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Detail from a page in the children's book "Ankylosaur Attack"
Detail from a page in the children's book "Ankylosaur Attack"

Children's books

From dinos to pigs, the best of this fall's new children's books Add to ...

This New Baby By Teddy Jam, illustrated by Virginia Johnson, Groundwood Books, 22 pages, $8.95, ages 0 to 3

In her first book-illustration project, noted textile designer Virginia Johnson brings her trademark touches of scintillating colour and deft, oblique design to a board book by the late and much-lamented Teddy Jam (a.k.a. Matt Cohen). The book is an extended poem that begins, “This new baby sleeps in my arms like a moon sleeping on a cloud/ like apples falling through rain/ like a fish swimming through a sky …” Any new mother, father or grandparent, any new baby, will willingly surrender herself, himself, to the thrall of these words and pictures.

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The Circle Game By Joni Mitchell, illustrated by Brian Deines, Dancing Cat Books, 32 pages, $20, ages 3 to 6

Brian Deines’s glorious illustrations bring a beloved song, The Circle Game, to new life for a new generation as well as for older ones. They play imaginatively on the theme of the song, the circularity of time and life in Mitchell’s reprise: “And the seasons they go round and round/ And the painted ponies go up and down./ We’re captive on the carousel of time.” Mitchell’s magic is more than reciprocated in Deines’s luminescent oils, in many of which circles and orbs, Klimt-like, “go round and round and round in the circle game.”

Molito By Rosemary Sullivan and Juan Opitz, illustrated by Colleen Sullivan, Black Moss Press, 48 pages, $18, ages 4 to 7

“Deep under the ground lived a little mole named Molito. His fur was brown, the colour of burnt toast. His eyes were yellow as the sun.” Thus begins a picture-book collaboration by noted Canadian biographer Rosemary Sullivan, Chilean exile Juan Optiz and Sullivan’s artist sister, Colleen. Molito lives happily with his friends in an underground world of tunnels. He dreams, though, of the world above ground. It’s a dangerous one, he discovers, but a wonderful one, where he finds new friends to play his music with. Torn between his old world and his new, he digs a tunnel from one to the other, from darkness to light. Molito is a potent allegory for life in Pinochet’s Chile, but that doesn’t overpower words and images that dance on the page.

A Few Blocks Written and illustrated by Cybèle Young, Groundwood Books, 48 pages, $18.95, ages 4 to 7

It’s only a few blocks from Ferdie’s and his older sister Viola’s home to their school, but it’s a distance that Ferdie is reluctant to travel: “He didn’t want to go to school. ‘Not now,’ he said. ‘Maybe never.’ ” Not now, maybe never, is a mantra he digs out of his figurative pocket several times on the way to school, despite the enticements Viola offers: Flights into fantasy worlds that boggle Ferdie’s mind and, ingeniously constructed in collage and watercolours by Young, will do the same to other small Ferdies and Violas. In a neat little flip at the end of this enchantment, it’s Ferdie who entices Viola to walk the last few blocks to school.

Ankylosaur Attack By Daniel Loxton, illustrated by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith, Kids Can, 32 pages, $16.95, ages 4 to 7

A dinosaur is a thing with feathers, as recent discoveries in Alberta have confirmed, but there is nothing downy about the ankylosaur at the centre of this “clash of the titans” tale. Heavily armoured with plates and a club-like tail, the massive (“As long as a mid-sized moving truck”) vegetarian almost meets his match, while defending an ancient and wounded ankylosaur, in the jaws of an even larger, meat-eating member of the Tyrannosaurus rexs. A combination of minimal text containing maximal information and computer-generated, photo-realistic images of the creatures in their natural setting makes Loxton’s book a mind-blower/eyeball popper for that dino-crazy species that lives among us.

