Introducing Baby to Literature

Babylit Primers boast they are “a fashionable way to introduce your child to the world of classic literature.” This book line includes a Frankenstein anatomy primer, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Dracula counting primers, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland color primers, Jungle Book animal primer, Anna Karenina fashion primer, and Moby-Dick ocean primer. I’m currently working on a project that is looking specifically at the Jane Eyre a Counting Primer, and have been researching the benefits of reading picturebooks, like the Babylit primers, to children.

  1. Reading to children builds their vocabulary. Many studies show that reading to children “contributes to children’s language development . . . and research suggests that book reading contributes significantly to children’s vocabulary and concept development” (Anderson, Anderson and Shapiro 6). This point is largely self-explanatory: the more words read to a child equals a greater potential for these words to be incorporated into the child’s speech. Babylit primers offer an even more enriching possibility, for they have vocabulary not found in typical infant primers. Babylit primers borrow words from the classics they are parodying. For example, in the Jane Eyre primer words such as governess, trunk, insect, towers and soul appear. How adorable would it be if your three year old asked for help packing his “trunk”?? Or said, “mom, look at this insect” instead of “mom, look at this bug”?? It would be amazing.
  2. Engaging with literature, even at a young age, enables us to go beyond our own lived experience. Perhaps the best and most fun part of reading picturebooks with children are the questions they ask you while reading. Education scholar Mary Roche argues that these types of conversations allow children to go “beyond their lived experience” (52). For example, coming across an unfamiliar word and concept like “governess” opens up opportunities for conversations between reader and child such as: what is a governess? Why would someone have a governess? Are there still governesses? Who were governesses? Were only girls governesses? How does a governess fit into Jane Eyre? My example is probably the most basic, but this is why reading to children in general is so important: it opens their eyes to the lives of others.
  3. Picturebooks can help develop aesthetic sense. This may seem too elevated a concept for infants and toddlers, but through the beautiful art in Babylit primers children “are exposed to feelings and language and experiences that words alone could not offer” (Roche 53). The primers, ALL THE PRIMERS, are illustrated by Alison Oliver, and they are simply attractive to look at. The color, the illustrations, the type sets are all aesthetically appealing. Children, like older human beings, like to look at beautiful things, things that are aesthetically pleasing. The books young children like the most are the ones they are aesthetically drawn to, in other words, the ones with pictures they like. Part of reading picturebooks to children is discovering what their aesthetic sense is. So it doesn’t hurt that the Babylit primers are gorgeous. Likewise, the color and fashion primers link a developing aesthetic sense to building vocabulary.
  4. Develops spatial and mathematical knowledge. Numerous studies show that picturebooks are beneficial for learning. When looking specifically at counting primers like Babylit’s Jane Eyre, psychologists such as Lovitt and Clarke argue that there is a framework offered “with cognitive stimuli which may initiate the children’s exploration of mathematical concepts and development of mathematical skills” (278). This is less complicated than it sounds. When the Jane Eyre Counting Primer says “1 Governess” and shows one woman on the opposite page, this stimulates mathematical thinking. A young child can begin to link “1” to the single figure. Likewise when the text reads “3 candles” and the opposite page shows three candles, a conversation can be encourage: “how many candles do you see, can you point to each candle ect.” However, in the experiments I read, this depended greatly on who was reading the book to the child. Often it is up to the reader to encourage counting.
  5. Develops a love and interest in literature. This argument is my own. I have no evidence, other than my own life, so it’s more a hunch. If someone was read Jane Eyre a Counting Primer as a child, and loved it, then perhaps they would be drawn to read the actual Jane Eyre later in life. The primer introduces a skeleton version of the novel, as do the other primers, and this can facilitate an interest in the stories. When someone is old enough to read the works of literature for themselves, they may be more inclined to do so because they have already been introduced to it. Jane Eyre is not some foreign character, but an old childhood friend. I obviously did not have the Babylit primers growing up. But I did have a mother who loved all things Jane Austen. I first watched the Pride and Prejudice six hour BBC miniseries, staring Colin Firth, when I was in grade two. I did not understand everything that was going on, but I loved it. I loved the dresses, I loved the balls, I loved the gardens, and I loved the polite men. I really attribute this early introduction to my own love of Jane Austen (and my then expanding obsession with any “good” book). When I was old enough to read and actually understand Pride and Prejudice it was like meeting my old childhood friends. So I can’t make any promises, and I don’t have the data to prove it, only my own experience, but maybe if you read your children Babylit Primers you could be creating for your child a lifelong love affair with literature.

