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Book Reviews

Where Oliver Fits

by Cale Atkinson

Middle Bear

by Manon Gauthier (ill.); Susanna Isern

Jammie Day!

by Brooke Kerrigan (ill.); Carrie Snyder

Three new picture books champion life in the middle – be it the middle child in a seven-person family, a bear with an older and a younger brother, or a middle puzzle piece wondering where he fits. They all know what it’s like not to be heard or taken seriously; not to be given responsibilities or to be babied. And in each of these stories the middle characters find their own particular way of getting noticed.

When we meet Oliver, he’s sweet and innocent and completely unaware of the complexities of being an interior puzzle piece. “He wanted to be part of something exciting, something wild, something out of this world,” writes author-illustrator Cale Atkinson in Where Oliver Fits. Oliver soon discovers he’s too blue and too round to join the puzzles he’s attracted to – and that the other pieces aren’t all that welcoming. It leads to serious self-analysis, and he tries out a couple of shape-shifting personas. Eventually Oliver cheats his way into a deep-purple puzzle before discovering the true moral of his story: “You can’t rush or force your fit.”

The latest from the Kelowna, B.C.–based Atkinson is utter eye candy, with primary colours exploding on every page and each puzzle picture more vibrant than the one before. Similar to The Day the Crayons Quit, there is pure joy in watching these more staid children’s toys express bottled up feelings and break out of their mould.

Middle Bear explores one brother’s frustration with his status in the family: he’s not big, but not small; not strong nor weak; neither tall nor short. He even cries middle-sized tears. But his middling nature comes in handy when he and his two brothers are sent to fetch willow-tree bark to cure their parents of a bad cold. Only Middle Bear can make the perfect-sized jump across a river, landing on a sliver of ice that can hold only a certain amount of weight, and be just the right height to stretch ashore. There he finds the middle-sized willow tree.

While Spanish author Susanna Isern’s text is solidly run-of-the-mill, Montreal illustrator Manon Gauthier ignites the imagination with her collage art. The characters and settings are made from construction paper cut-outs, decorated with childlike lines and scribbles that employ pencil crayons, charcoal, chalk, and fingerprints. While the kids won’t get it, parents will get a kick out of the bears, who – drawn simplistically and dressed all in black – resemble Dieter, Mike Myers’s German expressionist character from Saturday Night Live.

What sets Jammie Day! apart from almost all other books about being stuck in the middle is that the protagonist, Cliffy, isn’t bothered by the situation. He isn’t experiencing an identity crisis or suffering from self-doubt: “Cliffy was in the middle. He knew what he knew and most of all he knew what he liked.” And what he likes is wearing pyjamas – everywhere, every day. At first, his parents are too busy to notice Cliffy’s sartorial choices, but even when they do, they let jammie day extend into jammie month and beyond. Cliffy never has to conform. In fact, the other members of the family come around to his way of thinking and embrace cozy
flannels and footies.

Toronto-raised, France-based illustrator Brooke Kerrigan drops the most wonderful details into her visual representation of life with five children. There’s an overturned bowl of cereal gone unnoticed, random shoes with no match are scattered throughout the house, and kids have eternal bed-head. This is the second picture book from Waterloo, Ontario, author Carrie Snyder in which kids get their way. In Snyder’s previous title, The Candy Conspiracy, the main character battles a sugar hoarder and secures non-stop treats for herself and her peers. Certainly, parents will look more fondly on Cliffy’s actions. After all, he just wants to dress more comfortably.

In all three of these books, middle children have the best ideas.