For centuries, authors of fables have invited animals into the human realm to point out the errors of our ways. In these days so fraught with human foolishness, it makes sense that writers and artists once again find themselves drawn to the fable.
We pause on the threshold of Kyo Maclear’s The Fog to enjoy the jokey endpapers, with illustrator Kenard Pak’s sketches of humans identified field-guide style as types: “white-hatted hermit,” “spotted audiophilic female (juvenile).” The opening of the story, featuring an icy northern setting and a small yellow warbler with a telescope (a “devoted human watcher”) confirms our expectations that we’re in the familiar Maclear territory of stylish wit and gentle satire.
Things take a more sombre turn when the antagonist, a thick fog (a fairly innocuous representation of climate change), makes its appearance, blocking the sunlight. Warbler, unlike his bird cronies, takes this weather seriously. As it gets foggier, the birds begin to forget the past and even their true natures, dressing in human clothes. The turning point occurs when Warbler spies a little red-hooded human. The bird and the child alone seem to share a willingness to face the truth about the threat. They make paper boats marked with the question “Do you see the fog?” When they start to receive replies from across the planet the fog begins to lift.
The allegorical message here is sturdy and age-appropriate. The first step toward solving climate change is to acknowledge the problem. The second is international co-operation. The challenge of the fable form, however, is that the surface story has to hang together well and in this case several of the plot details seem arbitrary and inconsistent. If there’s a link between the animals donning clothes and forgetting their own natures, wouldn’t the little girl’s gift of a hair ribbon to Warbler be a bad omen? Such questions pull us out of the story.
Pak’s watercolour-and-pencil illustrations are richly atmospheric, harmonizing with the rhythmic text. The colours support the story with crisp ice-blues giving way to ominous grey-whites that leave us peering and anxious. The Fog is an artfully made book but the actual story doesn’t coalesce.
At first glance The Gold Leaf by Kirsten Hall might be a classic picture book from the 1940s – a rediscovered Margaret Wise Brown. Montreal artist Matthew Forsythe’s paintings, with their mid-century modern shapes, could almost be by Leonard Weisgard. The thick black sans-serif type marching reliably across the bottom of each spread even has an echo of Little Golden Books. The theme, as well, feels comforting and retro, showing forest animals through the changing of four seasons. “And the first bluebell blossomed deep within the woods.”
But these creatures – bird, chipmunk, mouse, deer, and fox – are not just forest animals, they are representative of humans with all our acquisitive ways. When a magical golden leaf appears in the forest, they fight over it, snatching it from each other in a frenzy of greed that results in its destruction. When spring returns the animals have learned their lesson and the leaf stays undisturbed on the tree. In this case the surface story works well in the traditional picture book way, with a clear structure, some repetition, and words that are delicious to say aloud (“Pear green, pickle green, parakeet green, juniper green, crocodile green, lime green, and, of course, sap green”).
The book invites interactivity as the reader tilts it to find the shine of the shards of gold leaf integrated into Forsythe’s muted illustrations. Or one can search for the smooth gold by running one’s fingertips over the pages. The moral, however, is somewhat opaque. On the penultimate spread, when the forest and its inhabitants come “alive with wonder,” several of the animals have turned shiny gold. Why do they need to when they are so beautiful in and of themselves? We need stories about our relationship to nature, but the fable is a tricky genre to pull off, a task that neither of these books quite manages.