December 30, 2011

Little Jane Silver

by Adira Rotstein
Dundurn
978-1554888788
268 pp.
Ages 9-14
2011

The yarns that Long John Silver the Second and Adira Rotstein weave are the rich tales told before roaring fires on winter's nights, when the seas are too cold for pirating and the coffers too empty for shopping.  They're stories of heroes and villains, kindness and treachery, gentle rocking and violent swordfighting.  Luckily for readers, Rotstein's stories are meant solely to entertain and will not result in the inadequate education that Little Jane Silver may endure courtesy of her father's tongue.

Of course, Little Jane Silver is in rapture of her father's story-telling, just as she adores her parents, Captains Long John Silver the Second and Bonnie Mary Bright, as they do their only child.  Little Jane (how she despises that inescapable moniker) hungrily absorbs the details of their pirate lives in hopeful preparation for her anticipated entry into the family business.  During the cold, rainy season, Little Jane lives at her family's inn, the Spyglass, at Smuggler's Bay.  But during the warms months, she joins them and their crew on the Pieces of Eight, pirating, smuggling and hiding loot on the cursed Nameless Isle (actually only her parents are able to hide the loot without harm).

At age twelve, however, Little Jane realizes that she isn't regarded as a pirate to be respected or feared and she begins her training by making observations in her journal, How to be a Good Pirate, as advised by the ship's cook, Ishiro.  Unfortunately, Jane's observation skills earn her the directed wrath of the boatswain, Ned Ronk, whose intimidation and mutinous attitude will ultimately separate Little Jane from her parents and put their lives and happy family in danger.

Adira Rotstein balances the language and jargon of pirates with the subtle humour that affords the text the lightness to scoot the story into a high-seas adventure.  When Little Jane's fencing tutor is described as "upper crust" (pg. 69), the young girl suggests that it would be more fun to be the fruit filling.  Even a misunderstanding about her father by nasty Charity and Felicity ("cannibal" for "cannonball"), when Little Jane tells them that "a cursed cannonball chewed off his foot" (pg. 246), results in Little Jane declaring, "how could I be the daughter of a cannonball? Ain't anyone ever told you babies don't come from cannons? Artillery's got nothing to do with it"(pg 246).  Yet the depth of feelings demonstrated by Little Jane and her parents for each other is very clear, ultimately leading Long John Silver the Second to declare that they would survive so that he might tell Little Jane his true story and Little Jane promising to find her parents.  Sadly, the reader will need to wait until the next book in this series,  Little Jane Silver and the Nameless Isle, comes out in September, 2012 to learn the fates of Little Jane, Long John Silver the Second and Bonnie Mary Bright, as masterminded by the friend-turned-foe, Fetz.

December 27, 2011

Blood Red Road

by Moira Young
Doubleday Canada
978-0-385-67183-5
459 pp.
Ages 14+
2011

Moira Young's debut novel, Blood Red Road, begins as a dust storm: sudden, painful, devastating and gritty.  In their post-Wreckers world at Silverlake, eighteen-year-old Saba and her family endure the lack of rain and resources, looking to the stars for guidance and the landfill for materials. After a violent dust storm, accompanied by lightning, which turns everything red, life just shifts from bad to worse.  Men on horseback murder her Pa and abduct her twin, Lugh.  Leaving her shanty existence for the first time, Saba pursues her brother's trail, accompanied by her pet crow Nero and her nine-year-old sister, Emmi.  Learning more about her parents' early lives and their stay in Hopetown, Saba heads for the brutal town where the violent Tonton, who took Lugh, control the people and slaves with the use of a drug, chaal.  Unfortunately, it's Saba's anger and tenacity that make her attractive to Rooster Pinch and Miz Pinch, who press her into the brutality of cage-fighting (as the "Angel of Death") by threatening Emmi.  Sadly, only if they escape Hopetown do Saba and Emmi have any chance of finding Lugh. 

Their isolation at Silverlake has not prepared Saba for the multitude of characters that she encounters in her quest for Lugh, making it difficult for her to assess accurately their true natures, sometimes not until it is too late.  Her most difficult relationships seem to be with Emmi and with Jack, a young male cage-fighter.  Saba continues to vacillate between trust and resentment, often overlooking the insights of others or almost squandering opportunities for assistance.  As strong as she is physically and emotionally, Saba's misunderstanding and naiveté weaken her, threatening to jeopardize her self-imposed mission.

