Tag Archives: Quentin Blake

“My babe, my boobs, our books” … guest post by poet Shannon Bramer

Part 2 of a growing series on Blog of Green Gables, When Writers Read Kids’ Books. Today’s guest is poet and playwright Shannon Bramer, who writes candidly about her struggle with postpartum depression, and the books that pulled her through.

Shannon's mission as guest blogger inspired her daughter too. Click for a bigger view of the picture Sadie drew when her mom told her what she was writing about. Note the smiles in spite of the black cloud! Sadie, I love the shoelaces....

I read a lot when I was breastfeeding and I confess that was one of my favourite aspects of that time-consuming and sometimes exhausting act. Just let me hook the kid up and find my book. Please, sweetheart, stay asleep so I can keep reading! I was not the most social new mother. I was a sad, tired, cranky thing, really. For the first six months of Sadie’s life I hungered for deep sleep and sought comfort in Seinfeld re-runs, the novels of Haruki Murakami and the music of Ron Sexsmith. Most of the time I wanted to be alone eating noodle soup somewhere in Tokyo. Sometimes I hoped Ron or Jerry would come lie with me in a frozen drift of snow.

We had the black and white books going right off the bat, but I started reading stories to Sadie with regularity when she was four months old. Every night we would switch off lights in the house together and then lie on our bed with three chubby little classics: Big Red Barn, Good Night Gorilla and Time for Bed. As the months went by we read more and more. As soon as Sadie could sit up on her own we had a regular routine of reading books in the morning and then again later in the afternoon. Often we’d read right after feeding, so the two acts became linked for us both. I still wasn’t up for much socializing with other parents, but I was getting out more often. I took Sadie for long walks in the sling or stroller and we always stopped off to read. I had a favourite cafe—Caffe 163 on Lauder Street (just off of St.Clair West), owned by a reticent, tattooed, Italian barista named Louie. It became our cafe, and a daily event, “going to Louie’s to read”. At Lou’s I could enjoy a coffee and the company of other adults (briefly and from a distance) and make my way through a nice stack of library books with Sadie. And when I needed to, I would whip out my boob and Sadie would have a snack, right there in the cafe. Tip: larger, hardcover picture books like Babar and Eloise make for just the right amount of privacy if you don’t mind feeding your baby in public.

Before having children I worked as a bookseller, and I had been collecting children’s books for a decade. Sometimes I think I had my first child just so I could share my pretty books with her. Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden would have to wait a bit, but I already had other treats in mind, like Quentin Blake’s magnificent, heartbreaking Clown, and Jan Ormerod’s Sunshine and Moonlight books, which Sadie still enjoys and tugs off the shelf regularly. Both Ormerod and Blake have a talent for balancing stillness and movement in their illustrations; sometimes the images are so tender and lovingly imagined you can’t help but want to climb inside the book and stay there.

A few of my obsessions became Sadie’s: My Very First Mother Goose Book, edited by Peter and Ilona Opie (illustrated by Rosemary Wells) was read over and over again, as was as an illustrated (Jan Ormerod, again!) anthology of poems entitled Sunflakes, which Sadie renamed Poemflakes. At this point I had become little more than her reading slave, and if Sadie wanted poems read to her in the bathtub, I read them. I had created a monster, but she was my monster, and one who knew how to turn the thinnest pages thoughtfully and skillfully, even with her goopy little fingers.

For many months after Sadie first learned to talk the first words out of her mouth in the morning were: “Books! Books! Books! Read! Read! Read!” On good days and bad, I’d be confronted with her sparkling, alert, somewhat demonic (!?) blue eyes at 5:45am, ready to read, read, read—ready to start her day. At 22 months we continued to read together with enthusiasm but my boobs, as Sadie put it, were “struggling along”. Feedings had decreased and my milk supply was dropping. There was only one morning feed left and I was more than ready to let it go. So, instead of offering Sadie milk in the morning, I suggested a new book. And whenever she felt sick or upset or needed comforting, a book almost always worked. And it worked for me too, when I didn’t know what else to do with my little blonde monkey—when I was tired, or cranky, hoarse from yelling or my secret crying—reading to Sadie always made me feel like I was doing a good job as a mother. Reading always calmed me down and reminded me that even if I was struggling with depression during the first few years of Sadie’s life, we were still close. Reading enabled the cuddling and quiet and (often magical) moments of escape we both needed.

