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Book Review: The Sugaring-Off Party by Jonathan London, Illustrated by Gilles Pelletier

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Most children’s picture books that are set in Quebec or depict Quebecois culture are written in French. While searching for a children’s picture book written in English to introduce my children to Quebec through literature, I kept coming up empty. Textbook style works describing Quebec’s culture, geography, economy etc. are widely available, but a living, breathing experience of Quebec as found in story was nigh impossible to find. That’s one reason why The Sugaring-Off Party by Jonathan London is such a treasure.

As Paul and his grandmother reflect upon the upcoming sugaring-off party, they snuggle together in front of the fireplace as she shares her reminiscences of the first such party – a cabane a sucre – that she attended as a small girl.

”Every March for many, many years, the family has driven out to a maple sugaring in the country. But tomorrow will be Paul’s very first time.”

London brings the party to life with interspersed French phrases, snippets of song, and the exquisite anticipation of a newly experienced family tradition. The child-like delight found in each new aspect of the party, from the horse drawn journey to the sugar shack, the gathering of the syrup, and the resulting celebration held my little ones enthralled throughout the book.

A sense of anticipation grows with each passing page as Paul’s grandmother, her siblings, cousins and other children eagerly await the grand finale of the party. Once la tire (a sweet taffy that is the result of pouring, thick, sticky maple syrup onto fresh snow) is served in a delicious climax, the eager mood is replaced with the satisfaction, security, and belonging that are birthed from the participation in a time-honored tradition.

A helpful reference page at the book’s end includes a glossary that defines the commonly sprinkled French words found throughout the text, the origins of the phrase ‘sugar moon’, and the French and English lyrics for the first verse of “Alouette”.

My children were equally surprised and intrigued to find the loving grandmother referring to her grandson as “mon petit chou”, my little cabbage. My husband and I were both surprised to find that this traditional song – which many commit to memory in childhood without understanding its meaning – details the rather explicit, and somewhat taunting plucking of a lark.

Illustrated by Gilles Pelletier, the bold, saturated colours are reminiscent of folk-art. Executed in dense, opaque oils in a warmly inviting palette, each picture breathes anticipation and excitement. Simple forms, figures and shapes fill each page to the brim, creating riotous scenes filled with activity, life and joy. Each painted scene is broad, capturing landscape, central and peripheral characters, and all manners of detail in the surroundings.

The inclusion of such detail in each illustration draws readers into the pictures. The Sugaring-Off Party is best read slowly, each page lingered over in order to allow the necessary time to visually gather in the many events that are taking place within each page.

Serving up timeless Quebecois culture and traditions, a hands-on perspective of simple maple syrup/sugar production, and a glimpse into Canada’s past The Sugaring-Off Party will engage and delight all who peruse it.

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