Books I Have Loved: Favourite Children’s Books of 2010

by kipress

This installment of Books I Have Loved is actually more like Books I Currently Love, and am reading, and reading, and reading, and reading, again, and again, and again, and again. To my toddler, that is, and if you have or ever have had a toddler, you know what I mean about reading it again.

I rarely read for “fun” these days—it’s either for work (Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, anyone?) or to the baby. So when books land in my lap that both I and the girl love to read, those books become my own treasured reading material, too.

Close to the end of 2010, we added two books to our repertoire that I am so grateful for I feel compelled to review here. They are both big, yellow picture books published in 2010: 13 Words by Lemony Snicket (illustrated by Maira Kalman), and Paris in the Spring with Picasso by Joan Yolleck (illustrated by Marjorie Priceman). I should mention right away that, though my baby enjoys and requests them, these books are complex enough to last years. In the bookstores, they are categorized for ages 4-8.

Yes, I have linked you to Amazon, above.

13 Words by Lemony Snicket

The only thing I can quibble about in 13 Words is its title; there must be a better one. The story is structured, loosely, around said words, but I’m not convinced that structure was title-worthy. Not that it matters; it’s by Lemony Snicket, so they could just as easily have called it “Don’t Buy This Book” without any discernible effect.13  Words Cover

Anyway, the words are

    Bird
    Despondent
    Cake
    Dog
    Busy
    Convertible
    Goat
    Hat
    Haberdashery
    Scarlet
    Baby
    Panache, and
    Mezzo-Soprano

It’s a good list, though “ladders” is actually another key word in the story that could just as easily have been on it. “Despondent” is just pure Lemony Snicket, and by the time we get to “mezzo-soprano,” “haberdashery” has already upped the stakes so much that we hardly blink at the unexplained appearance of the diva in our story. And it does serve as a vocabulary-builder; I punched up some opera on the old iPod to explain what a mezzo-soprano was, and now my almost-two-year-old asks, “Listen to mezzo-ahprano?”

The list of words is meant to seem random. The book carries a mildly surreal aesthetic, especially in the scenes where the dog and goat drive through landscapes in their flashy green convertible, landscapes of impossible multicoloured hills populated with all manner of illustrations, sometimes unrelated to the text: a ballerina en pointe, a rectangular hot-pink cow (I think), an angel playing a tambourine, a mime, a porcupine enduring an isolated rain shower. Maira Kalman, a New Yorker illustrator, has truly added another dimension to this story—something which cannot be said for all picture books. At the centre of the centre spread lies an illustration of a dour, pudding-faced, bespectacled man wearing bunny ears, staring directly at the reader, which I’m going to guess is a representation of our author, Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler).

And yet, behind the whimsy there is a real story here, beyond the full comprehension of my toddler, but immediately apparent to me. The bird (female) and the dog (male) are the main characters, and the bird is despondent—it’s never explained why. But when the dog tells her to get busy painting ladders while he goes for a drive with his friend, the spiffily dressed goat, you get a hint of what’s going on here—there is something amiss with this bird/goat relationship. When the dog goes to the haberdashery to buy the bird a hat to cheer her up, he doesn’t just by the one hat—he buys himself one while he’s at it. (In fact, the text mentions the dog’s hat first: “The dog has finally chosen one hat for himself and one for the bird.”) It’s no wonder the bird is still despondent at the end of the book, despite the panache-ful hat, the copious cake, and the mezzo-soprano’s beautiful song. She lives with an oblivious and self-centred dog.

Around our house we’ve been putting on a falsetto and singing the mezzo-soprano’s summarizing song at the end of the book, and until now we’ve been using (more or less) the tune of “The Owl and the Pussycat.” I was going to say here that HarperCollins needs to package this book with a CD, but duh, what was I thinking? It’s on-line, of course, and you can get a $1 download of the mezzo-soprano’s song through lemonysnicket.com (or directly here). The composer is Nico Muhly, and the mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti.

One more reason to love this book: the design. I care deeply about book design, and this one’s got it going on. I expect that since a Lemony Snicket book is guaranteed to sell a bazillion copies, they were able to pull out all the stops in this department. No space is wasted—the end papers have been used for illustrations (the last spread continues right on to the inside back cover)—and even that always-bothersome copyright page has been used wisely, with the copyright text formed into a sort of visual poem in the shape of a bird. “Book design by Alison Donalty,” it says; good on you, Alison Donalty (she also worked on Lemony Snicket’s popular Unfortunate Events books).

The 13 Words book trailer is here.

Paris in the Spring with Picasso by Joan Yolleck

Paris in the Spring with Picasso cover

I also have a problem with the title of this book. Picasso is not the protagonist. He’s one of an ensemble cast, and if anyone in this book were the main character, it’s actually Gertrude Stein. Titles are marketing tools, of course, not literary ones, so the reason behind the title is pretty clear: Picasso is the household name among the book’s characters. They certainly weren’t going to call it Paris in the Spring with Guillaume Apollinaire.

This is the book for introducing your children to modernism, if you’re the kind of person who does that kind of thing (and I am!). A stray cat wanders around Paris peeking into the lives of Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and their respective partners (my baby’s vocabulary now also includes “Alice B. Toklas”). And we see them engaged in creating art: writing, painting. A picture book about the process of artistic creation? Yes! The story, and the illustrations (by Marjorie Priceman), contain a lot of movement as the cat-narrator jumps quickly from apartment to apartment, as Picasso frantically moves his brush, as Apollinaire is interrupted mid-poem; at one point you even need to turn the book sideways to look at a spread designed vertically, with Montmartre and Sacré Coeur at the top.

In the end, the artists all take a break and go to Gertrude Stein’s house at 27 rue de Fleurus for her salon.

It’s not much of a story, exactly—if I were to dissect the plot, it would be to say that their goal is to go to the party, but the complication is that they each need to make some art first.

Lots of books out there introduce art to young children. Baby Einstein does, but I’m not a fan of it, since I’ve found embarrassing factual errors in Baby Einstein materials. The popular Olivia series also comes to mind, a series I don’t mind, but am not really impressed with. Olivia introduces art in that the protagonist looks at a Jackson Pollock painting and takes a trip to Venice and wants to be a ballerina.

Paris in the Spring with Picasso introduces art too—among the works included are Stein’s Sacred Emily and Picasso’s Two Nudes—but the emphasis is on the process of making art, not exposure to the works themselves. As poet-parents, a book about art as process, and as vocation, is very appealing.

This book is also a great companion to the Madeline series (which my daughter adores) for the complementary illustration of Paris.

My only problem with this book, other than the title, is the uneasy feeling I get when Alice B. Toklas is referred to as Gertrude Stein’s “best friend” while the mistresses of other characters are called “girlfriends.” I can only imagine the gnashing of teeth that went on at the publisher (Random House) over this particular decision (guessing that this was a publisher’s cop-out rather than the author’s). The dialogue between Stein and Toklas does make the nature of their relationship pretty clear; in fact it’s so lovey-dovey, it seems like overcompensation. The biographical information at the back of the book calls them “lifelong companion[s].” While I strongly appreciate a book for children depicting a same-sex relationship in a normalized way alongside heterosexual ones, I’d appreciate it more if it called it what it was (in an age-appropriate manner, obviously) rather than use an inaccurate euphemism like “best friend.”

As an author, Joan Yolleck is the opposite of Lemony Snicket–it’s her first book, and I’m super-impressed with it. She lives in Toronto and reviews children’s books for the Globe and Mail.

In Conclusion

If you got this far, you must really care about children’s books. Good on you. Now go read something else. Not another blog.

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