The grittiness of the story is matched by the text, told from Saba's perspective and in her words, just as she speaks them.  She trusts the red hot in her stummick that tells of her raging anger and she knows about talkin an fightin but not about books or history or the technology of the Wreckers such as their bolt shooters or long lookers. The text can be disconcerting to read, with its lack of quotation marks for dialogue and its perfunctory spelling, but it emphasizes the reinvention of a society to its most fundamental - survival.  Literacy and progress have been eschewed as the values of a Wreckers' society whose failure is evident in their abandoned settlements littering the landscape.

Justifiably, Blood Red Road has been compared to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy with its theme of survival in a dystopian world led by a despot and his cohorts who rule over the suffering masses.  Luckily, another commonality lies in the book's inclusion in a trilogy.  To my great relief, Blood Red Road is just Book 1 in the Dustlands trilogy so readers (particularly those reading it in the White Pine reading program) can look forward to a sequel in 2012.  My own heavy heart at the end of my reading of Blood Red Road has been assuaged, knowing that soon enough I will learn more about Jack's pre-Saba life, the mystery of DeMalo and the nature of Saba, Lugh and Emmi's new life at the Big Water.

December 23, 2011

Falling for Henry

by Beverley Brenna
Red Deer Press
978-0-88995-442-7
281 pp.
Ages 12+
2011

Discontented Kate Allen hardly seems a substantial enough character (except for her full figure) to carry her from the 21st century back to 1507 to connect with young Prince Henry, Duke of York, future king.  But, a bizarre incident in a tunnel slips Kate back in time to become Katherine of Aragon, widow of Henry's elder brother and soon-to-be first wife of Henry VIII himself.

Amazing circumstances for a young girl, unhappily living with her older sister in London, following the accidental death of their father in New York.  With a mother who disappeared when she was quite young and a grandmother in Brighton, Kate moves to England where her sister, Willow, is attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  During a school field trip to Greenwich, claustrophobic Kate enters a tunnel and strangely witnesses a hunting party led by a red-haired young man who kills a buck; a young girl on a gray mare hiding from the others; and a wolf cub and a snarling adult. Although she's convinced she is imaging things, Kate warns the teacher of the presence of wolves, setting herself up for more humiliation from her peers who claim there have been no wolves in Britain for centuries.

Back in the real world, Kate is surprised by the attentions of an older schoolmate, Hal, who takes her out, kisses her, and makes her feel special.  But, while taking out the garbage, Kate sees Hal kissing another girl, petite and blond.  This chain of events, including Kate wearing a stunning blue dress (an unused costume from Willow's current play, Henry VIII) that Willow planned to alter for her, seems too contrived for this reader, especially as Kate, desperate to get out of sight, boards a bus and ends up back in Greenwich at the tunnel where she first slipped back in time.

Regardless, Kate enters the world of Katherine of Aragon, daughter of the King of Spain, love interest of Prince Henry, charge of  Doña Elvira, and confidante of William Fitzroy, the Prince's companion, who is tending to an injured wolf cub, though wolves have been outlawed.  While she has some inherent knowledge of Katherine's life, Kate lacks many memories, stumbling her way through her days of being courted by Henry, while keeping her contemporary insights at bay.  However, the erratic nature of Kate's memories as Katherine (e.g., she cannot remember gifting the astrolabe but knows she practised equestrian arts as a child) as well as Henry's acceptance of her use of words such as technology (pg. 226) continued to throw off my temporal train of thought, often leaving me unsure of what Kate knows and how she would react.

Luckily, Beverley Brenna undertook an exhaustive research regarding Henry VIII, wolves in Britain, an illness called the "sweating sickness" and all manner of Tudor customs, providing young readers with an authentic perspective on British history, made all the more intriguing by focusing on Henry VIII's life as a charming young prince rather than his disreputable nature as a husband.  Although the parallels between Kate's and Katherine's lives seem somewhat fabricated (e.g., suitors Hal-Henry, mothers Isobel-Isabella, dogs Patch-Patch, friend William-Will), the lesson Kate learns, that "No matter how long it takes...the best any of us can wish for...is to fill our place" (pg. 265), cannot so easily be manipulated and is one she will need to work out for herself. 

