Three Brats, One Hero

  • Caroline Merola
    A Night on the Town. Tundra Books
  • Monica Kulling
    All Aboard! Elijah McCoy's Steam Engine. Tundra Books
  • Dirk McLean
    Curtain Up!. Tundra Books
  • Arlene Alda
    Lulu's Piano Lesson. Tundra Books
Reviewed by Hilary Turner

Digging into a new stack of picture books from Tundra is usually a delight. This widely respected publisher of books for children—the oldest in continuous existence in Canada—has earned a reputation for innovation and excellence. But the current batch, with one exception, seems not quite up to Tundra’s usual standard.

Lulu’s Piano Lesson by Arlene Alda and illustrator Lisa Desimini is a bright, cute, visually appealing book that somehow fails to make its mark. The concept is simple: Lulu attends her piano lesson and then, for the ensuing week, finds excuses not to practise. Instead, she is captivated by the sounds she hears while at play—the squeak of a swing, the ring-ring of her bicycle bell, and so on—all of them signs of her natural ear for music. In the end, her very sympathetic piano teacher captures this innate aptitude and induces Lulu to channel it into some work at the keyboard. But two things bother me. Lulu’s mother seems strangely unconcerned by her daughter’s insouciance. Is she not aware that piano lessons cost money? Does she simply know that everything will turn out all right? Secondly, the repetition here (On Monday, On Tuesday, and so on) exemplifies a familiar narrative device enjoyed by very young children. But surely those who are old enough to take piano lessons have come to appreciate a more sophisticated approach? Alda and Desimini, who previously collaborated on the popular Iris has a Virus, are talented artists who have this time forgotten to define their audience.

On a similar theme, Curtain Up! by Dirk McLean and France Brassard chronicles the mounting of a musical stage production from auditions to opening night. The central character, Amaya, is also the star of the show, and we follow her as she learns her lines, grows comfortable with the stage and set, and copes with her jitters. Brassard’s watercolour illustrations are beautiful and detailed, and they provide a superb visual introduction to stagecraft, costuming, set-design, and all the activities that come together in a theatrical production. Yet apart from Amaya’s anxiety about forgetting her lines, the narrative here is oddly detached, and without tension. Nothing goes wrong, the applause is enthusiastic, and the critics are enchanted. But even a textbook case of how to put on a play should make some room for comedy, and maybe even a little for the struggle and frustration that are a natural part of learning to do a thing well. The very reverse of the oblivious Lulu, Amaya is just too good to be true.

Young Martha, the protagonist of A Night on the Town by Caroline Merola, is an odd child in an ever odder story. While waiting for the Tooth Fairy one dark summer night, she is paid a visit by a large blue creature with horns. Pickles McPhee is an escapee from the forest in pursuit of adventure. In her nightgown and slippers, Martha leads her new friend on a wild caper that includes the park, the pool, and a candy store, closed and locked for the night. Prompted by Martha, Pickles smashes the door, and the two commence a midnight feast that is eventually interrupted by the police—who are understandably confounded by the sight of a large blue burglar, species unknown. The book is all in good fun, and the illustrations, bright and cartoon-like, contribute to the feeling of giddy exuberance. Still, the central event of the story is a break-and-enter. The dénouement, in which Pickles is gently escorted back to her loving family, and in which Martha concludes that their night of mayhem “had been worth it all,” seems ethically hasty. Without wishing to return to the moral-on-every-page didacticism of Maria Edgeworth or Sara Trimmer, I was left a little breathless by the absence of any poetic justice whatsoever.

In telling the story of the legendary inventor Elijah McCoy, Monica Kulling in All Aboard! creates a nearly perfect balance of plot, character development, and an age-appropriate lesson in perseverance. Young Elijah, the child of African-American slaves who came to Canada by the Underground Railway, is initially the victim (but later the inheritor) of the North American dream of success achieved through individual merit. With a gift for mechanics and a dearly-bought British education, Elijah seeks work as an engineer in 1866 in Michigan. To his dismay, and on account of his race, he is grudgingly offered the menial position of “ashcat” on the Michigan Central Railroad. As he toils away in the engine-room, stoking the boilers and oiling the moving parts, he is inspired with the idea of a self-oiling engine. Interestingly, the resulting McCoy oil cup, the original “real McCoy,” was merely the precursor to fifty-seven patents that Elijah filed in his lifetime. All Aboard! is a straightforward, unadorned kind of narrative. Even Bill Slavin’s capable (and sometimes amusing) illustrations sustain the focus on the protagonist’s drive to overcome his disadvantages, to employ his gifts, and to contribute something useful to his society. Clever, honest, and workmanlike, this is a book that does justice to its subject without frills and furbelows.

This review “Three Brats, One Hero” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 141-142.

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