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October 2, 2019

It Began With a Page, by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

It Began With a Page, the new picture book collaboration by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad—who are already known for their picture book biographies(ish) of Julia Child, Elsa Schiaparelli, Anna Pavlova (illustrated by Morstad, written by Laurel Snyder), and Virginia Woolf (written by Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault)—has everything. And to have Kyo Maclear, a leading Asian-Canadian author writing about THE pioneering Asian-American children’s author/illustrator, with illustrations by Julie Morstad who does such justice to her source material. Which is, of course, Gyo Fujikawa’s babies, an adorable array of little people from different ethnic backgrounds, all playing together—Fujikawa has clearly been an inspiration to Morstad since the beginning of her career. But what contemporary readers might not appreciate until reading It Began With a Page—which tells Fujikawa’s life story—is that it wasn’t long ago that picture book illustrations of children with different skin colours all playing together was revolutionary, and before that even not condoned.

Which is a convenient metaphor with which to tell a story of a society in which, just say, people from a certain ethnicity have their land and belongings confiscated and are sent to concentration camps. Although Maclear eschews metaphor altogether here, and sticks with the facts: “In early 1942, terrible things were happening. Bombs and gunfire rocked the world. America was at war with Japan. Kyo was shocked to discover that anyone who looked Japanese or had a Japanese name was no suspected of being the enemy… Gyo’s family was sent to a prison camp far, far away from their home.”

But first: “It began with a page, bright and beckoning.” A five-year-old girl with a pencil in her hand. “The dance and glide of a line. How a new colour could change everything: a bright splash of yellow, a sleep stroke of blue.” The girl fills her pages with drawings, and as she grows older, her talent is natured by a supportive teacher who pays for her art lessons Gyo Fujikawa is one of the few girls, let alone Asian-American girls, who goes to college in 1926. She travels to Japan, her ancestral homeland, to learn about the tradition of Japanese brush painting, and after she returns to America gets a temporary job designing books at Walt Disney’s studio in New York. Which means she is far away from her family when the Japanese internment takes place, but the distance only increases her heartbreak at what is happening in her country.

After the war, Fujikawa continues to work as an artist, and Maclear shows her awareness of the dawning civil rights movement. “Still, there was so much that hadn’t changed. At the library and bookshop, it was the same old stories—mothers in aprons and fathers with pipes and a world of only white children.”

But when Fujikawa submits her manuscript featuring “Babies! Chubby cheeked, squat-legged, bouncy-bottomed babies,” the book is rejected. “No to mixing white babies and black babies. It was not done in early 1960s America, a country with laws that separated people by skin colour.”

Fujikawa, however, does not give up on her vision. And eventually, the book is accepted, and is a huge success, the beginning of an incredible career for this illustrator whose drawings would create “a bigger, better world.”

The story includes a timeline of Gyo Fujikawa’s life, and photographs, and a note from Maclear and Morstad to readers about Fujikawa’s legacy (“Gyo as a TRAILBLAZER…and a RULE BREAKER”) was and how her family supported this book (Fujikawa died in 1998), providing access to stories, photos and archival materials.

April 14, 2017

The Fog, by Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak

Sometimes it is useful to be reminded that not everything is an allegory. But at the same time, those “It doesn’t have to mean anything! It’s a story!” people are even more annoying, because a story has to mean something, or else what is the point? Which isn’t to say that every book should necessarily be Animal Farm. The answer, as with most things, is somewhere in between, and in her latest picture book, The Fog (illustrated by Kenard Pak), Kyo Maclear has achieved that balance with stunning precision.

Maclear’s early picture books had obvious messages—Spork was about being mixed-race, Virginia Wolf was about loving someone with depression, Mr. Flux about learning not to fear change. They were good books and artful, but Maclear’s more recent work has become less concrete, more nuanced. While I’m entirely in love with her book Julia, Child, however, I admit I’ve never been able to get my head properly around it; it’s a book a little too intent on trying to mean. Her others like The Specific Ocean, however, manage to mean without trying to. And her latest, The Fog, is her best work yet.

