________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2016


Friend or Foe?

John Sobol. Illustrated by Dasha Tolstikova.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2016.
32 pp., hardcover & pdf, $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55498-407-7 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-55498-408-4 (pdf).

Preschool-kindergarten / Ages 3-5.

Review by Michelle Superle.

***½ /4



The mouse studied the cat's whiskered face as she flew through the air. At first he felt sure he was about to be eaten. Then he changed his mind. Perhaps they were to be friends after all.

Friend or Foe, thought the mouse. In a moment I'll know.

Seldom does a picture book examine a truly existential dilemma, but, when it does, it's a welcome addition to the Canadian scene. Friend or Foe? explores the discomfort of wondering about an unknown entity across the wall. The story could be read allegorically on a number of levels, but, taken on the literal level, it can also be enjoyed by preschoolers aged three to five. The most thoughtful of these readers may catch a glimpse of the larger human experience in all its mystery.

      On the literal level, Friend or Foe? is the story of a mouse that gazes at a cat from afar, speculates about the cat as a potential friend, and then changes homes with the cat in a twist of fate. The tale's universal thrust is the yearning for friendship. On a more symbolic level, Friend or Foe? questions how different beings share space and experiences. Its open ending, a narrative feature remaining quite rare in picture books, invites speculation on the nature of existence.

      Dasha Tolstikova's spare, monochromatic illustrations are simultaneously cartoon-like and darkly brooding, reminiscent of the optical illusion that shifts between the old crone and the young maiden. They work to deepen the unsettling themes of the story.

      While Friend or Foe? is not entertaining in the way many readers expect picture books to be, it is thought-provoking. Cutesy, didactic picture books are a dime a dozen, but truly intriguing, enigmatic ones are hard to find. Everyone who enjoys pondering life's unknowns will appreciate Friend or Foe?

Highly Recommended.

Michelle Superle is an Assistant Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, where she teaches children's literature and creative writing courses. She has served twice as a judge for the TD Award for Canadian Children's Literature, and is the author of Black Dog, Dream Dog and Contemporary, English-language Indian Children's Literature (Routledge, 2011).

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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