December 20, 2011

Making Bombs for Hitler

by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Scholastic Canada
978-1-4431-0730-3
186 pp.
Ages 8-12
2012

The title of Marsha Skrypuch's newest book may blindside you, even knock you senseless about reading it, but it would be a shame for anyone not to read this compassionate historical fiction about a little known tragedy of World War II.  As always, Skrypuch demonstrates that she is to be trusted and respected for her ability to transform even horrific history into gentle but honest and enlightening stories.

With Russian Communist rule in Ukraine and Stalin determined to destroy the country to keep it from the Germans coupled with the Nazis heading for Moscow by invading Ukraine, Ukrainians were in an unfortunate position, territorially and psychologically, during World War II.  Sadly, this senseless situation leads to the murder of eight-year-old Lida Ferezuk's father by the Russians and her mother by the Nazis.  Separated from her younger sister, Larissa, Lida is taken with numerous Ukrainian children to Germany to be Ostarbeiter (eastern workers) for the Nazis.

Housed in barracked camps, provided with no clothes or shoes, and essentially starved on watery broth once a day, Lida and other children are slave workers for the Nazis, kept only as long as they are useful.  After showing her skills with needle and thread, Lida is assigned to the Nazi laundry. But, after being gifted a cast-off shirt by the laundress, Officer Schmidt decides Lida has been too privileged and assigns her with five others girls to construct bombs in a compound away from the camp. 

With repeated defeats at the front, many Nazis retreat and, without supervision, the girls begin to sabotage the bombs to ensure they are ineffective.  But, relentless bombing by the Allies destroys the camp, allowing many to escape. Unfortunately, a number of them, including Lida, are captured and taken to a German town where their enslavement is reimposed under a man manufacturing ammunition.  Locked in a basement, they endure inhumane conditions, worsened when they are abandoned by the departing Germans feeling the threat of the Allied forces.

The inevitable arrival of Allied soldiers and their discovery of Lida and others brings the reader small pleasure, as the deaths of many and the images of the starved with legs turning to sticks and teeth loosening cannot be erased or ameliorated.  Even with their rescue and care by compassionate soldiers and nurses, the Ukrainian children are in jeopardy from the Soviets who view them as Nazis, deserving of punishment.  If they do survive the machinations of the Soviets to retrieve and punish them, many will spend years in displaced persons camps, waiting, hoping to be reunited with family.

This heart-breaking story, as told from Lida's young eyes and heart, offers an opportunity for our young readers to get a different perspective of World War II beyond the battles expounded upon in history books or Remembrance Day activities at school or the tragedy of the Jewish people.  It provides an opportunity to see war from a Ukrainian child's perspective, hopefully sparking discussions with grandparents or research to understand more fully the plight of so many during war.  [n.b.  I may begin my own research with A History of Ukraine by Paul R. Magocsi (University of Toronto Press, 1996)]

Being of Ukrainian heritage, recalling vague discussions about Ukrainians dealing with the enemy they knew and the enemy they didn't, I recognize that choices were more akin to gambles, made with the single goal of survival.  As Lida acknowledges, even with the difficulty in believing that people could be so cruel, they saw hope even when there was none, just as Lida tries to see beauty anywhere, just as her mother deemed it was possible.

December 19, 2011

The Time Time Stopped

by Don Gillmor
Scholastic Canada
978-1-4431-0231-1
151 pp.
Ages 8-11
2011

Tristan Burberry has come to the conclusion that time is responsible for all his current miseries.  His family has moved and he's at a new school and not even at the beginning of the year when everyone is new.  He desperately wants to visit the zoo and his parents are always at work, having no time for him.  His twelve-year-old sister, Bella, lives for spending time at the mall.  And when he gets on the bus, there is only one seat available - the one beside Lump, the class bully, who threatens Tristan with "getting it" if he doesn't help him change the clocks so the teachers will let the students out early.  In a burst of frustration, Tristan pronounces his hatred of time and his wish for it to end immediately.  Coincidentally, the Time Keeper is walking by and, hearing Tristan, decides to quit his job, tired of all the complaints. 

