Red Wagon Written and illustrated by Renata Liwska, Philomel, $21. Ages 3 to 5
Lucy is a small, brown furry animal – a fox kit, perhaps, drawn in pencil and coloured digitally, sporting a pink bow on her head. She has been given a beautiful little red wagon for her birthday and, of course, she wants to play with it immediately. Her large, furry mother puts on the brakes: "Sure, you can use your wagon to go to the market." Not quite what Lucy has in mind: "That sounded like a chore. Lucy didn't want to do chores." But, as it happens, going to market with a retinue of friends trailing behind becomes a great adventure, during which her wagon, in response to various necessities and situations, morphs into a train, a spaceship and a covered (western-style) wagon.
Picture a Tree By Barbara Reid, North Winds/Scholastic, 32 pages, $19.99. Ages 3 to 8
The reigning queen of Plasticene returns with a new picture book with a title that prompts the question, "What do you see?" Barbara Reid's treed landscapes, and the humans and animals who populate them, one and all constructed in multicoloured Plasticene, are intricate and ingenious. Ingenious, too, are the ways in which her comments and questions bend the reader's mind and eye.
Her opening salvo, "There is more than one way to picture a tree," accompanies a full-page illustration, a large, flattened puddle, in the top half of which are a red-jacketed boy, an almost leafless tree and a dog; the bottom half is the top's mirror image, except that boy, the tree and the dog are icy blue against a grey sky. In subsequent pages, you might see a tree or trees as a drawing in the sky, as a tunnel or an ocean, as a pirate ship, or as a "high-rise home sweet home" for squirrels, kites, bee nests and birds. Another bravura performance from Reid.
My Name is Elizabeth! By Annika Dunklee, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe, Kids Can, 24 pages, $16.95. Ages 3 to 7
What's in a name? Everything if your name is Elizabeth and you really like it. You like the fact that your name is nine letters long and you "like all the neat things my mouth does when I say it." And you like the fact that there's a queen with the same name. What you don't like at all are the liberties others take with your name, calling you Lizzy, Liz, Beth and Betsy. "My name is ELIZABETH Alfreda Roxanne Carmelita Bluebell Jones!!" you shout in your outside voice to a dumbfounded audience of nicknamers. They fall into line immediately, except for baby brother whose "Wizabef" is deemed "close enough." Assertive orange and pale blue are the predominant colours in this picture book's sparky illustrations. Particularly delectable is queen E's crown, a lacy confection of orange topped with a stork wearing an orange crown.
The Flute Written by Rachna Gilmore, illustrated by Pulak Biswas, Tradewind, 32 pages, $16.95. Ages 3 to 6
Pulak Biswas, one of India's most distinguished illustrators, displays his gifts in the striking woodblock prints coloured in red, blue, black and the occasional burst of sunny yellow, that both complement and enhance Rachna Gilmore's beautifully cadenced prose in The Flute. In this emotionally powerful tale, a little girl named Chandra has been serenaded throughout her short life by the sweet songs her mother plays to her on her flute. Disaster overtakes the pair when the river, swollen by monsoon rains, floods its banks and carries Chandra's mother away. Chandra is taken in by a reluctant aunt and uncle, who mistreat her cruelly, but her stoicism, and her mother's hovering spirit (and flute), eventually prevail, delivering a satisfying and happy resolution.
I Want My Hat Back Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen, Candlewick, 40 pages, $18. Ages 4 to 8
There's considerable empty space in this delightful picture book, most of it white or a shade of barely there taupe. In this instance, that's a good thing, because the eye has nowhere to go but to the mostly dun-coloured animals that parade across a neutral landscape. Chief among them is a large, bearish creature looking for his hat. "My hat is gone. I want it back." he laments. "Have you seen my hat?" is his query to fox, frog, turtle, snake and rabbit.
All deny any knowledge of his hat. The rabbit, who is wearing the hat, a bright red one, is most vociferous in his denial (the text of which is in bright red): "No. Why are you asking me. I haven't seen it. I haven't seen any hats anywhere. I would not steal a hat. Don't ask me any more questions." It takes a while for bear to twig, a good while longer than it will take most readers. Last seen, bear has his hat back and there's no sign of rabbit. When asked by squirrel whether he has seen a rabbit wearing a hat, bear's denials are similar to rabbit's except, ominously, he states: "I would not eat a rabbit."
Dictionary of Ordinary Extraordinary Animals By Leslie Jonath and Lisa McGuinness, illustrated by Lisa Congdon, Running Press, 132 pages, $22. Ages 6 to 10
"Chock full of amazing facts about the wild, the woolly, the creepy, the crawly and the seaworthy, this book gives you the inside scoop about our favourite curious animals, from A to Z." This piece of the prologue to this bestiary is not false advertising – this big, handsome book with its attractive layout and a rich colour palette really does deliver the goods. From Aardvark to Zigzag Salamander, from Krill to Quahog, each and all are a feast for the eye and a sop to the curious of mind. For instance, the aforementioned quahog has been known to live as long as 40 years, didn't you know? Roadrunners' nests often contain snakeskin. And a group of rhinos is known as a crash. And where else but here might you discover that an octopus's blood is blue?