It’s a book about a bird who likes to people-watch (and this book ties in nicely with Maclear’s recent memoir, Birds Art Life). The endpapers are illustrated with human varieties—”Dapper Bespectacled Booklover,” “Masked Bohemian Weaver,” “Solitary Knitter.” The bird is named Warble and he lives in a place called Icy Land, an island that people from all over the world come to visit, giving Warble excellent opportunities for spotting. One day, however, a thick fog descends, and everything changes. It’s hard to see, the people stop coming, but nobody seems to notice. Nobody, however, except for Warble.

The birds around him adapt—this is what living creatures do. Soon, nobody else remembered that there hadn’t always been fog, and even Warble began to wonder if things had ever been different.

But one morning something happens. Peering through his bins (I say “bins” instead of binoculars because I’ve just finished Steve Burrows’ latest Birder Murder Mystery and I know the lingo…)  Warble spots a speck on the horizon: “Peering closely, he saw a dark-haired human ghosting through the meadow. It was a rare female species and she was singing a song.”

The usual transpires: he offers her insects, she teaches him origami, and then they both acknowledge the fog. And they wonder—if each of them can see it, might somebody else out there be able to see it too? So they send out paper boats with the message, “Do you see the fog?” and after a long, long wait some answers return. “Notes arrived from around the world: “We can help!” “We see it too!” And with every message received, the fog lifted a bit, until you could see things again. “Big things. And tiny things. Shiny red things. And soft feathery things.” The story ending with Warble and the girl together against the starry sky enjoying the clear night view.

So what is the fog then? Is it climate change denial? Is it fascism? Is it the volcanic ash that enveloped Iceland in a cloud not too long ago, grounding flights around the world? None of these suggestions mapping onto the book exactly, but in this they serve to open up the story and the ideas it offers rather than rendering them in a narrower fashion. What does it mean? becoming the beginning of a conversation.

February 5, 2017

Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear

“…what he really taught me was that the best teachers are not up on a guru throne, doling out shiny answers. They are there in the much beside you: stepping forward, falling down, muddling through, deepening and enlivening the questions.” —Kyo Maclear

In her book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, my friend May Friedman refers to the value of “critical uncertainty in practice,” as opposed to “the generalizing trap of expert discourse.” Indeed the best blogs, and life itself, are all about “stepping forward, falling down, muddling through, deepening and enlivening the questions.” And while Kyo Maclear’s new memoir, Birds Art Life, is no blog—its prose is polished perfect; by design, the book is an object most exquisite—it has a bloggish spirit, with its wide vistas, room to wander, and the miraculous and serendipitous way that one thing seems to lead to another.

It’s not a book about birding, or even discovering birding—it’s a book that’s far more vicarious, and stranger than that. Here is a book about a year Maclear spent hanging out with a birder, figuring out what makes him tick. Developing a passion for birds in the process, but that’s not the point of this memoir. Yes, there are birds, but it’s also about family, and history, about caregiving, marriage, waiting, reading. About darkness, and prisons, and action in dangerous times. It’s about cities and nature, about the hearts of things and also their edges.

“Life and death. Survival and extinction. The common and the rare. The robust and the disappearing. I had come to see that birding was about holding opposites in tension. It elicited a twoness of feeling—both reassuring and dispiriting—especially in a city where so little landscape had survived modernity’s onslaught. In that twoness was a mongrel space between hope and despair.” —Kyo Maclear

I’ve loved Kyo Maclean’s work since reading her first novel, The Letter Opener, in 2008. In 2012, she released her second novel Stray Love along with the picture book, Virginia Wolf, and created a list at 49thShelf of Picture Books for Grown-Ups, and what I love about Birds Art Life is that she’s now herself created such a thing. First, because the book is illustrated with photographs of birds by her birding friend, Jack Breakfast, and also with Maclear’s own line-drawings, which add whimsical charm to the pages in a the fashion of Maira Kalman. And second, because of how the stories in this memoir contain echoes of her picture books, works that are so rich in thoughtfulness and wisdom—and now grown-up readers get to read it all too.

