Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Eastern Canada’ Category

The better the quality, the harder it is for me to resist a Newfoundland picture book. This summer, during an annual visit to my home province, I succumbed to temptation and bought three relatively current titles. Each tells an engaging story, boasts attractive illustrations, and even educated me about the world where I grew up. One can’t always say that about regional books and so I’m super proud to introduce three must-read books to you.

A “national best seller” for three consecutive years, Newfoundland and Labrador Lullaby is a soothing ballad written by songwriter Mary Jane Riemann. Each page of this board book contains short and simple phrases, mostly about six to eight words and one to three syllable words. Several of the spreads feature contrasting phrases. For example, “When the sun rises …. Under moonlit skies.” There’s always the reassuring refrain: “I love you.” The artwork is just as charming and sweet. I appreciate too how the paintings capture the multi-faceted culture of the island. Not only are puffins and whales featured, but so are hockey and picnics. The back pages contain ten bulleted points with random interesting facts such as who the first settlers were and what the provincial wildlife is. My favorite tidbit, simply because of the cute wording, is: “Newfoundland is an island. To get here you must fly, take a boat, or be born here.” If you scan the QR code on the back cover, you can hear the song while looking at the book with your little ones!

A Puffin Playing by the Sea is also based on a song. Author Gina Noordhof has rewritten “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to contain a Newfoundland flavor. As a representative on the Canadian Tourism Commission for four years, Noorhof had the unique opportunity to realize how special and individual each province is—including her own. With the help of a whimsical puffin character, aptly picked as the puffin is Newfoundland’s provincial bird, Noordhof highlights twelve distinct features of the island. The first spread starts out with the familiar refrain: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me.” Then Noordhof mixes up the traditional carol by ending with the words: “A puffin playing by the sea.” Pictured is a colorful line-drawing of a puffin with a fish in its mouth and looking out to sea. The spread also contains an educational sidebar that details the origins and lifestyle of the puffin. Within the sidebar is also an actual photo of a puffin. On subsequent pages, all just as professionally-rendered, other gifts include: tea dolls, Norsemen, canines, caribou, lighthouses, seals, mummers, whales, codfish, fiddlers, and drummers. As with the Newfoundland and Labrador Lullaby, I appreciated diverse the subjects were that Noordhoff featured. Both those familiar and unfamiliar with Canada’s most eastern province will find themselves educated in an entertaining manner.

A Good Day for Billie is my only pick in this round-up that contains a tale told in a traditional narrative format. This picture book is the result of the author, Rodger Blake, telling bedtime stories to his children. At the forefront is a puffin who enjoys exploring the coastal shores of Newfoundland. One day while Billie is flipping seashells on the beach, he encounters a reddish-orange creature with eight legs. Lava instantly informs Billie that penguins and crabs being friends would be a waste of time. Billie leaves Lava alone but, for the entire rest of the day, both creatures wrestle with doubts about their decision. Although the text is of length that an adult will no doubt need to read the story, the tale is perfectly told. Part of what I most appreciate about A Good Day for Billie is how integral the island’s distinctive features are to the story. Billie encounters fishing villages, icebergs, and many other coastal images all as part of his journey to ask a friend for advice. Even the character of a whale named Charlie is a natural fit. Just as perfectly rendered are the gentle color-pencil illustrations of blue, green, orange, and brown hues. A Good Day for Billie is an absolute delight!

After stockpiling a collection of twenty-one Newfoundland picture books, I decided in 2013 that it was time to become more selective over my purchases. No longer would a title being written by a Newfoundlander and being set in my home province satisfy my literary tastes. Instead I wanted the quality of subsequent purchases to reach the level of the average commercial picture book. The three selections reviewed here I believe will tempt any young reader as much as they did me.

Otherwise describes the childhood, wartime service, and the travels to the North that shaped the heart of Farley Mowat. It is the second of three memoirs by the beloved Canadian writer and activist. Portions of Mowat’s other books can be found in Otherwise, which might turn off some readers, but for me enhanced my enjoyment of an intimate and revealing autobiography.

