Lisa Doucet Reviews When Emily Was Small

Soloy’s poetic prose and sumptuous illustrations pay homage to a beloved artist and writer

In her debut picture book, Nova Scotia’s Lauren Soloy brings readers a tender glimpse into the mind and heart of a young Emily Carr, before she became the beloved Canadian artist, whose work is recognized and celebrated throughout the world.   

Despite her mother’s admonition to not dirty her Sunday dress, Emily’s curiosity and fascination with the natural world lead her to her own wonder-filled explorations. With a joyful reverence, she traipses through her father’s vegetable garden, weaves her way through the currant bushes and lovingly investigates all the forgotten wild places.   

As Emily opens herself to the sights and smells and sounds—the bees and blossoms and butterflies that beckon—she finds peace. Immersed in these wonders, she becomes attuned to the subtle mysteries all around her: the sunlight glowing in the shadows; the marvelous songs emanating from the seas and trees; the stillness that thrums with life and secrets.   

When she is jolted back into the world of dirty dresses and scolding mothers, a world in which she feels helpless and small, Emily’s heart reminds her that she is part of a bigger, beautiful world. 

While this book captures just one tiny moment of Emily’s childhood, a single afternoon of backyard investigations, it speaks volumes about who she was and how she experienced her world. Soloy astutely distinguishes Emily’s feelings of smallness when she is being reminded of all the things she shouldn’t do from her feelings of reverence when she is lost in her wilderness becoming Small: a creature who is full of life and awe and exuberance.   

It is then that she meets Wild, and together Small and Wild delight in nature’s profound goodness and almost discover a special secret. Alas, Emily is forced back to her everyday life of trying to be respectable … and small.   

With beautifully crafted sentences and exquisite turns of phrase, Soloy has created a simple but revealing portrait of a girl who looked carefully, listened with her heart and whose heightened awareness of the world around her enabled her to “danc(e) to the rhythm of her own small heart.”  

The mixed-media illustrations are lush and vibrant, loose-lined with bold, dark outlines.  Richly textured with depth and hints of shadows, the colours are beautifully saturated.   

With her own distinct style, Soloy’s poetic prose and sumptuous illustrations pay homage to this beloved artist and writer, and give readers of all ages a sense of how one small girl’s sensitivity to nature’s beauty lead her to her own artistic expressions. 

Written By

Lisa Doucet is the co-manager of Woozles Children’s Bookstore in Halifax. She shares her passion for children’s and young adult books as our young readers editor and book reviewer.

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