Lydia with Sadie hiding behind Daisy

Sadie is seven years old now, with an effervescent three-year-old sister named Lydia. At bedtime there is often quite a bit of fighting about which books will get read. Sometimes they both want the same one and often the book doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much as who picked it. Right now they are both big fans of Castle of the Cats, based on a Latvian folktale, retold by Eric A. Kimmel. I love doing the “voices” when I read this one, though sometimes I feel my serious children won’t allow me to perform my accents and sound effects often enough.

My husband and I take turns putting the girls to bed, and on my nights I spend extra time reading with Sadie, alone, in her room. Now she reads to me, and despite how tired I am after some long days, we both look forward to exploring books together. Scholastic’s Rainbow Magic series is excruciatingly boring to me, but Sadie enjoys the fairies and I have to work hard to avoid being too controlling of her rapidly expanding bookshelf.

Sometimes I’m a bad mommy: I strategize the introduction of new books and once in a while that Barbie is a Dentist book just goes missing?!? Beside Sadie’s bed right now, in a messy pile on the floor: Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech; Think Again, a book of poems by Jon Arno Lawson; School for Cats by Esther Avril and one of my favourite books in the world: Stormy Night, by Michele Lemieux.

My girls are growing up. I cling to the hope that Sadie and Lydia will let me read to and with them forever. I look forward to the day when they start to advise and instruct me on what to read. I also I have a naive plan to maintain intimate contact with their complicated teenage psyches by continuing to read what they read. Because reading was how we first learned to listen and be close to each other. For me, reading will always be one more wonderful way to love them.

Shannon and Sadie with Jean de Brunhoff at Louie's

Shannon Bramer is a poet and playwright. Her first play, Monarita, was produced in St. John’s in February 2010 and has since appeared in festivals across the country.  In June 2011 she enlisted the help of the celebrated Toronto publisher BookThug to create Think City, an anthology of poems for Gracefield Public School in North York. The Refrigerator Memory, published by Coach House Books in 2005, is on sale now! Sometimes you can find Shannon on the playground, recruiting little poets: poetintheplayground.blogspot.com.

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Fear makes you tiny

Good friends of ours are finally coming to the end of an extensive house renovation that’s pushed them down to the basement, the four of them in one room with a makeshift kitchen and beds. Now and again they’ve emerged dazed, squinting at the brightness of daylight, and shaking the plaster dust from their hair. “You’ve been living like the borrowers,” I said to my friend, and she laughed and agreed. Later I sought out the book and showed it to N to see if she’d be interested, and now we are well into this 1952 Carnegie medal winner by English author Mary Norton.

I remember loving this novel as a child — the teeny-tininess of the people and their things, the dressers made of stacked-up match boxes, the postage stamps hanging like portraits on the walls, and also the story within a story within a story: as the book opens, an old woman named Mrs. May tells “wild, untidy, self-willed” Kate about the miniature people she learned of in her own long-ago childhood. But it wasn’t Mrs. May who saw the borrowers first-hand; it was her little brother, who’d been sent to Great Aunt Sophy’s in the country to recover from rheumatic fever. Through the night he would hear an old grandfather clock striking the hours. “And, under this clock, below the wainscot, there was a hole….” From here the story dips beneath the floor, through dark and dusty passageways, to the place where the borrowers live.

I recall trying this book with N some time ago, but the complexities around whose story it was seemed a little beyond her. She needed a clearer entry point back then, so that she could go hand in hand with her protagonist through the book. Now, she follows every twist and turn, regularly pointing out that what the borrowers are doing is certainly not borrowing.

“I mean, I don’t think they ever bring any of those things back, do they?”

