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Showing kids the big picture

[Elizabeth McCallum, The Globe and Mail, November 14, 1992]

The Year of Fire
Written by Teddy Jam
Illustrated by Ian Wallace

The Year of Fire is the first collaboration between Teddy Jam, nom de plume of an infuriatingly elusive writer, who wrote the brilliant Night Cars and the illustrator Ian Wallace, known to thousands of children not just through his wonderful books but also thanks to his countless public school visits. Even Wallace, who is so thorough in his research, doesn't know who Teddy Jam is. Or so he says.

A young girl visiting her grandfather in the country narrates The Year of Fire, recounting the old man's story about the great fire he helped fight during his childhood. It cleared the land all around and, when a huge branch fell on her great-uncle, his eyebrows as well. By dividing the book into five short chapters, Teddy Jam allows the heart of the story to be surrounded by the comfortable, unhurried relationship between an old man and his beloved granddaughter, while providing young readers with frequent breaks. The prose is not exactly breathtaking, but it is successfully understated and believable in form and content.

Wallace's earlier works have more space for his stunning illustrations than The Year of Fire (an early reader chapter book). The first time I looked at this new offering was to read it aloud "right now!" to a persistent child. Because the longer text kept this reader-servant so busy, the artwork seemed less striking than Wallace's earlier picture books like The Very Last First Time or The Name of the Tree. However, looking through The Year of Fire at leisure, the strength of the illustrations is unmistakable. Pictures and text frame and complement each other with artful variety. While Wallace has always shied away from portraiture, his characters are appealing, and everything around them is bang on.

As usual, he has changed his style and technique to suit the subject, this time abandoning the soft pencil crayons of the last few years for pen and ink with wash. The line work is so dense and painstaking that I phoned Groundwood to check that Wallace hadn't ventured into print making. His craftsmanship is impressive but never ostentatious, and the artistic result full of depth and atmosphere with the colours building to such a crescendo at the forest fire that the turn-over page of barren wintry landscape is shocking. And the details of nature all around are simply a delight.

Copyright © Ian Wallace