CM . . . . Volume V Number 16 . . . . April 9,
"Let's go fix that fence," said Matthew's dad, "before the cows wander all over the streets of Cremona."The Strongest Man This Side of Cremona is not only a fine picture book, but it is also an excellent example of good bookmaking. The action cover illustration, taken from a dramatic moment within the book, is strikingly contrasted with the pastoral end papers which feature a herd of Holstein cows contentedly chewing their cuds in a field. A ribbon of cabbages wends its way across the half-title pages. Throughout, Graham effectively utilizes double page spreads which capture the vastness of the Alberta prairies adjacent to the foothills.
On a seemingly ordinary mid to late summer day, Matthew, a young boy, joins his father who is going into the fields to mend some fencing. As his father lifts him over barbed wire fences and verbally intimidates the cows, Matthew thinks, "My dad is the strongest man this side of Cremona" (a community north-west of Calgary). As they work, the sky continues to darken, and suddenly Matthew alerts his father to an approaching funnel cloud. The pair run, father carrying son, and seek shelter in a culvert as the tornado roars overhead. After its passage, the two return to their farm where they find Ma unhurt but numerous outbuildings and pieces of equipment damaged. However, their neighbours show up and assist them in repairing the damage and rounding up the livestock. Matthew realizes that no one, not even the strongest man this side of Cremona, can stop a tornado, but his dad's love "was more than strong enough."
Heavy clouds, which foreshadow the coming tornado, hang over the farm on the cover page double spread, and they continue to occupy more of each spread until the tornado strikes. Graham's watercolour illustrations capture the various emotions the characters experience from their fear to the relief of finding everyone safe. Secondary "characters," like the family dog, with its lolling tongue and coat blowing in the increasing wind, as well as the cows, which are caught in their awkward "gallop" as they flee the storm, visually reinforce the book's action. While Graham has previously illustrated four other books, this, her first venture as both author and illustrator, is a very auspicious beginning.
Collectors of art from children's illustrators should note that limited edition prints are available of the end papers' cows and Ma's cabbages. Ordering information is found on the copyright page.
Dave Jenkinson teaches children's and YA literature at the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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