Each time I reread Otherwise, what strikes me most is the transformation of Mowat from a scientist to an activist. By the time Mowat reached his teens, he had caught the attention of a great-uncle, who was considered one of Canada’s leading scientists because of his huge and varied collection of animal species. His uncle offered to take Mowat on an expedition to Hudson Bay to collect the eggs of arctic birds, where Mowat’s duties would require him to find every nest he could. If he couldn’t identify the mother, he was to shoot her and bring her back with the eggs. At the time, Mowat didn’t feel any reason to question his famous relative and so felt “no qualms of conscience”. As Mowat matured, however, he began to feel torn between his desire to become a scientist and his love for wildlife. After returning from wartime service, as part of his attempts to find his place again in society, Mowat embarked on an expedition to study birds. He notes his growing reluctance to arm himself with guns and ammunition, while also recognizing that the demands of science would require him to substantiate his studies with skins. Yet in his journal, he would write: “Do I really want to spend the foreseeable future killing every interesting animal that comes my way … what a bloody, messy, dreary way to spend one’s life.”

When reading a memoir as rich as Otherwise, one is bound to discover new details upon each encounter. Myself being no exception, As I re-immersed myself in Otherwise this past holiday break, what struck me most was how wartime service impacted Mowat. In 1939, he and his friends were gearing up for yet another nature expedition. Just a few months later, like many young people of his age at the time, Mowat was instead standing in line to apply to serve his country. When that war ended, Mowat was thrown into a season of discontent. Receiving a job as a tech, he focused on collecting war weapons. For a time, those weapons fascinated him more than the natural world and kept him preoccupied more than scribbling in his journal. When this job ended, he retreated to his bedroom, until pushed out of the nest by his parents. After some floundering, Mowat returned his first love of nature expeditions but, initially, even here he found no solace. Nothing was has it had been. War had left its scars on even the former paradise of Saskatchewan. Not until Mowat discovered the Barren Lands, and the People of the Deer, did the effects of wartime service began to lose their hold. In the Barren Lands, Mowat found a new future, one that would forever shape him.

Because I have both a love of animals and of writing, Otherwise remains one of my favorite memoirs.  Having aspired during my childhood to become a naturalist, I find it of interest to read about someone who pursued that field. To undertake expeditions, Mowat often had to find his own funds, a fact that surprised me. In addition, due to his growing distaste for killing animals, he eventually had to walk to a different drum than the norm. Although Mowat has often been in the center of controversy, I admire his passion and his willingness to speak up for what he believed. Since adulthood, I’ve taken steps towards achieving my dream of becoming a writer. Again, I find it of interest to read about someone who could use his voice to impact people’s beliefs. Mowat remains one of my favorite authors.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

When visiting my family this summer in Newfoundland, I picked up Puppy the Seal Cold Water Rescue by Elias Kawaja. This softbound picture book was inspired by hearing about tragedy on the water and wanting to write a story that appeal to young readers just starting school. I believe Kawaja has accomplished this with a basic narrative and simple illustrations.

The story is straightforward, as a parent might tell a child, with an easy-to-follow plot. One spring day, two siblings go fishing in the family boat. They meet up with a seal named Puppy, who for a time joins in their fun. When Puppy notices that Jackson and Sophia aren’t wearing life jackets, he takes on the role of an adult, advising the two of the need for life jackets. Next thing, the weather gets rough, the boat overturns, and the siblings are thrown into the water.

Along with an uncomplicated plot, Kawaja nicely balances exposition with dialog, to compose a tale appropriate for his intended young audience. Moreover, the vocabulary is generally plain enough that young readers might be able to read the text without much help. One glaring exception lies in the dialog tags. Here are all the variations I found: greeted, asked, replied, noted, suggested, agreed.

