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Book Reviews

And Then the Seed Grew

by Marianne Dubuc

Alma and the Beast

by Esmé Shapiro

Marianne Dubuc’s
And Then the Seed Grew is the story of an invasive plant that wreaks havoc on the living arrangements of several garden residents, both subterranean (a mole, a family of mice, ants, and a worm) and above ground (Mr. Gnome and a green sprite-like creature named Jack). Dubuc ensures that kids see every bit of the growing chaos unfolding at both levels with illustrations that adopt the perspective of an ant farm, giving readers the chance to witness things underground that would otherwise be impossible to see. Domestic details of the anthropomorphized animal homes provide more to linger on, including Yvonne the Mole’s multi-room abode (complete with blue piano and loft) and a mouse house with hammocks. Even more rewarding is tracing the progression of the plant’s root disruption across each page. Yvonne rushes from room to room as two-by-fours buckle and break but, with no real danger afoot, it strikes the same chord as an upbeat cable TV home renovation show.

While the illustrations are thoughtfully rendered, the size and placement of the text feels more uninformed. Like all good design, a successful picture book layout often goes unnoticed, but here it is hard to ignore the small proportion of text, especially when hung against a big block of white space or an expansive blue sky. The words also blend in with the underground rooms when set on a page’s lower half, causing what is likely some unintentional (and unenjoyable) moments of reorientation after every page turn.

If And Then the Seed Grew shows readers an inventive perspective on garden life, Esmé Shapiro’s Alma and the Beast completely recasts the role of Mother Nature. The story opens with Alma – a svelter, doe-eyed, sticky-tack blue cousin of Cookie Monster – waking up to her fantastical world where absolutely everything is covered in silky, lush hair. She soon stumbles upon the eponymous “beast” – a lost human girl named Mala. Alma leads her new friend through a series of breathtaking double-page spreads set in places like the “Redheaded Woods,” “Rock-Hair Cliffs,” and the “Sugar-Maple Mustache Bushes” before arriving in Mala’s shockingly hairless world of “bald” houses and trimmed hedges.

Shapiro proved her knack for creating highly original and beautifully trippy settings in her first two books (Ooko; Yak and Dove), but the intricacy of her undulating line work in Alma and the Beast reaches a new level: everything from Alma’s rooftop to the massive trees to the garden floor wriggles with hypnotic calm, and none of the itchy suggestion one would expect from a hair-covered dimension. The colours are intensely rich without being oppressive and deeply autumnal without belying a certain time of year. It’s a sweetly psychedelic mix of Tove Jansson, Van Gogh, and what is now recognizably trademark Shapiro.

Illustrations this consuming and decadent demand a lighter text for balance and Shapiro’s tale is a gentle charmer, plain and simple. The narrative voice sounds like a beloved old fairy-tale auntie, with phrases like, “She plucked one butter breakfast tulip. No, two. Okay, THREE.” The story ultimately shows Alma’s and Mala’s gardens as different but parallel, with plenty of similar activities and connection points that offer a fertile ground for a blossoming friendship.

And Then the Seed Grew and Alma and the Beast reveal why any type of garden feels like a magic place: it is not just the beauty and visual intrigue of everything happening under- and above ground but also the differences that coexist and flourish together.