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Eddie Longpants

by Mireille Levert

There’s always a breeze in a Marie-Louise Gay picture book – a zephyr, a gust, a balmy caress, or an outright gale – so that the natural world seems to jig and thrum with sheer zest for life. In Caramba, nature’s liveliness helps to offset the shy, quiet character of its protagonist, Caramba the cat, the only local feline who can’t fly.

Caramba is a new character for Gay. He has the innocent round tummy and the appealingly minimal features of Gay’s famous Stella and Sam, but as an introspective little guy, he lacks some of their charisma.

Of course, Gay is Canada’s presiding genius of children’s illustration. She has won every major Canadian literary prize, sometimes twice – as with the Governor-General’s Award – and written or illustrated more than 40 picture books. Each new work is eagerly anticipated and justly treasured. In other words, she has set her own standard so high, with her witty and tender-hearted watercolours and her sparklingly concise narratives striking to the heart of child emotions, that a merely excellent Gay production qualifies as disappointing.

Caramba falls into this category. Baffled by his own fear of flying, Caramba confides his sorrows to his best friend Portia, a pink pig, who gamely tries but fails to cheer him. He broods alone, trailing a stick in the water and wondering “Why am I different?” He secretly practises flying, giving Gay a chance to flourish her verbal wit: when he flops onto his Grandpa’s lap, the old cat exclaims, “Ay Caramba!” And when he grabs onto a clothesline to save himself from another failed flight, he airily explains to Portia that he’s “just hanging around, waiting for my socks to dry.”

Caramba’s redemption arrives accidentally, when his cousins take him by the hands (paws?) to help him fly, and then let go. Caramba falls “like a stone into the dark water,” only to discover that he can swim. Underwater, before the astonished gazes of starfish, snails, and sardines, Caramba soars and swoops, free as a bird. The simple story ends with a quietly exultant Caramba being rowed home by the faithful Portia.

At its core, this is a picture book that could be filed under “Self-esteem, lack of.” Luckily, Gay is too fine an artist to produce one of those ham-fisted Joey Gets His Tonsils Out waiting-room books. Caramba is a visual joy, filled with the washed blues and purples of an ocean sky, the crisp, clear green of wavelets, and the rush of summer clouds. Caramba’s world is populated by rabbits, foxes, and geese, all busily fishing, kite-flying, and sky-gazing in the middle distance. But I can’t help missing the poetic imagination of flame-haired Stella and the glorious glee of Sam as he grows into independence.

Mireille Levert is another multiple-award-winning picture book artist from Quebec, with as recognizable a watercolour style as Gay’s and a Governor-General’s Award on her own shelf (for Sleep Tight, Mrs. Ming!). Levert, too, departs from her usual themes of imaginative exploration to focus on a quiet male protagonist who suffers from being different.

Eddie Longpants is a giant boy. He’s so tall that readers must turn the book sideways to read the double-page pictures vertically. (“Warning: This book may give you a stiff neck” jokes the title page.) Quiet and mild-mannered, Eddie is too big for his desk at school, let alone the stairs or his locker. Mocked by a gang of schoolyard bullies, Eddie retreats to the shelter of his favourite tree, where he’s consoled by the presence of birds.

Eddie never fights back; it’s his teacher, Miss Snowpea, who confronts the chief bully. Afterward, the bully flees up a tree and needs to be rescued by tall Eddie and his even taller father, the firefighter.

In clear, glowing blacks, reds, and sky-blues, adorned with chubby little birds, the final double-page spread is a scene of happy reconciliation and gratitude. This comforting resolution to the problem of difference may be just the anodyne fantasy needed by picture-book readers who are beginning to brave the terrors of kindergarten, but it’s a far cry from the more innovative and edgy themes in Levert’s previous work.

In Rose by Night, she deployed vampires, ogres, and a witch with delicious abandon, and dared to have Rose run “faster than death” while an ogre growled, “Raw or cooked, I’m going to eat you!” In Lucy’s Secret, Levert ventured into more Elysian territory. The first page offers a garden gate standing open under a radiant sky, beckoning the reader with flowering vines. Who could refuse the invitation? And the subject is nothing less than the thrilling mystery of life itself.

Could it be that the demands of the marketplace are tempting these two splendid author-illustrators away from their deeper imaginings to the more banal path of junior self-help? I hope not. Both books are worthy and will be heartily welcomed by many young readers. But those of us who cherish the wild streak and zippy characters in Gay’s and Levert’s earlier works will wait impatiently for their return to the startling, the unpredictable, the boldly unique imaginings that made us love them.

There are thousands of ploddingly commercial hacks turning out TV-related tomes on good dental habits, proper behaviour, and the need for self-esteem. Their anonymous works cram the shelves of big-box bookstores. Artists like Gay and Levert, however, are rare as rubies; we need them to keep up their vocation of celebrating childhood’s deeper truths.