Home in the Reading Chair

  • Frank Viva
    Outstanding in the Rain. Tundra Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Carson Ellis
    Home. Random House Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Lili Chartrand
    The Fabulous World of Mr. Fred. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Susie DeCoste

In writing my first formal review of children’s picture books, I cannot help but mention how my two young children have engaged with each text, and how each work became a catalyst for our interactions as we sat together to look through them. I appreciate how Frank Viva’s amazing die-cuts use three-dimensional space to entice my three year old to turn page after page, and how Carson Ellis’s warm and inviting watercolour home of a “moonian” gets us laughing. I am also struck by my hesitations in reading the English translation of Lili Chartrand’s award-winning The Fabulous World of Mr. Fred aloud.

While Gabrielle Grimard’s illustrations for Mr. Fred are wonderfully windswept and evocative, and the story itself quite heart-warming overall, I am uncertain about its intended audience. Mr. Fred of the title befriends a young boy named Pierrot at a park bench. After a few visits, Mr. Fred informs Pierrot that his young son, wife, and cats died in a fire years ago. Later in the story, Mr. Fred also dies. These deaths could be confusing to young children. Pierrot inherits a book from Mr. Fred, and shares its stories with his own child at the end of the work, bringing to full circle his encounter with Mr. Fred. I hoped for more details about the stories, and an opportunity to appreciate them as Pierrot does, but each of Mr. Fred’s stories appears only as a title. The recommended age for Mr. Fred is 5-8 but I believe it would be better suited for 10 years and older. Older children and adults would be better able to appreciate the sense of time passing, the cycles of life, the chance encounters that have a profound effect on a life, and the ways that loss can affect people.

The focus of Viva’s Outstanding in the Rain is on oronyms, phrases that sound the same but have different meanings, such as “an ice man” and “a nice man.” The illustrations work double duty because there are holes in the pages strategically placed over some words so that when the page is turned, another similar phrase is revealed. The word play is whimsical and fun; and children can enjoy finding out how slight changes in word spaces or letters can produce a completely different meaning. The phrases act as a loose thread that holds the whole work together. There are some rhymes I hesitated over such as “her ear” and “her rear.” The intended humour of that oronym pair is inconsistent with the rest of the book and it risks tainting the rest of the work.

Ellis’s Home features lovely watercolours and text composed of simple sentences. The first pages are declarative, describing who or what each home is intended for. The homes include a true-to-life apartment building, a nursery rhyme allusion shoe, and homes for the fun-to-say babushka, Atlantian, and moonian. There is a wonderful section that turns to questions such as, “But whose home is this? And what about this?” My three year old and one year old both love this book and have asked for it many times since I’ve received it to review. They laugh at many points, and like to repeat the phrases after me. I particularly enjoy the way the details of the illustrations work together. One of the final images of the book is a self-portrait of the artist in her room surrounded by the objects that inspired each idea of home featured in the text. This sense of cohesion is satisfying and inspiring. At the end, readers are prompted, “This is my home, and this is me. Where is your home? Where are you?” It is a delightful ending that spurred many conversations in our reading chair.

 



This review “Home in the Reading Chair” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 156-157.

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