Hornswogglers and snozzwanglers and wicked whangdoodles

A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. 

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

roald dahl plass

Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff Bay

I was recently in Cardiff and was so amazed to learn that in that city, Roald Dahl is a HUGE celebrity. We’re talking rock-star status. Imagine! He never starred in a reality TV show, or took part in some political scandal, or dated someone famous. He just wrote excellent books that my younger self adored.

jamesThe brilliant mind behind James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory1 didn’t pull his punches when it came to the perils of greed and gluttony or too much TV. And scoundrels and villains got their comeuppance—his sometimes wacky but usually bang-on sense of justice was so appealing to me.

But mainly I loved him because he was silly and irreverent and always, always, on the side of the kid, be it one so poor he only ever had cabbage soup for dinner, or a girl who discovers she has magical powers, or a boy who must go live with his two horrid aunts when his parents are killed by a runaway rhinoceros.

Thanks to Roald Dahl, I started wrapping my head around the idea that while, yes, life can really suck sometimes, with the right friends, it’s still mostly pretty gloriumptious. Even if your friends are bugs.

 

Some classic Dahl quotes:

matilda“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”  Matilda

“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
The Twits

“Don’t gobblefunk around with words.”
BFG

mr fox“Badger: The cuss you are.
Mr. Fox: The cuss am I? Are you cussing with me?”
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Okay, I cheated a bit…this quote is actually from the brilliant Wes Anderson  animated film. You must see it.)

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
The Minpins

Bonus feature: A clip from Matilda, The Musical. “When I grow up…I will eat sweets every day…” 🙂

Everyday Heroes

mike with treeWe were all up in Campbell River last weekend for a swim meet. One of our team dads, Mike, is a tree faller and he was keeping us updated on the fires breaking out all over the province. He knew that sooner or later he’d get called to pitch in.

The blue blue sky in Campbell River on Saturday changed to a dingy grey haze as the smoke from the Sproat Lake fire reached us.1 Sunday, after the meet was over, we headed down Island, our eyes starting to burn as we drove through Cedar, where a 10-acre wildfire had broken out earlier in the week. We arrived home, unpacked, showered, and settled in for the night. The B.C. fires were all over the news; the count was reaching 200.

Mike, however, wasn’t home even an hour when he learned he was needed on the Sunshine Coast. He packed up again and arrived in Sechelt that same night. His wife was understandably worried, especially since a tree faller had been killed fighting that same fire only the day before.

mike at breakfastShe kept an eye on the social media sites, in particular the Sechelt Forest Fire group on Facebook. She inquired on the site where in town the crew could get an early breakfast, as nothing was open at 5 a.m before they started their day.

six of the many heroesWithin hours, Selina August, a member of the Sechelt (shíshálh) First Nation, had organized not only full breakfasts for everyone out there risking their lives to battle the blaze, but basic amenities like laundry services too. Soon the entire community was rallying together and donations were pouring in: food and prep for late-night dinners, gift cards for grocery stores, toiletries, even clean socks.

I loved hearing this story.2 It reminded me that heroes aren’t only found in books. Heroes are all around us, people like Mike, Selina, and the residents of Sechelt, willing to jump in and just do what needs doing.

Take the time today to thank someone in your world who is making a difference.

Better yet, be that someone.

sechelt crew

 

Bonus feature: Children’s author Jarrett Krosoczka talks about his hero, the Lunch Lady.

The Truth Commission

When you tell a story, you shape the truth. What you leave in, what you leave out, every word and every emphasis changes the meaning.

TruthHigh school sucks. Every day is a battle to fit in, while trying to find a way to stand out. You’re not a kid, but you’re still treated like one. Or, when you’re expected to make mature and responsible choices, you panic, often with disastrous results.

I never fit in with the Preppies (I suspect mainly because of my unruly hair and hopeless fashion sense) but would easily flit between the Jocks, the Nerds and the Shrubs1, depending on the day.

I say “easily,” but that’s mostly a lie. More true is that I had no idea who I was yet, so how could I comfortably fit anywhere?

You’d think it would be different if you were able to attend a school like Green Pastures Academy of Applied Art and Design, where students are encouraged to explore their artistic side and really take the time to find out who they really are.

Nope. Even then it can still suck. Especially if your sister is some bigshot bestselling author whose graphic novel series, The Diana Chronicles, is a barely disguised version of your own family.