If it weren't for the tongue-in-cheek humour, I might have wondered if Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had written a sequel to The Little Prince (1943) substituting the concept of time in his search for that which is essential.  Tristan and Bella, in search of the Time Keeper, visit a variety of locales, including the zoo, the mall and a small town, meeting a menagerie of characters, including the Time Bandits and the Thief of Time.  So, as Tristan and his sister look to bring the Time Keeper back from retirement, the Thief of Time with his Time Bandits is looking to possess his machine and go into business selling time.

Gillmor's ever-present wit reminds us of our powerful relationship with time: needing to make time for ourselves; watching time fly; having too much time on our hands; not having enough hours in the day; feeling time sneaking up on us; having no time for friends and family; knowing that time continues to march on; and always wishing for more time, particularly for those circumstances we enjoy.  But, through the puns and slapstick, it is evident that, although there may be a machine to make time,  making time requires experience, patience and judgement.  The book's poignant message in these times of overworked parents, over-scheduled children and a nebulous future makes it an exceptional nominee for this year's Silver Birch Express Award.

The Circle Game

Text by Joni Mitchell
Illustrations by Brian Deines
Dancing Cat Books
978-1-77086-042-1
32 pp.
Ages 3-6
2011

Turning song lyrics into children's books is not unusual, especially for those tunes that were originally written for children such as nursery rhymes and camp-fire songs.  There are wonderful children's performers like Eddie Douglas who take poetry (e.g., Dennis Lee's poems from Alligator Pie (Macmillan, 1974), Garbage Delight (Macmillan, 1977),  Jelly Belly (Macmillan, 1983) and The Ice Cream Store (HarperCollins, 1991) and adapt it for children's music.  But, in Canada, we don't have a long history of taking the poetry in song or hymn lyrics and adding graphics to produce children's books. Until now, I can only think of two such songs:
  • The Huron Carol by Father Jean de Brebeuf, illustrated by Frances Tyrrell (Key Porter, 2003) 
  • The Huron Carol by Father Jean de Brebeuf, illustrated by Ian Wallace (Groundwood, 2006)
  • Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot, illustrated by Ian Wallace (Groundwood, 2010)
Now we can add Joni Mitchell's song, The Circle Game, to that list. 

The lyrics of Canadian-born Mitchell's song describe growing up and looking forward to new experiences, apparently in response to Neil Young's lament of lost youth in "Sugar Mountain". (1) The honest but hopeful words are beautifully embodied by Deines' paintings in complementary colours of purples and oranges.  Although impossible to tell whether Deines' medium is oil or pastel on canvas, the softness of his illustrations, whether the warm joys of capturing a dragonfly or the dark tremors of thunder and falling stars, always with uniquely dotted backgrounds, capably expresses the joys with the uneasiness of new experiences.  Moreover, just as our perspective of these experiences change as we grow up (dare I say it, age), so does the view of and from the carousel, never allowing one to return but accessible in our memories.

December 16, 2011

Accomplice

by Valerie Sherrard
Dundurn Press
978-1554887644
142 pp.
Ages13-16
2011

Dundurn's newly established Keystone Hi-Lo series hits the mark with Accomplice by Valerie Sherrard, enticing readers with a cover suggestive of a female criminal, a less likely combo than you might expect.  Our covergirl, fifteen-year-old Lexie Malton, starts her story with her arrest, and spends the remainder describing the circumstances by which she ends up nestled in a sheriff's van.

The story is fairly simple: Lexie gets her boyfriend, Devlin, to go to a party where she is enticed into trying heroin and encourages the reluctant Devlin to follow.  Unlike her, Devlin becomes addicted, eventually ending up on the street.  Though Lexie eventually moves on and starts going out with Oscar, her overwhelming guilt at her role in turning a great guy into a junkie continues to compel her to get what little money she can for Devlin whenever he calls.  Regardless of Devlin's insistence that he's going to stop the drugs and get clean, even returning to rehab, he thoughtlessly wrenches Lexie into a brutal situation that results in a death and Lexie marked as an accomplice.

