STARRED REVIEW — Quill & Quire — The Lady From Kent, Barbara Nichol, illustrated by Bill Pechet

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.

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