Click here to check out the Babylit Website.

References

Anderson, Ann., Jim Anderson, and Jon Shapiro. “Supporting Multiple Literacies: Parents’ and Children’s Mathematical Talk within Storybook Reading.” Mathematics Education Research Journal 16.3 (2005): 5-26. Web. JStor. 15 Jan 2015.

Elia, Iliada., Marja van den Heuvel-Panhuizen, and Alexia Georgiou. “The Role of Pictures in Picture Books on Children’s Cognitive Engagement with Mathematics.” European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 18.3 (2010): 275-97. Web. Informaworld. 15 Jan 2015.

Roche, Mary. Developing Children’s Critical Thinking through Picturebooks. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

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Tom and Hetty’s School Stories

In the past week and a half I’ve read eight school stories from the Victorian and Edwardian eras for my comprehensive exam. Below are reviews of my favorite two.

Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes (1857)

This novel holds a special place in the history of children’s literature because it is the first boys’ school story written for children. After the publication of Tom Brown the genre of boys’ school stories was extremely popular from the Victorian period into the 1950s.

There was a revival of this genre, though not specially for boys, with the publication of Harry Potter. Many have argued that Harry Potter participates in Victorian boarding school story conventions. Proof of this argument can be found in Tom Brown as I noticed several similarities between the two. In many ways Tom Brown feels like the great-great-great grandfather of Harry Potter. The way the school is described reminded me of Hogwarts ( for example the School-house hall: “It is a great room thirty feet long and eigtheen high, with two great tables running the whole length, and two large fireplaces at the side, with blazing fires in them” [92]). The three best friends in Tom Brown was also familiar. Tom and Harry both share the spotlight in their respective stories, often put their heroism to the test, and are the centre of attention in their schools. The role of “best friend” are filled by East and Ron, and both are loyal best friends to Harry and Tom. East and Ron are fun and well-meaning, though not the smartest, and often get into trouble without meaning too. George Arthur is a prototype for Hermione as he is the smartest of his friends, often their conscience, and cares more about his grades then excelling in athletics.

Tom Brown’s School Days takes place at Rugby school, a real school which author Thomas Hughes attended, and that is still in existence today! While Hughes was a student at Rugby, Dr. Thomas Arnold was the headmaster. Dr. Arnold instituted many new practices that since have become common place in English boarding schools (and will be familiar to those who have read Harry Potter). Significant changes Dr. Arnold made include:

Dr. Arnold had his students study history, math, and modern languages (ie. German, Italian, French, not just Latin and Greek as had been the standard)

Dr. Arnold developed the Praeposter or Prefect system. The prefect system gave high achieving older boys from the upper classes power over the rest of the students, which was intended to keep order in the school. Prefects were placed in each dormitory to monitor the younger boys, were hall and class monitors, and could decide how boys who misbehaved were to be disciplined. Basically Percy Weasley was the ideal Prefect.

Dr. Arnold loved sports, and he allowed his students to take part in sports, like field hockey and football, as an alternative to hunting and fighting (yes fighting was allowed). School sporting events mark some of the biggest and most anticipated events for students in the novel, which again can be seen in Harry Potter in the excitement and emphasis that is placed on Quidditch matches between houses (competition between houses is also in Tom Brown).

