“Summertime / and the livin’ is easy” — at least, according to George Gershwin’s lyrics made popular by Ella Fitzgerald. As kids embark on summer vacation, and people who’ve been reined in by pandemic restrictions are starting to get out more thanks to COVID vaccines, the living really might be easier this summer than it was in 2020. Below are some books to help celebrate the season:
Out Into the Big Wide Lake
Illustrated by Josée Bisailllon
For many kids, summer is a time when they first get a taste of independence away from home — whether it’s via a stint at camp or overnight visits with relatives. In this new picture book from Toronto’s Paul Harbridge, a young girl leaves the city to spend a summer with her grandparents in a lakeside community where they own a grocery store. Kate has never left home before and when Grandma makes the invitation, she utters an astonished “Me?” to which Grandma replies “Why not?”
Those three words become a refrain that pops up periodically as the story progresses, and they result in a surprising competence on the part of Kate, who acquires all kinds of new skills and overcomes fears (including homesickness) during the summer. When Grandpa falls ill, she even musters the courage to set out in a small boat to deliver groceries to customers along the lakefront — including crotchety old Walter, who turns out to be a surprise himself.
The author based the character of Kate on his sister Linda, who has Down syndrome but didn’t let it stop her from becoming an accomplished athlete. Colourful mixed-media illustrations by Montreal’s Josée Bisaillon add visual appeal to this heartwarming story, and manage to capture the outdoor joys of summer vacation.
Gwendolyn’s Pet Garden
Illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh
Nancy Paulsen Books
Gwendolyn desperately wants a pet, but her parents shoot down every request. “Birds throw feathery fits,” her father says, when she suggests a two-legged pet. “Fur makes my nose sneeze,” says her mother, when Gwendolyn gets excited about four-legged pets such as dogs, cats and gerbils. When she tells them she wants a pet so she can teach it new tricks, her parents point to her baby brother as a likely candidate. It’s not until Gwendolyn says she wants a pet to care for that mom and dad have a suggestion that, well, takes root.
“You can take care of this,” they say, presenting her with what looks like a box of dirt. “It’s a bed of soil,” her parents explain, and “it smells of possibilities.” It prompts Gwendolyn to start reading about soil, seeds, sunlight and shade — then getting seeds from the library and planting marigolds, basil, fennel and zucchini. Lively text from Montreal’s Anne Renaud and appealing art from Rashin Kheiriyeh, a native of Iran now living in Washington, D.C., will likely prompt young readers to create their own box garden — especially after reading the author’s note at the end of the book, with encouraging suggestions.
The Day the Rain Moved In
Translated by Shelley Tanaka
Even the warmest of summers occasionally delivers a rainfall that helps gardens like Gwendolyn’s to grow, but in this book written and illustrated by Éléonore Douspis, originally published in French as Sans orage ni nuage and translated here by Shelley Tanaka, the rain has decided to move indoors. Outside, the sun is shining. Inside their house, however, Pauline and Louis wear raincoats and boots while their parents try to deal with the damp. But there’s nothing they can do to stop the indoor rain. A seedling sprouts and grows into an enormous tree. A puddle grows into a pond and frogs move in. Neighbourhood kids peer through the windows and are invited inside to explore “this unlikely new playground.”
Distinctive flat digital art reflects the outlandish storyline and will spark the reader’s imagination and delight — right up to the moment that a sudden cracking sound signals tree branches piercing the home’s walls and roof, “reaching up to the sky” while “sunlight floods into the house.” Abruptly, the rain stops and the story ends.
I’m left worrying about holes in the house, but kids probably won’t have such mundane concerns. They’ll be too busy enjoying the magic of that final two-page sunny spread, with children climbing the (indoor) tree branches and splashing each other in the (indoor) pond. And when they finally close this unusual book, they’ll be marvelling at the shiny raindrops on its cover.
The Rock From the Sky
We’re back outside for Jon Klassen’s latest offering, which he himself describes in publisher’s bumf as “a book of five short connected stories about three characters, in which, they don’t go anywhere or do almost anything, but also it involves a meteor, time travel, aliens, jealousy, betrayal and death.”
The former Ontario resident, now living in Los Angeles, is probably best known for his trio of hat books (I Want My Hat Back, about a bear; This Is Not My Hat, about fish; We Found a Hat, about turtles), and the three characters in this new book (a turtle, a snake and a critter that looks like an armadillo or mole) also sport head gear.
Klassen’s art, created digitally and in watercolour, is distinctive, sophisticated and occasionally ominous; his text consists solely of brief, straightforward dialogue between the three characters, but the result is compelling, engaging and memorable. When the characters, oblivious to a giant rock plummeting to Earth, are discussing, in the first story, which is the best place to stand, I defy readers of any age from wanting to shout warnings.
While the book is aimed at ages four to eight (like the other three picture books reviewed here), I’d have no qualms about giving this volume to anyone with a sense of humour — whether child or adult.
— Bernie Goedhart