Monday, June 29, 2015

Okay.  So.  Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers is not your typical a is for apple, b is for ball kind of alphabet book.  It won’t be the one you’ll use with a preschooler to help them learn their ABCs.

Once Upon an Alphabet: short stories for all the letters will be much better suited to older kids.  Humorous, twisted, silly and sometimes slightly macabre, these 26 stories are an entertaining romp, playing with language and story.

A is for Astronaut Edmund who is working to overcome his fear of heights.  Check in with Z and we learn that Edmund has now reached a cruising altitude of 4 feet while flying in a Zeppelin.

F is for Ferdinand and his pet frog who throw a penny into the world’s biggest hole to see how long it will take to hit the bottom. Fast forward to the future and Old-man Ferdinand still stands with hand cupped to ear waiting for the sound of the penny hitting the bottom. His pet frog, unfortunately, is now long past his best before date.

O is for Owl and Octopus, two friends who look solve some of life’s little problems.

S is for a regular cucumber who wants to live the life of a sea cucumber. Taking ‘the plunge’, he dives into the sea but realizes too late that he doesn’t know how to swim and sinks straight to the bottom.  Owl and Octopus to the rescue.

Not all the stories connect to each other. Some rhyme, but most don’t. Many have playful alliteration that obviously focuses on whichever letter of the alphabet is mentioned.
It’s the illustrations that convey the silliness or wryness of the stories: not overly detailed, with a fairly simple colour palette with watercolour washes that capture the whimsical nature of each vignette.

I love Oliver Jeffers.  Don’t you?

Monday, June 22, 2015


Last week I gushed about Calgary’s glorious spring and how lush the vegetation looks.

But with flowers, shrubs, and trees that we love and admire, come those plants that we don’t admire. They can become the bane of one’s existence and mar our gardens.  I’m talking about WEEDS!

In Weeds Find a Way by Cindy Jenson-Elliott, we learn about what makes a plant a weed.  She describes various adaptions that plants/weeds acquire that allow them to thrive as a species.  Whether it’s the way they disperse their many seeds, overwinter, live in less-than-ideal conditions, and resist being removed, all have mechanisms in place that give them advantages when it comes to survival.

Background information about over 20 different weeds is included at the back of the book which accompanies an explanation by the author of what makes a weed a weed. Illustrations are big and splashy with a zoomed-in perspective to get us up-close to weeds.

Overall, this is a good book for elementary classrooms when talking about plants, growth, adaptation, seasons, or current events (at least here in Calgary).  Pair this with Sidewalk Flowers which I blogged about back in April. Children often have a much different perception about what’s a pretty flower and what’s a weed like the little girl in Sidewalk Flowers.  Very different indeed.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Madly growing in all directions

Calgary has had a glorious spring.  This means that our gardens are well ahead this year and everything seems to be growing madly.  My recommendation today captures that sense of busy-ness that is part of the natural world whether we’re aware of it or not.

Up in the garden Down in the dirt by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal captures the wondrous transformations that our gardens undergo all year round. It has a slightly poetic or sing-song feel while looking into what’s going on in the shared garden of a grandmother and granddaughter.

The author explains in her note that --
“Every garden is a community garden.  Do you know why? You may work hard planting seeds and pulling weeds, but plants can’t thrive without the help of all those smaller gardeners down in the dirt.”

Spring is a time of anxious waiting, planning, and hoping for gardeners and a time of thawing, drying, and slow stirrings in the soil below.  Eventually, clean up begins, seeds are sown, and insects begin to appear.

Back and forth we go between what is happening in the garden with the little girl and her grandmother, plants growing and insects flying with the activity at or below ground level which shows growing, tender roots, earthworms, and other creepy-crawlies.  It sets up an interesting rhyme while providing insight into all the work that is going on especially the work that we don’t often notice.

Summer comes and with it is weeding and enjoying the early vegetables. I especially loved the illustration of the grandmother and granddaughter ensconced in the garden under a ‘house’ of sunflowers tied together reading a book in later summer.

Fall is a busy time as animals prepare for winter and gardeners bring in the last of their harvest. A last illustration shows a layer of snow on the ground and what has burrowed into the soil; dead plants, seeds, huddles of insects, and eggs.

A few pages at the back of the book provide additional information about the many creatures we see in the illustrations to learn what both pests and good bugs do in the garden. (Did you know that pill bugs are land-based crustaceans who help clean up decaying plants and add nutrients to the soil?)  The author also includes a short list of juvenile books that explore different aspects of garden activity.

Besides being a terrific resource for classrooms with connections to the primary science curriculum in Alberta, it’s a book to just enjoy and learn from for a young audience (pre-school-grade3).

Monday, June 8, 2015

An Urban Jungle: through the eyes of an artist

The London Jungle Book by Bhajju Shyam is an amazing and beautiful piece of art published by my favorite publisher – Tara Books.

When Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam is offered a job to paint murals on the walls of a tony London restaurant, it’s an opportunity that raises questions, anxieties, and excitement.
As we learn from a lengthy editors’ note (Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao), people of the Gond tribe are often marginalized in India, thought of as ‘primitives without culture’. They often live in poverty with few opportunities to improve their lot in life.