Though the Rugby school environment may seem as foreign to contemporary readers as Hogwarts, there are timeless themes that run through the novel. For example, bullying is present throughout the novel. The edition that I read included in the preface a letter written to Thomas Hughes that draws attention to bullying within schools. The author of the letter tells Hughes:

A boy may have moral courage, and a finely-organized brain and nervous system. Such a boy is calculated, if judiciously educated, to be a great wise and useful man . . . but one nights bullying may produce such an injury . . . that this usefulness is spoiled for life (xxxvi)

Over 150 years later, the destructive effects of bullying on a child’s spirit is well known and still too common. Tom Brown is bullied by older boys when he first enters the school and Tom is only able to overcome his tormenters with the help of others. When other boys rally around Tom the bullying ceases. This is an important lesson, and I hope would inspire any young person to likewise not be a bystander to bullying in their schools.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Tom Brown’s School Days and how much I enjoyed Hughes writing (simply beautiful). I give it a 4/5

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Tom, Arthur, and East

A World of Girls: The Story of a School by L. T. Meade (1886)

L.T. Meade  started writing at 17 and wrote over 300 books during her life. A World of Girls is arguably Meade’s most famous. What I appreciated about this book, and what I found refreshing about it amidst the other Victorian school stories I was reading, is that the characters felt real. They weren’t perfect. Everyone is flawed. Even the head mistress (which is usually a pillar of perfection in these types of school stories) makes mistakes.

The novel follows Hester Thornton (called Hetty) who is sent to Lavender School shortly after the death of her mother. Hetty is stubborn, proud, unforgiving, and has a quick temper. She has trouble fitting into Lavender School because the other students find her extremely stand-offish and difficult to even strike up a conversation with. Hetty immediately and irrationally dislikes the school favorite Annie Forest. Most of the plot centres on the feud between Hetty and Annie, which is portrayed in an entertaining (in that it makes you want to see what happens next) and realistic way (in that you could probably relate to similar relationships in your own life).

The characters that surround Hetty and Annie are dynamic and interesting. There is Hetty’s first roommate Susan Drummond who is perpetually tired and impossible to wake up, and who always carries around lollipops. There is Dora Russell, a upper year girl who is spoiled and proud, and yet gets in trouble for reading Jane Eyre (its banned at the school!). There is Tiger, a gypsy dog who is so intelligent that he can actually understand what people say to him. Oh, and there’s gypsies, which are always a good time.

This book is arguably more accessible than Tom Brown’s School Days. Thomas Hughes devotes a lot of space to descriptions which I know some readers find tiresome, and he also makes very Victorian specific references that could confuse those not knowledgeable of the era. World of Girls has timeless themes like friendship and bullying that continue to make it relatable, and has exciting twists and turns that are entertaining (did I mention gyspys?!?!) and the characters are more vibrant which makes for a more pleasurable read. I give it a 5/5.

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Annie tries to win over Hetty

If either of these novels sound interesting to you, they can be read online for free at the Gutenberg Project.

And if you’re interested in the other books I read this week, but didn’t talk about, they are listed below and most can also be read on the Gutenberg Project.

James DeMille’s The B.O.W.C. (1869) 4.5/5 (I may post on this book at a later date, because it is excellent)

William Mayne’s A Swarm in May (1955) 4/5

Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School (1873) 4/5

Angela Brazil’s The Fortunes of Philippa (1907) 3.5/5

W. Farrar’s Eric; or Little by Little (1858) 3/5

Flora & Ulysses!

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K. G. Campbell

Published by Candlewick Press in 2013

I’m lucky to be studying children’s literature. When I’m asked what my favorite books are it’s impossible to narrow a list down because I LOVE so much of what I read. Usually I just name the most recent things I’ve read, because I’m weekly finding a new favorite.

However, if some cruel person forced me to actually put together a list, Flora and Ulysses would be on it. No question. It’s been nearly a year since I first read it, and after returning to it again this week, I was renewed with affection for it.

It was the winner of the 2014 Newbery Award, generally received raving reviews, and spent weeks on many bestsellers lists. So I’m not the only one who loves it. The narrative is told through both text and comics, which I argue makes for a broad potential reading audience.

Flora is “a natural born cynic” who loves to read comic books, especially The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto! and TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!

Ulysses is a squirrel. He starts out as an ordinary squirrel who mostly thinks and cares about food. But one fateful day the squirrel is sucked up by Mrs. Tickham’s Ulysses 2000x powered vacuum. Due to quick thinking on the part of Flora, who gives the seemingly dead squirrel mouth to mouth, the squirrel is reborn as Ulysses who can do things he’d never been able to do before. Like think about more than food. Like fly. Like . . . other things I won’t spoil.

