Small Saul (2015), by Ashley Spires

26 November 2016

spires-saulWhen Ashley Spires first began publishing, I had the joy of reviewing her first two picture books: Binky the Space Cat (2009) and Binky to the Rescue (2010). Her books have delighted young readers and parents ever since, and this year Small Saul was chosen as the TD Grade One Book Giveaway title.

Every year, Toronto Dominion bank sponsors the TD Children’s Book Awards, which “rewarding the best literary work by Canadian authors for children.” In addition to this sponsorship, since the year 2000, TD has joined with the Canadian Children’s Book Centre to create “the largest free-book distribution program to school-aged children in Canada. All English and French Grade One students receive a free copy of a Canadian children’s book … which they can keep to take home and read with their parents and caregivers.” What a marvellous program, and what a great book to have chosen.

Small Saul has always loved the sea, but is rejected by the navy due to his height. Undaunted, he turns to piracy, because “pirates aren’t so picky.” The incongruity between our notion of pirates, the courses at the “Pirate College” Saul attends, and Saul’s diminutive stature and gentle nature, are fodder for Spire’s quirky humour. Saul’s exuberate joyousness contrasts with the pirates’ stereotypic roughness—in both words and images—culminating in a very pirate-like moment: “Small Saul was so engrossed … that he didn’t even notice when the captain pushed him overboard. The Rusty Squid sailed away… ” But don’t worry! No small pirates were injured in the making of this narrative. The pirate crew find it hard to return to life without the comfort of Saul’s care, and retrieve him.

This might not seem the most earth-shatteringly original of ideas—that our differences are what make us special—but it is a message that deserves to be reiterated often. When it is presented with Spire’s humorous and adorable illustrations, the story is impossible to resist. (And I really like the dress Saul makes for the seagull…)

The Pirate’s Bed (2015), by Nicola Winstanley

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.4.

The Pirate’s Bed

Winstanley - Pirate

I have to agree with my teenaged daughter: “I like the drawings; they’re really cute,” but the text of The Pirate’s Bed, for me, leaves something to be desired. Brevity, perhaps, or a more flowing narrative … The premise is sweet: told, as the title suggests, from the perspective of the pirate’s bed, not the pirate. We experience its freedom in separation from its owner, its discovery of loneliness, and its return to the comforts of family. I think the problem for me is that there are too many words on the page to create a balance with the simplicity of the story; the writing is more at a chapter-book than a picture book level. The storm scene lasts far too long, covering five full pages. In this time, we are hearing mostly about the pirate, too, which really steers the focus away from the bed. When the pirate and his crew are washed ashore on an island, and we follow the bed as it drifts off to sea, it comes as a surprise, title notwithstanding. Once we readjust our focus (something the reader should not really have to do in this simple a narrative), the plot mores on more fluidly, and we begin to understand the point of the story. Maybe a skillful reader could counteract the imbalance between story and text, focusing on the drama of the storm, the loneliness of the bed… but it would take and initial reading to prepare, and a bit of natural talent to execute. Still, my daughter finds the entire book “adorable,” so who am I really, an adult, to demur?

Little Jane and the Nameless Isle (2012), by Adira Rotstein

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 18.3.

Rotstein - Little Jane 2Little Jane and the Nameless Isle, the sequel to Little Jane Silver (2011), is a humourous, engaging story, replete with excellent historical research. It opens with short but dry relation by the narrator of how Little Jane (granddaughter of Robert Louis Stevenson’s notorious Long John Silver) came to be in her current predicament, but once the initial narration ends, and Rotstein’s characters begin to act out their lives for us, the story quickly grows into a “right riveting read.” Jane’s parents and all their crew have been kidnapped by their friend-turned-enemy Captain Madsea, and Jane and four companions commandeer a ship and set out to rescue them. Jane’s courage and determination are the driving force behind the success of their dangerous mission; her affection for her family and friends is the glue that binds the team of seeming misfits together. Characteristics that seem out of pace for pirates, like affection and compassion, are justified in both the stories the characters’ tell each other, and the narrative explanations of some of the back story (which is far more effectively woven into the narrative than the first few pages suggest). What I loved best about the book, though, was the subtle and seamless way in which the author introduces attitudes towards knowledge and learning. Jane loves books; her father loved reading, too, but—as they are pirates—books were a luxury they could ill afford, either financially or in terms of physical mobility. Jane’s discovery of the magistrate’s library is a wonderful accolade of reading that modern young readers would likely absorb without recognizing the important lesson they have imbibed. I particularly enjoyed Rotstein’s wry humour and subtle allusions to classics of English literature—a footnoted reference to Colerdige’s Kubla Khan (196), and uncited comments such as “It is a truth universally acknowledged” (77), or “A hit … a most palpable hit!” (138)—as well as to scientific discoveries such as antibiotics and binary numbers. Little Jane and the Nameless Isle is a must for any elementary or middle school library: such a refreshing, clever book deserves to be shared.

Treasure Island (1883), by Robert Louis Stevenson

Stevenson-Treasure IslandI have recently reviewed Adira Rotstein’s Little Jane and the Nameless Isle (2013), the protagonist of which is Long John Silver’s granddaughter. Significantly, her father’s name was Jim… I knew enough of Stevenson’s story to tell where the allusions lay—and what they were to—but it struck me as oddly amiss that I had never actually read Treasure Island as a child. Finding a copy in my bedroom when visiting my cousin last week, I set about to remedy the omission.

It was strange to read—finally—a book that I have seen reproduced in both live action and animated film, as well as heard of for so long. Treasure Island is the source of so many of our cultural tropes about pirates: the peg leg, the parrot on the shoulder, “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,” and X marks the spot. So I was not blind to the significance of Long John Silver when he appeared, a precognition that I thought detracted from my reading experience. As the story went on, though, I discovered that there is a good reason that this is one of English literature’s classics. Stevenson’s characters are as intricately developed as his plot; the narrative chicanery young Jim encounters and sometimes creates are brilliantly conceived and wonderfully executed. The language, too, is accessible and interesting: young readers will learn not only the tropes, but also some real information about life—especially sailing and navigation—in the mid eighteen hundreds.

I think I didn’t like Treasure Island as much as did Captain Marryat’s Children of the New Forest (1847), perhaps because I like camping in the forest more than life on the high seas, but I really do understand why children even now love Stevenson’s novels.