The mandate of Hi-Lo books, i.e., grabbing the reader with its engrossing plot without dissuading reading with challenging vocabulary, can result in uninspired writing around a weak storyline.  However, in the hands of an accomplished writer such as Valerie Sherrard, most recently winner of the 2011 Geoffrey Bilson Historical Fiction for Young People Award for The Glory Wind (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010), there is no chance of mediocrity.  Accomplice presents a straightforward but not light-weight plot involving common teen trials dealing with curiosity about drugs, discriminating between right and wrong, dating and communicating, and accepting responsibility.  More than just a hi-lo read, Accomplice provides a glimpse into how innocent errors in judgement can produce unfathomable consequences.

December 15, 2011

Blink and Caution

by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick Press
978-0-7636-3983-9
342 pp.
Ages 14+
2011

Selecting a book cover is not a simple process of finding an image and a font that work.  Check out Quill & Quire's regular page, Cover to Cover, to witness just a few steps in the design process of a single cover.  That said and with the enriching reads of earlier books by Tim Wynne-Jones (see November 30, 2011 blog),  I should have known better than to hastily (and consequently erroneously) predict the story of Blink & Caution (Candlewick Press, 2011).  It is not a story of crime and violence, or of a dark place where bad things happen, or even of traffic. (Don't ask me how I got that one, but I did.)  It is a story of family.

Having left his mother and abusive stepfather for a life on the streets, Brent Conboy a.k.a. Blink has established a variety of strategies to get by without bringing attention to himself: following teens to their lockers to get fresh clothes, grabbing breakfasts from trays outside of hotel rooms and finding privacy at the Toronto Reference Library.  When he witnesses a ruse to create the impression of the abduction of Jack Niven, CEO of a high-profile mining development company, Blink carelessly involves himself by snatching Niven's Blackberry from the scene.  Relentless phone calls from Niven's daughter, whose photo captivates Blink, further entangle him in a journey, both physical and emotional, for which he is unprepared.

Caution is actually seventeen-year-old Kitty Pettigrew from the countryside of Wahnapitae.  Caution, who took to the streets after the accidental shooting death of her cherished older brother, Spence, has evolved handily into the benumbed girlfriend of drug-dealer Merlin, taking extraordinary chances as though willing death upon herself.  But, when Caution realizes the twisted nature of Merlin's "love" for her, she embarks on her own journey, away from Merlin and with a reluctant baby-step towards family.

The inevitable merging of Blink's and Caution's stories at Union Station may begin conflictingly but each unconsciously recognizes the other as an opportunity, a chance to journey together, with the possibility of some positive outcome.  Luckily, Blink and Caution are both gutsy teens with the insight that comes from lives rich in experiences, both comforting and despairing.  Together they pursue the truth behind Niven's disappearance, hopeful that it should prove lucrative for them, never guessing the true value of the wealth they will gain.

The use of second-person narrative (with Blink referred to as "you") is very rare in literature, even more so when coupled with third-person narrative (as Caution's story is told), but Tim Wynne-Jones uses this bold technique impressively, emotionally engaging the reader from several perspectives. Through Blink's and Caution's eyes, we see through "the knife-blade of your vision"(pg. 9) or the "rooming house, tall as a nightmare" (pg. 72); we experience their need for sleep, finally getting "to work on those years of rest" (pg. 173) or Blink's inner Captain Panic, always his herald; we understand Blink's reluctance to ask questions "too jittery to land near a grumpy girl" (pg. 169) and how his voice could be "just a tattered bit of white cloth" (pg. 317).

Tim Wynne-Jones' expressive writing, remarkable characters and intricate plot are perfection.  But, word of warning: read with caution, as it flows so seamlessly that it'll be read in just a blink.