Also, as artists, their style is based on community beliefs and has a very structured aesthetic.  Images, icons, and symbols represent their everyday lives or their beliefs and are conveyed more as perceptions from the mind’s eye. Realism, perspective, light, or three-dimensionality are not significant factors.  Images are filled with detailed, intricate, geometric patterns. Traditionally limited to four earth tones, Gond artists now living and selling their work in urban centres are using colourful, commercial paints and inks to expand their art form.

So, with this introduction, how does an artist who has never travelled or flown in an airplane to a foreign world perceive what he sees and experiences?

The London Jungle Book allows us a chance to see ourselves in new way (“reverse the anthropological gaze”) playing on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. A travelogue filled with creatures (animal and human) based on Gond traditions to represent a modern city and how an artist from a very different culture would experience life here.

Each image is accompanied by a ‘story’ that relates to an observation or experience.  His flight from India to London is depicted as a winged elephant leaping into the air, the elephant being the biggest and heaviest thing he can relate to that corresponds to an airplane.

Or, that Londoners remind him of bats who come out at night, dressed in black, going out to eat and socialize.  Bhajju has observed that, though, some streets can seem deserted during the day, evening is a different matter when they are filled with people on their way to restaurants and pubs.  The pub is represented as a Mahua tree, a sacred tree symbol for the Gond, its flowers used to make alcohol  and its trunk inhabited by many black bats readying for their nightly social rounds.

“I show English people as bats not to make fun of them, but because I like to think of them as creatures that come to life in the evening.”

The illustrations always feel balanced with beautiful colours and detailing.  The patterns fill every animal, bird, human, and object with small repetitive lines, circles, or dots.

Each image also includes a small artist’s note explaining the Gond aesthetics that is attributed to each modern London scene. The cover image is a good example of this traditional and modern aesthetic that combines Big Ben, London’s iconic clock tower with a rooster.  The clock face and rooster’s eye are the one and the same. The rooster is a symbol of time in Gond art.  He says,

 “Symbols are the most important thing in Gond art, and every symbol is a story standing in for something else. So this painting was the easiest for me to do, because it had two perfect symbols coming together.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this blending of traditional folk art with trappings from modern life, like the bus with the head of a dog representing how Londoners travel through the city. These paired images offer a sense of something very familiar, comforting, and loyal much the way a dog can imbue these qualities.   Or, how apt is it that the ‘tube’ system is represented as an earthworm which in Gond tradition rules the earth below?

I felt quite humbled reading through these stories and working through the illustrations.  I was given an inside look at how this man experienced London and worked to convey something meaningful for us and himself. All travelers compare their home countries with the new ones being explored.  Sometimes we marvel and sometimes differences just make us grumpy. Bhajju is kind in his observations about life in London.  I didn’t feel he was being judgmental but rather was acknowledging differences and similarities and creating an understanding of his experiences.  This is an artist filled with wonder and generous in his assessment of life in London. This new venue offers him the opportunity to become a storyteller as well as an artist.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Time: Geographic happenings around the world

There have been a couple of books recently which look at the idea of time and the activities that transpire around the world at the exact same moment.

First is At the Same Moment, Around the World by Clotilde Perrin.  The thin, oversized format of this book is very appealing with light, airy and sometimes whimsical illustrations. The activities attribute to each of characters reflect what you’d expect for the geographic area and culture. For example, Keita lives in Senegal and at 6 o’clock in the morning helps his father count the fish he caught during the night. At the exact same time that Keita is counting fish, Ivan in Anadyr, Russia is walking his dog at 6 o’clock in the evening.  At the same moment, at one o’clock in the morning baby Diego is born.  Waking up, eating meals and going to school are all included here.

The end sections include information about time zones and the development of technology that allows us to measure and synchronize time accurately. There is also a fold out map that connects the characters in the book with a place in the world.

I would recommend this for early elementary grades.

The second book, The World in a Second by Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo P. Carvalho does the same thing but activities are not always what you might expect; three dogs feel a tremor in a Venezuelan city; a man has his mustache shaved off in a barbershop; a breeze finally stirs somewhere on the high seas; and so on.

I found this book quite different from the first with the way the happenings convey a sense of a story  unfolding in each of these seconds.  For example, “A thief opens a door (perhaps to his own house, it’s impossible to say.)”  Or even, “A girl hurries home from school.”  Or, “something important slips from a woman’s fingers.”  All of these glimpses of a second in time beg to have more of the story shared.  So, what will happen with the thief walking into the house?  Will the woman at the sink give her husband a kiss hello or will she scream that she’s being robbed?  Why is the girl hurrying home?  Is she late?  Maybe she has a surprise waiting?  What could it be? And what was the important item dropped by the woman hurrying away?  A letter? A scarf?  Why was it important?  What will she think when she discovers it’s missing?

The illustrations are blocky and dense, with a real graphic feel. Compared to the first book, the illustrations are simple, without as much detail. Nevertheless, they usually contribute a few elements for your imagination to work through to create a sense of mystery. Each two page spread is just a quick glimpse into the lives of others in different parts of the world.  There’s no time to stop and see what will happen next.  Time here is very mobile (well, okay maybe not in the Moroccan village where time seems to have stopped (p.16)).

The World in a Second does include a map of the world showing the locales of each stop.

I think older children in elementary school and middle grades would get the most out of this book. Use this in the classroom to spark the imagination to develop stories.

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