But it’s a particular kind of wisdom. I feel as thought Maclear herself would feel uneasy with being declared as wise, but it’s the kind of wisdom she’s talking about in the excerpt I quoted at the beginning of this post. The kind of wisdom that comes from falling down, from enlivening questions, rather than supposing there are even answers.

The year Maclear captures in her memoir is a dark one, although it comes with requisite moments of light. But she’s been caring for her father during a period of illness; she’s still negotiating her relationship with her mother; she worries about her younger son and identifies with his anxiety; close to the end of the year, two close friends of their family are imprisoned in Egypt and news of their fate is held in fear and uncertainty. And as I read this book yesterday, I was thinking that this is precisely the very book I need to be reading right now, not to escape from the things outside my door that make me afraid these but instead to “enliven the questions.” A book that—like so much that I’m reading these days, like so many books that are saving my life—helps me negotiate that space between hope and despair.

Leaning towards the hope, even.

July 24, 2015

This Specific Ocean by Kyo Maclear and Katty Maurey

The first thing I ever read by Kyo Maclear was The Letter Opener, a novel, which I loved, and so it’s taken some time to get my mind around the idea of her as a picture book author. Even though the books themselves were very good—the brilliant Spork, and the strange and beautiful Virginia Wolf, and the even-stranger Mr Flux that has grown on us so much that I routinely pick it up and read for comfort in times of anxiety (“Sometimes change is just change”). I should have twigged to something with the amazing Julia, Child, her collaboration with one of my favourite illustrators, Julie Morstad. But no, I thought. These were just ones-0f-a-kind. Brief flourishes of excellence. No picture book writer could keep producing work that is every time so different, so smart in its concept, original and singular—each book its own perfect world. But Kyo Maclear does, and it’s so remarkable. I’m convinced finally as this fall  she has two extraordinary releases, The Good Little Book, illustrated by Marian Arbona, and this one, The Specific Ocean, with Katty Maurey.

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Maclear has been fortunate in her picture book career to work with some of Canada’s best illustrators, Isabelle Arsenault and Morstad among them, ensuring that her books have considerable visual appeal. Indeed, when  the books have won awards, it has tended to be for their illustrations, and my own focus on her book’s images has contributed to my reluctance to give Maclear full credit for her picture book prowess, though I have long been a huge fan of her work. But with her two most recent books—each so different in illustrations and design, and so different too from her previous works—I’ve really finally come on board. In all her stunning books with their own particular style, Maclear herself is the common denominator. And she’s come far enough in her career that we can start to marvel at her oeuvre.

But, as the title suggests, it’s time to get specific, and Maclear’s work is so various that specifics are the most interesting way to discuss it. The Specific Ocean is about a young girl whose family is flying across the country for their summer vacation, but the girl doesn’t want to go with them. She wants to stay in the city and play with her friends, so when they finally do arrive at their destination beside the sea, she is resolute in her misery and refuses to enjoy herself.

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It’s the ocean that finally sways her though, its formidable coldness, the spots of warmth: “We float on our backs, and the wind blows ripples across the water’s surface, and those ripples grow into waves that life us up and up.” She begins exploring the wonders of the beach, birds and shells and tide-rolls. “When the sun comes out, we sit on the rocks and watch the waves. Shine, shimmer. gleam, glow. It makes me dizzy to imagine where the sea ends. The ocean is so big that it makes every thought and worry I have shrink and scatter.”

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As with all of Maclear’s books, complex ideas are presented through scenarios with which a young reader would be familiar. The effect is subtle—my daughter would not notice that she’s reading anything but a story about a girl who travels to the seaside. But she might notice that this is very different than other books about trips to the seaside. In a deceptively simple narrative package, Maclear is addressing issues of anxiety, of anger, of wonder, of emotions, of the power and knowledge that comes with growing and learning and changing one’s mind.

