Canadian Picture Books

  • Ludmila Zeman
    Sindbad: From the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights. Tundra Books
  • Andrea Spalding and Pascal Milelli (Illustrator)
    Seal Song. Orca Book Publishers
  • Jim McGugan and Murray Kimber (Illustrator)
    Josepha: A Prairie Boy’s Story. Red Deer College
  • Tim Beiser and Rachel Berman (Illustrator)
    Bradley McGogg, the Very Fine Frog. Tundra Books
Reviewed by Judith Saltman

The thirty-two-page picture book is, for many children, their first exposure to story and art. The format encompasses many genres. This selection of four titles includes historical fiction, fantasy, poetry, and folklore and includes reissues of award-winning and shortlisted titles, some originally published almost twenty years ago.

The often painful experience of immigrants in Canada is explored in Josepha: A Prairie Boy’s Story, originally published in 1994. The text is a poignant remembrance of an early-twentieth-century prairie boyhood as the narrator recalls the loss of his friend, the adolescent immigrant Josepha, who is leaving the schoolhouse and the bullying he has experienced due to his size and struggle with language. Murray Kimber’s stylized oil paintings are evocative of Edward Hopper’s, in the eerie calm of the imagery, and the work of muralist Thomas Hart Benton, in epic rural feeling. Dramatic prairie vistas of horizon and endless sky are depicted as stormy and turbulent with fierce brushstrokes.

Sindbad: From the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, originally published in 1999, is the first of a Sindbad trilogy of Arabian Nights tales. Ludmila Zeman retells and illustrates the mythical sailing voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, framing the tales through the classic structure of cunning Shahrazad enthralling King Shahriyar with her marvellous storytelling over a thousand and one nights. The atmosphere of the Persian folk tales and the ninth-century Arabic culture of ancient Baghdad are beautifully evoked through character, setting, and metaphor. Sindbad’s strange adventures are conflated and suspensefully chronicled as he travels across oceans and countries, escaping from a whale-island, a giant flying Roc, and valleys filled with diamonds and poisonous serpents. Zeman’s illustrations provide both historical and folkloric context in the subtle colours and etching-like style, which recall early manuscripts and maps, as well as Persian miniature paintings and Oriental carpets.

Bradley McGogg, the Very Fine Frog is a paperback issue of a 2008 publication. Tim Beiser’s comic verse in rhyming couplets and catchy rhythm begs to be read aloud in this classic anthropomorphized animal fable of a hungry frog’s journey through his animal friends’ culinary tastes and talents, with the final return home and realization that his taste for his bog bugs is just right. Usually, slightly nonsensical stories are matched by cartoon art. Rachel Berman’s fine draughtsmanship, however, is a comic realism blended with fine realist imagery and sets the tale in a British fantasy world of Edwardian clothing, class, and behaviour. The style recalls early-twentieth-century classic children’s books with finely realized Beatrix Potteresque detail and echoes of the shadowy fields and woods of Arthur Rackham.

Seal Song is a 2011 release, inspired by traditional Celtic Selkie folktales. All Selkie tales are touched by tragedy and loss as the female seal shape-shifts into a human woman’s form to join her human lover, but must ultimately return to her seal existence. Adapted by Andrea Spalding for a child audience, loss is tempered, love becomes friendship, and adults become children. The formal text retains the grave and romantic tone of folklore and incorporates free-verse poetry in lyrical songs that echo folkloric rhyme. Pascal Milelli’s illustrations in oil are slightly abstracted and cubist. The imagery creates a recognizable, early-twentieth-century British Columbia coastal fishing community. Harbours, islands, conifers and arbutus, and the palette of blues, greens, and burnt umber evoke the spirit of Emily Carr and E. J. Hughes channelled through Cézanne. The design and typography of the poems enhance the emotional cadence and parallel the movement in the underwater scenes.

Each of these titles is different in tone and style. The range reflects the strength of Canada’s vibrant picture books.

This review “Canadian Picture Books” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 146-47.

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