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Book Reviews

In Like a Lion

by Julie Lawson, Yolaine Lefebvre, illus.

The Strongest Man This Side of Cremona

by Georgia Graham

For fathers who feel left out of the mommy-dominated picture book market, here are two new uniquely Canadian stories starring dads who save the day.

Although it’s recounted by a fictional character, In Like a Lion is based on the true story of a cougar that strolled into the Empress Hotel in Victoria, B.C., the night of March 3, 1992. The fictional narrator of Julie Lawson’s latest picture book is the daughter of a conservation officer called to help with the search after the animal is first spotted. Her father eventually succeeds in capturing the elusive mountain cat, but the real star of this story is the cougar itself. Hidden throughout the watercolour illustrations, it’s an apparition lurking in the bushes.

As in her first picture book, Secret Dawn, purple, green, and blue are Yolaine Lefebvre’s colours of choice. The wash of colour adds depth to the pictures, illuminating the evening shadows and reflecting the eerie, yet enchanting, nature of the story. Even when the cougar is totally visible, it retains its ghost-like qualities.

Lawson keeps the text simple, her phrasing short and breathless. An audible hush falls at the end of every sentence: “They didn’t know there was a cougar in town. And I didn’t tell them.” The climax of the book is not when the conservation officer carries the tranquillized cougar out of the hotel, but when his daughter runs her fingers through its silky fur.

The Strongest Man This Side of Cremona takes place on the Alberta prairies. Here, too, a dad confronts nature, but with different results. Matthew’s father is a powerful man who walks in great strides and lifts Matthew easily onto his shoulders. But he’s no match for the tornado that drops unexpectedly out of the sky. Scooping up his son, he heads for a narrow culvert, where they hide until the storm has passed.

Although no one is harmed, the family farm is in shambles: the roof of the barn is torn off, the garden ruined, and the grain bins are flattened. Matthew has never encountered such a destructive force before – a force not even his dad can stop – and his faith in his father is temporarily shaken. But when the long process of picking up the pieces begins, Matthew realizes that his father possesses a tremendous inner strength: the strength to rebuild.

Well-known for her illustrations for Tiger’s New Cowboy Boots and The Comet’s Tale, Georgia Graham makes her debut as a children’s author with this book. She is a capable writer, with an ear for the story within the story. Notably, she resists the urge to overwrite the action, focusing instead on representing events as they appear to Matthew. For the most part, however, the text explains the pictures and not the other way around (the words are even small on the page, presumably so they won’t clutter the image). Indeed, Graham’s illustrations – clean, yet sprawling luxuriously across the page, the characters dwarfed by the tumultuous sky – are almost enough to tell the tale. But the reader would miss Matthew’s perspective and the pleasure of Graham’s unaffected storytelling.