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The girl learns to embrace the ocean, but with that comes a new anxiety. For how does one embrace an ocean after all? With something so huge, how do we wrap our arms around it? How do we love things that are much too big to hold? The girl comes up with scenarios involving putting the ocean in a bowl, carrying part of it home with her. But her wise older brother counsels her otherwise: “[he] says if I do that, the ocean will be less. He says the ocean may be big, but it isn’t endless.

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By the end of the vacation, the girl doesn’t want to go home—of course! Life itself being a tension between two pulls/poles. But she becomes reconciled with her departure by an awareness that the wildness of the ocean, its deep and dark mysteries and lack of containment, are most essential to what she loves about it. And that this same spirit and complexity she carries within herself: “Calm. Blue. Ruffled. Gray. Playful. Green. Mysterious. Black. Foggy. Silver. Roaring. White.”

Which means she’s not leaving it behind at all.

April 9, 2012

Stray Love by Kyo Maclear

Kyo Maclear’s novels are quiet, muted, about lonely characters at a remove from the world around them. And as you read these novels, you might be underwhelmed, wondering at the quietness, at the slow. They have a depth that works differently than depth does– you don’t necessarily drill down into subtext; the prose here is doing what it’s doing, but the thing is that it keeps going once the story is done. I have been thinking about The Letter Opener for four years now.  And similarly, having just finished her latest Stray Love, I’m still going over the story in my mind (to a soundtrack that is Waterloo Sunset).

Maclear’s narrator is Marcel, an artist living in London whose precarious balance is disrupted when an old friend asks him to temporarily care for her eleven-year old daughter, Iris. The girl’s arrival disturbs Marcel’s quiet containment, their burgeoning relationship stirring up memories of his own troubled childhood. In a parallel storyline that becomes the novel’s centre, we learn that Marcel was abandoned by his mother shortly after his birth and raised by Oliver, his adoptive father who was a war correspondent in Africa as the British Empire dissolved in the 1950s and in Asia in the early ’60s. Oliver’s distance wasn’t always geographic either– he’d endured his own trauma, losing his parents in the London Blitz and being raised himself as a “stray” by an adoptive family. Oliver didn’t always manage to be present for Marcel, even when he was. Though not biologically related, both Oliver and Marcel have the same ways of coping, shutting away disturbing memories in suitcases deep in the back of closets though not so far enough away that they’d ever forget what was there.

The story moves from Marcel’s present with Iris (whose circumstances might supposed her character to be analogous to Oliver’s and Marcel’s, but instead she is a departure in a way that begins to change Marcel’s mind about the way his life is going) to the past, to his childhood in London, longing for his mother and waiting for Oliver to come home, and also to the time he spent with Oliver in Saigon in the early ‘sixties lead-up to the Vietnam War. The end of the novel also brings revelations about the more recent past, revelations that re-cast the rest of the book in an entirely different light (and I think that this is where Maclear’s lingering effect comes from).

“There are so many ways of mapping the world,” Marcel notes at one point as he traces his adoptive father’s travels on a map on the wall with push-pins, and then begins to plot points according to his own desires. And in Stray Love, Maclear has shown us another way, how to use fiction to map time and history and place, across continents, historical periods, culture and race.

March 15, 2012

Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault

Kyo Maclear is author of the beloved 2007 novel The Letter Opener and is, with illustrator Isabelle Arsenault, the force behind the acclaimed Spork. Her latest picture book with Arsenault is Virginia Wolf, a story loosely based on the Woolfian one of the similar name and her relationship with her sister Vanessa.

There is precedent for a literary rendering of the child Virginia– those of us steeped in Woolf lore know well the stories of Virginia, Vanessa and their brother Thoby of 22 Hyde Park, and their childhood family newspaper was published in book form in 2006. And it is those of us steeped in Woolf lore who will seize to these connections, though Maclear herself emphasizes the looseness of her basis. So what is its point then? The Woolf connection is not a necessary element of the text, but it provides the book with additional texture, literary and otherwise.

