Right now I am the only one in my household who is the right age for picture books as both my boys have outgrown that stage, although the younger one does write them. But as first a mother, then a reviewer, and then a children’s writer I have spent an inordinate amount of time immersed in them.
After years and years of writing book reviews I have a personal library that is probably smaller than it was when I began. My attitude to books has shifted – the ones I don’t care about I get rid of and the ones that I particularly like I tend to pass on to someone else. But picture books are different.Our collection has been winnowed down over the years and several major moves, but the books we have loved are now part of the family and wherever we go, they go with us.
Here are a few of the picture books that stay with me (both literally and figuratively).
Yuck, a Love Story by Don Gillmor, Illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay: I’m not putting this list in order but I am putting this one at the top, which may or may not be a coincidence. When I think about one of the things that is really hard to get right in writing picture books one of the biggies is tone and Don Gillmor nails it here. This story of young love (“Why did girls have to live next door to him,” he thought. “Why did they have to live anywhere?) is funny and true and funny because it’s true. I believe every word. Especially the bit where Austin goes out and captures the moon on a rope in time for Amy’s birthday party.
Singing Away the Dark by Caroline Woodward, Illustrated by Julie Morstad
: Of course I may be biased but I do think that Julie Morstad is one the very best illustrators currently working in the field of picture books. Her pictures of a small girl’s walk to school on a wintery morning are vivid enough to make me remember the smell of wet mittens. The text by Caroline Woodward is as spare and beautiful as Morstad’s images: “When I was six and went to school, / I walked a long, long way…/ I leave my house, so nice and warm, / on a windy winter’s day.” The story is told in rhyming verse, which is hard to pull off but Woodward’s verse scans beautifully. A wonderful pairing of talents.
Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard: This is a beautifully non-didactic book about being grumpy and getting over it. It’s since been followed up by BooHoo Bird, which is about getting hurt and getting over it. Bird gets by with a little help from his friends in both cases. Tankard’s illustrations are not quite like anything else I’ve seen – according to his website he scans his black and white drawings and then rebuilds them on the computer and the result is both simple and lush.
Two by Two by Barbara Reid: The very worst thing about Barbara Reid’s books is trying to pick a favourite. I went with this Noah’s ark story for sentimental reasons, as I must have read it nine hundred times with my first-born. I generally find that Bible stories that have been simplified for children are just plain simple but this one is a bit of a rollicking tale. Illustrations are done in Reid’s trademark plasticine brilliance.
Chester by Mélanie Watt: In 2008 the first (and as it turns out only) Euan O’Leary Prize for Funny Canadian Books was given out to this book. I suspect we’re still waiting for something else to be as funny. Contenders could be: Chester’s Masterpiece and Chester’s Back, but no others immediately leap to mind. Like Barbara Reid and Jeremy Tankard, Watt is a double threat – more than capable with both words and images – and also has built up a prodigious backlist over the past few years.
The Complete Adventures of the Mole Sisters by Roslyn Schwartz: One of the nicest things about the Mole Sisters is that they actually look quite like moles. They aren’t wearing little dresses (or worse yet little shirts with no trousers), as so many picture book animals are wont to do. As much as they are personified, they are still creatures and there’s something terribly charming in this. Also charming is their outlook in life as they travel through life together: “’Sometimes it’s important to do nothing,’ said the Mole Sisters.“ I couldn’t agree more.
Foggy by Judith Steedman and Robin Mitchell-Cranfield: This is the most recent in a series of books by co-creators Steedman and Mitchell-Cranfield and introduces our favourite character so far: Cloud, a ginger-haired little wooden chap whose companion is a dog named Foggy. All four of the books in the series (which also includes Windy, Snowy and Chinook, and Sunny) are created using photographic tableaux giving them a distinctive appeal. (Full disclosure: Robin is the designer of all three of my picture books, which makes me one very lucky writer.) The Windy series of books make beautiful gifts for little readers, as they are just the right size for small hands.
Sara O’Leary is the co-creator with Julie Morstad of the Henry series: When You Were Small, Where You Came From and her latest, When I Was Small (Simply Read Books). She is also a playwright and fiction writer. She graduated from the UBC Masters program and has taught Writing for Children and Screenwriting at Concordia University in Montreal. She is currently living in a little house by a big sea and attempting to finish any number of things.
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