Sage and Silly
- Al Pittman (Author) and Pam Hall (Illustrator)
Down by Jim Long's Stage: Rhymes for Children and Young Fish. Breakwater Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Claudia M. Lee (Editor) and Rafael Yockteng (Illustrator)
Messengers of Rain and Other Poems for Latin America. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Martin Springett (Illustrator) and Richard Thompson (Author)
The Night Walker. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sally Fitz-Gibbon (Author) and Farida Zaman (Illustrator)
Two Shoes, Blue Shoes, New Shoes!. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Children’s books can be analysed as belonging to either of two traditions: the sage, whose instructive work may be done overtly or covertly or the silly, whose work is solely to be, as Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers put it in one of their shorter songs, “just a little piece / Of insignificant foolishness / . . . just a little ditty for to liven up your day.” Both traditions have their own high points. Two of the books under review here belong to the first, two to the second.
Richard Thompson’s The Night Walker is his third collaboration with Martin Springett, following Who (Orca, 1993) and The Follower (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2000). It tells the story of a Native boy who goes for a long walk by himself. He finds a number of small treasures, which he puts in a pouch at his belt, but on his return home in the gathering dark, he is increasingly alarmed to hear clinking and rustling noises as of someone following him, moving when he moves and silent when he pauses. Who is stalking him? The tension mounts until the dreadful thought occurs that it may be the Night Walker, ready to catch him with its claws and put him in its sack, and he runs in fear, falls, and ends up sleeping outside. The next morning he returns to his mother, who listens to his story, observes the little clinking and rustling noises which his treasures make in his pouch, and remarks “You know, my boy . . . sometimes the monster you hear behind you in the dark is only the clink and click and rustle of the things you have collected during the day.” Both prose and stylized illustrations are elegantly done, and they sit well together; this is a smooth piece of work, whose clunky moral will not repel every reader.
Claudia Lee’s Messengers of Rain and Other Poems from Latin America is more puzzling. It is the work of six people from Spanish-language sources. Lee selected “poems written in simple and direct language,” which might “teach the young and spark their aspirations”; four translators rendered them into free verse, and the Colombian artist Rafael Yockteng then decorated the book with watercolours (which the younger co-author of this review liked). This outline description of the book already suggests some problems. Firstly, why only poems available in Spanish? Lee’s prefatory claim that “[t]he cultures of Latin America are united by the heritage of the Castilian language” is, after all, not true: quite apart from the speakers of indigenous languages (some of whose traditional verse does appear, translated from Spanish translations of the originals), it excludes a hundred and fifty million Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. Secondly, why have the translators confined themselves to free verse? I am not sure that the sentiments of Rubén Darío’s words “En la angustia de la ignorancia / de lo porvenir, saludemos / la barca llena de fragrancia / que tiene de marfil los remos” will particularly move children in any language, but at least the Spanish lines make a pleasing noise, whereas the translation does not: “Anguished as we are in our ignorance / of what’s to come, let us greet / the fragrance filled vessel / urged on by ivory oars.” This leads on to a third question: what children will read this book? The dustjacket claims boldly that “As a teacher and mother of three children, Claudia [Lee] is very knowledgeable about the kinds of literature that appeal to young readers,” but won’t the young reader who enjoys Darío’s thoughts on anguished ignorance, or Octavio Paz’s thoughts on Confucius and the butterfly, feel patronized by Yockteng’s whimsical little drawings, or by some of the poetry written overtly for los niños? And how many young readers will really value the fact that all the poems in the volume are translated from the same language? This is a fairly pleasant children’s book for the adult reader, but I would hesitate before giving it to a child.
Sally Fitz-Gibbon’s Two Shoes, Blue Shoes, New Shoes! is genuinely a children’s book, indeed more to the taste of a child than of an adult who dislikes whimsy. The plotline is extremely simple, much more so than that of the author’s previous children’s book, The Patchwork House (Orca, 1996); the small protagonist goes to school in her lovely new blue shoes, delights in them as she goes, and makes them part of a sequence of cheerful fantasies. That’s all, and it is certainly enough to amuse a very young reader. Each opening has a rhymed couplet as its text: “Skipping down the street, shoes, / Look at who we meet, shoes!” or “Riding on a whale, shoes, / See him splash his tail, shoes!” These are embellished with faux-naïf paintings of the walk to school through a big city (New York City, though it hardly matters) and of the flights of imagination that take off from it. Evoking uncomplicated happiness is a difficult task, at which Fitz-Gibbon succeeds as does her illustrator, Farida Zaman.
Al Pittman’s book of rhymes for children Down by Jim Long’s Stage first appeared in 1976, when it was widely and deservedly admired. Its characters are fish and shellfish: “A sculpin named Sam / thought as he swam / how wonderful ugly / was he. / He said with a grin, / ‘I’m as ugly as sin.’ / ‘I’m the ugliest fish in the sea.’” They are, specifically, the fish and shellfish of Newfoundland, sculpins and conners and tom cod; the book’s title is that of a traditional song from Bonavista Bay. Pam Hall’s illustrations for the first edition, in monochrome with coloured details, won her the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon award in 1977 and helped to make her name as an artist: with time and practice, anyone might learn to draw a sculpin, but the faint expression of complacency which Hall gives Sam without positively anthropomorphizing his face is brilliantly done. The book has now been republished, appearing in 2001, the year of Pittman’s death, with a silver sticker on the cover identifying it as a “25th Anniversary Collectors Edition,” a publisher’s gimmick that has been used on reissues of other, more famous children’s books such as Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The claim to classic status it makes is in fact surely justified. The illustrations have been redrawn for reproduction in full colour (together with new and gorgeous endpapers), and have actually gained in the redrawing. The text does not feel dated, and its easy, unpretentious clarity is the mark of its being written by a poet, someone who under- stands what to leave out. In particular, any suggestion that the book is the work of an adult communicating with children is excised: no message, no explanations of hard words or place names, no exclamation marks to assure readers that they are having fun. Writers with Al Pittman’s gift for silliness do not come along every day.
- First Things by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: Collected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster I by Elizabeth Brewster and The Year One by David Helwig
- Recent Canadian Shakespeares by Wes Folkerth
Books reviewed: Shakespeare and Canada: Essays on Production, Translation, and Adaptation by Ric Knowles, Free Will by Harold Rhenisch, and Shakespeare's Dog by Leon Rooke
- Reality is Nice, Too by Hilary Turner
Books reviewed: The Day I Became a Canadian: A Citizenship Scrapbook by Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet and Song Nan Zhang and Hurricane! by Celia Godkin
- Tracking the White Rabbit by Méira Cook
Books reviewed: White Stone: The Alice Poems by Stephanie Bolster
- Figures of Memories and Cities by David C. Waddell
Books reviewed: asking questions indoors and out by Anne Compton and This Way Out by Carmine Starnino
MLA: Brown-Considine, Nicholas and Considine, John. Sage and Silly. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 125 - 127)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.