In this story of two sisters, one of them, Virginia, overcome by the doldrums, is captured by a wolfish mood. This mood has an effect on the whole household: “Up became down. Bright became dim. Glad became gloom.” The other sister, Vanessa, tries to cheer Virginia up, but nothing works. Finally, Vanessa lies in bed with her sad sister and listens to her describe the world she longs to escape to, called “Bloomsberry”. Virginia is freed from her wolfish mood after Vanessa creates a version of Bloomsberry on the bedroom walls, and by the story’s end, she’s well enough to go back into the world. Down is up again.

(Must point out connections between this and another wonderful book from KidsCanPress about painted gardens and their restorative effects– Andrew Larsen’s The Imaginary Garden is much adored at our house.)

Very young children (and their parents) will be delighted by the book’s illustrations– Harriet is particularly taken with Virginia’s transformation from wolf to girl on the book’s final pages. They will also come to understand the plot at its most basic level– that there are times when we all feel a bit wolfish. It’s a name to put to what happens on those tantrum-filled days, or when Mommy’s patience is particularly limited. Wolfish moods happen, there’s no real reason for them, and they pass. We feel better.

For older readers who’ve had family members suffering from depression, I imagine this book would be particularly valuable. Yes, it is a simplified depiction of the disease but that simplification is essential for a child to obtain any real understanding what’s going on around them. The reader will understand that nothing they have done has caused their loved one’s suffering, and also that there is little they can do to relieve it.What Vanessa does to help her sister is be near her, to listen to her talk, to lie in bed beside her and look out the window to see the world through her eyes.

Of everything Vanessa paints in Bloomsberry though, most essential  is the ladder, “so what was down could climb up”– a recognition that the journey will be Virginia’s alone to make. To her painting she adds also room for Virginia to wander, because wandering is what wolves like to do. And while Maclear has Virginia feeling much better the next morning, the ladder and the wandering space function on a metaphoric level to acknowledge the true complexity of her character’s experience.

The elephant in the room of course is Woolf’s own suicide, and that any child who comes to know the author through Virginia Wolf will discover a very different end to the story. Though I would argue this point by resisting the notion of reducing Woolf’s life and her legacy to her mental illness and the circumstances of her death. Yes, she suffered substantially through her life, but anyone who knows her work well will understand that she had a capacity for joy as great as she had for sorrow. There is so much more to Woolf than the stones in her pockets, and I love that this book celebrates that. She survived her bouts in the doldrums over and over again, and that she finally didn’t in no way undermines the achievement of her life, all 59 years of it. Further, rather than overlooking the circumstances of Woolf’s death, I think that Maclear is using it externally as a fitting counter to her book’s sunny ending. It doesn’t belong in the book, but the connection is there for the reader to make, and I think it is an important one.

March 21, 2008

The Letter Opener by Kyo Maclear

After nearly a week of reading through short zippy novels in a flash, there was something meditative about settling down with Kyo Maclear’s first novel The Letter Opener. It’s a slower read, rumination more than narration, quiet in its power, and subtly sharp.

With such an intriguing premise: Naiko works for Canada Post at their Undeliverable Mail Office. Her job is to direct items stranded in transit, where this is possible. Incorrectly addressed envelopes containing school photos, love letters, birthday money. And “the rubble”, items sprung loose from their packaging: “Lesser goods… Boy Scout badges, vacation photos, Magic Markers, teeth moulds. A medical X-ray. A book of Sufi poetry. A Leonard Cohen audio cassette. Nothing was too small to matter to someone, somewhere.”

This emphasis on things comes to link the story’s various threads: the strange disappearance of Naiko’s colleague Andrei, a Romanian refugee; Andrei’s own history and that of his mother, a Holocaust survivor; the story of Naiko’s fractured family, particularly her mother who is in the early stages of Alzeimers Disease; Naiko’s own problems with intimacy, as she navigates her relationship with boyfriend Paolo; even the end of the Cold War. Such a wide range of subject matter, some of it heavy and loaded, but Maclear uses these ideas effectively, in new and intriguing ways– her deftness with facts perhaps making clear her creative origins in non-fiction.