Dear Baobab By Cheryl Foggo, illustrated by Qin Leng, Second Story, 24 pages, $15.95, ages 6 to 8

Seven-year-old Maiko, who since his parents’ death has come to live with his aunt and uncle in North America, misses his African village and its huge baobab tree. He used to sit in its shade, “eating cashews with the other children, who seemed not to notice that his ears stuck straight out from his head.” The children in his new school in his new country do notice his protuberant ears – the class bully, Leonard, makes sure of that, and the tiny spruce that seems to have sprung up out of the foundations of his new house is a paltry thing, no match for a 2,000-year-old baobab. Maiko’s coming to terms with life in his new home, a process in which the little spruce plays a large part, is subtle and beautiful in its telling, both verbally and visually.

We Need a Horse By Sheila Heti, illustrated by Clare Rojas, McSweeney’s/McMullin’s, 24 pages, $18.95, all ages

Do we? One of the first fruits of Dave Eggers’s new children’s imprint, and the first children’s book by Canadian novelist Sheila Heti, this strange, somewhat ambiguous book doesn’t traverse the usual arc of children’s literature. That said, it will appeal to those who – children or the elders with whom they will probably read it – enjoy its Zen-ish quality, its originality and its illustrations, particularly of the sloe-eyed animals who figure so prominently. Among them is the titular horse, a speckled creature who asks the light, “What is the reason I was made a horse and not some other animal?” Light answers, “Because we needed another horse.”

Bumble-Ardy Written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, Michael de Capua/HarperCollins, 40 pages, $19.99, all ages

Maestro Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, among other titles, may be 83, but he appears to be in full possession of his creative powers. The chief protagonist of this picture book is Bumble-Ardy, a pig, who hasn’t had a birthday party since he was 8. Why? Because, “When Bumble was eight/ (Oh, pig-knuckled fate!)/ His immediate family gorged and gained weight./ And got ate.” A large and porcine sweet Aunt Adeline comes to the rescue when he is 9, with “Birthday cake and brine.” Unwisely, perhaps, she leaves the party for work and a shocker of a rumpus ensues with a cast of characters only Sendak could have conjured up. Allusive, slightly and delightfully transgressive, full of winning, whining rhyme, Bumble-Ardy makes you gasp and stretch your eyes – in all the very best ways.

Wonderstruck A Novel in Words and Pictures, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, Scholastic, 640 pages, $29.99, ages 9 to 12

There are two tales in this novel, a successor to Selznick’s first, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a book of words and pictures. Here, the tale told in pictures – black-and-white pencil drawings that mesmerize with their sense of stillness and mystery – begins in 1927 and follows the seemingly inexplicable peregrinations of a young girl, a New Yorker who, we come to understand, is deaf. The second tale, told in words by a boy, Ben, begins in 1977 in Minnesota. He, too, is deaf. His dearly loved mother has been killed in a car crash and he has no father. Or has he? Clues about a possible father, seem to point to New York City, to which the boy travels alone by bus. The American Museum of Natural History becomes the locus not just of Ben’s discoveries about his father, but of the intersection of these two tales. This is a big, beautiful book, a compulsive read, a veritable cabinet of wonders itself.

I’ll Be Watching By Pamela Porter, Groundwood, 280 pages, $12.95, young adult

“Dust got us all.” Those words of the town’s postmistress, establish the reality of Argue, Sask., in 1941. Drought and its result, dust, have devastated the tiny town and its inhabitants, none more so than the Loney family. George, the father, profoundly damaged by his First World War experiences and the loss of the family farm, is the town drunk; his wife, Margaret, has died in a car crash, while George was driving. When George dies, curled up on his doorstep, locked out of his house by Effie, the gorgon he subsequently married, his children’s lives hurtle into an abyss of poverty and deprivation. Their story, told in verse and in many voices, of which 14-year-old Norah’s is central, is riveting. The distillation of character, events and small-town mores is masterful, as is this emotionally powerful novel’s narrative energy and thrust, which culminates in a realistic yet heart-warming resolution. A huge accomplishment by Pamela Porter.

 

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