Note to politicians: if you want to test the general mood, forget focus groups and visioning seminars – just read some current picture books. Those who make art for the very young have a way of revealing what we’re all longing for. In a pair of recent offerings, there is a palpable yearning for a world in which we emerge from our pods and engage with the outside world.
Cinnamon Baby, by Torontonian Nicola Winstanley and Montrealer Janice Nadeau, is a love story. Miriam the baker sings as she works. When violinist Sebastian hears Miriam’s song, he is smitten, and – hey presto! – hearts, squiggles, and musical notes explode onto the page.
The two marry and have a baby – an oval-shaped, cinnamon-coloured baby, “the most beautiful and perfect child that had ever been born.” On day four, however, the baby begins to cry and will not be soothed. On a single page we see the increasingly desperate Miriam rocking, walking, offering a soother, reading aloud, dancing, playing the tambourine, juggling, and standing on her hands, all to no avail. Sebastian then bathes the baby, but the crying continues unabated, and parabolas of tears fountain across the pages. This classic dilemma demands a classic solution. In this case, the smell of bread and the sound of music save the day.
In our world, the parents of new babies sometimes feel isolated. Not so in the world of Cinnamon Baby, where the streets are a collage of baguette-carrying, bicycle-riding, fiddle-playing, window-watching folk. Winstanley’s text is “full of smells to make your nose twitch and tastes to make your tongue tingle” and sounds that bring the birds visiting: “for three days the baby gurgled and hiccupped and sneezed and cooed and kicked its tiny legs in the air.“
Such words are perfectly in tune with Nadeau’s curlicue compositions of watercolour, pencil, and collage in shades of pink, blue, and whole-wheat brown. Put on some Stephane Grappelli and visit a world in which pretty much any problem can be solved by a visit to the neighbourhood bakery.
A similarly gentle palette and engaged community informs What Are You Doing? by Guatemalan-born Elisa Amado and Mexican illustrator Manuel Monroy.
It is the first day of school for Chepito, and he’s not sure he wants to go. On his last morning of freedom, Chepito goes on an expedition into his community. He chats to everyone: a girl on a park bench, a pair of tourists, a car mechanic, an archaeologist. He asks them all what they are doing, and then, singing the question, he asks them why. The answer to the first question is obvious: they’re all reading. The answers to the second question vary from getting the sports results in the newspaper to reading a comic book for a laugh to figuring out how to fix a car to reading a guidebook for directions. When Chepito finally gets to school and discovers that reading is part of the plan, he warms to the whole concept.
The pro-reading message is front and centre here, which raises the question of whether somebody already reading a book really needs to be told how great such an activity is. Behind the obvious, however, another idealistic vision is revealed: the vision of a world in which children learn from adults in their neighbourhood – not just from their parents and teachers, but from people with passion, expertise, and the desire to chat with a small child. Chepito sits on the concrete, elbows on knees, watching the greasy mechanic under the car, as happy as a small boy can be.
And this happiness goes both ways. An archaeologist looking at Mayan hieroglyphics is clearly delighted to explain his work to this curious kid. This is learning by chatting, in a society in which strangers are not dangers but fascinating resources and friends. At the end of the story – when Chepito offers to read to his little sister and she adopts his question, singing, “Why, why, why?” – we see him confidently modelling the adults in his community, passing along the information, the skills, and the pleasure.
A pair of tales about happy families, each a little remote in time and place from contemporary urban Canada, but painting such inviting portraits of a village raising a child. Could we get to a place where streets are filled with bicycles, birdsong, benches, the smell of cinnamon buns, and adults who have time to answer the questions of a small child? It’s not a bad goal.