Sunflowers and Apples
- Andrea Spalding (Author) and Janet Wilson (Illustrator)
Me and Mr. Mah. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Teddy Jam (Author) and Ange Zhang (Illustrator)
The Stoneboat. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Eva-Marie Kröller
Both of these fine children’s books deal with a young boy’s relationship with an older neighbour: Ian finds comfort in his friendship with the elderly Mr. Mah when his parents break up, and the young farmboy in Jam’s book softens the heart of a farmer whose greed threatens the existence of the child’s own family.
In Me and Mr. Mah the growing proximity between boy and man is beautifully captured in the parallel narratives of text and image. The barren backyard of his mother’s new home echoes Ian’s own feelings of exile from the prairies where he left his father, and the fence that separates him from Mr. Mah’s lush garden next door is at first a barricade that keeps him from the kindness next door. A packet of sunflower seeds tucked by Mr. Mah in the fence is a first ouverture to a friendship during which lan’s own garden and memories begin to blossom alongside the old man’s. In a particularly stunning picture spread across two pages, the boy and the old man share tea, with the landscapes of a Chinese rice-paddy and a prairie wheat-field seamlessly blending into each other across a golden background. Mr. Mah teaches Ian about Chinese vegetables, and he takes him on outings to the Chinese cemetery (a flower-filled wilderness overlooking the ocean) and to Chinatown, but although the pictures tend to be idyllic and colourful, they do not depict an exotic ghetto. Wilson is careful to include an inline-skater among the customers checking out the produce in Chinatown, and there are black and Caucasian faces among the Asians.
In return for Mr. Mah’s grandfatherly attention, Ian goes to great lengths to find him in a home when the old man becomes disabled. An exchange of special boxes, each a miniature store-house of memories, between the two makes the plot a little contrived, but children may enjoy the mystery element introduced by the complication.
While Ian is rendered painfully powerless by his parents’ breakup, the young boy in The Stoneboat not only lives in an intact home but also capably interacts with an environment that he clearly knows inside out: he goes fishing with his brother, rescues a man from drowning, helps remove rocks from a field at night, and actively watches over his family’s welfare when their livelihood is threatened. The pictures in this book do not display the lush colours that characterize Wilson’s illustrations. Instead, Ange Zhang (a former designer at the Beijing Opera) has furnished images in which dark colours prevail, occasionally lightened by the pale blue and pink of an early morning prairie sky or the steely blue and white of a foaming creek. Yet, although perhaps a little frightening to young children, these images are full of movement and energy that are expressed not only in the characters’ activities but also in the variety of perspectives that Zhang brings to his illustrations. Mr. Richard ("Ree-shard," as the boy clarifies the pronunciation) is larger-than-life, and Zhang depicts him in midstream, two pitchforks raised to impale catfish as if he were a "vengeful horrible god preparing for a sacrifice," before he almost drowns. Elsewhere, we see him from below as a child looking up to him might see him, his wild face illuminated by his pipe, his hand grossly enlarged. The difficult process of Mr. Richard’s conversion to gratitude and compassion parallels his and the boy’s joint effort to remove rocks from Mr. Richard’s field and, with the help of a stoneboat, to pitch them over the fence. Mr. Richard takes his time to soften, although his offer of an apple along the way is a good sign.
The only nagging concern I had when reading these splendid picture-books had to do with the mothers whose relative absence will need some explaining. But an affectionate prairie father who kisses his capable boy, then "lift[s him] up on his shoulder and [carries him] up to bed the way he used to when [he] was little" is already a lot to be thankful for.
- Mixed Bag for Kids by Lynn (J.R.) Wytenbroek
Books reviewed: Waiting for the Sun by Peter Ledwon, Alison Lohans, and Marilyn Mets, The Saturday Appaloosa by Georgia Graham and Thelma Sharp, We'll All Go Sailing by Kim LaFave, Maggee Spicer, and Richard Thompson, and In Spite of Killer Bees by Julie Johnston
- Teen Wives and Mothers by Elizabeth Galway
Books reviewed: The Lit Report by Sarah N. Harvey and Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka
- Storying Northern History by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: The Ice Master: A Novel of the Arctic by James Houston, Trapped in Ice by Eric Walters, and The Man From the Creeks by Robert Kroetsch
- Non-Fiction Picture Books by Lynn (J.R.) Wytenbroek
Books reviewed: The Hospital by Debbie Bailey, We Need to Go to School: Voices of the Rugmark Children by Tanya Roberts-Davis, Wizards: An Amazing Journey through the Last Great Age of Magic by Candace Savage, and Ultra Hush-Hush: Espionage and Special Missions by David Craig, Tina Forrester, and Stephen Shapiro
- Côté jeunesse by Anne Scott
Books reviewed: Histoire de la littérature pour la jeunesse--Québec et francophonie du Canada, suivie d'un Dictionaire des auteurs et illustrateurs by Françoise Lepage, L'orphelin des mers by André Noël, and Trafic chez les Hurons by André Noël
MLA: Kröller, Eva-Marie. Sunflowers and Apples. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #163 (Winter 1999), Asian Canadian Writing. (pg. 183 - 184)
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