Little ones love a lively scene, and there’s plenty for them to look at in the rollicking illustrations that accompany Cara Kansala’s spirited poems in All Around the Circle. Kansala and her long-time artistic collaborator Max Dorey combine bright acrylic backgrounds with sculptural and textile elements to create rich visions of outport Newfoundland life. Houses, clotheslines, and fences seem to sway to the rhythm of Kansala’s verses, while cats, goats, and gulls make themselves comfortable among the busy fishermen and washerwomen who populate the book’s pages.
The poems are entirely charming, with a sing-song musicality that will embed them in children’s memories. Some, like “Isn’t Life Quite Grand,” and “Itchy’s Moonsong,” are simple meditations on the pleasures of life, while others, like “Nan and Poppies” and “Midnight Dreamers” explore more complex notions of love, loss, grief, and change deftly and without the heavy-handedness that can occur when books for young children veer into “big issues” territory. Indeed, like the rural, picket-fenced landscapes in the book, the poems seem to hark back to a time when there was no real division between stories for children and stories for adults. Some of the longer poems read almost like traditional Newfoundland recitations, a nod to the days before radio and television, when fishing families amused themselves with tall tales.
Kansala does an excellent job infusing the poems with a Newfoundland voice while keeping the language from being too local; adult readers may need to consult the Internet to know that “jigging” in Kansala’s outport world is a kind of fishing and not just a dance, and that vamps are hand-knit boot liners, but these small vocabulary-building moments enrich the experience rather than detract from it.
Lori Doody’s The Puffin Problem shows another side of Newfoundland – the clapboard rowhouses and shops of downtown St. John’s. We learn that something unusual has struck the city: an invasion of puffins. The black-and-white seabirds have shown up in droves, and nobody knows why. They’re blocking traffic, slowing business, and ruining people’s fun. Aside from a few birdwatchers, nobody is very pleased with the situation, but one clever young girl has an idea to solve the problem.
Doody, an accomplished visual artist, presents a St. John’s that is spare and angular. The illustrations are primitive and flat, almost like a colouring book, and filled with humorous touches, like the plump, rather sedate puffins peering from the tops of buildings and peeking at paintings in the museum. Many of the buildings Doody presents are based on real locations; readers who know the area will recognize the cow-spotted ice cream parlour as the famous Moo Moo’s, for example, and those with a long memory will be delighted to see one-time landmark Lar’s Fruit Store presented in its former glory (only now with puffins).
The Puffin Problem does seem to be written with a local audience in mind; much of the humour in the book comes not from the puffin story itself, but from the puns Doody inserts into the names of shops along the downtown streets. Often, these gags rely on the reader having enough of a command of Newfoundland English to find the joke in, say, a shoe store called Fill Your Boots or a pub called Fish and Brews. These flourishes will likely be lost on young kids and readers unfamiliar with Newfoundland’s colourful figures of speech. For those who don’t have access to that idiom or an appreciation of puns, there are still plenty of puffins to count, and some excellent facts about the birds at the end of the book.