CHILDHOOD is full of milestones - first smile, first steps, first word, first day of school. We reached a milestone in our house this summer, albeit one of the less celebrated ones. My daughter, now eight, can read first novels. She doesn't need me to read to her, and picture-books are no longer the reading material of choice. As someone who reviews picture-books, this leaves me in an awkward spot. Will I now have to borrow other people's children, or will Elizabeth show her mother's unusual tolerance of books intended for people far younger than herself? It's too soon to tell, but I've got my eye on the neighbours' three-year-old just in case.
Milestones were on Rhea Tregebov's mind when she wrote Sasha and the Wiggly Tooth (Second Story, 24 pages, $12.95 cloth, $5.95 paper). Everyone in Sasha's class is losing baby teeth everyone but Sasha. He wonders what it's like to lose a tooth, when it will happen to him, and if the tooth fairy will come. When Sasha's tooth finally does come out, with some plot-thickening complications, he feels satisfyingly mature.
This second collaboration between Tregebov and the illustrator Helene Desputeaux is every bit as satisfying as The Extraordinary, Ordinary Everything Room, their first book. The story is simple, well paced, and full of quiet humour. The vivid illustrations have a tooth fairy tucked into each one. We can only hope that Sasha's further adventures will be chronicled by this pair.
Mother Holle (Quarry, 24 pages, $17.95 cloth, $8.95 paper) is the only classic folk-tale in this lot. It was originally collected by the Grimms from their neighbour Dorothea Wild, and is retold here by Charlotte Dom. The tale reflects the work ethic of Northern Europe: the beautiful, good girt who falls down a well into an alternate world performs all the tasks expected of her by Mother Holle, and is rewarded with a shower of gold. When her ugly, bad sister follows, she is predictably lazy and it is her fate to be showered in tar. Dom has a lively narrative style and the text is well paced, but Peter Becker, a German illustrator, steals the show with his hallucinatory pictures. He gives us a landscape in which everything is alive, just as it was when you were five. The book includes music and English words to a song that German children sing about Mother Holle. This is Quarry's first book in their "Classic Folktale" series, and it is an auspicious start.
Problems of any kind are a favourite topic for children's writers. TV Sal and the Game Show from Outer Space (Scholastic, 34 pages, $14.95 cloth), by Sheldon Oberman, is a wacky look at one young girl's addiction to television. After spending her whole vacation watching TV Sal suddenly finds herself swept into the television by space aliens looking for spaceship parts. Sat trades various bogus parts for a remote control that will put her on any TV show in the universe. The rest of the book is a cross between "Lost in Space" and "The David Letterman Show." After touring the sound stages of the galaxy, Sal finally decides she's had too much TV Like most of the TV shows my daughter watches, this book seems to me a bit too frantic, which probably means kids will love it. Craig Terlson's illustrations are just as frenetic as the plot. Kids may stop watching TV just tong enough to listen to this book.
Messy rooms are another sticking point authors like to hang children's books on. Don Giltmor's The Trouble with Justin (Groundwood, 32 pages, $ 13.95 cloth) is one of a rash of recent offerings on this topic. Justin is a messy kid. When he finally cleans up his room he finds all kinds of things, including a moose, the Red Army Chorus, his piano teacher, and the planet Saturn (still spinning). Gillmor has a way with hyperbole and this is a funny book. Harvey Chan's stylized and subdued illustrations are humorous and effective, but it is probably time to stop stereotyping Mexicans as bandits. Then too, the messy room has more than fulfilled its potential as a topic for children's books.
Alison's House (Oxford University Press, 32 pages, $5.95 paper), by Maxine Trottier, also deals with problems at home in a light-hearted way. When Alison's enormous family moves from their tittle house, she refuses to leave. But life with her new, much smaller family is so quiet she decides a house does not make a home, and finally follows her family. Small children will have a very hard time telling this book from one by Robert Munsch. Trottier has the same ear for repetition, the same eye for the absurd, and Michael Martchenko's zany illustrations increase the resemblance. Chances are that kids will take to Alison's House with the same degree of enthusiasm they show for Munsch's work.
David Suzuki puts a spin on the domestic setting in Nature in the Home (Stoddart, 32 pages, $6.95 paper). This is a nonfiction book with a plot, a science book aimed at preschoolers. When rain keeps Megan and Jamey from taking a nature walk outside with their father, they tour their house, discovering all the things that nature gave them, from the oak tree in the dining-room table to the silkworms that are the source of their mother's nightgown. Eugenie Fernandes's illustrations transform concepts such as the idea that paper comes from trees into lateral depictions that should help small children understand what Suzuki means. Jamey and Megan live in a household remarkably devoid of synthetics. I couldn't help wishing that Suzuki had explained where polyester comes from. This aside, Nature in the Home is a painless way to make young children aware of the contribution nature makes to everyday life.
Leo Yerxa takes a very different nature walk in Last Leaf, First Snowflake to Fall (Groundwood, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth). In this blank-verse poem, a young boy and his father journey by canoe to spend a night in the forest - the night when the first snow falls. The strength of the narrative lies not in events, but in the author's strong evocation of sights and feelings. This large-format book showcases Yerxa's illustrations, which are mostly collages of textured paper with some watercolours. The lilting cadences of the text reminded me of Dylan Thomas, and the pictures are breathtaking. It is rare for such a gifted illustrator to also produce a text that is so memorable. A book like this gives me hope that I may be able to share some picture-books with my daughter for many years to come.