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Book Reviews

A Potato on a Bike

by Elise Gravel

Sockeye Silver, Saltchuck Blue

by Robert Budd and Roy Henry Vickers (ill.)

AlphaBit: An ABC Quest in 8-bit

by Juan Carlos Solon

My Hair Is Beautiful

by Shauntay Grant

Babies and toddlers demand a lot from their books: chew-resistant pages, intriguing illustrations for developing eyesight (especially in the first year), and captivating text that supports language development. Plus, the material must appeal to both little ones and the caregivers who read to them. Four new board books offer something for everybody and every baby. 

Sockeye Silver, Saltchuck Blue is the third instalment in the First West Coast Book series, and another collaboration between First Nations artist Roy Henry Vickers and writer-historian Robert Budd. The book teaches colours and seasons by showing a year in the Pacific Northwest, starting with salmon in the spring. Budd’s sparse, lilting, rhyming poem accompanies Vickers’s signature artistic style, which is striking in its opacity and use of silhouettes. Readers are invited to employ their sense of touch: the words and parts of the illustrations are glossy and raised slightly off the page to create a pleasingly tactile experience. In one standout winter scene, sparse text – “Grey mist, / whales / and heavy rains” – is paired with textured, criss-crossed lines of sleet falling on three whales swimming in the ocean. Soothing, extra-sensory elements like this, combined with Indigenous art, make this B.C. story one that should be read on both coasts and all places in between.

Just as Vickers and Budd bring universal appeal to a regional story, Halifax writer and illustrator Shauntay Grant brilliantly takes on a topic that will resonate widely. In My Hair Is Beautiful, photographs of babies and preschoolers with different colours and textures of hair – which they wear naturally and in all different styles – run alongside descriptions such as “natural knotty” and “pony puffed.” Research shows that babies gravitate toward images of faces, but there is still a dearth of board books featuring the kind of diversity young ones see in the real world. My Hair Is Beautiful celebrates children with all manner of skin tones and hair types, while also carrying an empowering message for families and children of colour, for whom wearing natural hair is both culturally significant and vital to forming a positive sense of self.

Fantasy can also offer plenty of teachable moments, as seen in AlphaBit: An ABC Quest in 8-bit, by Toronto illustrator and video-game artist Juan Carlos Solon. In a retro style strongly reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda, a hero travels through various lands before fighting a monstrous enemy. The reader “plays” by completing short seek-and-find lists that accompany every letter of the alphabet: nouns like “antenna,” “goblet,” “labyrinth,” and “rafters,” and verbs like “upswing” and “heal,” make the search genuinely challenging. Upping the difficulty is the pixelated, authentic 8-bit artwork and words like “exercise” and “enemy” that could be portrayed by multiple images on the page. AlphaBit is best served to preschoolers and older children, though it may elicit enthusiastic, nostalgia-driven talk from parents. Research has shown that when adults are engaged with what’s on the page, pointing and talking, it has positive developmental benefits for babies.

For something with true all-ages appeal, look no further than Elise Gravel’s A Potato on a Bike. Just as the title promises, it is filled with silly combinations of everyday objects doing human things: a carrot in the bath, a fork driving a car, a ball sitting on a toilet. Gravel makes the mundane mirthful, in the pairings and with her madcap cartoon style. All the objects are personified and open-mouthed, maniacally showing off two front teeth, like hyper toddlers. A refrain of “No way!” repeats after each nonsensical duet, until the end when a logical pairing – involving a baby and a tickle – brings a “Yes way!”

The book works for older preschoolers who can follow along as a piece of anthropomorphic broccoli counts to 10 in a speech bubble or can label objects like a skateboard and pickle. Kids in the primary grades could even use this as an easy reader because of the sparse text and repetition. Simple but versatile, wacky yet charming, the board-book world is lucky Gravel came to play.