Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gifts for a Blueberry Girl

It's been quite a year for Neil Gaiman. I'm a fan, and really loved Coraline the first time I read it. I didn't read it to my kids first time around because I thought it would be a bit too scary, but my girl has grown up a bit since then. She was intrigued by the movie trailers and I decided I would read the book to her before allowing her to see the movie--I'm always afraid the movie won't be as good as the book (and alas, I'm often right). So we recently finished that, and she really enjoyed it. I know because whenever she enjoys a book or show, she runs around the house pretending to be a main character; she occasionally pretends to be Coraline now (I wonder if this makes her little brother the black cat?).

The Graveyard Book, his intriguing sounding novel about a young boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard after his parents are killed, is definitely on my always growing "to read" list and recently won the prestigous Newbery Medal.

Given that Gaiman gravitates toward the creepy, fantastic and otherwise odd, it is perhaps surprising to some that he wrote Blueberry Girl, a lovely picture book that presents what an expectant parent might wish for a baby girl. But Gaiman is a father himself, and the poem which provided the impetus for this book was written for his friend Tori Amos when she was expecting her daughter. I read a nice article about this book today, which in turn introduced me to a wonderful animated trailer for the book produced by HaperCollins for YouTube. Charles Vess's magical illustrations come to life as the text is read by Gaiman himself. If you can watch this without wanting to get a copy to share with your kids or to give to an expectant mother you know, then I'm not sure what's wrong with you; it's enchanting.

Incidentally, HarperCollins is conducting a Blueberry Girl sweepstakes, which you can enter for the chance to win a free copy of the book. There will be 25 winners--let's hope you and I are among them!

Monday, March 16, 2009

St. Patrick's Picture Books

St. Patrick's Day is a special day for me and the kids, not only because of our Celtic heritage, but also because my mother was born on St. Patrick's Day. I've been sharing some relevant picture books with the kids over the last few days and thought I would take a moment to share them with you.

The Leprechaun's Gold by Pamela Duncan Edwards is a delightful tale of two harpists--kindly and generous Old Pat and greedy and boastful Young Tom. The two are both talented, but have different values. Young Tom wishes to become rich, and charges his neighbors a pretty penny for his harp playing services. Old Pat plays the harp out of love as much as anything, and is willing to play for free for folks he knows can't afford to pay. Tom thinks Pat foolish, but is willing to benefit from his generosity. When the king announces a contest to choose the finest harpist in Ireland, both Pat and Tom are eager to participate--Pat for the potential honor, and Tom for the potential prestige. Tom decides to travel with the older man in the hopes that Pat will share his food, thus saving Tom a bit of money. Along the way, Tom begins to worry that the talented older man will defeat him in the contest, and wickedly breaks one of Pat's harp strings while Pat is not looking. Shortly after this treachery, the two men hear a voice calling for help. Afraid of scheming leprechauns, Tom refuses to investigate, but kindly Pat cannot ignore the plea. The call is indeed from a leprechaun, and the aid that Pat provides is repaid in an unexpected way. This charming tale about the value of good deeds is richly illustrated by Henry Cole, complete with a game of hide-and-seek included in the detailed pictures--within the illustrations, 16 four-leafed clovers are hidden.

St. Patrick's Day Alphabet by Beverly Barras Vidrine was not as much fun in my opinion. I love alphabet books, and hoped that this one might help teach my kids about some Irish culture. It did to some extent, but in some instances seemed to focus too much on religion. To be fair, we are talking about St. Patrick's Day, and Patrick is a Christian saint, so this focus is certainly understandable. My kids did learn some interesting new words, such as bodhran (pronounced BOW-rawn), which is a traditional, flat, one-sided drum and céilí (pronounced KAY-lee), a traditional social dance. I felt some of the selections for letters were a bit lame as well. For example "E is for 'Everybody is Irish, a favorite saying on St. Patrick's Day." would have been more interesting as "E is for Erin, a word for Ireland. People often say 'Erin go Bragh' on St. Patrick's Day, which means 'Ireland forever.'" Still, I have to commend Barras Vidrine for what I think is a clever and educational idea for an alphabet book, and the colorful and detailed drawings of Patrick Soper are appealing.

Finally, Fergus and the Night-Demon by Jim Murphy isn't really a St. Patrick's Day book, but it is an amusing "Irish Ghost Story" with a moral about the value of hard work. Plus, it's great fun to read aloud with an Irish accent, if you can do a decent one. Fergus O'Mara is a lazy young man, always finding an excuse to get out of work and chores. One evening while going off to Skibbereen to party, he encounters a frightening, giant spirit that declares "It is your time, Fergus O'Mara!" Not willing to put the effort even into fearing for himself, Fergus at first tries to write off the towering vision as the result of indigestion. But the red-eyed vision persists and grows larger as the story progresses, eventually demanding the Fergus dig his own grave. Always allergic to labor, Fergus manages to talk his way out of the situation, but has a change of heart at the end of the story, vowing to be a hard working person for fear that the night-demon might return. Fergus's attitude and roguish charm, as well as the menace of the night-demon are skillfully conveyed in John Manders's illustrations. The author also provides some educational notes regarding Irish legendary creatures that helped to inspire the tale. An interesting twist is that while there is a moral regarding the value of hard work, we also come to recognize that everyone, even slackers like Fergus, has his or her own special talents. Fergus has a gift for wheedling out of difficult situations, and it actually saves his life. He doesn't often use this gift for good purposes, but we can recognize it as a skill he possesses. So, there's an extra lesson about learning to see the positive qualities of people and their habits, even if there isn't much positive about the people and their deeds.