She’s quite intrigued by Arrietty, only child of Homily and Pod Clock, who longs to know what it’s like upstairs, outside, or even in the far away lands where other borrowers have gone. The Clocks are the only borrowers left in the house by the time the story starts, and for Homily and Pod it’s a point of pride to remain. Not so for Arrietty. “I know we’ve managed to stay on when all the others have gone. But what has it done for us, in the end? I don’t think it’s so clever to live on alone, for ever and ever, in a great, big, half-empty house; under the floor, with no one to talk to, no one to play with, nothing to see but dust and passages, no light but candlelight and firelight and what comes through the cracks.”

But the world outside is dangerous. So much so that only men creep out to borrow necessities for survival, scuttling across floors and climbing curtains and risking being seen by “human beans.” Women and girls stay in their dark, safe places with the house creaking and groaning above them.

N’s eyes widened at this. “You mean girls can’t borrow?” she asked. “Just because they’re girls? That’s not fair.” That’s what Arrietty thinks too, of course, but she’s grown up hearing about the disappearance of her cousin, Eggletina, whose curiosity got the better of her. One day she sneaked upstairs “in a blue dress and a pair of button-boots … yellow kid with jet beads for buttons. Lovely they were.” Eggletina never returned, but her legend grew. “It just broke up your uncle Hendreary,” said Homily at last. “He never went upstairs again — in case, he said, he found the button-boots. Their only future was to emigrate.”

This is essentially a story of fear and of freedom. Early on Mrs. May tells Kate that the borrowers were not always so tiny. “It was because they were frightened that they had grown so small. Each generation had become smaller and smaller, and more and more hidden.” Arrietty doesn’t want to live in fear. When she finally gets outside, she discovers how glorious it is to run. “You could never run under the floor: you walked, you stooped, you crawled — but you never ran.” She marvels at the giant coloured stones and the waist-high blades of grass; she picks a primrose and holds it like a parasol. And then something glitters nearby. “It was an eye. Or it looked like an eye. Clear and bright like the colour of the sky. An eye like her own but enormous. A glaring eye.”

And that’s where we left off this morning — tasting freedom, Arrietty had been seen.

The Carnegie Greenaway Living Archive tells me that Mary Norton was born in 1903 in London, and raised in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, the setting she chose for The Borrowers series (there are five books in all). She was short-sighted, and mesmerized by the tiny creatures she’d see crawling in the grass, set against the blurred back drop of the larger world. She was a secretary, an actress at the Old Vic Theatre Company, and then a wife and mother before she started writing children’s books. Her first was The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons, published in 1943, and followed up by the sequel Bonfires and Broomsticks. Good old Walt Disney merged the stories into the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks and of course (given the success of Mary Poppins) set it all to music. I love the early cover shown here of The Magic Bed Knob. It reminds me so much of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s books, and especially for his own Mrs. Armitage on Wheels. So I did a search for Waldo and Quentin together, just to see what would come up. I digress slightly, but here’s what I found at nationmaster.com, under the heading “practical joke”:

“The American humorist H. Allen Smith wrote a 320-page book in 1953 called The Compleat Practical Joker that contains many examples of practical jokes. A typical one, recalled as his favorite by the playwright Charles MacArthur, concerns the American painter and bohemian character Waldo Peirce. Peirce was living in Paris in the 1920s and ‘made a gift of a very small turtle to the woman who was the concierge of his building.’ The woman doted on the turtle and lavished it with care and affection. A few days later Peirce substituted a somewhat larger turtle for the original one. This continued for some time, with larger and larger turtles being surreptitiously introduced into the woman’s apartment. The concierge was beside herself with happiness and displayed her miraculous turtle to the entire neighborhood. Peirce then began to sneak in and replace the turtle with smaller and smaller ones, to her bewildered distress. This was the storyline behind Esio Trot, by Roald Dahl.”

I love how things go around, and come around.

