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Grizzly Pete and the Ghosts

by Janet Amsden, John Beder, illus.

Emily’s Eighteen Aunts

by Curtis Parkinson, Andrea Wayne von Königslöw

Stand-up comics suffering from performance anxiety should volunteer for preschool storytime at my library to restore their confidence. Our three- to five-year- olds are reliably reduced to a state of helpless laughter by the use of two comic techniques. The first is to append the words “peanut butter” or “banana” to any body part and you become the Phyllis Diller of the preschool set. The second surefire laff-riot is to exaggerate anything by a factor of 10 or so. Mention a gerbil the size of a minivan or a 10-headed librarian or ears that hang so low you can tie them in a knot, you can tie them in a bow, and you’ve got the audience in the palm of your hand.

Picture book newcomer Janet Amsden has obviously grasped the concept that tall tales rule. In Grizzly Pete and the Ghosts, illustrated by John Beder, she fashions a tale from gold rush days in which we delight in believing the unbelievable. Ghost child Spook and his fellow spectres live in Paydirt, a mining ghost town. As the gold runs out, the living beings leave the town and that’s just how the ghosts like it. A single lone holdout remains, the prospector Grizzly Pete. Spook is assigned the task of getting rid of Pete with a rousing spook session. But Pete is unfazed by howls, rattles, and icy whistling winds (shades of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”). Instead he has his own scare technique, involving an empty tobacco tin and the threat “I’ll tin you.”

Amsden gets the tone just right. One page into reading this aloud I found myself sinking into a rolling, laconic rhythm, and when Grizzly Pete pulls out his tobacco tin, I just had to say “tobaccah.” There are creepy, dark underground touches: “When Grizzly Pete tapped the rock with his pick, a screeching curtain of bats knocked him backwards. A squealing carpet of packrats rolled him off his feet.” There is slapstick: “Rowdy shot out of the cupboard in a shower of beans and rice. The chimney swayed and the dishes leapt off the shelves. A ghost popped out of the stove in a cloud of ashes and another danced around in Grizzly Pete’s long johns.”

Beder’s renditions of the ghosts, in blue, white, and bright grey, are lively. Semitransparent and tapering off at their bottom ends to mist, they are nonetheless full of personality, Dickensian waif Spook in particular. Portraits of Grizzly Pete show him grizzled in name and nature. The story has a satisfying three-part folktale structure and the inclusive feel of a told ghost story. For the reader/listener, what’s even better than the joy of mess or pretending to be scared is the fact that we figure out the trick of “tinning” before Spook does. Thus we get to shiver, giggle, and feel smart all at the same time.

Author Curtis Parkinson, perpetrator of Mr. Reez’s Sneezes (Annick), part of my standard storytime repertoire, and illustrator Andrea Wayne von Königslöw, mother of the Bing and Chutney books (Annick), have joined forces with Emily’s Eighteen Aunts to prove that more is more. Young Emily is unfortunately lacking in the extended family department. Her mother is busy taking care of the new baby so Emily takes things into her own hands and places an ad in the supermarket applying for a volunteer aunt. Saturday afternoon 18 aunts arrive from the local seniors’ centre, aunts of various shapes, sizes, colours, and proclivities. Emily adopts them all and everything is wonderful until the aunts begin to embarrass Emily in various public venues. An army of loud, uninhibited, out-of-control seniors was not what Emily had had in mind. But it all works out with proper comic resolution as Emily becomes reconciled to an almost universal family situation – relatives that you love dearly who also make you cringe.

Parkinson is a tidy writer with a nice feel for the pacing of a read-aloud picture book. He also leaves room for his audience to draw their own conclusions. Emily fires the aunts. Later she is helping her mother put away groceries. “She put the ice cream in the cupboard, the cereal in the freezer, the lettuce in the dishwasher.” Who is having second thoughts? Wayne von Königslöw’s unpretentious pictures add their own chaotic subplots. I liked the ballerina stuffed into the tuba. She solves the composition problems of 18 aunts rather handily. The preschooler on a parent’s lap might have liked at least one picture in which he or she could have counted the 18 aunts but that won’t matter when the story is used with a group. I sense a storytime theme coming over me.The joys and challenges of multiple relatives. The extended family with a twist. Bolster Emily with Asha’s Mums (Women’s Press) and Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies (Groundwood) and it’s in the bag.