Such is the plight of Normandy Pale, would-be author and erstwhile embroiderer. Every day she worries that everyone believes that she is just like the “dull-witted, staring blob” portrayed in her sister’s books.

She has her people, the “chronically attractive” Dusk (real name: Dawn), whose latest art installation involves the taxidermy of small woodland creatures; and Neil, a painter of beautiful women who loves to come to school dressed as 60s and 70s movie stars (think Steve McQueen or Paul Newman).

Together, they decide to form The Truth Commission, to seek out not the truths offered up easily, but rather the ones “lying around, half exposed in the street, like drunken cheerleaders trying to speak.”

But once they get a taste for these confessions, it becomes difficult to stop, despite the inevitable fallout.

gameofbenchesWe are given an insider’s view of the commission’s evolution, as Norm works on her Grade 11 Spring Special Project, a chronicle of her own replete with footnotes2 and illustrations3. This one, making a not-unfair comparison to the bloodshed that occurs as warring factions attempt to seize power, is one of my favourites:

The battles continue everywhere, be it at school or behind a family’s closed doors.

We bear witness to Norm’s realization that the truth is complicated. And that sometimes those who should defend you will not.

The extremely funny and quietly wise Susan Juby takes us on a journey that shows us the deeper truths too, about narcissists and the scary power they can wield, and how important it is to find the strength to be true to yourself, even when it means going against all that is familiar.

Trust me4, you want to read this book.

 

stitches crop2

Bonus: Flashback to another kind of arts school. I wasn’t allowed to see the movie but I never missed an episode of the TV spinoff.

“You got big dreams, you want fame. Well, fame costs, and right here’s where you start payin’, in sweat…”

 

Bad-tempered birds and grouchy toddlers

grumpy coverMy gift to new mums is often a batch of some healthy-ish one-handed snack, along with a copy of Grumpy Bird for baby.

I have always had a soft spot for the crabbier  and more irritable among us, the curmudgeon shaking his fist at me (for reasons unknown) or the toddler having a complete meltdown in the cereal aisle. I find their outbursts fascinating.

Maybe it was the Oscar influence. Second only to Kermit in my heart, he was the one who first got me thinking about subtext. Somehow I just knew that when he told us to “Scram!” he didn’t really mean it. What he needed was someone to listen.OscarS6

grumpy wakeupThat’s why I love Jeremy Tankard‘s cantankerous feathered friend. He keeps it real. Some days just suck. Some days you wish you hadn’t woken up. Am I right?

He reminds me of my son, who as a baby was nothing but smiles and giggles. That is, until we went outside. If anyone dared to peek into the stroller, his sweet face would suddenly morph: his teeny tiny brows would furrow, his sunny smile replaced with a suspicious scowl. “Really, he’s such a happy guy,” I would say sheepishly. No one believed me. After a while, I started having a little fun with it. “Oh! That’s odd. Did you pinch him or something?”

prickly jennySo, when I recently discovered Prickly Jenny, by Sibylle Delacroix, about a young girl who is out of sorts, I knew right away that I would love her too. She does NOT want you to say nice things about her drawings. She is NOT hungry, not even for ice cream, and she is NOT wearing that new dress. Nope.

Bird’s friends never give up on him and Jenny’s mum knows that tomorrow will be better. Do your duty, everyone. Get out there and hug a sourpuss today. They need you.

Bonus feature: Check out OwlKids cool video about the process of transforming Ronchonette Cocolle into Prickly Jenny!

Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

ArtemisIn honour of today’s celebrations, I am recommending a series of books that is a fast-paced and clever combo of folklore, fantasy, and high-tech, by Irish author Eoin  (pronounced Owen) Colfer.

Artemis Fowl, arrogant boy genius and criminal mastermind, makes a serious tactical error when he kidnaps a fairy, intending to hold her for ransom (for the gold, of course!)

What he doesn’t realize is that he’s grabbed Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaisance) unit, and she is not about to go quietly.

Bain sult as! (Enjoy)

Author: Eoin Colfer

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Age range: 10+

Bonus feature: Seamus Finnegan practices his spell for turning water into rum.

Clover’s Luck

clovers_luck The Magical Animal Adoption Agency is open for business!

