Almost everything Cary Fagan writes for young people – from his Kaspar Snit books to his instalment of Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two series – is primed with a light coat of magic. Two of his latest books (out of five publishing this spring and summer) are no exception, bubbling and fizzing with classic Fagan whimsy, and featuring the work of promising debut illustrators from B.C.
At first glance, Little Blue Chair looks like a picture book from the 1940s. It’s a timeless story about a chair that quietly travels the world, starting off with a boy named Boo before travelling through a junk shop, across the ocean, on the back of an elephant, up a tree, on a Ferris wheel, and into the sky, until it eventually goes full circle and lands in Boo’s backyard. Now grown up, Boo gives the chair to his young daughter. Fagan gently nudges realism out of the way to allow for the chair’s big adventure, but the tone stays steady and comforting.
Illustrator Madeline Kloepper works in a soothing, muted palette and her tender ink-and-pencil style is part Ruth Krauss and part Julie Morstad, with a vintage tinge. But Kloepper also infuses her style with several modern touches: there are diverse characters and families, everything is suspended in clean, crisp white space, and adult Boo sports a hipster beard and baseball tee. The result is a very sweet little marriage between old and new, with magic officiating the ceremony.
Wolfie and Fly, by contrast, is aimed at a slightly older and more energetic crowd. It’s an early chapter book about a determinedly friendless, science-loving girl named Renata, who likes things her way and has no time for co-operation or compromise. So she’s not thrilled when her parents go out and her hyper-social neighbour, Livingston, comes over to look for a lost baseball. The pair soon find themselves in a reality-bending adventure, playing make-believe inside a refrigerator box-turned homemade submarine, and Renata reluctantly starts to see the benefits of human interaction.
Odd couples are big in early-reading fare: they make for clear, entertaining narratives that are accessible to the burgeoning reader. But the conceit of Renata and Livingston’s friendship feels a bit contrived. They instantly settle on the titular nicknames – Renata’s for her lone- wolf tendencies and Livingston’s because he tends to “buzz around and annoy people.” After their adventure, there’s a rather forced set-up for future books, with Livingston asking, “You mean like a team? … You mean like friends?” But Zoe Si’s rambunctious ink-and-watercolour spot illustrations add some pizazz.
Si, an Instagram sensation for her hilarious cartoons portraying everyday life, has a style best likened to a child-friendly, bigger-hearted version of the Oatmeal comics. Her characters are round, open-mouthed, and usually in a hyperbolic state of joy or sadness. And, despite using a thicker line, her drawings have the quick movement, energy, and zip of Marie-Louise Gay. It’s the polar opposite of Kloepper’s style in Little Blue Chair, but it works – both for Wolfie and Fly’s wacky underwater trip and the older independent reading audience who may need some motivation to make it to the end of their first chapter book.