Posts Tagged ‘picture books’

The Wind in the Willows

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Hello, friends. This week, I’d like to talk about my five-year-old’s favourite book, The Wind in the Willows. I realize I’m not revealing any kind of secret, here. Everybody has heard of The Wind in the Willows. First published in 1908, it’s a classic of children’s literature. Its most famous illustrator is Ernest H. Shepard (who also drew the “decorations” for Winnie the Pooh. There are some lovely links to images here in the Bodleian Library’s collection). What more is there to say?

The Wind in the Willows, classic edition

Well, did you know that it was first published without illustrations? Or that I had never read it until recently? And that my English husband had only been exposed to it as a film, during his childhood? Travesty and deprivation and humiliation, I know! What kind of ignoramuses are we, anyway?

Despite this gaping cultural hole in our childhoods, we gave our son a copy of The Wind in the Willows this past Christmas. But he wasn’t ready for the full-text classic version that we chose, which included Shepard’s illustrations in black-and-white. So I picked up a shorter, more generously illustrated edition from the public library, just as a placeholder. It was an atrocious abridgement: capricious, rife with comma splices and ambiguous pronoun references, and in a few places simply nonsensical. And still, for our son, it was love at first sight. All his other favourites were instantly swept aside. We read the book in an unbroken cycle, every night before bed. Whenever there was a lull in the day, he would appear with the book under his arm, saying, “Can we read a bit of The Wind in the Willows?” And while I had a low opinion of the editorial work, I figured it was just about tolerable.

Then my son was invited to a birthday party and insisted that his gift be a copy of his favourite book. What to do? We couldn’t possibly recommend the edition we were perpetually reading. After an initial stumble (Nick picked up the only in-stock edition at our local indie bookseller. It was the Oxford World’s Classics edition, complete with scholarly introduction and end notes! For a child turning six!), we all cheered with joy and relief when we found the Candlewick Press edition, abridged and richly illustrated in full colour by Inga Moore.

The Wind in the Willows, illus. Inga Moore

(This is a good point at which to make my statement of possible conflict of interest. Yes, Candlewick Press is my publisher. But I had no idea this edition existed until I found it at my local Chapters. I have since bought three copies with my own money and will almost certainly buy more. I need this book to stay in print forever.)

So, Inga Moore’s illustrations. There are roughly 100 of them, and every single one is done with love and wit and tenderness. They are astonishingly beautiful, and it’s rare to find a page unadorned. A purist might object that having so many illustrations doesn’t leave much to the imagination, but we are spellbound. The light. The landscape. The sheer glee.

I haven’t yet read the classic version of the story so I can’t say anything authoritative about this shorter version, but there is so much lovely language and wry humour here. Moore’s abridgement seems sensitive and respectful, and the chapters have a distinct shape to them. (Moore also preserves the social snobberies of the original. Look out for Toad excoriating the “common, fat bargewoman!” and expurgate as necessary!) For anyone wondering which version of The Wind in the Willows holds the most delight for a younger child, I say this one. This one.

I know my son is not yet six, but The Wind in the Willows has become the most important book of his short life. He carries the characters around with him, like friends. He whispers phrases from the book under his breath, and folds them into his solo play. He deliberately misquotes lines from the book, making them fit whatever situation he’s currently in. He’s not just in love; he’s besotted and possessed and deeply altered by his encounter with this book. As a bookish parent, could I ask for any richer delight?

Friends, do you have a Wind in the Willows story to share?

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Lumpito and the Painter from Spain

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Hello, friends. Two weeks ago, my children and I had the pleasure of discovering Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths’s utterly charming picture-book, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain. (Disclosure: I am friendly with Monica and an admirer of her many other books.)

The story features a dachshund named Lump (pronounced “loomp”, meaning “rascal” in German) whose owner, David, takes him from Rome to the south of France to meet Pablo Picasso. Picasso nicknames the dog “Lumpito” and artist and dog get along so fabulously that Lump refuses to go home with David. Instead, he remains with Picasso.

Like many of Kulling’s other books, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain is based on a true story. Kulling tells us that Lump later appeared in some of Picasso’s work, notably his Las Meninas, after Velazquez. If you click on the link to wikipedia, you can see one of the Las Meninas paintings (there are 58 in total) with a small, long dog in the foreground. That’s Lump!

Something about the story seemed familiar. I wondered whether I’d actually heard it before, or whether it was simply too good a tale to remain untold in one form or another. And then I got distracted.

It took Nick to put things together. When I was 21, I travelled to France on my own. One of the few things I bothered to lug back with me was a gift for Nick: a copy of photographer David Douglas Duncan’s Viva Picasso.

Neither of us reads Italian and even as a second-hand copy, the book was fabulously expensive (for the 21-year-old me!). But it was so compelling that I couldn’t leave it. Besides, it was the photographs I loved; I still don’t know what the introductory text says.

Flash-forward to 2014. Nick read Lumpito and the Painter from Spain to our children, then pulled out Viva Picasso. And there it was: David Douglas Duncan’s intimate photographs of Picasso in Cannes, dancing with his children, eating lunch, showing off, holding forth, and, yes, playing with a sweet-looking little dachshund. We met Lumpito years ago, and never even knew it. Maybe we should have tried to read the Italian, after all.