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Human beans: grizzling and horrigust?

roald-dahl-the-bfgAfter finishing off Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, I urged my daughter toward Black Beauty, thinking it was a nice fit, because recently we acquired a dog who, like the horse in Anna Sewell’s novel, has been mistreated. But more about that another time, because N said no to Black Beauty and insisted (once again) on Roald Dahl’s The BFG — in which the little girl Sophie is kidnapped from her bedroom by a giant who lurks around on dark streets and blows dreams into children’s windows.

In all good conscience I couldn’t very well say “Mommy has already mentioned The BFG on her blog several times, so we’ll have to read something else.” And anyway, it’s probably time for a confession about my own fascination with giants. My new novel, still very much underway, has a giant girl as the  main character.

For this reason, we have books around our house that show pictures of real giants — the “boy giant” Robert Wadlow, who soared past eight feet in height, and weighed nearly four hundred pounds; and the enormous Sandy Allen, seven feet, seven inches, and beautiful when Fellini cast her as his giantess in Casanova. The Wadlow book shows a photo of him touching the top of a streetlight in New York City, with a gaggle of little New Yorkers around him, and for days afterwards, whenever we passed a traffic light, my daughter would say, “A giant could reach that high.”

In my research for the novel, I was intrigued to discover the links between storybook giants and actual giants, whose condition is caused by a pituitary tumour that causes excess growth hormone in the body. So the traits we so often see in stories like Jack and the Beanstalk exist in real life too. Fleshy lips and ears; a pronounced forehead and heavy jaw; poor vision; a deep, hoarse voice; a hunched back; a cane (in stories, a club) for support.

I won’t give more away here, except to say that I’m easily persuaded when N wants another read of The BFG, and tucked away in her second-floor bedroom, we imagine him (one of children’s literature’s most endearing characters, in my opinion) stooping way down to peer through the window at us.

Roald Dahl’s giant lives in Giant Country, but he’s an anomaly there too. His fellow giants are twice as tall as he is, and they all dine on human beans, especially delectable little chiddlers, while the BFG, a conscientious but non-judgmental vegetarian, eats only icky snozzcumbers and drinks frobscottle, a beverage whose fizzes go down instead of up and therefore give him gassy whizzpoppers that are one of his few sources of happiness. Until Sophie comes along, that is.  When the bespectacled little orphan is scooped “hipswitch” out of the orphanage by the giant, both their lives change forever.

One of my favourite passages has Sophie discovering, to her horror, that the giants of giant land eat humans. And while the BFG believes it’s wrong to guzzle human beans, he is quick to point out her hypocrisy. Humans eat pigs, he says, although the pigs probably don’t like it very much. And besides that —

“I is not understanding human beans at all…. You is a human bean and you is saying it is grizzling and horrigust for giants to be eating human beans…. But human beans is squishing each other all the time. They is shootling guns and going up in aerioplanes to drop their bombs on each other’s heads every week. Human beans is always killing other human beans…. Giants is not very lovely, but they is not killing each other. Nor is crockadowndillies killing other crockadowndillies. Nor is pussy-cats killing pussy-cats…. Human beans is the only animals that is killing their own kind.”

Which seems an appropriate thought for Remembrance Day.

Roald Dahl was a member of the Royal Air Force in WW2. He stretched to six feet, six inches, and must have been quite a sight crouched into the cockpit of a warplane. He survived a crash in the desert, but was transferred home to England due to his injuries. Eventually he ended up at a desk in Washington, which must have seemed somewhat unadventurous, and yet it was here that his career really took a turn. He was asked to lunch by C.S. Forester, who requested some information about his war experience. If he could jot down some notes, Forester would then take what he’d written and transform it into a piece for The Saturday Evening Post.

As it turned out, the pilot had a way with the pen. When Forester received Dahl’s musings, he sent along a note saying “Did you know you were a writer? — I haven’t changed a word.” And the piece was published as “Shot Down Over Libya”  in the August 1942 edition of The Saturday Evening Post (though it isn’t true that Dahl was shot down — he was already on his way to a great career in fiction).

going soloThe war remained an inspiration. A year later, Disney published his first children’s book, The Gremlins, about a group of mischievous creatures who wreak havoc in the plane-filled skies of World War Two. In keep with Remembrance Day, it fits to mention that his memoir Going Solo gives a detailed account of his wartime experience.