The artwork is an interesting mix of line-drawings and photographs. The line-drawings of the characters remind me of childhood days of drawing stick figures and create an inviting feel. As for the details, those are frequently created using basic shapes: circles for rocks, rectangles for the wharf and a bucket, triangles for trees, and even random shapes for texture. For the most part, this pictograph-style artwork actually works. The drawing of Puppy, however, didn’t feel quite polished enough for me.

Lightened photographs serve as background and enhance the visual experience. For example, the first page talks about the siblings going fishing, and includes a photograph of fishing nets along a coastal shore. When the children are paddling in water and waiting for rescue, a photograph of water and mountains serves as backdrop. The realistic backgrounds are a nifty extra touch that greatly appeals to my adult side.

Kawaja writes on the inside back cover that he hopes his book “offers some early awareness of safe water use practices in a light-hearted manner”. Puppy the Seal Cold Water Rescue probably won’t become one of those beloved and worn-out books in a child’s library, but it does entertain while also presenting an important message. Also, proceeds help support Search and Rescue.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Whew ! What a whirlwind month of reading July was. For years I have been collecting Newfoundland picture books, and this summer I decided it was time to read them. What criteria did I use for my purchases? Basically, as long as the book was by a Newfoundland author and had a Newfoundland setting, I’d give it a second look. Did quality factor into my decision? Yes and no. I’d glance inside to see if the style grabbed my attention, but beyond that I felt happy to find anything about Newfoundland available for young readers. As my pile of books started to grow, I started to become a little more selective, usually limiting myself to one book on a topic. Otherwise, prior to this round-up, almost anything went.

The total number of Newfoundland books I read for this round-up is twenty-one. Naturally, because my focus was picture books, the majority of them were short reads. Four of my selections ended up fitting in a different category. One was a coffee table book, two were chapter books, and one was a hybrid. The latter’s cute pictures seemed aimed at young readers, but the content was overly long and wordy for normal picture book standards.

During my picture book marathon, I generally felt as if being educated, even though thirteen of my selections were fiction. Of the rest, five of my selections were nonfiction, two were told in song or poetry format, and one was an alphabet book. Of those outside of the nonfiction category, six included supplementary information. In other words, just over half of the books were educational to some degree. If done well, this is a great thing. When a book contains content that might seem foreign to the average reader, it’s highly helpful to provide explanations. Although some selections were done better than others, overall I was impressed with the quality of regional offerings from my province. My main question is: Why did I wait so long to read all these top-notch books?

What about the straight fiction books? Even those possessed strong Newfoundland roots. Author Marion Brake set all of her stories in Newfoundland towns. Moreover, three of her five books featured the Newfoundland pony. Heather Boone, who alas only wrote one book, incorporated several animals into her tale. Author Catherine Simpson also wrote largely about animals, covering ones well-known on the island, such as our beloved Newfoundland dog, the Newfoundland pony, and even polar bears. Actually, animals proved to be the common thread. My favorite was that by Al Pittman, who wrote about a most unusual animal: the sculpin. Although again the quality was mixed, I ended up recommending all of them. If you can find them, they’re all worth at least checking out at your local library.

To be honest, I don’t know if Newfoundland children’s authors truly prefer animal tales. Obviously most kids love animal stories, so perhaps the decision is simply a logical and economic one. Or perhaps the bias towards animal books was my own. Over the years, though, I’ve found a few exceptions, and so also have in my collection a book about berries, another about icebergs, one about the demise of the Newfoundland fishery, and three seasonal stories. A cursory glance at the adult selections suggests, however, that there are other kid-friendly topics ripe for picture book treatment, such as shipwrecks and natural disasters, not to mention a few biographies. I’m looking forward to seeing what picture book themes show up on store shelves in years to come.

On that note, I should say that in the future not anything will go. The bar has been set by the picture books already in my collection. That’s why this summer when I saw its quality was lackluster, I passed on a book about a moose. I felt tempted, given that I did not yet have a Newfoundland picture book about moose.  However, with twenty-one books already in my possession I’m now only looking for the best.

