendly elephant.

Over the next pages, the story unfolds as the kid draws the animals he encounters, with the elephant being his friendly transport. The apes posing for him brings a smile, especially when the one sitting for the picture has the safari hat and sandwich that the kid had on the previous scene.

The exciting part is when he tries to draw the charging rhino. Then, things go a bit haywire. But all's well that ends well: we see the kid posing for the baboons with his trademark hat and a sandwich in hand. The picture drawn by the baboon is sure to evoke chuckles.

The power of imagination is beautifully explored and presented in this wordless picture book wherein every spread is a work of art.

The Farmer and the Clown
by Marla Frazee
published by Beach Lane Books (2014)

The Farmer and the Clown CoverA farmer is toiling in a desolate landscape, clearly unhappy. Along the horizon rolls a circus train from which a baby clown is ejected out. The farmer reluctantly goes to investigate. He meets the baby clown wearing a perpetual painted-on smile.

Into the muted tones of the farmer's world enters this one bright spot, all in red, even if the farmer sees it otherwise.

He grudgingly takes the baby clown home. Over the course of a day, we see them shed their outer facade and learn a bit more about each other.

When the farmer sheds his dull black overalls, he reveals a red pair of long-johns. When the baby clown washes up, we see the sadness underneath the contrived smile. This is a priceless scene where things take a turn in the story.

 The farmer does his best to amuse and entertain the kid who simply remains unmoved, but maybe a bit hopeful. The spread where the baby clown helps the farmer with his chores is delightful. They even have a picnic together. That's when they notice the circus train yonder by the horizon coming their way.

They both hurry to the train. The baby is united with his family and the farmer waves goodbye to all of them as they speed away. Just like that.

The brilliant touch is the last page where we see the farmer, feeling lonely again, is walking along and unbeknownst to him, a circus monkey follows him, finger to his lips and a twinkle in his eye, appealing to us to keep his secret.

[image source: enchanted lion books,, simonandschuster]

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