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Julia, Child

by Kyo Maclear; Julie Morstad (illus.)

Shadow Chasers

by Elly MacKay

In 1872, poet Edward Lear published More Nonsense, a collection of limericks. Lear’s scratchy black-and-white line drawings portrayed all manner of grotesque persons engaged in bizarre behaviour, from teaching fish to walk to eating weird things to strange manners of locomotion. In 1878, the English artist Kate Greenaway published Under the Window: Pictures and Rhymes for Children, which evoked landscapes of sunshine and marigolds, the village green, and pretty dancing children in bonnets and pinafores.

In these two products of Victorian children’s literature we are given completely different views of childhood. Greenaway’s world is safe, graceful, and earnest. Lear’s is dangerous, edgy, and hilarious. In every era we see these opposite approaches to the nature of children and what is appropriate for them. My days in the library suggested to me that, while adults think it is one extreme or the other, most kids enjoy a healthy helping of both.

Author-illustrator Elly MacKay’s Shadow Chasers is firmly in the Greenaway tradition. Three lovely, graceful children leave their cozy cottage and head out to a path through the woods at twilight. As the light fades they dance through the forest, chasing elusive shadows until those shadows move into another world. It’s a classic bedtime reverie. The language is simple and rhythmical, and each turn of the page maintains the energy.

The medium of MacKay’s art is innovative: cut-paper figures pose against multi-layered background scenes set up in a miniature theatre; they are then lit creatively and photographed. In theory this should be a perfect approach to a story about shadows, but the problem is the lighting. In earlier spreads, in which the light is brighter, the children’s figures stand out crisply against the impressionistic background in a way that creates­ depth and mystery. But as evening falls, the colours begin to muddy and the figures lose focus and become blurry. The result is a move from sweet to sentimental, from a story about three particular children and their gentle adventure to a general idea about childhood.

In Julia, Child, author Kyo Maclear and illustrator Julie Morstad present a view of childhood in which the young are more integrated into the adult world, more knowing, and more sophisticated. As in her 2012 picture book, Virginia Wolf, Maclear works in a genre that I believe she has invented: the fictional childhood anecdote of a famous person. Here she takes elements from the life of chef Julia (no-comma) Child and transposes them to the childhood of a little girl, also named Julia.

Readers of Child’s works will remember her description of her first, life-changing meal in France – sole meunière, “heaven to eat” – when she was 36 years old. Maclear gives this experience to a little girl who looks to be about four. Similarly, when Child was 37 she met Simone “Simca” Beck, a French woman who would become her close friend and cookbook collaborator. Maclear and Morstad move this friendship back to childhood, presenting Julia and Simca as two skinny young girls who go to the market, take cooking classes, and work hard at becoming chefs.

The girls observe that adults seem “wary and worried, hectic and hurried,” so they take it upon themselves to invent recipes for growing younger. Their dinner, which includes “a golden compote of fresh peaches, sweet as summer sunlight,” is a wild success, but soon the girls discover that childish adults present a new set of problems. Balance is finally achieved through a judicious application of chocolate.

Morstad’s illustrations, which show children in full colour and adults in line-drawn black and white, are full of jokey details. A sign leading to the girls’ kitchen reads “joie de vivre this way,” Julia zips around on roller skates, the pantry includes not only fleur de sel but also a bottle of Extract of Slow Down. The cookbook the girls write is called Mastering the Art of Childhood.

What will this mean to the reader who is more likely to tackle Kraft Dinner than a cheese soufflé? Plenty. The picture of Simca joyfully tossing a generous lump of butter into a pot simmering with rainbow smells could inspire even the most unambitious of cooks. The sight of adults running amok is always a pleasure, whether it’s Lear’s Old Man on the Border who lives in the utmost disorder or an out-of-control dinner guest who wields her baguette as a cudgel. And what child has not come to the conclusion, along with Julia, that “too many grown-ups don’t have the proper ingredients”?

Here’s hoping Maclear keeps her ears open for other biographical material that might be transformed by a well-placed comma. I’ve got three suggestions, staying vaguely in the culinary world: Halle, Berry; Francis, Bacon; Wolfgang, Puck.