How the Leopard Got His Claws By Chinua Achebe with John Iroaganachi, illustrated by Mary Grandpré, Candlewick, 32 pages, $19. Ages 7 to 11
Originally published in 1972, this fable by the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has been reprinted and set among Mary Grandpré's stunningly atmospheric paintings of the jungle and its multitude of inhabitants, many of them spotted, all of them, it seems, possessors of luminous eyes that express emotions ranging from fear, to surprise, to sorrow. At the beginning of time, when this tale begins, all the animals of the forest lived as friends. "At that time, the animals did not fight one another. Most of them had no sharp teeth or claws. They did not need them. Even King Leopard had only small teeth. He had no claws at all."
The dog, alone of all the animals, has large, sharp teeth, and it is the dog that ultimately turns this peaceable kingdom upside down. The strong attack the weak, friends turn against friends, betraying each other and long-held principles, and the Leopard, driven out of his home, has fearsome teeth and claws made for him by the blacksmith. When this chilling allegory concludes the leopard rules by fear and the dog has become a slave to his master, a hunter.
Sita's Ramayana By Samhita Arni, illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar, Groundwood, 152 pages, $24.95. Ages 10 and up
Written in Sanskrit by the poet Valmiki, Ramayana is one of India's oldest and greatest epics. This version is unusual and especially intriguing as it takes the form of a graphic novel in which the narrative voice and point of view are female: Sita, wife of Rama, not Rama, is the main protagonist. An afterword that addresses the book's graphic form informs us that Sita's Ramayana, like ancient versions of the text, was painted before it was written; in the tradition of Patua scroll painters, epics like Ramayana would be recited as the storyteller pointed to images on an unfurling scroll.
So, you might say, the graphic form of Sita's Ramayana is the natural evolution of an old medium. The dramatic, highly coloured images of Sita, her husband Rama and the princes, queens, villains and spirits of this world and others are instantly engaging, even mesmerizing. The tale itself – of love, banishment, revenge, death and a host of sorrows borne by Sita with strength, dignity, empathy and compassion – is riveting.
Tilt By Alan Cumyn, Groundwood, 272 pages, $12.95. Ages 12 and up
Alan Cumyn writes for adults, but has also made a name in the world of children's literature with his trio of Owen Skye novels for the middle-school reader. In his new novel, his hero is 16-year-old Stanley Dart. Stan's a bit of a nerd, atilt in the world, you might say. He's an aspiring but dubious starter on the junior varsity basketball team, and the possessor of an all-consuming crush on a sexually ambiguous, beguiling newcomer to his school, Janine Igwash. She had arrived "late last year. It must have been hard knowing nobody. Especially with a name like Igwash."
It is perhaps not surprising, given Cumyn's artistic prowess, that Stan's getting to first base (and beyond) with Janine, all the while contending with a distracted, more-or-less-at-sea single mother, a needy younger sister and an AWOL father, forms the basis of a delightful novel, one that is smart, tender and funny in all the right places, and one in which fully drawn, wonderfully alive characters vie for our attention.
Life An Unexploded Diagram, by Mal Peet, Candlewick, 416 pages, $20. Ages 14 and up
Explosions begin and end this very fine novel. The first occurs in a rhubarb patch in Norfolk, England, in early March, 1945. Heavily pregnant, "Ruth Ackroyd was in the garden checking the rhubarb when the RAF Spitfire accidentally shot her chimney pot to bits. The shock of it brought the baby on three weeks early." The baby was Clement (named for Atlee) Ackroyd, the central character of this novel.
The second explosion occurs in New York on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Clem, as Clement is now known, is in the subway, already late for an 8:45 a.m. meeting at the World Trade Center, when the train stops, inexplicably, at a stop north of its destination, spilling its passengers into an inferno. As Clem watched, "the North Tower split open and extruded an impossibly vast orange-and-black flower of boiling flame and smoke. … When the sound of it rolled over us, we in the streets, the Spared, the Elect, began to shout obscenities and the various names of God."
There are other cataclysms, threatened or real, in the intervening years of Clem's life: the social and class upheaval of postwar Britain; the dread-filled Cuban Missile Crisis, and the furtive, passionate love affair between working-class Clem and Frankie, the daughter of the manor. The coda to the long-sought-for consummation of this affair on a beach is the explosion of a long-buried wartime land mine just feet from the couple, an explosion that shatters both their lives. Out of this material, Peet crafts with great skill an astonishingly rich and accomplished novel, one that won't be wasted on the young but shouldn't be restricted to them.