Monday, December 15, 2008

National Treasure: Phoebe Gilman

First in a random series on great Canadian authors.Balloon tree

Phoebe Gilman did not start out as Canadian, nor did she start out as an author. In fact, she was born in New York, and traveled to a few different countries before settling in Toronto to teach at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD) while she tried to get her first book published. Fifteen years after she started out, she found success, and The Balloon Tree has become something of a modern Canadian classic.

Gilman nearly always illustrated her own work, the exception being The Blue Hippopotamus, and has illustrated for others as well, as in the fantastically interactive Jean Little picture book Once Upon a Golden Apple, which is made all the more magical with Gilman's work sharing the page. Her illustrations are wonderful - rich and full of fine details in her folk and fairy tales, looser, more child-like, but still with interesting details in her fluffier fare.

She said in the charming biography at her own website that she preferred the words to the pictures, even though she thought of herself as an artist rather than a writer, and also mentioned that her favourite stories were fairy tales, but that she'd cover the illustrations if they didn't match the ones in her own head. This rings perfectly true with her work, some of which is definitely fairy-tale-inspired and all of which is illustrated wonderfully.

It is a huge shame that publishers did not find her sooner, allowing her a longer career before her death at 62 from Leukemia some six years ago, because her books are wonderful. Go, find a few, and share this treasure with your wee ones.

Top Picks:

Something From Nothing

This traditional jewish tale is wonderfully told, with storyteller style touches that make it perfect for sharing and participation. It's a great story on its own, as Joseph's blanket shrinks ever smaller until it is a mere button, but Gilman has added a secondary storyline in her highly detailed illustrations that may evade notice the first read or two, but will be a favourite addition to the reading of the story once it is discovered. This is my favourite version of the story, in fact.

The Balloon Tree

A favourite of ours in the princess category, it satisfies the girly need for a pretty young princess in a gown and a castle while giving it a medieval richness that defies the frothy pink of some princesses. even better, the princess is a young girl, but rather than flounder around, when the bad guy strikes, she takes action and saves the day with a little help from her friends and her father. It's a great story, with beautifukl illustrations that even a not-so-girly girl would probably enjoy.

The Gypsy Princess

I featured this in an earlier princess post as an example of a story that undercuts the whole princess thing even while feeding the craving for princess-themed things. In it, a young gypsy girl wishes to be a princess, and given the chance, she takes it, only to discover that her fantasy is just that. In reality, the formal princess life is not all she had imagined, and she runs back home to her vibrant campfire home.

Jillian Jiggs [and sequels]

Pumpkinpie has been thrilled and obsessed with this series this past month since I brought home the five-pack. We have read two or three every night and thankfully, with Gilman's facility for rhyme and metre, as well as fun little details in the illustrations, they haven't worn out their welcome yet. Over the series, Jillian Jiggs puts on a play with a growing cast, loses everything in the snow, sews assorted little stuffed pigs, fights a monster, and gets awfully distracted while trying to clean up her room. She entirely relateable, and lots of fun in these light romps.

Look to Gilman also for girl pirate themed books Grandma and the Pirates and Pirate Pearl.

Find Gilman and other great Canadian authors at your local public library!

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

Monday, December 1, 2008

When Grandparents Fade

Children love their grandparents. Grandparents are, after all, a wonderful part of a child's life. Who else can spoil and love thm without having to be the disciplinarians and taskmasters? It's a wonderful thing for them to be able to have a close bond. My grandmother was one of my favourite people, just as it should be, and memories of grandparents can be some of the best ones even half a lifetime later.

But how to explain when things start to become harder? If the wonderful person that is grandma starts to fade from view a little, if grandpa becomes a little strange or forgets who his own beloved grandchild is? It is a difficult thing for an adult to understand and accept when the person they know and love starts to disappear while their physical self is still here, the disconnect heart-wrenching. For a child, it is confusing and a little scary. Helping them to appreciate what is left, to continue to show their love for the person that was, and to become more comfortable around the new reality is perhaps the best we can hope for. A little help in discussing such a difficult thing is out there, though. Here are a few titles to get you started on that tricky path.

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, by Mem Fox

Wilfred lived next door to an old people's home, and he loved the people who lived there - most of all Miss Nancy. When he overheard that she had lost her memory, he set about finding out what a memory was so that he could help her find it. Each of the people he asks gives their own interpretation, and he finds objects that fill those niches, bringing them to her in the end. As she looks through them, they bring up a collection of memories she thought she had lost. This story is sweet and warm, and beautifully told be the incomparable Mem Fox. The illustrations are quirky and filled with warm colours that add to the feel of the book. Simply lovely, and while Miss Nancy might not be Wilfred's gandma, it's a very nice way to talk about memories and the loss of them, and shows a lovely way to help reconnect with an older person.

Mile-High Apple Pie, by Laura Langston and Lindsey Gardiner

This grandmother is a special grandmother - one who was always a bit of an eccentric, and quite wonderful for it, but is now living with the family because she is starting to forget. Margaret, her grandaughter, doesn't believe her parents when they tell her that one day, grandmother will forget everything, even who she is. She helps her remember, finding her slips and quirks even a little charming at times. One day, though, grandmother does forget, and Margaret is upset. The book relates a bit about her confused feelings, but stresses that while her grandmother might not always remember her, she does love her, and as Margaret sees that for herself, she feels better about it and goes on helping her out. Sweet and quirky, with illustrations to match, this is a nice, gentle way to talk about a grand's memory loss.

My Grandma's In A Nursing Home, by Judy Delton and Dorothy Tucker, ill. Charles Robinson

This is an older book, and feels it, being printed in black, white, and sepia only, but entirely worth getting over the bland appearance for. In it, Jason recounts what it is like to start visiting his grandma in her new home after she had moved out of his family's home (she has Alzheimer's and needs extra care, it is noted). At first, he, his grandmother, and his mother are all sad about the move, and the nursing home seems a strange, not-so-nice place filled with slightly scary old people, but as they all grow more accustomed to it, they relax and find some joy and a new friend or two. Told entirely from Jason's perspective, this book skips being too informational or teachy, and instead hits the feel of the visits right on. I do hope that they will update this one and re-release if someone notices this hidden gem.

This last book is in fact about a deceased grandparent, rather than one who is undergoing the changes of aging. It may more properly go, then, with the Books on Bereavement, but I thought it would be a good one to know about in case you are looking to prepare a child for this eventuality, as well.

The Grandad Tree, by Trish Cooke, ill. Sharon Wilson

This book is simple and lovely, using an apple tree in the yard as a starting point to remembering when they played under it with grandad, In short, nicely framed sentences, it talks about their grandad's life and the seasons and life cycle of the tree, and notes that both will last forever because they are remembered. It's a lovely sentiment, but the illustrations are the perfect touch to make the whole thing beautiful, and the overall feeling is sweet and wistful without dwelling heavily on death or falling into a lot of sentimentality. Wonderful. (On a side note, I also love that the book features a family of colour without ever making a point of that fact. I'd love to see that happen more!)

Find these and lots of great stories about happier times with grandparents at your local public library!

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.