The opening spread of American author James Sage’s Stop Feedin’ da Boids! paints a lazy pastoral landscape, idyllic green and dotted with free-roaming animals. Bunnies frolic, a lone horse drinks, a clump of cows graze… a New York City taxi whizzes by. That cab is not as out of place as you might think: further inspection finds the faint silhouette of a smoky cityscape in the distance.
A page flip reveals the vehicle’s destination. It’s Brooklyn, depicted by Quebec artist Pierre Pratt as brick-brown and bustling, where a grocery-laden lad skateboards, a woman sports an apple on her head, and an Alfred Hitchcock look-alike saunters by. Humans have charmingly selective proportions. Arms are extremely long, extending well beyond knees; hands are larger than faces; necks are non-existent. The city is established as a place for people; the only animals are dogs on leashes. With very few words, a scene is set and a story is framed.
The taxi is moving a family to their new apartment, and here we meet our protagonist, a little girl named Swanda. On her fire escape four floors up, Swanda delights in the only wildlife to be found: pigeons. Naively, she feeds them and predictably they take over, causing no shortage of distress to the building’s other tenants (and street-level passersby). Swanda attempts to control the population, seeking advice (and making friends) all over town. Eventually, what seems like the entire neighbourhood gathers under her window to yell, “STOP FEEDIN’ DA BOIDS!”
Problem resolved, friends made, Swanda settles in to a quieter existence in her new home. But the book teasingly reveals that she hasn’t entirely learned her lesson.
Isabelle Arsenault’s Colette’s Lost Pet also finds a young girl arriving in a new urban space. Colette has just moved to Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. On her first local exploration she runs into a few kids. Colette explains she is looking for her lost bird, Marie-Antoinette. The neighbourhood kids offer to help and fold her into their group, adding members as Colette adds details to the scenario.
The only catch is Colette doesn’t actually own a pet. Her made-up parakeet takes on imaginary characteristics that escalate from the fairly realistic to the fantastical. Thankfully, this is not a “caught in a lie and beg forgiveness” tale. Instead, Arsenault crafts a story rooted in themes of understanding, empathy, and the way imagination can be used to silently conspire and inspire.
Like Pratt, Arsenault’s illustration style is loose, lively, and truly beautiful. Each artist has won the Governor General’s Literary Award for illustration an impressive three times, but their views of what makes a city come to life are very different. Brick, shadow, and architectural detail create Pratt’s texture, while Arsenault concentrates on flora. The only greenery in Pratt’s urban life is the foliage on the wallpaper in Swanda’s apartment, whereas Arsenault’s scenes are set in a series of neighbourhood backyards, each its own world of lush plants and gorgeous growing things. Soft shapes and clean negative space alternate with energetic outlines in pale pencil.
The reader can truly feel Arsenault’s presence throughout Colette’s Lost Pet, the first book in a series. Every word is meticulously hand-lettered, the story panelled like a graphic novel, but packaged like a picture book. This may be the Montreal illustrator’s first real run at writing (she also authored Alpha, an ABC book using the NATO alphabet that is less a story than a match-up of words and images), but she understands how to structure a plot to the same extent she is able to visually create a sense of place.
One story is about trying to find a bird that doesn’t exist, and the other about getting rid of ones that do, yet these books have more in common that just their avian connection. They are both about young girls new to urban spaces bonding with strangers by asking them to help solve a problem, and ultimately creating a community for themselves.