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When Emmet first put out the call for fellow bloggers to cover his gruelling book-a-day regime while he and his lovely bride, Stephanie, enjoy some much deserved time off renewing their vows, I thought: “Yippee, now I can review a grown-up fiction book!”

I thought to heck (as we Canadians rarely swear outright even in our thoughts) with my blog manifesto, for once I’ll review some great Canadian adult lit.  I worked myself up into a fervour thinking of all the wonderful works of fiction I could cover and how I could finally write about all the great things (sexual proclivities, adultery, drugs and the other perversities of humanity) that adult fiction has to offer (although I do review many a YA title that covers that stuff too!)

I started making a short list, I racked my brain and I eagerly fingered titles in the bookshops and library looking for just the right book.

What a rush!

Then my Canadian sensibilities and a little serendipity took over and I found the perfect children’s book to mark this occasion and thus, just like that my short-lived dreams of moving over to the adult sphere (however briefly) dissolved.

It was just that Better Together by Sheryl and Simon Shapiro and illustrated by Dušan Petričić (ISBN: 9781554512782, Annick Press, 2011) fit so perfect, it was a crying shame not to review it!

Written by the Shapiros, who have themselves been married for 34 years, this charming book of short poems celebrates the beauty when two (or more) substances come together to create something new and wonderful.

I know right? It was fate!

I love books with poems for young children. They love the bouncing, rhyming text and adult readers love the read-out-loud fun factor (anyone with a toddler knows that it’s essential to have books around that are enjoyable to read for the parents because you will be reading them…a lot!)

I love the notion of making chemistry entertaining and breaking down some of the wonderful creations in life into their components. Once wee readers get a handle on chocolate milk, cinnamon toast, music, mud, well the world is their oyster.

I also adore the ink drawings that accompany each short verse and illustrate the steps of these mixtures coming together in a fun way. Petričić has a knack for appealing to the child’s eye and mind. It’s no wonder as this award-winning illustrator of such children’s classics as Mattland and Rude Ramsay and the Rearing Radishes authored by the Canadian great, Margaret Atwood (sorry Emmet) began drawing at age four and has never stopped!

Sheryl and Simon Shapiro are also the perfect example of two very different elements can come together to create some beautiful things!

When they met over 35 years ago in South Africa they had very different interests, but over time, their interests changed again and branched into various arts and found lots of common ground. One of their own great creations, their son Stephen who was born and raised in Toronto (Ontario) is also a published children’s historical author.

Over the years, this couple has found many commonalities to enjoy (a must-have for a successful marriage I think) including writing humorous rhymes for special occasions. So when the opportunity came up to write a book together, this children’s book designer and computer programmer cum photographer, jumped at the chance.

They also agree that working separately could never have produced the amusing book proving once again sometimes we are just better together.

The Shapiros are now working on another rhyming picture book.

So Emmet and Stephanie, as you celebrate your first year together (really after the first it’s all gravy) and many, many more after that I look forward to all the magnificent mixtures/creations you two come up with (and no, I’m not talking about children – Canadians are too polite for such personal discussions) and wish you the best!

Oh and Emmet, I will leave the grown-up book reviews in your very capable and clever hands as I never tire of reading them!

SM from Word of Mouse Book Reviews.

“Do you never imagine things different from what they really are?” asked Anne wide-eyed.

“No.”

“Oh!” Anne drew a long breath. “Oh, Miss – Marilla, how much you miss!”

Let the Australian-Canadian cultural exchange begin!

Oh, I am sorry. I am speaking out of turn. Let me explain.

Last month my blogger colleague Stacey over at the excellent Word of Mouse Books proposed that we each review literature from our respective countries of residence. She announced the two titles that I was to review and I in turn sent her a copy of Foley Russel and that Poor Girl by Rebecca Bloomer, as well as the lovely Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs.

So today I am reviewing the first of the two books that Stacey posted from Canada for my reading pleasure. I strongly urge you folks to check out her blog and add it to your roll if you have a site of your own.

An elderly brother and sister, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, manage the farm at Green Gables, hidden from the road that runs through the village of Avonlea behind a line of trees. The years are beginning to take their toll on the quietly spoken Matthew, so the decision is made to adopt a child old enough to work the land, but young enough to be raised with the values of the Cuthberts. However, when Matthew returns to Green Gables he is accompanied not by a strapping young lad ready to be put to work in the fields, but a talkative and precocious girl named Anne Shirley.

Despite the mix-up Matthew stubbornly insists that they keep the girl, recognizing in her a kindred spirit despite the one of them speaking not a word most days and the other barely stopping to breath between sentences. Anne’s sweet natured curiosity about the world takes a little longer to charm the sterner Cuthbert Marilla.

Anne’s innocence is combined dangerously with a quick wit. She notices the contradictions in people’s behaviour, the hypocrisies of small town worthies. Unschooled in conventions, she speaks out in such way that Marilla is initially mortified by this seemingly hell-bent red-haired orphan. Slowly, but surely though, she learns to appreciate her young ward’s perspective on the world and even begins to catch herself smiling when Anne points out the local reverend seems uninterested in his own sermons, or that the school-master enjoys mocking his students more than teaching them.

