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Written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes, Candlewick, 32 pages, $18.50, ages 2 to 5

Sometimes counting is as simple as 1 2 3, but it's not always as much fun as it is in Olly and Me, beloved British author Shirley Hughes's latest picture book for the very small. Her very fetching pen and wash illustrations do much of the "talking" and counting here, and portray what very well could be 2- to 5-year-olds in ones, or twos or threes ... and even groups of 10, doing the things that energetic and imaginative children of that age span might do.

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Katie, the "me" of the title, starts things off on the first page with, "One is me, Katie. Here I am, all by myself." But not for long. On the facing page, this small girl with the impish smile is joined by her toddler brother: "Here comes Olly, my baby brother, and that makes two of us." Numerals (and dots representing the numerals) augment the written numbers and offer more opportunities for counting.

Two is an important number for many reasons. After all, it takes two to play hide and seek, as Katie does with a bewildered Olly, and two to play the bouncing game that Katie plays on Grandpa's knee. Then there are the things that go in twos, like socks and shoes, and "banging saucepan lids ... or those twin babies who were born on the very same day."

In Katie's and Olly's family there are four, but when they go to the seaside for the day, their dog, Buster, goes too, and that makes five, and five children - four girls and one boy - do ballet together. We can count them doing their pliées and we can also count four tutus and one pair of shorts hanging on a clothesline. "But when Olly tries to join in, there are six."

Children, in ever-increasing numbers and ever-changing combinations, bounce, slide and run all the way up to ten. In a sweet, contemplative denouement, Hughes's last words are: "Some things are too many to count - like blossoms falling from a tree or raindrops into a puddle ... or flowers in the springtime or clouds in the sky going up and up. ... Numbers go on forever."


By Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Scott Magoon, Disney Hyperion, 32 pages, $20.50, ages 3 to 6

Spoon's family is an assortment of his ilk, a double-page spread of standing ladles, perforated sieve/spoons, salad servers, wooden and otherwise, and measuring spoons - a silvery grey forest of spoons, the bowl of each one a face in which a pair of eyes peers out.

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Spoon, our hero, spends his Sundays on his very best behaviour with his very "fancy and proper" Aunt Silver. His favourite bedtime story is the one about his great-grandmother (a bolter?) "who fell in love with a dish and ran off to a distant land."

Of late, though, Spoon has been feeling a little out of sorts. He can't help comparing himself and his life with that of knife and fork - or chopsticks. Knife is so lucky because he gets to cut and spread, nothing that spoon ever gets to do. Fork gets to go everywhere - cooking hamburgers on the BBQ, twirling pasta around her tines, digging into that delicious-looking layer cake. "I bet," Spoon says, "she never goes stir crazy like I do."

What Spoon doesn't know is that his culinary confreres envy him. Fork, for instance, thinks that Spoon is so lucky because "he gets to measure stuff. No one ever does that with me." As for Chopsticks, he envies Spoon because he can go places by himself; Chopsticks can only function as a pair.

This delicious, light-as-air tale concludes most satisfyingly with a few wise words from Spoon's mum about how lucky Spoon is. His friends, she says, will "never know the joy of diving head first into a bowl of ice cream," or "what it feels like to clink against the side of a cereal bowl ... or relax in a hot cup of tea." And they'll never know, as Spoon himself discovers, the deep joy of slipping into bed between his sleeping parents and spooning.


The Wonderful Words from Agriculture

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By Carol Watterson, illustrated by Michela Sorrentino, B.C. Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation, 48 pages, $19.95, ages 4 to 8

A product of the British Columbia Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with teachers to open up the world of B.C. agriculture to students, Alfalfabet is an abecedarium with a mission. The author's stated aim is "to invite new and emerging readers to discover the wonderful words from agriculture. Through language and pictures, new readers will discover many new sights, sounds, smells and flavours from agriculture and in turn learn how agriculture enriches and nourishes their own lives and that of their community."

One could be forgiven, after reading this "mission statement," for having low expectations about the book, but readers of any age can expect to be very pleasantly surprised, even delighted, by Alfalfabet. There is no hint of turgid didacticism in this rollicking cornucopia of "sights, sounds, and smells," that extend to manure ("Stink, Stank, Stunk) and pigs "Making Merry in the Mud and Muck," to the sound, and sight too, of Pea Pods popping, and a Gaggle of Geese Giggling - and honking and hissing.

