The perfect line

We took a trip to London, my parents and I, when I was almost six years old. Before we left for the UK they gave me a book whose memory I cherish:

Miroslav Sasek's This is London, full of eccentric street vignettes, sharply-outlined and dense with detail. My few memories of the city from so long ago have fused into memories of the book. It's as if I went to London with M. Sasek, not with Mr. and Mrs. MacFarlane at all.

Around the same time I felt very strongly about an illustration of  Northern Lights, which I had yet to see in the sky, in a book about (why not?) a flying frog. Later I was surprised, when I looked it up, to find that it had a plot (the frog went around the world to save Christmas from peril.) I remembered only the frog, vaguely, and — intensely — a pastel curtain of billowing, gleaming light against dark night skies.

I would look greedily — greedy for the delight of a perfect line — at Edward Ardizzone's illustrations in his series of Tim books (Tim All Alone, etc.) Brave Tim has all kinds of adventures at sea, but it's those pictures, their lines — loose, delicate curves and thready cross-hatching — that are always with me. My doodle, when daydreaming all these years later, is patch after patch of crisscrossing lines, an undulating carpet of light and shadow.

I dreamed of plunging myself into the illustrations I loved, just as Mary Poppins' young charges entered that sidewalk chalk drawing. P.L. Travers' Poppins series was full of images, spare and astringent and unlike those of the visually lush film, which the author famously loathed. My friend Sharon and I read and reread our copies of the books and got out our Laurentian pencils to improve its drawings with colour, by tracing and retracing Miss Poppins' contours from her gherkin nose to her balletically turned-out boots.

(Mary Shepard made those illustrations and she was the daughter of E.H. Shepard, who drew for Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh. Imagine them drawing together...)

I bought myself the enchanting new book Sidewalk Flowers recently and have been turning its pages often. That feeling of illustrations carrying the story is, well, the real thing here. Author JonArno Lawson's narrative  — as a distracted dad and his daughter walk home through midtown Toronto she gathers and offers up weedy bouquets — is wordless. Sydney Smith moves the pair through the city in ink and watercolour images crowded with interest, each a sweetly affecting gem with sensitive perspective. The book won a Governor General's award last year. (Smith also works on Hey Rosetta!'s graphic design; each of their albums has a different and striking visual mood.)

It was such a pleasure to buy a children's book just for myself — just because. I'll give it away eventually. For now I am enjoying thinking, quite self-centredly, about being wide-eyed, about the feel of pages old and new under my fingertips, about living in my imagination when we were just beginning to know each other, and about the perfect lines that first began to build it.