The narrative sounds crowded, but Maclear’s expansive prose creates the effect of ample space. The novel is also carefully structured to accommodate all these threads, which through Naiko’s own perspective are tied more tightly than they seem. And it is through this perspective that we come to understand a twist on the problem of materialism: not that our society cares too much about “things”, but rather we don’t care enough. How much we lose spiritually from failing to invest our objects with proper meaning, and how much we take for granted.

Though of course conclusions are not so straightforward as this– this is rumination after all. The Letter Opener is primarily the story of Naiko’s own self-discovery, as she realizes her constructions of others through their objects tells more about her own self than anybody else’s. And this story is fascinatingly beautiful, a satisfying read.

September 28, 2018

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, by Linda Bailey and Julia Sarda

“HOW DOES A STORY BEGIN? Sometimes it begins with a dream…”

I’ve been really looking forward to Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Julia Sarda, which brings together so many of my favourite things: Sarda’s creepy/gorgeous art—she also illustrated Kyo Maclear’s The Liszts; early feminist history with references with Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelley’s father, William Godwin, would teach her to read by tracing the letters of her mother’s gravestone; the fantastic story of the creation of the Frankenstein; and also the character of Mary Shelley herself, bookish and rebellious. By the time she is a teenager, Bailey writes, Mary “has become a Big Problem,” and she’s sent to live away from her family in Scotland. “But at sixteen, when she returns to her family, she is still a Big Problem.”

“And what does she do next?” the story continues. “She becomes an even Bigger Problem. She runs away with a brilliant young poet…” In dark and brooding spreads, we see Mary Shelley and her companions travelling through Europe, meeting up with Lord Byron in Switzerland, and that dark and stormy night with the ghost story contest 200 years that has since become the stuff of legends and birthed one of the most famous stories ever told.

Throughout the story and detailed in the illustrations are all the seeds that would culminate in the Frankenstein story, intermingled with an emphasis on tales and dreamy, and steeped in a delightfully creepy aesthetic. Readers discover that powerful stories can come from unlikely places—even an eighteen-year-old girl who wasn’t sure she’d have a story to tell. We see the way that the borders between stories, dreams and life are fuzzy, and how they overlap in places—and the incredible possibilities this offers for what we can make of our lives.

December 10, 2017

2017 Books of the Year

January seems like a long time ago now, when I was reading Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy, and drinking out of a mug that broke in October. Do you remember? I don’t even remember who that reader was really, or all the readers in between, but all the same, I am grateful to all the books and authors who made my 2017 so rich, bookishly speaking. The following titles are the ones that have particularly stayed with me.

Hunting Houses, by Fanny Britt

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

The Dark Flood Rises, by Margaret Drabble

Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont

Guidebook to Relative Strangers, by Camille T. Dungy

Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, by Norma Dunning

Sputnik’s Children, by Terri Favro

What is Going to Happen Next, by Karen Hofmann

Dr. Edith Crane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzette Mayr

Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear

My Conversations With Canadians, by Lee Maracle

F-Bomb: Dispatches From the War on Feminism, by Lauren McKeon

Boundary, by Andrée A. Michaud

We All Love the Beautiful Girls, by Joanne Proulx

Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson

 

Lillian Boxfish Take a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney

So Much Love, by Rebecca Rosenblum

The Slip, by Mark Sampson

Your Heart is the Size of a Fist, by Martina Scholtens

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, by Merilyn Simonds

Autumn, by Ali Smith

September 29, 2017

The Man Who Loved Libraries, by Andrew Larsen and Katty Maurey

Harriet has decided she’s going to be Jane Goodall for Halloween, mostly as an excuse to carry around a stuffed monkey at school, but it seemed like a good excuse for a little educating. So I put a bunch of kids’ biographies on hold at the librarian, and they all came in on Tuesday. Tuesday was the second day of a heat warning here in Toronto, a stop at the library on the walk home from school serving as a very good pit-stop. And when we got there, the place was packed, people escaping the heat, reading books and magazines, kids spinning on the spinning chairs, playing games on the computer, washing their hands in the bathroom because they were sticky from where popsicles had melted in the heat.