Could Flora have possibly found a REAL LIFE SUPERHERO?

Ulysses is the most enchanting animal character I have read in years. I always appreciate a good animal character, as I am an animal lover (if you haven’t already noticed through my irrational love of my dog Wallace). Animal characters often pull the strongest on my heart strings, and I (confession) am often more attached to the animal than human characters.

Toto from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite animal characters. In gray Kansas, Toto is what brings Dorothy joy. Toto is also the driving force for most of the plot. Dorothy is transported to Oz because she runs into her house, instead of the storm shelter, to get Toto. Dorothy misses the air balloon ride back to Kansas with the Wizard because Toto jumps out and Dorothy jumps out after him. So basically, Toto is the most important character. My favorite quote from the whole book is: “Toto did not really care whether he was in Kansas or the Land of Oz so long as Dorothy was with him.” Wallace is 100% my Toto.

Another favorite is Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. I have read this book over and over, and watched the film version over and over. Each time I cry my eyes out over my love of Wilbur, and decide to give up bacon (which usually only lasts a few weeks). My favorite quote about Wilbur’s love for Fern is: “he planned to stand perfectly still and think of what it was like to be alive, and to wait for Fern.” Wallace is totally my Wilbur.

Why is Ulysses as loveable as Toto and Wilbur? Because he ADORES Flora. Like Toto, Ulysses doesn’t really care about the plans Flora makes, just that Flora is happy and that he gets to be with her. And like Wilbur, when Ulysses is separated from Flora, all he can think about is getting back to her. Again, I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises that make reading this book so fun, but the friendship between Flora and Ulysses is what makes this book so incredibly lovely.

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The narrative is also filled with hilariously odd characters that electrify the book. For example:

  • Eleven year old William Spiver is doing such a good job of pretending to be blind he actually believes he is, and says things like “Flora Belle? What a lovely, melodious name” and “Surely you jest!”
  • There’s old Dr. Meescham who listens to opera, misses her lately passed husband the other Dr. Meescham, talks about life as a girl in Blundermeecen.
  • Flora’s mother, and villain to the story for she cannot understand why Flora keeps sneaking a squirrel into the house, writes romance novels, irrationally loves her shepherdess lamp, and is struggling to navigate recently being divorced.

The whole cast of characters (including those I don’t mention) are vibrant, allowing DiCamillo to create a complex and exciting world.

The back cover suggests reading ages for Flora and Ulysses of 11 to 13 years old. I think this books can appeal to readers both under 11 and over 13. Being part comic, the images allows the book to be accessible to younger readers. The writing is straight forward enough that early elementary aged children could read it on their own, or it could read with parents. I imagine this would be a fun book for parents to read to their children (I would have LOVED for my mom to have read this to me. She would have done an awesome job with the voices).

The book ends with the possibility of there being more adventures of Flora and Ulysses. After reading (click here if I’ve inspired you), I’m sure you, like me will be wishing on every shooting star that this happens sooner rather than later.

Adventure into School Stories

Sarah Fielding’s The Governess

I returned to Toronto this week after tearfully ending my winter holidays in Calgary (I watched a movie on the plane hoping that the person next to me would think I was crying because it was a sad movie, not because I’m pathetic).

Now that I’m back at York, I’ve started reading for my second candidacy exam which is on school stories. Since this will take up the majority of my reading for the next few months, get ready for lots of posts on school stories! This is more exciting than it sounds. I promise. One would think that something with “school” in the title automatically equals boring. Sometimes this is true (like with the book I’ll talk about later in this post). But MOST of them are thrilling! Titles on my list like The Harry Potter series, Ender’s Game, the Percy Jackson series, Looking for Alaska, Diary of a Wimpy Kid are anything but boring. So I invite you to tag along with Wallace and me as we wade through the evolution of school stories over the next couple months!

The first book on my reading list that I tackled this week is Sarah Fielding’s (yes, the sister of Henry Fielding if anyone was wondering) The Governess: Or, The Little Female Academy which was first published in 1749. This book is the first entry on my reading list AND the first book I read because it’s arguably considered to be the FIRST EVER school story for children. Therefore, I am beholden to start my exploration with this book.