For convenient reference, all the posts related to my Newfoundland picture book round-up are listed below and grouped by category:


Discovering Newfoundland Through Picture Books


Baker, Dawn
A Newfoundland Christmas

Boone, Heather
Tales from Tamarack

Brake, Marion
A Horse Named Lady
Lady’s Big Surprise
The Christmas Sock
It’s Okay to be Different
Newfoundland Pony Tales

Pittman, Al
One Fine Day for A Young Scuplin Named Sam

Simpson, Catherine
There are No Polar Bears Here
Sailor: The Hangashore Dog
The Turnip Top Pony
A Viking Ship for Brendan

Stagg, Bruce
Lucy Grey


Domm, Kristin
Atlantic Puffin

Flynn, Dennis
Newfoundland Pony

Goddard, Sally
Gaddy’s Story

Jackson, Lawrence
Castles in the Sea

Obed, Ellen
Patridgeberry, Redberry, Lingonberry, Too by Ellen Bryan


Baker, Dawn
A Newfoundland Year

Davidge, Bud
The Mummer’s Song


Baker, Dawn
A Newfoundland Alphabet

Baker, Dawn
Brake, Marion

NL_PonyTalesThe idea for Newfoundland Pony Tales came to author Marion Brake when she visited the Newfoundland Pony Refuge in Change Islands and could not find a children’s book about the pony in the town’s visitor’s center. To meet that need, Brake decided to write her own. The result was a collection of stories about the ponies, with an introduction about the sanctuary. The illustrations by professional artist Cassandra Gallant are gorgeous, while the semi-interconnected tales are cute and left me wanting more.

Newfoundland Pony Tales starts out by introducing Tia, the oldest Newfoundland Pony on Change Island. Her owners could no longer care for her and so brought her to the refuge. Quickly, spring comes and three foals are born, all of whom seem to live at the refuge. Everyone on Change Islands, which boasts a population of a thousand residents, keeps an eye on those newborns. There are lots of dangers afoot, such as rabbits which can spook horses and thunder which can also frighten them. Then there’s misadventures which can happen to horses such as getting molasses or paint spilled on them. The worst disasters occur during the winter storms.

Marion_SanctuaryAs I read Brake’s little chapter book of thirty-two pages, I found myself thinking of James Herriot, an author whose books I loved growing up and still own. He used his many years of experiences as a veterinary surgeon to write a series of books of stories about animals and their owners, and he is best known for these semi-autobiographical works which are often referred to collectively as All Creatures Great and Small. Granted, in contrast, Brake is a horse owner and lover rather than an expert animal doctor, and she writes books for children rather than for a general audience.  Obviously, these contrasts in backgrounds would make for different types of stories, but there’s still a couple of points to be made here. On the positive side, the fact I felt reminded of James Herriot meant I like Brake’s story ideas and writing style. Unfortunately, I also started trying to remember what I liked so much about Herriot’s eight stories for children, published in his later years,  because I wanted to understand what I felt were missing from Brake’s tales.

Brake’s chapter book, It’s Okay to be Different, shows she can write well-developed and entertaining stories. In contrast, however, Newfoundland Pony Tales feels rushed and incomplete. I criticized one of her previous picture books for summarizing instead of showing and for lacking dialog. Newfoundland Pony Tales has the same issues. As such, each chapter feels more like a vignette rather than stand-alone story. Now while many chapter books for young people are episodic, and so the vignette form in itself isn’t necessarily bad, the last chapter needed a wrap-up paragraph or sentence.

All together, the stories do create an overall positive impression of the Newfoundland ponies, which was Brake’s original intent. Moreover, for the time being, Newfoundland Pony Tales is perhaps the only book available for children about this admirable horse. As such, Newfoundland readers should find it worth the investment. And tourists with young children will surely treasure it as a souvenir of their visit to Change Islands’ invaluable refuge.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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