City Angel, by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker, Dial, 32 pages, $25, ages 4 to 7
City Angel dominates every page of this picture book, which has garnered a 2005 Governor-General's Award nomination for children's book illustration for talented Canadian Kyrsten Brooker. She uses collage and oil paint on gessoed watercolour paper to conjure up a universe over which her angel presides. The angel in question is dressed in a collage of white raiment; she's a white-winged creature with a seraphic smile on her lovely brown face.
Over a busy world she floats. Rhyming couplets chart her activities: "City Angel starts her day/ splashing high in fountain spray./ Dappling windows with some sun,/ pigeon-flapping just for fun!" She floats into the bakery and tweaks the baker's hat and then moves on to a vacant lot full of tires and weeds, where she plants some seeds "so a vacant lot/ will become a garden plot."
Her light touch here and there welcomes a newborn zebra at the zoo, and "keeps things cool" when a bully raises temperatures at the pool. She tidies up a messy room, hugs a crossing guard and "gently scolds a litterbug." At day's end, she becomes a crescent moon in the starry indigo sky, "sprinkling dreams with twinkling light/ long into the city night."
The Big Question, by Wolf Erlbruch, translated by Michael Reynolds, Europa Editions, 52 pages, $14.95, ages 5 and up
The Big Question actually goes unasked in this tall, beautiful book by German illustrator Erlbruch, but the question can be inferred by the answers writ large in a uniquely minimalist way on each double-page spread. On the first, a green boy in a golden crown is blowing out the golden candle flames on a green cake with green candles. The caption reads: "Your brother says, 'You're here on earth to celebrate your birthday, of course.' "
A winking, checkerboard cat on a golden mat says, "Well, you came into the world to purr. And a little for the mice, too . . ." A pilot in a red, open-cockpit plane, a bird on a twig, the sailor, the dog, the boxer, mommy, daddy, each has his answer -- even Death, whose answer to the Big Question is, "You are here to love life."
An inaugural run at pondering of the imponderables, not existentialist angst, is the desired outcome here, so Erlbruch is big on gentle humour. There is a touch of Thurber in his ochre, mint-green and not infrequently puce-faced humans, and visual delights to be had in the songbird with the green head and a musical score as a body and the great lump of grey stone with these words on the subject: "You're simply here to be here."
Backyard Birds: An Introduction, by Robert Bateman with Ian Coutts, Scholastic/Madison, 48 pages, $19.99, ages 7 to 12
Wildlife artist Robert Bateman confesses in his preface to this book, "It started with a Black-capped Chickadee" -- "it" being a lifelong passion for birds that began when he was 8 and spotted that chickadee in the ravine behind his house.
Bateman was certainly fascinated, he writes, but he was also frustrated because he didn't know what he was seeing and there were no books to help him. There are now a number of good books for beginning birders, and Bateman's is a good and welcome addition to that collection. Backyard Birds is good and welcome first because of Bateman's choice of birds; they are all, indeed, birds one might encounter if not in one's back yard, then not far off.
Redtail Hawks, for instance, can be seen in cities as well as open fields, and Great Blue Herons are ubiquitous in southern Canada. Cardinals, woodpeckers, mourning doves and hummingbirds are among the species thoroughly described in terms of habits and habitats, and all are brought to life by Bateman's meticulously detailed paintings.
Emily's Piano, by Charlotte Gingras, illustrations by Stephane Jorisch, translated by Susan Ouriou, Annick, 58 pages, $8.95, ages 9 to 12
"The piano is gone. The flowered couch, too. And my parents' bed. We've gone in one direction, my grandma in another. It's a terrible, monstrous move." It's a move to a smaller, two-bedroom apartment, where 10-year-old Emily shares a room with her mother and her father sleeps in the front bedroom. Soon enough, Emily's father leaves to take up a new life with another woman.
Mother and daughter respond to their desolation in different ways: Emily's mother cries and wanders the apartment distractedly, can of gold paint in hand, "looking for objects she can paint gold. Like twisted wooden lamp bases or picture frames. Or our little plaster Buddha." Emily believes that there has been an evil curse hanging over their lives since the piano disappeared. The solution? Find the piano.
The piano has been sold. To whom? Nobody seems to know, but it becomes Emily's mission to find it. Her sharp, quasi-worldly-wise voice (nicely paired with Jorisch's spiky pen-and-ink drawings) is the "I" here, and it delivers a delightful and satisfying tale that confirms the notion that staying on the trail of an idée fixe can help things turn out more or less happily ever after.
After, by Francis Chalifour, Tundra, 96 pages, $9.99, ages 12 and up
Fifteen-year-old Francis is on a school trip in New York when a call comes from his mother to come home immediately. He is driven back to Montreal by his Spanish teacher, Mr. Enrique, and met at the door by an ashen mother who says to Francis, "It's over. Point final." Francis's father, it transpires, has committed suicide by hanging himself in the attic of their home. A sailor, he had been depressed for several years, ever since he'd become unable to work on the ships because of a back injury.
In the first few pages of this book, which has been short-listed for the 2005 Governor-General's Award for children's literature -- text, Francis gives a matter-of-fact account of the year following his father's death, from that first summer without his father, during which he shut himself away in his room and his mother scrubbed every available surface in the house over and over again, through autumn and a terrible winter, to spring and a return to a semblance of life as he had known it.
But, as Francis himself says, this is not a book about what he did during that year, but about what he felt. Chalifour's prose gives not just the flavour of his life and that of his diminished family; it is also a full and nuanced picture of grief in all its manifestations, from Francis's anger at a friend's happiness (he, after all, has a father), to his guilt about being away when his father died, to missing the poker games and wrestling on the living-room carpet which he so enjoyed with his father.
This is a strong and affecting narrative for any reader, but a particularly compelling one for those who may have experienced what Francis has.