The story surrounds the pupils of Mrs. Teachum and her star student Jenny Peace. In order to better themselves, the students decide they will come together once a day to have Jenny read them stories with a good moral (because the only books worth reading are those with morals), as well as share their own stories of their lives before coming to the school (apparently this school has a rehab-like vibe, because the girls were all terrible human beings before coming until Mrs. Teachum’s tutelage). So the main portion of The Governess includes each girl telling her back story, two fairy tales that Jenny reads to the group, and a retelling of a play. Very simple story line.

This being said, I would not recommend this book to the average young reader. Why? Sarah Fielding was part of a literary movement called the Rational Moralists, some who like Fielding, wrote texts intended to be read by children. However, the Rational Moralist still wrote as if they were writing for adults. They believed if they changed their writing style to be easily read by children, they would not improve and be developed into more rational creatures by the reading. The outcome of the Rational Moralistic writing style is the language is elevated, the young characters are not very child-like, and the narrative is highly didactic and moralistic. The politically correct academic term is: the text is “heavy-handed.” However Fielding is not just heavy-handed. She bangs readers over the head with her didacticism. Readers tended not to appreciate this as much as, say, a reader in 1749.

So who would I recommend this book too? Well, if you are a young reader who is interested in seeing what the first ever school story is like, I urge you to give it a try! Otherwise, I assume it will only be people like me studying children’s literature and interested in the history of the genre that would willingly pick up this book today. The feelings and emotions in the novel are timeless (obey your parents, study hard, beauty is on the inside), but the way the text is presented is dated.

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Sam & Dave Don’t Just Dig A Hole

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Published by Candlewick Press in 2014

I bought this picture book because I LOVE Jon Klassen. He’s a Canadian illustrator living in the states. He has a unique style that is humorous, gorgeous, and yet gritty. Sometimes he acts as illustrator (like with Sam and Dave) and other times writes and illustrates (This is Not My Hat and my favourite I Want My Hat Back). This is my first experience with Mac Barnett, but I am now a fan (not to mention he took classes with David Foster Wallace which is really, really cool. As a English major I am currently turning green with envy).

Sam and Dave is not what we in the Children’s lit biz call a twice told story, meaning the text and images do not tell exactly the same story. The text tells readers of friends Dave and Sam who “dug a hole” and decide they won’t stop digging “until we find something spectacular” (npg). The images illustrate that text, and add to it, in that the boys continually decide to change the direction of their digging right when they’re about to stumble across a big diamond (which their dog companion appears to be able to smell. I wish Wallace had this super power. I would be living a much different life if Wallace could sniff out buried diamonds). This is an example of how the illustrations add to the narrative, for there is no mention of the diamonds which grow bigger and bigger the deeper they dig, in Barnett’s text.

As well, the boys dig themselves into a parallel universe (?) that is not mentioned in the text. The boys start digging in front of a house with a cat sitting on a porch and a growing apple tree in the yard. Sam and Dave dig right through the earth and they fall to what on first glance looks like the same house from the beginning. However, on closer inspection you see the cat is wearing a different coloured collar, the tree is now a pear tree, along with other changes. This is not mentioned in the text. Actually, Sam and Dave don’t seem to notice any difference. Once again, it is only the observant dog that notices they are not where they started (Wallace and I really like this dog).

These type of “yes, and” (term stolen from improv) picture books are awesome for readers as young as they can come. Even if they don’t know how to read the text, they can keep uncovering a more complex story through the illustrations when the text is read to them, or when looking at the book alone. This provides the opportunity for new interpretations to be discovered upon several readings.

This book is deceivingly simple (Sam and Dave dig a hole), but the interaction between Barnett’s text and Klassen’s illustrations makes for a changing reading experience, making this picture book one that can be read over, and over, and over again before discovering all the secrets.

