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.

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