Production values are excellent: collage made with hand-painted papers and acrylics is the medium for the visuals, and much play and pleasure will derived from font sizes that expand and contract in all the right places.

Tasty side dishes include the names of farmer-friendly bugs, and varieties of peas and chickens. Speaking of the latter, their names will be an emerging wordsmith's manna from heaven, especially when tripped off the tongue in quick succession: "Bardrock. Bantam. Sebright. Silkie. Buff Orpington. Jersey Giant. Leghorn. Rosecomb. Silver cuckoo. Rhode Island Red. Java."


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By Shauntay Grant, illustrated by Susan Tooke, Nimbus, 32 pages, $19.95, ages 6 and up

Spoken-word artist, poet, writer and journalist, Shauntay Grant has just been named Halifax's Poet Laureate. In this picture-book long poem, she makes a nostalgic journey back to her childhood in North Preston, N.S. Susan Tooke's richly coloured and vibrant illustrations are a splendid visual accompaniment for this voyage home.

Home, as an afterward explains, is the Preston Townships, to which black United Empire Loyalists fled from the American Revolutionary War in the 1780s. Successive waves of black immigrants came, settled there and left. Black immigrants from the War of 1812, loyal to the British cause, were eventually given 1,800 acres of land in North Preston, which became the largest black settlement in Canada.

Here Shauntay Grant's forebears, facing marginalization and racial discrimination, eked out a living, "forced to carve something out of nothing." And they did: "The people pooled the few resources they had and built houses and churches, securing both a home and a legacy for future generations."

Grant, a legatee if you like, begins this book with the words, "I remember ... long hot days of summer/ layin' on grass/ suckin' on freezies/ playin' with cousins/ friends/ and soakin' up sun/ I remember that sweet grass/ that grew in the yard right next to granddaddy's shed/ and I remember runnin' barefoot through summer/ laughin'/ and playin' tag and hide & go seek/ 'til the sun got tired and went to sleep. ..."

It is a summer of grandmothers, and Sunday mornings getting dressed for church, Mom "braidin' " her hair in the back seat of the car on the way to church. It is a summer of singing in the choir and listening to her Mom and her Nana's stories about growing up in North Preston, "learnin' about my history." The power of place and the people who inhabit it now, or then, is the stuff of this wonderfully evocative book.

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Canada's Darkest Day of World War 11

By Hugh Brewster, Scholastic, 48 pages, $19.99, ages 10 and up

"Those who seek for glory in war will not find it on the beaches of Dieppe. Those who seek tales of valour need look no further."

This quote from Robin Neillands's book, The Dieppe Raid, appears on the flyleaf of Hugh Brewster's newest book, and it eloquently sums up the crucial elements of the debacle that was Dieppe, almost 67 years ago, on Aug. 19, 1942.

Brewster's Dieppe joins On Juno Beach and At Vimy Ridge, two other books of his about Canadians under fire. Dieppe doesn't differ much from its predecessors; it can be described quite simply as superb. It is superb in the way it sets out the context for the raid on Dieppe: Stalin pressing a reluctant Churchill to provide a diversion to relieve the Germans' pressure on Russia, and the Canadian generals champing at the bit to get their languishing troops (and Canada) into the war, "to get cracking as soon as possible," and Mountbatten's hubristic folly in imagining that the raid would work.

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Superb, too, in the way Brewster, using archival photographs, first-person accounts from surviving combatants or memoirs, and the connective tissue of his beautifully crafted text to tell a story that is equal parts horror and valour. This doomed assault resulted in a horrific loss of lives and of the armaments of war, ships, tanks and weapons. When the retreat from Dieppe was finally ordered, 3,367 men, 2,752 of them Canadians, were left behind, dead or taken and held as prisoners until the end of the war.

Rising out of this mire of mangled, lifeless bodies is the bravery of all the soldiers, sensing what was ahead of them but moving forward onto the beaches and cliffs of Dieppe, and the individual heroism of men such as Padre John Foote, Jack Nissenthall, Pat Porteous and Dollard Menard, whose valour is a lodestar for all readers of this book.

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