#923 Return to the Book of Small
When Emily was Small
by Lauren Soloy
Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2020 (Tundra Books)
$21.99 / 9780735266063
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
Lauren Soloy is both author and illustrator of this lovely adaptation of Emily Carr’s “White Currants” from The Book of Small (1942), which Doris Shadbolt, in the introduction to The Emily Carr Omnibus, sums up thusly: Carr “reconstructs herself as the little girl growing up in Victoria.” Soloy, whose introduction to Carr came at a young age via her own mother, takes children on a pleasant and revelatory expedition through the wonder and power of the quotidian natural world in their own backyards. In the everyday garden lies the key to the soul.
The reader is quickly apprised of the fact that the Emily of the title is not just any young Emily; she is “a girl who would grow up to be the artist Emily Carr.” We also know she has a mind of her own, as she ignores the faceless female caregiver who utters the first dialogue, commanding her to keep her best dress clean. Emily takes a trip through her father’s garden in a manner that prefigures the future artist’s animism, beginning with greeting the plants and the breeze. The genesis of the artist and theosophist is also evident in the detail with which the protagonist delves beyond the outer appearance of the white currants: as she mentally dissects the plant, she senses the mystery at its heart.
In a way reminiscent of works by Canadian Romantic poets such as Archibald Lampman, Soloy’s Emily moves from mystery to contemplation and inner peace, as she reflects on the power of not only nature’s sights, but also its sounds, on her. Like the narrator in “White Currants,” in Carr’s retrospective first person, the fictional Emily evinces an awareness of the inner calm that can ensue from deep interaction with nature.
From contemplation, our protagonist moves to action, as she is taken on a spiritual and artistic journey by The Wild, a friendly wolf who guides her to further scrutinize the wonderment in her surroundings — the interplay of light and colour, for example. Emily sheds her smallness as the pair wafts above terra firma, flying high over the garden, achieving a transcendent perspective and coming to rest in a mystical and fluid atmosphere that is almost tangible. The altered, transcendent state that nature can induce is lyrically depicted.
However, the flight comes to an abrupt end when the caregiver brings Emily back down to earth, admonishing her for getting her dress dirty. The Wild evaporates, nature loses its mystical qualities, and Emily becomes small again as her caregiver resumes outward control. Yet Emily is transformed: the natural world is integrated into her being. As is revealed in a delightful final image, the budding artist has completed a stage in her metamorphosis.
When Emily was Small is a satisfying adaptation that recognizes one of the first rules of all good writing: consider your audience. The book stays quite close to the plot of the original, but makes some wise character changes. The stagey Wild is a successful substitution for the unnamed (and unseen) boy, mounted on a white horse, in “White Currants.” The adult intruder is quite generic in both versions, although Soloy assigns a gender to her, as well as giving her a more prescriptive role that highlights Emily’s daring. When Emily was Small is more dramatic — less modulated — than its progenitor, a sound artistic decision for contemporary youngsters. In fact, the book’s writing style is likely to make it a regular with many young readers. Rife with visual and sonic imagery, the prose is simple and direct, and Soloy is keenly aware of the power of alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhyme not only to engage children’s ears but also to facilitate their reading ability.
Soloy is equally adept at illustrations. Young Emily has a firm, determined countenance, affixed to which is a wild, expressive, over-the-top coiffure that certainly works on an imaginative level. Soloy has managed to render The Wild as a friendly, benevolent force (no mean feat given the role of wolf in much of mythology). The setting in the tale is, of course, much more than mere backdrop, and the lush natural imagery echoes the style for which Emily Carr is most recognized today; Soloy’s illustrations variously evoke glee, sadness, and astonishment. A highlight is the expressionist illustration of Emily in the state of peace, as the strictures of her society flow out of that strange mane. The book itself provides a glimpse into the illustration media, which include watercolours, crayons, ink and pixels. The charming trailer video to the book supplies further insight into Soloy’s artistic methods.
Unsurprisingly, Soloy is not the first to bring Carr to the world of contemporary children’s literature. For example, Jo Ellen Bogart provides a biographical overview in Emily Carr: At the Edge of the World, Monica Kulling puts the artist’s famous monkey in the picture in When Emily Carr Met Woo, and Susan Vande Griek imagines a classroom of students with Carr in charge in The Art Room. This is not to imply that the field is overly mined; it is, rather, an indication of the richness of Carr’s life and work — in particular, its appeal to the imaginations of humans of all ages.
Lauren Soloy has laid solid groundwork here for a series of adaptations. When she originally announced the publication of When Emily was Small, she noted it is part of a two-book deal, with “a second untitled picture book to follow in summer of 2021.”
Further research indicates that book may be called Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem. Let’s hope more renderings of The Book of Small are not too far off. When Emily was Small is a worthy addition to the oeuvre of literary homages to the iconic Canadian writer/painter who took British Columbia’s landscape as her inspiration — as well as a winning read in its own right.
In the midst of a metamorphosis of her own, Ginny Ratsoy was honoured to accept the invitation of playwright Marcia Johnson to write the foreword to Serving Elizabeth, slated for release by Scirocco Drama in October, 2020. Ratsoy’s latest academic publication is about a wonderful third-age learning organization, The Kamloops Adult Learners Society (KALS) in No Straight Lines: Local Leadership and the Path from Government to Government in Small Cities, edited by Terry Kading (University of Calgary Press, 2018), reviewed by Michael Lait in The Ormsby Review. She is delighted to add that her recent retirement from academia has made it possible for her to join the board of directors of KALS, for whom she has instructed since 2007.
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