Clover’s Luck is the first installment in a new series about a mysterious cottage in the woods, where you can find all manner of enchanted creatures looking for a good home.

Take this quiz to see which one might be right for you!

griffinI got GRIFFIN! I have loved this mythological monster (part eagle part lion) since I first read Alice in Wonderland (although that one wasn’t very nice). And this Maurice Sendak illustration says it all, doesn’t it?

Author: Kallie George

Publisher: HarperCollinsCanada

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Age range: 7-10

 

Bonus feature: I take my new pal out for a joyride.

An Armadillo in Paris

ArmadilloMany moons ago, I spent a few miraculous days in Paris. I have been pining to return ever since. Le sigh.

That yearning may partially explain why I had an Edith Piaf tune stuck in my head the whole time I was reading this tale of an intrepid armadillo who visits the City of Lights.

However, I suspect there is more to it than that.

Perhaps it is the charcoal portraits of the main character, so meticulously drawn, reminiscent of the detailed sketches of 19th-century naturalists. Which is awesome, because armadillos are such freaky creatures to look at!

Maybe it’s the magic of the story itself—a grandson following in the footsteps of his adventurous grandfather, guided only by a journal that promises the solution to a grand mystery.

triomphe

Or the surprise bursts of colour in the illustrations that bring an art gallery to life or allow you to experience the beauty of multicoloured sunlight streaming into a church.

Perhaps it’s all of the above, with a dash of je ne sais quoi for good measure.

Whatever it is, An Armadillo in Paris will appeal to a child’s sense of wonder and is meant to be pored over again and again. Long after the words have been memorized and the mystery has been solved, kids will enjoy studying the scenes for clues as to the many other things there are to do in Paris, whether it be people-watching along the banks of the Seine, playing chess in the park, or catching a marionette show.

And just WHO is the Iron Lady? Mais, bien sûr, that is something you must discover for yourself, mon petit chou.

Author: Julie Krauliseiffel

Publisher: Tundra Books

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Age range: 5-9

Note: I received a copy of the finished book from the publisher, but opinions are my own.

And the pic on right is a completely amateur shot of the permanent window display of Bon Macaron in my town…8,000 long kilometers from Paris!

Bonus feature (and earworm): A gorgeous rendition of “La Vie en Rose”

Date Squares

When I was a kid and had a craving for something sweet, I would climb up on the counter and start rifling through the cupboards. Once, way at the back, I found a solid dark brick with a scary “WARNING! May Contain Pits” written across the top. But what the heck was it? I flipped it over. Oh…dates! So, what can you make with dates?

recipe bookI dug out my mum’s cookbook, an incredible artifact that I still have today. The “All New” Purity Cook Book was published in 1967, but the first one came out in 1917! Every recipe has “Pre-Sifted PURITY All-Purpose Flour” listed as an ingredient and at the bottom of each spread are charming rotating slogans such as Purity Flour is vitamin-enriched for extra nutrition or Bake easier, bake better with Purity Pre-Sifted Flour.

cake I spent many an hour poring over the pages, and not surprisingly, the book eventually fell apart. But we carefully transferred the contents to a binder and despite my substantial, bordering-on-obsessive cookbook collection, it’s still my go-to for a few classics. (FYI, Whitecap re-released it a few years ago, so you can get yourself a copy if I’ve triggered some nostalgia.)

I used the dates to make Matrimonial Cake (a.k.a. Date Squares) that day, and it was goooooood (and pit free). I have whipped up many a batch since. No one I asked ever seemed to know where the name came from, so this time I did a little research. In the Prairies, the squares were given out as wedding favours. They may have evolved from a “Matrimony Cake,” an English tradition often served at East Coast weddings. With its solid pastry base, smooth filling (made of dried fruits, spices and breadcrumbs), and rough top, it was said to represent the complexities of marriage.

Whatever their origins, date squares are easy, delicious and comforting.

The other day, my son called me at work: “Hey, Mum. Can I make some chocolate chip cookies?” “Sure!” I said. “You know where the book is. Call me if you need anything.”

 

datesDate Squares (Matrimonial Cake)

This is the recipe from Old Faithful. I often double it and bake in a larger pan so I can use the entire brick. Don’t waste lovely Medjools on this recipe; the ones you find in the baking section will do just fine.

