CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 13. . . .November 30, 2012
Gem-Bem and the Mystery of the Ball of Branches.
Christine D’Aoust. Illustrated by Brock Nicol.
L’Ange-Gardien, PQ: Les Productions Gem-Bem Inc., 2012.
175 pp., trade pbk., $16.75.
Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.
Review by Mary Thomas.
The two friends kept walking carefully. The path eventually narrowed and split in two. Because one side of the two paths seemed to be used more frequently Gem-Bem and Chardé decided to follow that one. They could smell the odours of different animals and see several footprints set in patches of exposed black earth. Now, walking side by side, Gem-Bem's experience reassured Chardé. Chardé's panoramic sight, which allowed her to see all around them, reassured Gem-Bem.
"This path is kind of nice on the paws, don't you think?" asked Gem-Bem, trying to ease the tension.
"Yes, it's very pleasant walking on the pine needles," agreed Chardé. "And the little patches of spongy earth feel good between my toes too. Actually, I am starting to feel more relaxed. Gem?" Gem had suddenly stopped walking. She sat down, her nose pointed up in the air, and sniffed all around her, her head moving from left to right.
"Chardé, don't you think the air smells different here?" Chardé didn't know what Gem-Bem was doing. She stood on her hind legs and took a deep breath, her small rabbit nose twitched as she sniffed the air.
Gem-Bem is a sleek black cat who lives with her people in a clearing in a wood apparently somewhere in Quebec, though that location is actually indicated only by the name of the street. Like most of her kind, Gem-Bem suffers from insatiable curiosity, but, unlike most cats, hers is a benevolent curiosity. In other words, her food comes from tins, and she's a friend of all the world, even when it is invading her territory. So are her masters who feed and name all the many regulars that they see in their garden. Even the advent of a group of breeding rabbits doesn't faze them! Gem-Bem had never seen rabbits before -- surprisingly! -- but comes to be great friends with one little female, and together they explore the forest as far as a nearby pond and creek. They meet and talk with one family of raccoons and one of otters, and generally they have a happy time discovering and learning more about the nature of things animal and vegetable in their part of the world.
Gem-Ben and the Mystery of the Ball of Branches is a very gentle book, somewhat reminiscent of the stories of Thornton W. Burgess who also wrote happy, informative tales of the woods, streams and meadows. Unlike Burgess, whose books were some of the few beginning novels available back then, D'Aoust is a bit erudite in her vocabulary. It's all very well for Lou the otter to tell a young raccoon that she's a carnivore, eating mainly fish, but adding that "Mother says we're basically piscivores" is a bit over the top. Admittedly, most of the big words are fairly carefully explained in the surrounding verbiage (see Chardé's 'panoramic vision' in the excerpt above), but there are too many of them for most children to absorb.
There are a lot of facts about the various animals and their habitats (the author acknowledges the permitted use of "Hinterland Animal Fact Sheets"), and the coloured illustrations and pencil sketches are detailed, accurate, and attractive. The story is, as I said, gentle, but a less kind word would be, I'm afraid, boring. There is little excitement generated in the telling even of the near drowning of a couple of the raccoon kits, and the solution to the mystery of the ball of branches would not come as a surprise to anyone who had ever heard of a beaver lodge. Children interested in animals -- and big words -- might like having the book read to them, but those of an age to read it for themselves would probably find it heavy-going and not worth the effort.
Recommended with reservations
Mary Thomas has retired from working in elementary school libraries in Winnipeg, MB, but remembers well trying to convince children to try a book that has once been condemned as 'boring' by a contemporary.
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