I’m so glad we live in a world where there are Octobers.

Such statements may make one suspicious that this character is little more than a Pollyanna, but I quickly came to love Anne myself. Her desperation to stay at Green Gables, when the Cuthberts are debating whether they should send her back to the children’s asylum; her wild enthusiasm for nature and books; and the easy friendships she makes courtesy of the infectious joy she displays in everything she does.

Three primary relationships define Anne’s life. Her mentoring under the increasingly affectionate gaze of Marilla; her passionate friendship with Diana Barry (whom she refers to as her ‘bosom friend’); and finally there is her intense rivalry with Gilbert Blythe, who earns her eternal enmity (or at least until they graduate) by insulting her on her first day at school. I love Anne’s habit of conversing in long monologues, much to the bewilderment of her friends and neighbours. I love how the overall tone of the book is one of wry goodness.

This is an unforgettable Canadian classic. Fantastically enjoyable.

I pretend to look at her kitchen while I think about everything Lily has just said and how she must feel when people pretend not to see her, or her illness. She’s sick, not stupid, so being invisible must be…well…it must certainly be something. I’m just not sure what. Worse still, I don’t know if I’m one of those people. I don’t know if I’ve ever ‘not seen’ someone, or if I’ve seen their illness instead of them. I’ve never thought about it before.

From the title alone I could tell this book would be something different. Where other stories about people living with disabilities can be sanctimonious or overly sentimental, Rebecca Bloomer set out to tell her tale with good humour and directness. It is an approach not unlike Foley Russel’s own, as he goes about getting to know the ‘poor girl’, of the title, Lily, who is living with cystic fibrosis. My father was a special needs teacher prior to his retirement, which in effect resulted in every student within the school considered ‘not normal’, winding up in dad’s class. Consequently issues relating to the integration of children with disabilities are something that I have always cared deeply about.

I would like to thank Odyssey Books for the review copy of this book.

Foley Russel and his mate Shay enjoy each other’s company too much to bother with schoolwork. After all, water fights and computer console games are a lot more fun than reading some boring old book. So it takes a special kind of teacher to get through to them and luckily Miss D just happens to be just that kind of educator. Invited out on a day’s outing to the local library, the boys are surprised to find an odd assemblage of local heroes and authors waiting for them inside. Miss D explains that they are each going to write a special book report about some very special people. Everyone gathered within the library has either featured in, or written a book. The students have to choose a subject and then review the book that concerns them.

On a whim Foley approaches the girl sitting in a wheel chair, wondering what speeds it could reach with a rocket attached to the back.

Lily Ashford has not had a book written about her. In fact she has written one of her own, a fantasy novel about a prince lost in a dark wood threatened by shadow beasts. Foley does not understand why Lily writes about princes and magic when she has a tube up her nose. That’s worth writing about, right? Lily explains that she’s tired of being seen as a disease instead of a thirteen-year-old. She wants to escape from being stared at in the street, or having to sit in small classes with other kids living with disabilities. Slowly Foley begins to understand and Lily becomes more than that girl in a wheelchair, but a friend.

Bloomer writes with admirable humour and insight about her characters. First Foley and Shay are well captured as self-involved teenagers, but this does not exclude the parents featured in the novel from the same degree of character detail. Oftentimes novels for children, or young adult fiction rely upon that Charles Schulz trick of reducing the adult world to white noise, incomprehensible to the younger protagonists. Both Foley and Lily’s mothers have their own lives. Their pleasure at the growing friendship between their children is as much due to the love they feel for their kids, as it is happiness at the prospect of having made a new friend of their own.

Bloomer also intersperses explanatory boxes similar to hyperlinked Wikipedia articles into the text, giving greater clarity to what is being said. This illustrates the purpose of Foley Russel and That Poor Girl desiring to inform, but not preach, broaching the painful subject matter in a familiar and intimate way.

Impassioned, yet affectionate, this is a very enriching novel.

Dr Lanselius was the consul of all the witch-clans at Trollesund, in the far north. Lyra remembered her visit to his house, and the secret she’d overheard – the secret which had had such momentous consequences. She would have trusted Dr Lanselius; but could she trust what someone else claimed on his behalf?

One of my favourite book series from the last decade, not just in children’s fiction – but fiction period, was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A story about two children from different worlds, threatened by a vast authoritarian conspiracy designed to exploit innocence, it managed to be thematically powerful and dense with literary references. Pullman takes his series title and many of his themes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He caught the notice of the liberal press (and the ire of religious groups and concerned parents) by launching a broadside against C.S. Lewisthe Chronicles of Narnia and its overt religious allegory. His Dark Materials, by contrast, offered a fantasy universe that was inhabited by angelic beings and daemons, while at the same time subscribing to scientific theories of quantum reality and evolution.

Heady stuff for a kid’s book. Yet if there’s a consistent theme throughout my positive reviews of children’s books, it is authors who do not condescend to their readers. Philip Pullman certainly does not talk down to children. Even in Lyra’s Oxford, a short post-script to the trilogy, has a brief introduction by the author where he wonders if the past is conditioned by future events, hinting that this volume throws some of the events of the previous books into relief.