Preheat oven to 325°F.

date filling

  • 1 cup chopped dates
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup water

crumb mixture

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter (room temperature)
  • 1 cup lightly packed brown sugar
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  1. Combine dates,  1 tbsp brown sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until dates are soft enough to be mashed with a fork (about 5 minutes). The mixture should be the consistency of jam.
  2. In a large bowl, blend or sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Cut in butter and then blend in 1 cup brown sugar and oats.
  3. Press half the crumb mixture into a greased 8×8 pan. Cover evenly with cooled date filling. Top with remaining mixture and pat until smooth.
  4. Bake in preheated 325°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until a light golden brown. Cool before cutting into squares.

Family Literacy Day

Taking time every day to read or do a learning activity with children is crucial to a child’s development. Even just 15 minutes a day can improve a child’s literacy skills dramatically, and can help a parent improve their skills as well.

Bards BanquetTuesday, January 27, 2015,  is Family Literacy Day, an annual national event created by  ABC Life Literacy Canada to raise awareness of the importance of reading and engaging in other literacy-related activities as a family.

Why not plan a book-filled day? Here’s a list of 15-minute ideas.

Many of these ideas may seem more appropriate for younger kids, but they can easily be modified. Older children may not need you to read to them but whether they admit it or not, they still want you to and you will all benefit if you keep the tradition going. You could switch it up by reading their favourite comic books or interesting or funny articles you’ve come across. Or spend your reading time talking about a book they are reading themselves (at one point I tried to read whatever my eldest was reading but I could not keep up!) or ask them to read out the ingredients for a recipe you think they would enjoy (a great way to generate interest in helping out in the kitchen).

My youngest son is a huge fan of the Kevin Sylvester series about an obnoxious teenage chef with a nose for solving mysteries. So that’s what we’re doing on Literacy Day: cracking open the latest installment: Neil Flambé and the Bard’s Banquet.

The books are fast-paced, travel around the world and are full of lots of fun wordplay (and real groaners too). And, of course, food.  This latest one takes the too-big-for-his-britches chef to London, where he is quickly embroiled (see what I did there?) in a mystery involving Shakespeare, a missing lord, a meal fit for a Queen, and an ancient pot of honey.
madeleines

In honour of the ingredient at the centre of this tale, we’ll be snacking on Regan Daley’s Honey Spice Madeleines, from In the Sweet Kitchen.

Happy reading, everyone!

 

 

Author: Kevin Sylvester

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Genre: Children’s Fiction

Age range: 8-12

The Fly (and other disgusting critters)

 

The FlyWe have a funny story in our family about a fly.

Little Cousin Alex was happily singing away in his high chair, eating a snack. A fly came buzzing into the kitchen, as flies do.

Thwack!

Alex’s mum nailed it with the swatter. But she immediately realized to her horror that her son, eyes big as saucers, had just witnessed his first murder.

Quickly improvising, she picked up the fly by one wing and carefully made her way to the window.

“Out you go, now. Fly, fly!”

She looked back at Alex with a nervous smile. He sighed, then gave her the bad news:

“He’s not going to fly, Mama. You squashed him.”

The WormIf you have a little person in your world who tells it like it is, and perhaps prefers just the facts, ma’am, they are going to love Elise Gravel’s beautiful and quirky Disgusting Critters series. These little gems are perfect for the budding biologist, or anyone who has a soft spot for much-maligned creatures lower down the food chain.

The RatThe compact size is just right for small hands and the illustrations are big and bold and full of life. (Elise has written and illustrated many books for children in French and English. In 2013, she won the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Illustration in French.) The text, a hilarious mix of straight facts (including special talents and food preferences) and sassy commentary from the subject in question, will inspire beginning readers to keep reading and more accomplished readers to maybe finish their science homework.

The SlugAnd let’s not forget the ick factor. There are plenty of snot and poop jokes to go around (and anyone who has kids knows those never go out of style!). One of my favourites is when the slug meets a giant drooling baby. He is clearly impressed.

Because kids apparently can’t get enough of the gross, two new titles will be out in February:  Head Lice (scritch scritch) and The Spider (ack!).

Head Lice

The Spider

Author: Elise Gravel

Publisher: Tundra Books

Genre: Juvenile Non-fiction

Age range: 6-9

 

Bonus Feature: While we’re on the subject, here’s a creepy flashback.

Help meeeeeeeeeee!