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A Brazilian Alphabet for the Younger Reader

by P.K. Page; P.K. Page

A seven-year-old of my aquaintance once passed the hours of a long car trip by inventing her own language. The language was based on the ingenious idea of using ordinary English words to mean something else. Thus “kangaroo” was her word for shoe. By the end of the trip she had produced, for the convenience of those who were confusing marsupials with footwear, an illustrated, bilingual, translating dictionary. My young chum’s play reflected the way children, mastering their own language in great galloping gulps, have a fascination with languages not their own.

Poet P.K. Page taps into this fascination with A Brazilian Alphabet, a droll abecedarium in which Portuguese words are accompanied by simple quatrains and engravings harvested from old books and magazines. “Q’s quitandeira./She’ll sell you a treat/ripe mangoes and sugar cane/scrumptious and sweet!”

In her role as diplomatic wife, P.K. Page spent the years from 1957 to 1959 in Brazil. Years later she wrote a memoir, Brazilian Journal, based on her written records of that sojourn. This memoir reveals and conceals in equal measure. From it emerges a portrait of a woman who managed her responsibilities with dignity and finesse, who had in full measure the ability to suffer tedious or obnoxious people gracefully, to remain cool when armed bandits invaded the house, to fire unsatisfactory servants, to ask intelligent questions on a tour of a thumbtack factory. At the same time there are hints, sprinkled throughout the narrative, of another person altogether. This person is delighted by absurdity and anarchy, by an escaped goat in the garden and a monkey on the loose in an airplane. She reads Pasternak, Dostoyevsky, and The Borrowers with equal attention and pleasure. She prepares for an official function feeling that “the whole thing is make-believe and that I am dressed up in my mother’s clothes.”

It is this second P.K. Page who is revealed in this small, beautifully produced confection. In its illustrations, protected Victorian children are invited to enter a world of exotic plants and animals with just a whiff of very safe danger: “K is Kamichi/a monster who screams./Don’t tickle his horn/or he’ll haunt you in dreams.”

P.K. Page has written several books for children, including literary fairy tales and a poetry collection. For most of these books the publishers’ intentions have obviously been to fit them into the conventional juvenile market. But this alphabet book suggests no such intention. The dedication page reveals that the idea for the book was hatched at a party, and it has the feel of a private project. Thick, creamy paper, sepia-toned engravings, and decorative initial letters all show that this isn’t a book for the daycare centre. The publicity materials talk in hushed and happy tones of a sewn binding, embossed endpapers, and the textured paper of the cover. In a picture book world where one sees a lot of glossy dressed
animals with big eyes, predictable texts, and TV tie-ins, this is as refreshing as a glass of cool water in the middle of a steamy tropical day. It feels as though a number of gifted people – a designer, editor, publisher, and poet – got together and simply decided to make a beautiful book.

What is the purpose of such a book? Is it a lovely indulgence for collectors or for friends of the press? Is it a sort of keepsake for those who have read Brazilian Journal and are tickled to be reminded of Arara the macaw? I think the answer lies in a fairy tale.

Small press books in Canada are like the mill that lies at the bottom of the sea, grinding out salt day and night. By the time the sea laps at the shores of conventional publishing, the salt is much diluted by the exigencies of markets and money, but if it were not for the mill we would have no salt at all. Children’s publishing in this country began with small press books and we need them still, taking risks, pushing the envelope, broadcasting a variety of voices.

The adults who make children’s picture books have a variety of roles. There’s the merry uncle who sings and dances and picks you up and whirls you around. There’s the wise teacher. There’s the responsible parent. There’s the smart, glamorous older sibling who knows all the cool stuff.

P.K. Page presents another voice, that of the dignified, contained, slightly mysterious grandparent. This is the kind of person who is not conventionally known as “good with children.” She’s slightly stern. She expects good behaviour. But if you’re looking at something together, say an armadillo, you know she will take your observations and comments seriously. She won’t think you’re cute. You will have her full attention. “Tatu’s an armadillo./He has a bone coat/but the ants that he eats/surely tickle his throat.”

Christine Irwin, P.K. Page’s grand-daughter, writes, in her own memoir, “Ours hardly seemed to be grandparents in any recognizable sense of the word. So very grand. So exquisite. So formidable.” The grandchildren were fascinated by their grandparents’ luggage. What was in it? As she grew Christine discovered some of the contents: “Kaleidoscopes and flying goats, for example. Also angels and emperors, milk-skinned women, and snow, whiter than swan’s down. Gardens drenched in colour. Animal balladeers and rebel troops. Ararat, and glass air, bright as a glistening wing. A shrubful of perfect kisses. Grey flies dancing in the evening sun. Peacock blues and greens and the raucous shriek of jay.” In the small suitcase of this alphabet we all – adults, children, travellers, book collectors, budding linguists – get a glimpse of a long, richly lived life.