Abby's Birds, by Ellen Schwartz,
illustrated by Sima Elizabeth Sheftin, Tradewind, 32 pages, $19.95, ages 5 to 8
Ellen Schwartz's cut-paper illustrations -- ingenious and most appealing to the eye -- are the perfect medium for this exquisitely subtle picture book, in which origami, the Japanese art of folding paper to make various objects and shapes, is both theme and message.
The story here revolves around a small girl, Abby. When she moves to a new house, Abby meets her neighbour, Mrs. Naka, a very old woman whose face, when she smiled, "crinkled like tree bark."
In short order, Abby becomes a devoted acolyte of her frail neighbour, who introduces her to the birds in her garden -- their nests, their young, their habits -- and to the fragility of baby birds, a point driven home when one falls from its nest and dies. Mrs. Naka reassures a tearful Abby that the other birds in the nest will thrive and return year after year to build nests in this garden.
Mrs. Naka also teaches Abby to make origami birds, "tori," a skill that Abby uses to populate the bare branches of a tree to welcome Mrs. Naka home after a hip fracture necessitates a long hospital stay.
A Crash of Rhinos, A Party of Jays: The Wacky Way We Name Animal Groups, by Diane Swanson, illustrated by Mariko Ando Spencer, Annick, 24 pages, ages 5 to 7
Collective nouns are the subject matter of this picture book, one that provides a cheerfully educational vantage point from which to view the natural world and its denizens. We all know that a massing of fish is a school and a similar grouping of birds is a flock, but did we know that there are such things as a sleuth of bears, an army of caterpillars, a bed of clams, a raft of ducks or the titular crash of rhinos and party of jays?
Now we do, and, thanks to Swanson, we know even more. Collective nouns for animals in some cases describe behaviour, in other cases, appearance. Elk, for example, the collective for which is gang, really do hang out in gangs. And it's really no wonder that giraffes as tall as a two-storey house are known en masse as a tower.
Illustrations lean heavily on the comic, and interesting facts about each animal or bird are signalled with an arrow inscribed with "Neat to Know," such as, giraffes can sleep standing up and leopards (a leap of leopards) love water and are great swimmers.
Creatures Great and Small, by Karen Patkau, Tundra, 32 pages, $22.99, ages 6 to 9
On one page, a blue whale, on the next, an ant. On another page, a Queen Alexandra birdwing butterfly, a beautiful black-and-yellow giant of its species, on the next a scarcely visible feather-winged beetle. As the title suggests, the juxtapositioning of very large and very small is the name of the game here, and is made manifest through Patkau's starkly beautiful renderings of representatives from the insect, fish mammal, reptile, amphibian, bird, sea jelly, crustacean, arachnid and mollusk kingdoms.
The simple text reveals certain qualities of each creature, told by the creatures themselves. Some of them are jaw-droppingly large: The Japanese Spider Crab, for instance, has a "wingspan" of 12 feet from outermost claw to outermost claw, and the goliath tarantula is a foot wide. Some creatures, such as the Rocky Mountain woodland tick, are correspondingly minute. In the last two pages of the book, Patkau offers some perspectives on size in charts that illustrate the categories into which each of the creatures in this book are grouped: Big, Really Big, Small and Really Small. A glossary of terms is a useful appendage.
Fire! The Renewal of a Forest, by Celia Godkin, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 32 pages, $21.95, ages 6 to 9
Forest fires can have appalling consequences for homes and people caught in the infernos that they generate, but for the forests themselves, fires are as necessary as rain in terms of maintaining health. Fires, Celia Godkin states in her author's note, "release the mineral nutrients that are locked in old trees by turning them into ash." The ash, in turn, enriches the soil, providing a perfect growing medium for new growth. Interestingly, in the case of pine trees, some pine cones actually need the heat generated by a forest fire to release their seeds.
That forest fires are a necessity is the premise of Godkin's picture book, one admirably supported by watercolour illustrations geared to the young reader. One double-page spread offers an overview of a wilderness forest that includes old and new growth, the latter serving as a natural firebreak and the combination offering diverse habitats for a variety of plants and animals. Another double-page spread reveals pictorially how life returns to the forest following a fire; in the case of small animals who have survived the fire by hiding in their underground burrows, those pine cone seeds released by the heat of the fire provide a rich and plentiful food source.
Odd Man Out, by Sarah Ellis, Groundwood, 162 pages, $9.95, ages 9 to 12
When 12-year-old Kip arrives at his Gran's island house to spend the summer, he is carrying more baggage than just the carefully packed suitcase his mother provided him with. His father, Gran's son Tristan, died some years before in an car accident, and Kip has come to stay with Gran because his mother has gone to Hawaii with her new husband, Orme.
Kip, a rather reticent participant in the business of life, resents the presence of Orme in what had been a tightly knit household of two; he is horrified by the very notion of "honeymoon" that the trip to Hawaii implies.
At Gran's, Kip faces a bombardment of unbridled emotion and energy emanating from his four girl cousins, all hoydens of varying stripes -- one thinks she's a dog and eats from a dog bowl -- all brought magnificently to life by Sarah Ellis. If the cousins are riveting, that's nothing compared with Ellis's portrait of Gran, a wise, wonderful matriarch whose rules are few and whose capacity for understanding and enjoyment of her grandchildren seems boundless.
This summer will be the last for everyone on the island, as Gran's house has been sold. Because the buyer will be tearing the house down, Gran has given permission for all manner of "renovations." Walls are written on, some are torn down; bedlam reigns. Kip, the odd man out, retreats to his attic aerie, his father's domain when he was young.
There, in an otherwise bare room, Kip discovers a black binder in which his father wrote what Kip believes to be fictional story about a plot called "Operation Mitochondria," devised by nameless evildoers to infect the minds of teenagers with a cell-altering virus. The climactic events of this richly textured and involving novel reveal new, hitherto secret information about his father for Kip -- knowledge that is painful for him, but also curiously liberating.