The library is for everyone, I was thinking as I took in the scene on Tuesday, Harriet gathering her stack of books, heading over to sign them out on the library we got for her when she was just a few weeks old. I’ve written before about how important the library was to me when Harriet was small, and our experiences with phenomenal children’s librarians underlined my children’s pre-pre-school years when I was home with them, and taught me the stories and songs that would become the foundation of our familial literacy. Our kids continue to attend library programs. We visit as a family every couple of weeks, and borrow so many books we need to bring a stroller in order to cart them home. Books and reading are a bridge between the thirty years that divides me from my children; reading books together is the one activity that we’re able to reap enjoyment from on the very same level. And the library has ensured there’s always something new for us to explore. 

But the library isn’t just for us, the already book-spoiled. The library ensures that everyone has access to knowledge, to learning, to entertainment. To bathrooms too, and a place to sit down, and cool enough (or warm up, as the case may be). For a lot of kids, it’s where they get their access to computers, to the internet. It’s where people learn to format their resumes, where lonely people find company, where postpartum mothers go to give their muddy days a shape. For some people, the library is a comfortable place to sleep. They’re community centres, schools, literacy hubs. They’re about trust, community, democracy. I read a post recently where someone posited that if libraries didn’t exist and someone tried to invent one, you’d swear it would never ever work.

The funny thing that I hadn’t considered when I started this post is that I met Andrew Larsen at the library. We live in the same neighbourhood, and met when Harriet was small and he was on the cusp of publishing his second book, I think. And I would learn that he too felt the library had been essential to his experience as a stay-at-home parent, eventually leading his emergence as a children’s author. We have loved the books he’s published since, books that have delighted our family (“I read Andrew Larsen’s squiggly story today, Mommy,” reported Iris this very afternoon when I picked her up from junior kindergarten.) I’ve savoured our conversations on our walks to school together, and miss him now that his children have moved on to bigger kid things.

Andrew Larsen’s latest is a picture book biography of Andrew Carnegie, The Man Who Loved Libraries, illustrated by Katty Maurey who was also behind Kyo Maclear’s The Specific Ocean, another picture book we’ve loved. I’m familiar with Carnegie in theory, because he’d helped to build libraries in both of the Ontario towns I grew up in, as well as the Beaches, High Park and Wychwood Libraries in Toronto, among many many others. But Larsen’s story fills in the gaps—Carnegie was born in Scotland and moved to America as a child with his family who were looking for a better life. His first job was in a cotton mill, where he was a bobbin boy. A hard worker, he strove to get better work, and find whatever education was available to him. He made a point of teaching himself skills that would be relevant for work, but also was able to acquire deeper knowledge by accessing the private library of a wealthy businessman who opened its doors to workers on Saturday afternoons.

When Carnegie was 17, he got a job as a telegraph operator with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and by age 25 he was working in management. He started to make money, and invest money so that he made even more money. “By the time he was thirty-five, Andrew Carnegie’s investments had made him a rich man. He had more money than he could ever need. So what did he do?” Remembering the literary riches that had been shared with him in his youth, Carnegie worked to open public libraries so other working people could access books and learning. Carnegie’s first library was built in the Scottish village where he was born, and he would eventually build 2500 around the world.

Carnegie’s legacy is a mixed one, as a note at the back of the book makes clear. He fought against unions and resisted his employees’ efforts to fight for better working conditions and wages. As with everything, it’s complicated. But still, The Man Who Loved Libraries will provoke interesting conversations and make young readers reconsider ideas they might previously have taken for granted. At this moment in Western democracy, we need to underline the value of public libraries more than ever.

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