Leabhair go bragh! (I hope this means "Books forever!" My apologies to anyone who speaks Irish Gaelic if I've messed up.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Pair of Janes: Fairy Tales With Yolen & Dyer

I'm a big fan of Jane Yolen, and was pleased recently to share two of her lovely picture books with the Light and Seal. These two books are made all the more magical by the pairing of Yolen's wonderful stories with the exceptional paintings of Jane Dyer. If you're in the mood for fairy tales, these two books are sure to please.

Child of Faerie, Child of Earth is a beautiful rhyming poem of Yolen's which tells of a human girl meeting a fairy boy--thus this is a real fairy tale, complete with fairies (my favorite kind). The two become friends and the boy asks her to stay with him in the fairy realm, but she knows she cannot give up the human world. Similarly, upon visiting her world and being invited to stay and work upon the farm where she lives, the boy knows he would miss his own kind. Instead, the two decide to remain in their own worlds while visiting and maintaining a friendship that lasts all their lives. This sounds perhaps a bit cliché, but the rhythm of Yolen's poem is hypnotic, and combined with the richly detailed works of Dyer, the book is absolutely enchanting. Dyer's work looks as if it comes from a vintage children's book of fairy tales, and is full of whimsy, color, and emotion. Check out some of her work here; unfortunately I couldn't find an official web site for her. Here is an example of Yolen's lovely verse: "He looked around the human world,/A world of gold and brown./A world where farmyard turns to village,/Village into town;/A world of colors pure and bright,/Of open sight,/Of warm sunlight,/Unlike the shadowed world of night,/Of moon and thistledown." To create that sort of lovely verse within such a rhyme scheme is difficult, and it is particularly impressive considering how long this poem is.

The Girl in the Golden Bower is a story rather than a poem, and though it is an original tale, there are elements that remind me of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, as well as typical fairy tale characters and motifs--a woodsman, an evil sorceress, a person with an unknown or mysterious past, a magic spell, friendly animals, etc. The story begins with a woodsman who serves a royal family. The king dies an untimely death and the castle falls into ruin, with rumors that a beast lives within its overgrown walls. One day the woodsman finds a frail young woman lost in the woods; the two marry and have a child they call Aurea. In time, another woman comes to the house in the guise of a cook looking for room and board in exchange for her services; the couple take her in because the wife is frail, but the cook is in fact a sorceress on a quest for a treasure hidden the woods. She believes a charm that can lead the way to the treasure is in the area of the woodsman's house. As you might expect, the sorceress proceeds to do away with the wife, but before her passing, Aurea's mother givers her a special hair comb that she says will protect her. When the child places the comb in her hair and it changes color to become indistinguishable from her hair, the reader knows that this is the charm the sorceress seeks. The story unfolds as the sorceress continues her destructive quest for the charm and ultimately uses her powers to try to kill the child and gain the comb. But the power of the comb, the truth behind the girl's special relationship with the woodland creatures, and the identity of the beast combine to provide a suitably happy ending for Aurea (and an unhappy one for the sorceress). Again, Dyer's paintings are richly hued, full of detail, and set the perfect fairy tale atmosphere.

Both of these enchanting stories are a delight to read aloud, and apparently to hear aloud, considering how many times I've been asked to read them since checking them out from the library. Check them out with your little ones for some good old fashioned magic.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Imagine a Night Full of Optical Illusions

Imagine a Night is one of those visually rich books that are best read with your child sitting in your lap so you can pour over the details of every picture together. Inspired by the magic realist paintings of Rob Gonsalves, author Sarah L. Thomson has paired her evocative verse with several examples of Gonsalves's gorgeous artwork. His paintings remind me of M.C. Escher's work in that each piece includes an optical illusion that forces the viewer to consider a mundane part of the world from a new perspective. For example, the cover art shows Gonsalves's painting, "Ladies of the Lake," in which the reflections of the moon, trees and clouds in a body of water are compared to women in long white gowns lead out of the water by lantern light. Within the book, this piece is paired with the following verse: "imagine a night.../...when moonlight spills/across the water/to make a path/for the lightest of feet." In other images, Thomson leads the reader in discovering, among other images, quilts that look like fields and forests as seen from an airplane, a field of sunflowers that look like blonde-haired women in green cloaks and gloves listening to a farmer play his fiddle, drifts of snow that look like crisp white bedsheets and moonlit clouds seen through archways that resemble solemn monks in their robes. This is a wonderful book to share at bedtime and can be used to spark little imaginations at any time of day. My kids love looking at these pictures, and I help point out the meanings of the illusions as we read this book together, though sometimes no help is required. "Look! The flowers look like people!" the Light exclaimed during one reading.

This book has introduced me to a new artist and made me a fan. Though Gonsalves is often called a Surrealist, he prefers the term "Magic Realism" because his images are "deliberately planned and result from conscious thought" and his images provide a magical quality to realistic scenes (see Wikipedia article on Gonsalves). You can check out more of Gonsalves's paintings on the Saper Galleries web site. Thomson provides a a helpful key to the paintings included in this book at the end so you know the actual names of the paintings. This book could be a wonderful addition to an art class or art lesson for homeschoolers. Children could be challenged to create their own illusions from scenes in their lives with water colors or crayons.

I was delighted to learn from Sarah L. Thomson's web site and the aforementioned Saper Galleries site that this book has two companion books, called Imagine a Day (Byron Preiss Book) and Imagine a Place. I'll definitely be looking for those to share with my kids.