Thursday, August 30, 2018

Two New Book Reviews: Jessica Willams(w/ illustrator Mateya Ark), and Paulette Dubé

“Mama's Cloud”
Written by Jessica Williams, Illustrations by Mateya Ark
Published by All Write Here Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$22.50  ISBN 978-1-7753456-1-9

There's no rule that says children's books must feature "feel good" stories, and I applaud those writers who do tackle the serious or sensitive subjects - like illness, bullying, or poverty - and find a way to create stories that children will find interesting and entertaining. Saskatchewan writer Jessica Williams has just done this. In Mama's Cloud she's teamed with Bulgarian illustrator Mateya Ark to deliver an engaging story about a woman who suffers from depression (or at least the blues), and the ways in which her imaginative young daughter attempts to cheer her.

Williams begins by presenting readers with an idyllic mother-daughter relationship. The child-narrator says "When Mama smiles, her eyes twinkle like a thousand fireflies. Her hair is soft and smells like purple lilacs in spring. Mama is Magical …" The pair play games of "Fairies and Wizards and Superheroes," and in both text and illustration "Mama" is portrayed as smiling and affectionate. But "Sometimes a dark cloud drifts into the room and settles over her". And thus begins the child's mission to restore "Mama's magic".

This book succeeds on several levels. Firstly, Williams maintains a light hand, using poetic language with each of the daughter's ideas, ie: "I will float into the room on a warm breeze smelling of sunshine and lemonade". Were she to stop at "sunshine," this would still be an effective line, but the addition of "lemonade" boosts it into the realm of delightful. Repetition is a major device used in books for young children, and Williams embraces it. On another page the girl says "I will build a machine with gadgets and levers and pulleys and springs. At the push of a button the machine will whirl into action and the spinning fan blades will blast Mamas cloud out of the house". As a unicorn (unicorns are currently a trendy birthday party theme, I've noticed), the child says she "will close [her] eyes and lay [her] white muzzle on Mama's lap". However, after presenting each of these ideas, the young narrator admits that she is not a unicorn or a wizard or anything else - she is just a concerned daughter, and maybe there's enough magic in just being her warm and regular self - in "sweatshirt and slippers" - to make a difference. It's a realistic and encouraging message for a wide audience.

Ark's full-bleed illustrations are note-worthy for their whimsy and limited pallet. Using mostly blues for the "cloud" pages, and shades of yellow for illustrations featuring the child and her ideas, these soft images and colours emulate the theme of being gentle with oneself, and with others.       
At, Williams says "Books with engaging stories and exceptional artwork can ignite a child's enthusiasm for reading, build imagination and encourage children to dream and become". Mama's Cloud is a prime example of this. While not all experience a recurring "cloud," like Mama, surely everyone has the occasional down day, and this empowering story could help lift hearts - of all sizes.  


Written by Paulette Dubé
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-156-3
Autant, the highly-original novel by Albertan Paulette Dubé, begins with a confession - in the Catholic sense - and a directory of the multiple characters who populate this 144-page tale set in small fictional Autant, Alberta. The inter-generational story unfolds between two years - 1952 and 2012 - and it's big on superstition, angels, sibling dynamics, and bees.

At the centre of the bustling "hive" is the Franco-Albertan Garance family, headed by Edgar and Lucille. The youngest of their daughters, perceptive Bella, is prone to bleeding and headaches, and as Lucille's offspring she comes by her superstitions honestly. Lucille paints her kitchen door blue "so that angels would recognize the house as a safe place," and as a child she found a stone that "gave her dreams of a tall ship, a beautiful woman with blue eyes, long red hair, and, then, a small boat on dark water". Young Bella also has an affinity for stones. She leaves them for her mother as gifts "inside shoes, beside the bed, under the pillow. It was her way of saying I love you, goodbye, and I took four biscuits." These quotes aptly demonstrate the way in which this novel moves between moments of magic realism and the every day (ie: "biscuits"). The book also paints a realistic picture of the laborious and sometimes bloody work that is a fact of rural life, ie: butchering livestock.   

Interspersed between the familial storylines are short comedic episodes in which God and the angel Ruel are in a bar "nursing warm beers," while discussing the latter's return to and mission in the mortal world. (Coyote and Lily, an otherworldy gal - who "blows a perfect square" with her cigarette - also feature here). Bella is nonplussed by her visits from Ruel, with the ever-changing eyes. He tells her an anecdote about God using His ear wax to create ten bees to gather stories about "the goings on of the world," and indeed, bees feature in this novel in myriad ways, from honey recipes and its medicinal uses to, naturally, stings. "Straight honey on a boil" is said to "[shrink] that ugly blot to nothing in about two days". Could honey be Autant's "gold mine," or might bees portend doom?

Dubé has previously published five poetry collections, and though this book is predominantly told in dialogue - and most people don't "speak" in poetry - the Westlock-born writer does occasionally sweeten her prose with honey-like phrases, ie: "Summer was buttoned with roses".

This short novel's most interesting characters, like Lucille, tread between devout Christianity and superstition. The woman who tells her daughter that she needs to "Pray [her] braid" as she plaits her daughter's locks - "Each twist of hair, each over-under connection, was blessed" - is also the woman who transfers stories to bees through her skin. Dubé's assuredly created a world where one might confuse ash, "so delicate silver-white," with moth wings. Complex, daring, imaginative, and beautifully-produced, this new Thistledown Press release hums with energy.