The rituals of courtship and village life are at the heart of two new swoon-worthy picture books – one about finding joy and bliss in the everyday, and the other, a loving, biographical ode to a revered writer.
The Pink Umbrella, by French author Amélie Callot (translated by Lara Hinchberger), is a winsome, slice-of-life confection. Adele runs the bustling Polka-Dot Apron café that is the place to be in her tiny coastal hamlet. Its success is due in no small part to Adele’s effervescent loveliness. However, when rain clouds appear, Adele’s sunny disposition takes a dark turn and she takes to bed, despondent.
Mysteriously, small gifts begin to appear for her in the shop. First, a pair of pink rubber boots with shining suns carved in the soles. In the following days, a fuchsia coat and a pink polka-dotted umbrella enigmatically arrive to complete Adele’s rainy day ensemble – leading her to appreciate the “smell of damp grass” and the “pretty melody” of falling raindrops. The chivalrous benefactor – Lucas, the steadfast grocer – is obvious to all but Adele.
The sanguine notion that “even in the rain, the sun cuts through the grey sky” is complimented and elevated by the charm of Montreal illustrator Geneviève Godbout’s artwork. And the hand-lettered text adds to the intimate appeal of the conversational story. Adele is drawn as a stylish, unassuming beauty. She exudes warmth with her innocent, big black button eyes, flushed cheeks, and penchant for wearing pink. Godbout’s delicate pastel and coloured-pencil illustrations – which have a mid-century, retro flair – lend an ethereal, fairy tale quality.
Jane Austen no doubt would have admired Adele’s entrepreneurship, poise, and propriety. In Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen, U.S. writer Deborah Hopkinson focuses on the English author’s formative years. The economical, lyrical text quickly establishes the budding novelist as an observant, creative child, who stages plays with her boisterous family and devours books, leaving astute, wry comments in the margins. But she sometimes feels “awkward and a little shy, especially when company arrive[s].” The narrative tone is personably chatty, and pithy asides subtly shed light on the age: “Her father’s great library boasted five hundred books (almost all of them by men).”
Hopkinson presents Austen as an original, committed to honing her craft and forging her own literary path. This introductory portrait is self-contained and pared down to the authentic essentials (minus the darker periods of illness and financial hardships). Austen’s tenacity and dedication will resonate with children, whether or not they’re familiar with her oeuvre.
On top of Hopkinson’s biographical details, there is more to glean about Austen’s life from Qin Leng’s trademark airy ink and watercolour illustrations. This is evident in the way the young writer intently observes (from her vantage point behind the parlour drapes) exchanges between proper ladies in empire-waist, ankle-length gowns and dapper gents in tailcoats and ruffled shirts. An aerial close-up shows Austen comfortably secreted in a window seat at the top of the stairs, surrounded by piles of books and intently scribbling with a quill pen. A detailed cross-section cutaway of the three-storey Austen family home, filled to the rafters with lodgers and relations, affords a peek into the household’s everyday hustle and bustle. In this way, Leng beautifully captures the Georgian era and Jane’s multifaceted personality.