Eye candy deluxe

SMALL PRINT Hooves on the plains lead this year’s GG nom­i­nees for il­lus­tra­tion; Deirdre Baker takes a peek

Toronto Star - - Books Kid Lit -

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.


Await­ing res­cue in The Bird­man, il­lus­trated by An­nouchka Gravel Galouchko and Stéphan Daigle.

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