It is two years after the events of The Amber Spyglass and Lyra has returned to Jordan College Oxford. Pullman includes postcards, maps and journal extracts supposedly recovered from this world contained within the book to give a greater level detail. The story itself is quite slim, a taste of what is to come with Pullman’s upcoming second series The Book of Dust.

Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon encounter a witch’s daemon under attack from a flock of starlings. Rescuing it, the grateful familiar informs Lyra that he is searching for an alchemist who lives somewhere in the Jericho district of Oxford. The witch has sent him to ask this man for an elixir that will cure a mysterious ailment ravaging the witches who live in the north. Lyra agrees to help and hides the witch’s daemon in her room until nightfall.

What Lyra does not realize is that events from her adventures in the north and her conflict with the General Oblation Board have come back to haunt her.

At times I suspect that the religious controversy over Pullman’s writing obscured a well-told story. Wisely for this book he has chosen to return to the setting of Northern Lights, which transformed the familiar surroundings of Oxford into a steam punk fantasy of his devising. Will, the other protagonist of His Dark Materials, is once again absent.

This is a great reminder of what made Pullman’s books so appealing in the first place. I am eagerly looking forward to the next book in the series.

There was great excitement on the opening day. All the artists and other queer people went to see the pictures. When Snugglepot saw the portrait of the Banksia man it looked so real that he felt quite nervous. The great eye seemed to blink at him; he stood rooted with horror. Then suddenly the picture burst open, and out from the frame sprang the Banksia man, almost on top of him.

Welcome to Children’s Literature Week. Given the purpose of this blog, a seemingly never ending endurance test undertaken so that I can stay in this wonderful country, what could be more fitting than to choose a classic Australian book? May Gibb’s enduring tale of gumnut babies and their adventures in the Bush is both beautifully told and comes with a series of wonderful illustrations.

Cuddlepie is orphaned by a freak gust of wind that sweeps him away from his mother’s arms, travelling across a great distance. He is rescued from a dreary fate by a kind Nut and taken in to live with his family. In this manner the two baby Nuts, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie become foster brothers. Growing up together in the bush the two become strong and fat. May Gibb’s illustrations depict them as little cherubs running along trees and through the grass, wearing a nut-shell for a hat. One day an old Kookaburra comes to the neighbourhood and tells a story about some mysterious creatures known as Humans. The two Nuts are entranced and Snugglepot decides to steal away in the dead night to find some, even though the Kookaburra has warned them how dangerous the large beings can be. Cuddlepie is more wary and insists on observing humans from a distance.

Together they travel across the bush and encounter many dangers. They make a frightening enemy in Mrs Snake, who plots with the violent Banksia men to capture and kill the Nuts. Thankfully they also meet some great friends along the way, Old Mr Lizard who always manages to pop up in the nick of time and the brave Mr Frog, as well as the other friendly creatures of the bush, such as possums and various birds. The two brothers also befriend little Ragged Blossom, a brave flower who helps rescue them from the evil Mrs Snake and afterwards becomes their closest companion. The three friends travel through the bush to the Big Bad City and even down into the depths of the sea and have many exciting adventures together. The hairy Banksia men are never far behind though and they have to contend with other villains such as deceptive tramps and a greedy John Dorry fish. Always looking out for one another, the three heroes face countless threats, kidnappings, plunges from terrible heights and undersea monsters.

This is a delightful book, full of excitement and wonderful characters. The two innocent Nuts always just manage to skirt disaster as they explore the incredible world they live in. There are some sad moments too, such as when the brothers find a poor possum caught in a metal trap. Gibb’s pictures are a fantastic accompaniment to her story and in particular her drawing of the trapped possum, with its round, wet eyes, is heartbreaking. My favourite picture is of the Fish School


The book has the simple line – Ragged Blossom and Snugglepot sat very still in school and learnt of the many dangers that beset the lives of the Fish Folk.

Then you look at the picture and it shows the Fish children gazing at images of hooks, nets and predatory birds. There’s even a boy with a dunce cap on in the corner and an advancing lobster about to bite the teacher’s webbed foot. It is a beautiful picture.

May Gibbs book warns Australian children of some of the dangers of the bush, but also teaches them to respect and admire it. When the Nuts finally see a Human they learn that they’re not all bad and as the Old Kookaburra says, if not for the bad things in this world, there would not be good either.

I enjoyed every moment of this book. I guess it speaks to the kid in me.

 

Right, I’ve decided to try a themed week for the blog.

So from August 9th I will be hosting a Children’s Literature Week on ‘A Book A Day..’ choosing a selection of titles written for younger readers.

I have yet to read anything by Australian author Garth Nix, so I will include him on the list.

Also Damsel by Susan E. Connolly, a wonderful debut by a talented, young Irish writer.

Suggestions for further titles would be welcome. I have already read so much Tolkien, Pullman and Lewis I’ve got fauns and elves coming out of my ears. So I’m looking for something I have not yet encountered, preferably books set in the ‘real world’.

Let the experiment begin!