The spirits of Lear and Belloc are channelled in Barbara Nichol’s arousingly illogical book of light verse, The Lady from Kent, about, well, a lady who says she’s from Kent. But as we quickly learn the Lady says a lot of things, few of which relate to a recognizable reality. They sure are entertaining, though.
The book is divided into sections, told to an unseen narrator, that function as a kind of absurdist resumé. In “Early Years,” we meet the Lady’s pet raccoon. When the Lady was a child, she instructed the animal to play the violin (and spoons), earning the animal’s lifelong loyalty. “Some Worthy Acts” catalogues the Lady’s generosity: in addition to running a charm school for bats, she taught “autumn leaves to fall” and “giants to be small.”
“Oddities and Accomplishments” (which could describe the whole book) boasts of how the Lady does the daily crossword “never looking at the clues” and bakes chocolate cake “without ingredients.” Her claim of having invented the bathing cap and rake, however, provokes skepticism on the part of the narrator (the rake, after all, “is eons old”). This causes the Lady to become peevish, her tone “very cold”: “Her answer came so quickly / That it might have been rehearsed: / “I said I had invented it, / Not that I was first!”
“A Business Venture” describes how the Lady once befriended a “vast swarm of killer bees” that she trained to perform circus acts disguised as fleas, all while remaining mindful of the capitalist imperative: “She taught them to walk tightropes, / And bring tigers to submission, / And many other wondrous feats, /For which she charged admission.”
This is the ninth children’s book by the multi-talented Nichol (who also created the beloved recording Beethoven Lives Upstairs) and the fourth by illustrator Bill Pechet. An architect and designer by trade, Pechet once represented Canada at the Venice Biennale with the world’s largest polar-fleece garment, giving him exactly the right credentials for this project.
The Lady from Kent is so musical and clever it comes as a surprise when the rhymes occasionally mash their gears. But think of that as praising with faint damnation: page after page, Nichol shores up surface whimsy with blazing originality and intelligence.
A new collection by Newfoundland poet Agnes Walsh, her first since the release of GOING AROUND WITH BACHELORS (2007). Born and raised in Placentia, NL, Walsh studied folklore in Georgia (USA), before returning home and taking to writing works founded in her love of her ancestral place. ODERIN is an homage to Walsh’s mother, who liked to sign her letters, “Love from your loving mother—Mother.”
Last year I thought it was curtains for Pedlar. I had been searching for over three years for someone to join me, a successor, and had had no firm statement of interest from anyone. Then Monica Kidd restated hers—this time more vociferously—in 2017, and we began to have real talks. Then Linda Spalding said I mustn’t close Pedlar, especially not before I looked at The Lady From Kent by her friend Barbara Nichol. Twice nominated for a Juno award, winning for her platinum recording, “Beethoven Lives Upstairs,” and a finalist for an Emmy Award for “Basil Hears a Noise” (Sesame Street), and for Dippers, a Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature, Barbara Nichol is a powerhouse of zany enthusiasm for children and their stories, this new one written over many years with Post-it notes and a piecing together of scenes, like a giant jigsaw puzzle that she believed had only one right outcome.
Everything coalesced. Barbara and I asked ourselves who would be the right person to illustrate the book. We wanted a light and playful hand. Enter Bill Pechet, who holds a professional degree in architecture from the University of British Columbia School of Architecture, who is a lecturer-in-practice at UBC, and who has illustrated Bill Richardson books. I called designer Zab Hobart out of Pedlar retirement, asking her to turn her genius lights on this project.
There is a queer sensibility at base in this book of delights, and the perceptive reader will notice many tiny illustrative flourishes Bill Pechet has added on many pages. For example, here’s the Lady training for walking marathons:
And here is the Lady’s pal raccoon, playing spoons? Or is it bones? With a framed photo on the wall of—well, what is that, exactly?
The delight I had while making JonArno Lawson’s books (illustrated by Sherwin Tjia), Black Stars in a White Night Sky and Man in the Moon-Fixer’s Mask came back with a powerful surge, as did the very painful memory of how little support Pedlar received from mainstream media outlets, even after Lawson and Tjia won the very prestigious Lion & The Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Children’s Literature, adjudicated through Johns Hopkins University. We took on this project knowing we would have to fight for its proper place in literary history, as all too often the works from literary houses are seen as less important and therefore less noteworthy. Pedlar goes into this fall season with eyes wide open for anyone who looks the least bit interested in helping what we think could turn out to be a classic children’s book fall into many right hands.
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Barbara Nichol has written nine children’s books, is an essayist, dramatist for radio and television, comedy writer, songwriter, and, for many years, a documentarian for the CBC program, Ideas.
Photo by Tess Steinkolk