Friday, December 20, 2013

The Fox in Winter: Three Northern Picture Books

My Father's Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde and Oyving Torseter
Once upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol and Isabelle Arsenault
Fox on the Ice by Tomson Highway and Brian Deines

All three of these lovely picture books have a fox in snow on the cover. In honour of that crazy Ylvys video on YouTube (What Does the Fox Say?) I'll start with the Norwegian book on my list.

The kitchen is in topsy-turvy
perspective: their lives have
been turned upside down.
My Father's Arms Are a Boat is a quiet book about finding solace during a time of grief. A small child's bedroom door is ajar, "'So that your dreams can come out to me,' Daddy said when I left." But the boy can't sleep, so he climbs into his father's lap and is comforted with reassuring answers to his many questions. (Will the fox eat the bread that has been put out for the birds? No, the fox doesn't like bread.)

I love the ordinariness: the typical
bungalow, the swing, the trees.
They go out into the stillness of a winter night, the boy carried wrapped in his father's sheepskin coat. They draw comfort from each other and from nature. They wish on a star. Then the two return inside to the cozy red warmth of a fire.

Torseter's illustrations combine digital techniques with three-dimensional paper sculpture. They are understated and effective. The colour scheme is muted, mostly gray and white, with judicious use of hopeful beating-heart red.

While father and son are talking in the house, we are shown what's happening outdoors: the fox sniffs the bread left for the birds, then leaves. In the final wordless scene (above left) morning has come and the birds eat the bread. As his father promised, "Everything will be alright."
You have to look closely for
the fox because it's gray.

The northern Canadian landscape is not so different from Norway. In Once upon a Northern Night, the child's home is also set in a wooded area. The story also moves through night into morning. Pendziwol has written a gentle bedtime story, a lullaby in winter's voice. "While you lay sleeping, / wrapped in a downy blanket, / I painted you a picture. / It started with one tiny flake, / perfect / and beautiful / and special, / just like you."

A picnic table covered in snow;
a tiny mouse scurries away.
Snow and frost slowly transform the scene, inhabited by wild creatures like deer, snowshoe hares and a fox. In the morning, the child views the final magical result through his window.

Arsenault's whimsical art is understated in charcoal tones with lots of white. Each double page spread features one colour; a bit of green or red or blue. The animals are lively, full of activity. The hares have rosy-cheeks like the sleeping child. "And then / I had the moon gently kiss you / and the wind whisper... / I love you."
Contemporary Cree boys typically
wear their hair in a braid, like this.

The final picture book is also Canadian. Highway has written dual text in Cree, his first language, as well as English. The action takes place during an Indigenous family's daytime ice fishing expedition. A fox causes a commotion by stirring up the sled dogs, who then give chase. A child's pet dog saves the day. Deines luminous paintings are full of life and colour. I love his work so much that I have one of his prints on my bedroom wall.

The fox says nothing in these three picture books. I say they are all very fine.

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