Eye candy deluxe
SMALL PRINT Hooves on the plains lead this year’s GG nominees for illustration; Deirdre Baker takes a peek
orses, birds and cars feature in three of the picture books shortlisted for this year’s Governor General’s Award for children’s illustration. It doesn’t seem surprising, either, that in all three of these works the subjects connote something ineffable about human longing and desire.
Ojibwa artist and poet Leo Yerxa’s Ancient Thunder (Groundwood, 32 pages, $18.95, ages 3+) overwhelms viewers with images of liberty, flight and speed in its spectacular dyed-paper cutout illustrations, luminous with colour and sweeping in their visual rhythm.
“At the rise of the Strawberry Moon / to hooves of ancient thunder / in the tall grass, born / to run with the first sparkles of daylight . . .” begins Yerxa in a celebratory song to the beauty and speed of horses. By using present participles (chasing, soaring, racing, resting) and short, descriptive phrases that never do end in a “complete” sentence, he creates a sense of never-ending movement, of gusts like prairie winds.
His horses soar in full flight, the painted cut-outs like stencils in shades of amber, smoke and heavenly blues. Each double-page spread displays a fringed garment made of dyed, painted hand-made paper, its pattern loosely based on the clothing of the Plains Indians of yore. Over, across and through these garments, page after page, horses and foals gallop and play while the images on the garments themselves show grass and sky, midnight and noon, moon, sun and cloud. Yerxa’s paper has absorbed the dyes until his blues are black with intensity, his oranges almost alive.
Seldom does a picture book strike one so forcibly as a work of art, both visual and verbal. Yerxa’s book is an object of beauty and it celebrates beauty in way that must enrich viewers of any age. It has layers of meaning that will continue to reveal themselves in reading after reading. Highly recommended.
Hirds are associated with the spirits of loved ones in Torontonian Veronika Martenova Charles’s The Birdman (Tundra, 32 pages, $22.99, ages 4 to 8) illustrated by Annouchka Gravel Galouchko and Stéphan Daigle. Charles’s story was inspired by a Toronto Star piece about a man in Calcutta who buys and frees caged birds. Charles was so interested in the story that she travelled to meet the “birdman” and hear it first-hand.
A husband and father of two, Noor Nobi is shattered when his family is lost in an accident. “For weeks . . . he sat alone, staring at the walls, unable even to cry,” Charles writes. One day, wandering hopelessly, his eyes light on the caged birds in a market stall. “Once they were free and now they are miserable,” he thinks. “Life is so precious and fragile. In an instant it can be changed or snatched away.”
BConsidering the birds, Noor Nobi is at last able to think of his children, and it is in thinking of them that he buys the birds and frees them. So begins a weekly ritual: Noor Nobi buys birds, nurses them to health and, every Monday, gives them their liberty under the banyan tree.
Galouchko and Daigle allude to Indian traditions of fabric art and tapestry in the borders and frames of their illustrations. Crowded with colours, architecture and living beings share and exchange form and function. Buildings have faces and eyes. The top of Noor Nobi’s head merges into a drooping bird as he mourns his family; his nose and forehead blur into the form of a bird taking flight as he is consoled by the birds.
Through suggestive symbolism and surreal imagery, Galouchko and Daigle emphasize the connection between humans and nature that underlies
this true story. .C. artist and writer Maxwell Newhouse celebrates car culture in his Let’s Go For a Ride (Tundra, 24 pages, $22.99, ages 4 to 7). Starting back when cars were best known for frightening horses, through the development of gas stations, drive-in restaurants and soapbox derbies, Newhouse considers the relationship we have to cars — or had, up to the 1950s, when one could claim: “rock and roll music, drive-in movies, fast food and a great car: life was good.”
Newhouse paints in oil on canvas, in a folk art style that makes this non-fiction work rather charming. He presents vignettes of car culture — a six-car ferry loading cars via a precarious ramp; a new car lot surrounded by low grassy hills. The dark shades of landscapes and seascapes contrast with the vivid colours of his small autos. He
Bdepicts only pre-1950 cars and only in rural settings, creating an effect of perfect Matchbox models in a toy landscape. His relaxed, uncluttered text focuses on the fun of cars, information likely to interest carcrazy kids. This work isn’t about power, size or technology, but about a social relationship — a refreshing, rare commodity among picture books about cars.
Also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for illustration and reviewed previously in these pages: Dionne Brand’s Earth Magic (Kids Can, 32 pages, $16.95, ages 9+), illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes, and Ernest L. Thayer’s Casey at the Bat (Kids Can, 32 pages, $18.95, ages 10+), illustrated by Joe Morse. Deirdre Baker is co-author of A Guide to Canadian Children’s Books (M&S). Her Small Print appears every two weeks.