I absolutely love these sorts of reflections and convergences. They give me the shivers, in the best possible way, and I’m so thrilled that Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths triggered one with their beautifully told, vibrantly illustrated picture book. Thank you, Monica, for this window into art history. It’s an absolute delight.

What about you, friends? Have you heard any echoes across the years, recently or otherwise?

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2012 in books

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

Hello, friends! If you celebrated Christmas yesterday, I hope you had a blissful, delicious, festive day. This year, I included brussels sprouts in the meal (using this recipe) and they were superlative – the highlight of the meal for me. Unlikely, but true.

But I’m not here to talk about cruciferous vegetables. I wanted to share my absolute favourite books of 2012 with you:


You saw this one coming, didn’t you? I’ve already blogged about Charles Dickens: A Life twice (once at the start, and again on finishing), and raved about Claire Tomalin many, many times. It was splendid. Highly, highly recommended.


May I jump on the Hilary Mantel bandwagon? And yes, isn’t it a rather crowded bandwagon? Nevertheless, my favourite two novels of 2012 were Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Each book haunted me for weeks after reading it, and every time I casually open the book to a random page, my eye lands on a perfectly pitched, devastatingly good sentence.

Picture book

Am I the only person in the world who hadn’t heard of Jon J Muth? Nick picked out his telling of Stone Soup quite by chance, in a busy bookstore a couple of days before Christmas. It’s the Stone Soup story you already know, transposed to historical China, featuring three Zen monks. The illustrations are profoundly beautiful – this cover image I grabbed doesn’t begin to do justice to the light in the paintings – and the story is deeply, solidly rooted in a love for China and Zen Buddhism. It’s one of the few picture-books I want to gaze upon for a long, long time.

And these are my end-of-year selections. What were your favourite books of 2012?


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A Picture-book Christmas

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Hello, and I hope your holidays were properly blissful! We had a wonderful Christmas and today I thought I’d share with you the picture books we unwrapped as a family this year.

I’m one of those parents who squints at a toy and thinks, “Huh. That’ll be a hit for all of eleven minutes,” before clutching my wallet tighter. But I love, love, love buying books for my kids. This year, we chose:

Someday, by Alison McGhee and Peter H. Reynolds

Okay, this is not actually a book for children. This is a gorgeous, shamelessly sentimental book for adults, and I confess that I can’t read it without crying. In fact, I first saw it when doing a bookstore visit in Toronto. There I was, standing beside my publicist, waiting to meet some booksellers, when I picked this up off the shelf. Three minutes later, I was misty-eyed and desperately hunting for a tissue. The book shows a mother imagining her infant daughter’s life and all the things the child might do as she *sniff* grows up. The illustrations are very Quentin Blake, but softer, which means I’m a sucker for them, too.

This New Baby, by Teddy Jam and Virginia Johnson

This new baby sleeps in my arms

like a moon sleeping on a cloud,

like apples falling through the rain,

like a fish swimming through the sky…”

Teddy Jam might be my favourite pseudonym. (His real identity was a secret until the death of award-winning Canadian novelist Matt Cohen in 1999, when they were revealed to be the same person.) Jam’s poetry is spare and surprising, and the illustrations in this re-issued edition of the book work beautifully with Jam’s free verse. It’s a gorgeous and subtle book.

In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak

I’d heard of In the Night Kitchen, but never before read it. Crazy, I know! I’m so glad this was prominently displayed in my local indie bookseller’s very small picture-book section; I might never have noticed it otherwise. And it is pure gold. I love that Sendak makes no attempt at logic, no effort to please a particular age bracket. It’s lunatic and brilliant as a result, and we can’t stop chanting, “Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We make cake, and nothing’s the matter.”

Ruby, by Colin Thompson

Another crazy one! We chose this one for the amazing illustrations, but the story (about a family of tiny, tree-root dwellers who accidentally get caught up in an Austin 7 Ruby) is slowly growing on me. At one point, the mother in the story exclaims of her impetuous son, “He hasn’t even grown his second button yet!” My guess is that there’s a time at which this story will seem completely reasonable, but at the moment I’m still shaking my head at the Green Virus who climbs out of the car’s ashtray. Our resident 3-year-old, however, thinks it makes perfect sense. Delightful nonsense, of the Alice-in-Wonderland variety.

What books did you give and receive this holiday?

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Rabbit, Read

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Happy New Year, to everyone who celebrates the lunar new year! It began last week, on February 3, and continues for 15 days. That’s 15 days of festivities, food, and family. I was hoping it would also be 15 days of delightful children’s books but I’m coming up a bit short, here.

My local library has a good selection of round-the-world folk tales for older children and a couple of books that explore Chinese New Year customs. (I’m not being exclusive, here – the books I found are specifically about Chinese practices, not other Asian traditions). And they’re… pleasant. Beautifully illustrated, in some cases.

Charmingly told, in others.

But they’re all very Serious. They have Morals. They are – gasp! – deeply Earnest. This isn’t terrible, of course. Morals are useful and earnestness is our national characteristic, here in Canada.

But this week, my plea to you is: could you suggest some beautiful, charming, light-hearted, Asian-inspired books for young people? Books about the New Year would be fantastic, but I’m also interested in all-year-rounders, at all reading levels, fiction or non-fiction, illustrated or not.

And at the moment, we’re loving Rachel Isadora’s Happy Belly, Happy Smile.

Thank you, friends!

P.S. This week, A Spy in the House was released in paperback! That was fast.

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