And I can’t close without saying something about Quentin Blake, who illustrated so many of Dahl’s books. You would think, reading The BFG and others, that the words and the pictures came from one mind, they fit that well together. My daughter loves to draw, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her quite as inspired as she was when we first read The BFG. She was torn between her wish for another chapter, and her wish for a break so she could go and sketch out her own version of Blake’s giant and the little Sophie in her nightgown.

mrs armitageBlake was still a boy when Dahl was crash-landing his warplanes, but what a treat to find that his first published drawings appeared in Punch magazine when he was just a teenager — remember this was home for A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard early in their careers. Later on, Blake illustrated for a number of other writers, and like Shepard was an author in his own right. In our house, we adore his story Mrs. Armitage on Wheels. The Daily Telegraph wrote that “Blake is beyond brilliant. He’s anarchic, moral, infinitely subversive, sometimes vicious, socially acute, sparse when he has to be, exuberantly lavish in the detail when he feels like it. He can tell wonderful stories without a single word, but his partnership with Roald Dahl was made in heaven. Or somewhere.”

Well — we concur.

For more about Quentin Blake, click here. Visit Dahl’s whizzpopping website here. Read Elizabeth Renzetti’s Fantastic Mr. Dahl.

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When our legs grew out of our heads

Creepy stone bunny stumbled upon in the forest sometime last century

Creepy stone bunny stumbled upon in the forest sometime last century

Once upon a time I used a Polaroid camera and went around taking pictures of things that inspired me. Mossy tombstones and cabbage moths and trees growing in strange places. It was so satisfying, the way the image slid out of the camera, presented in a tidy white frame. Often I liked the mistakes best — the things that showed up in the image that I hadn’t expected.

I don’t take so many photographs anymore, but there are days when I’m out walking that I mentally collect images. I can feel a kind of shutter clicking in my mind when I see certain things: a man strolling across the street from his apartment building in shorts, t-shirt and fuzzy brown slippers, cigarette tucked behind his ear. When I click my imaginary camera, the corner store at the other side of the street is visible in the frame, and I know he’s going to get matches. He can’t be bothered to put shoes on. I store the image away in that mysterious place where stories gather.

I have piles of dusty old photos getting blurry over time. When I open the box I keep them in, I smell the toxic smell of a Polaroid photo ripped open — because for a while this is what I would do to the odd photo, tear the white frame off and take the backing away so I could see the wall through the image pinned on it.  Now our walls are full of children’s drawings instead. But I sense a parallel in the way my daughter collects images. We come home from any number of adventures and she draws what she remembers — what stood out to her from the day. Or we read the Roald Dahl‘s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and she draws the pictures in a style surprisingly like Quentin Blake.

Chapter Two: Sophie meets the BFG

Chapter Two: Sophie meets the BFG

It’s amazing to watch the stages of a child’s drawing — from squiggly, nonsensical lines to somewhat recognizable shapes, and then to heads with legs growing out of them. And then to curly eyelashes and lips and people in profile and landscapes that show an understanding of perspective. Apparently the stages are remarkably similar for most children, and have names like “pre-tadpole” and “tadpole” — the latter being a circle with at least two lines coming out of it.

The AAA Lab at Stanford sees it this way: “A common explanation for the ubiquitous tadpole stage is that children are merely trying to symbolize a person and do not put a premium on realism. While this may be true, it does not explain the specific tadpole form…. when children look down at their bodies, they see their arms coming from their head. (Stretch your arms to the side and then look down.) Therefore, early on, children draw pictures combining their head and body as one component. ” Check out the Lab’s children’s drawing page for more.

Unhappy tadpole?

Unhappy tadpole?

Just as an aside, check out The Impossible Project, which intends to bring new life to the Polaroid camera and its factory in Enschede, NL. The site lays out the history and the challenges ahead, and quotes the inventor of instant photography, Edwin Land: “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”

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