Cuddle Time

As today’s outpouring of affection for Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak illustrates, the comfort of story time – once upon a time, long, long ago – lasts a lifetime.

A Tried and True Tradition
A Book in Hand is Still the Best Way to Connect With Your Kids

By Mary Alice Downie 

Here are this year’s suggestions for the junior bookshelf. Some will quietly educate as well as charm, others are pure fun.
The chewable library (infant to age three)
It’s a cold and rainy day in the Jingle Jangle Jungle. Moose, with his marvellous antlers, Zebra with fantastic stripes, golden-maned Lion, and poor plain Sheep seek refuge in a cozy cave and play cards. But someone is there already. What to do? Nick Bland’s The Very Cranky Bear (Scholastic, $9.99) began life as a  picturebook. Now this jolly tale is available as a board book.

Counting on Snow (Tundra, $16.99) by Maxwell Newhouse is a reverse  alliterative counting book of Arctic animals. We begin with 10 caribou crunching grass on the flowertradition starred tundra, nine muskoxen mingle as the first snowflakes appear, five wolves intently watch the six slipping seals. The snow falls ever  more thickly as four hares huddle. Until there is only ‘1 moose, silent in the falling snow.’ Hypnotic.


This is not your traditional bilingual ABC. Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet – Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer: L’Alfabet di Michif (Simply Read Books, $18.95) is an illuminating guide to an  endangered language, once spoken by thousands in the Prairies and northern U.S. Juliet Flett, herself a Metis, has provided an introduction to a way of life only now being appreciated. Her exquisite minimalist illustrations won a major award. I agree with the jury who commented “Each page could be framed and hung.”

Frank Viva’s Along a Long Road (Harper Collins, $19.99) is a rollicking hymn to cycling. His noodle-like hero barrels along ‘Going up/Around a small town /and down’ past city and country scenes and  interested observers. This noted artist and graphic designer, whose work has appeared on New Yorker covers and other publications, has cycled the world. Now he cycles around Toronto. Perhaps taking notes?


Animals of all sorts (Ages four to eight)

Cat-fanciers and junior Egyptologists will lap up My Cat Isis (Kids Can, $18.95). Catherine Austen‘s concise text compares Isis, one of 1,500 gods and goddesses, worshipped by ancient
Egyptians, with her own cat, obviously worshipped by one modern family. Virginie Eggers’ paper collage, acrylic paint and coloured ink illustrations add to the gentle information with touches of humour – as the modern Isis gets into a cupboard and steals – goldfish crackers – or clutches her cat toy.

We move to medieval times with The Great Bear by Libby Gleeson (Candlewick, $19).
The story of a mistreated circus bear ‘lying in a cage all day, where the floor was cold, hard stone on her paws,’ came to the author in a dream. She told it to the artist, Armin Greder and he persuaded her to write, sending her small drawings of bears. Unusually, he asked her to leave the last few pages wordless, “to let the pictures carry the story on their own.” The ‘non possessive author’ graciously agreed. The results are dazzling as the downtrodden bear escapes and makes a leap for
freedom and the stars.

Four year olds will be so proud to have a chapter book of their own. Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator. The book contains ‘6 1/2 surprising stories about two surprising surprising friends.’  (Balzer+Bray, $19.99.) Mo Willems, author of the beloved Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Knuffle Bunny has created what is bound to be another favourite. The story is told from the point of view of the green stuffed alligator, who is very much like a small impatient human, waiting for his owner to come home and play with him. There are jokes and poignant touches – the alligator is hurt to discover that it was found in a sale bin for seven cents, but all ends well.

Let’s Look at Dinosaurs (Candlewick, $15) by Frances Barry. A purple Pterodactylus rears from the page, a shy vegetarian Stegosaurus hides in the undergrowth munching ferns. ‘Why does a Triceratop have a large bony frill?’ Collage pop-ups answer questions about dinosaurs. Best of all, there’s a pronunciation guide on the title page for beleaguered parents.

Monsters and more (Ages nine to twelve)

More ferocious monsters lunge in Dragons and Monsters (Candlewick, $34). Those masters of the sophisticated pop-up,
paper engineers Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda, have created stunning and informative entertainment in the last of  their trilogy, Encyclopaedia Mythologica. Snake-haired Medusa snarls, the fearful Kraken embraces a doomed ship, a vampire rises from his casket. How terrifying. How delightful.

Hints of a future monster underly are evident in Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein (Harper Collins, $19.99). There are secret passages behind a bookshelf, dungeons, a Dark Library filled with
forbidden books, a search for the Elixir of Life and a mysterious chemist. Toxic sibling rivalry, life in a magnificent château near Geneva and throbbing romance add to the Gothic mix in this prequel to the original horror masterpiece. Movie rights
have been sold. I can’t wait.

Mary Shelley, literary creator of Frankenstein is not included among the Scribbling Women: True Tales from Astonishing Lives (Tundra, $21.99) but there are others of equal interest. In this inspiring collection, Marthe Jocelyn has skilfully  interwoven quotations into her brief biographies of eleven women, some well known – Isabella Beeton, Daisy Ashford, Mary Kingsley – others not at all. They range from a Japanese lady-inwaiting at the Imperial court, to Nellie Bly, intrepid early  journalist who went around the world in 72 days, six hours and 11 minutes, including a detour to visit Jules Verne. A few of the lives, such as the resilient slave Harriet Jacobs and the young north Vietnamese doctor Dang Thuy Tram, whose war diary was lost for many years, are heart-wrenching.

Noah Barleywater Runs Away, is a timeless fairytale by John Boyne, and is illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (Doubleday, $19.95). It is a fantastical, magical, funny book with underlying sadness. Noah is already eight years old and what has he done with his life? He runs away, for unstated reasons, and meets a moving tree, a talking dachshund, a mournful donkey (surely related to Eeyore), who has a hankering for chutney. There is a special toy shop with no plastic, only all
wood, all talkative owner and mysterious puppets. Those who know their Collodi will enjoy it even more.

And for any family planning a trip to Québec next summer, My French & English Word Book by Heather Heyworth (Scholastic, $14.99) will  entertain everyone while teaching 150 words through various scenes. Le placard a jouets (the toy cupboard) with its tiny stuffed perroquet, pingouin and tigre was my favourite. Who will be the first to find the  chameleon (caméléon) hiding in every spread?

Mary Alice Downie is a Kingston writer and author, her anthology of early Canadian women writers, Like  Flames in the Distance, will be published this spring.

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