Isabel’s Chains

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers in 2008

Since reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel Speak, I’ve been wanting to read more by her. I picked up Chains during the Calgary Reads Book Sale and it sat on my shelf for a while. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to read it, quite the opposite. Chains follows Isabel, a slave in America during the 1760s, almost exactly one hundred years before the Abolition of Slavery in 1865. I knew this before reading it, and this is why I wasn’t rushing to pick it up. I knew Abolition wasn’t going to be the saviour in this story, so I assumed this would be a difficult read, especially with no promise of a happy ending (freedom) for Isabel. And I was right about it being a difficult read. But reading about slavery, even if it is historical fiction, shouldn’t be an easy read. Isabel’s story should make us uncomfortable and incredibly sad. And I shouldn’t want or demand a happy ending to make myself feel better, because for millions of once breathing human beings, who lived their entire lives as property, there was no happy ending.

Chains is incredible and different from other historical fiction about slavery in America I’ve read for several reasons. Often in narratives on this topic if it isn’t Abolition that swoops in to save the protagonists, its a caring white character. There are of course exceptions to this where the African slave does somehow manage to achieve freedom on their own, but even then usually there are some white characters who help them to do so. This often makes me uncomfortable, because it still places the power of agency strongly in white instead of black hands. Chains in much different.

The novel takes place during the American Revolutionary War. Both the rebel Americans and the British loyalists make promises to Isabel that if she passes on information, listens in on her masters’ conversations, finds valuable papers in her master’s home, smuggles information between those in prison and those on the outside (all things that could cost her her life if caught) they will secure her freedom. These are all empty promises. Both the rebels and the loyalists ultimately prove not to value Isabel’s life or their promises to her because she is a slave. Isabel realizes she cannot rely on these men for help, and she must take deadly risks to help herself.

There is a powerful scene in which an elderly aunt of the family that owns Isabel confesses on her deathbed the regret that she did not try harder to buy Isabel from her niece and nephew: “I should have demanded you be placed in my household. I was horrified by your treatment . . . I regret I did not force the matter” (261). Silence hangs in the air after this confession, and Isabel realizes the aunt is waiting for Isabel to expresses forgiveness, or gratitude. However, Isabel expresses something powerful to the reader “I tried to be grateful but could not. A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind” (261). Here Isabel refuses to allow a slave owner to be cast as her guardian angel. Isabel will take charge of her own destiny.

Chains is a powerful novel that I would highly recommend. It is a thrilling narrative, and gives the opportunity of having a history lesson at the same time. If you become attached to Isabel and her journey (which is hard not to) you can continue with her as Chains is part of a trilogy called The Seeds of America Trilogy.

Cooking up the Recipe for Youth with Julia, Child

Julia, Child by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

Published by Tundra Books in 2014

Several of my favourite things come together in this picture book. First is writing by Kyo Maclear, who also wrote two of my favourite picture books: Spork and Virginia Wolf. Second is this is a Tundra picture book, which almost always means it will be beautiful. This was my first experience with illustrator Julie Morstad, and her wonderful art in Julia, Child has ensured I will look for more of her handy work.

Julia, Child (yes an illusion to Julia Child, but not actually about her) is telling two stories. First is of Julia’s love for food. When she was “very little” Julia fell in love with French food, “She loved to eat French food. And she especially loved to cook it.” Along with friend Simac (who reminds me of myself with her long blond hair always up in a pony tail), the two friends learn how to cook, while also deciding they never grow up and be the oldest children ever.

The second part of the story involves Julia and Simac trying to solve the problem of life being filled with “too many grown-ups who did not know how to have a marvelous time” (npg). The solution the two friends come up with is making a recipe for “growing young” (npg). Through trial, error, and food, Julia and Simac remind the adults of how to be young. They even create a book of recipes called Mastering the Art of Childhood, by Us (a further play on the Julia Child link and her famous cook book Mastering The Art of French Cooking).

These two story lines seem a bit disjointed from one another, which was not something I had before come across in Maclear’s writing. However, it is still a marvellous read that places the young Julia and Simac as being much wiser than the busy adults surrounding them (I always love when child characters have the upper hand). This is further emphasized in Worstad’s art, as adults are merely sketches, outlines with no color, while children are painted in beautiful pastel coloured clothing bursting with life. So despite the book feeling disjointed to me, it is beautiful and empowering.