December 13, 2011

Dear Baobab

by Cheryl Foggo
Illustrated by Qin Leng
Second Story Press
978-1-897187-91-3
24 pp.
Ages 5-8
2011

After the death of his parents, seven-year-old Maiko is transplanted from his home in Africa to live with his Uncle Peter and Aunt Ajia in a country like Canada, where there are spruce trees, Halloween, snow, and Leonard, a boy who laughs at Maiko's ears.  Missing the massive baobab tree in his birth village, Maiko connects with a small spruce tree at his new home, sharing his secrets and loneliness with the little evergreen. But the spruce is growing too close to the house's foundation and its fate must be decided upon.

For Maiko, his "Hello tree, same age as me" spruce is his confidant and empath, as they both experience a tenuous future, clashing with their environments. Fortunately, Maiko's aunt, uncle and others show the compassion and wisdom necessary to help the little ones, be they arboreal or human, flourish.

Calgarian Cheryl Foggo's impressive writing credentials foretold the jewel of Dear Baobab, her first children's picture book, a sympathetic but hopeful portrayal of finding a way to fit it.  Qin Leng's ink and paint illustrations (also in Blue Spruce nominated A Flock of Shoes, Sarah Tsiang, Annick Press, 2010) have a freshness that recreate the Africa of Maiko's memories and his expansive and overwhelming new surroundings of his new country.

A perfect gift for a child new to Canada, sure to elicit hope for their new circumstances.

December 12, 2011

Once Every Never

by Lesley Livingston
Puffin Canada
978-0-14-317795-1
302 pp.
Ages 12+
2011


Lesley Livingston, author of the Canadian Library Association's Young Adult Book of the Year Wondrous Strange (HarperCollins Canada, 2008), continues to provide young adult readers with riveting fantasy based in the supernatural with just a shimmering of romance and an ample seasoning of humour in her newest, Once Every Never (Puffin Canada, 2011).

Torontonian Clare (Clarinet) Reid is sent to England to stay with her Aunt Maggie, a professor of archaeology, while her parents are away on their orchestra's world tour.  Luckily her best friend, Allie (Alice) McAllister, also 17, has managed to arrange a stay in London with relatives including her former-geek-turned-hottie cousin, Milo, an Oxford student working with the British map-making agency.

Although Clare considers her supervision under her aunt mundane, Allie, an archaeology buff, is thrilled to get an opportunity to examine a new exhibit of bog people (perfectly preserved corpses found in a peat bog) and a variety of antiquities such as a shield, torcs (neck rings), and helmets set for restoration.  While her Aunt Maggie consults with the curator, Dr. Ceciley Jenkins, Clare unpardonably touches the shield and discovers herself in another time and place, witnessing a meeting of two men, one in possession of the shield.

Returning to the museum, Clare enlists Allie's help to witness her disappearance after touching the Snettisham Great Torc (a particularly unique torc).  This time Clare returns with an account of the handsome young man seen earlier interacting with a raging, red-haired woman who'd been whipped and to whom he gives the torc.   Hidden behind a rock, Clare is not seen by anyone until a young woman chances to touch her, thereby making her visible.  After asking for Clare's help and surreptitiously slipping a brooch to her, the young woman is grabbed by a Roman soldier.

Based on Clare's observations and what she hears (and understands, although in a unknown language), the girls' internet research reveals the injured woman to be Boudicca, the Queen of Britain in 1 AD, who rebels against the Romans, and the young woman who asks for Clare's help is Comorra, one of Boudicca's two daughters.

When the Snettisham Torc is stolen from the museum, Aunt Maggie suspects a former colleague, now presumed dead.  Unfortunately, she is correct and this same man, Stuart Morholt, who claims to be a Celtic mystic, learns of Clare's gift of shimmering (that's what they call her time-travel) and uses threats to coerce her into locating a buried cache from Bouticca's time.

The plot is complex but not confounding, all the more substantial for the different times into which Clare shimmers, sometimes earlier, sometimes later, always revealing.  Livingston excels at bringing two very different worlds into contact, without either losing integrity.  In each, the voices, hearts and actions of the times' characters successfully immerse the reader in that time.  Even poor Clare, who must modify her behaviour to meld with those in the past, is true to herself, showing less cockiness  when dealing with the Celts and Druids, although her erratic train of thoughts still compel her to misspeak occasionally.

But, it is the humour that continues to pull me along for the journey, particularly Clare's attitude that comes across as self-deprecation with snarkiness.   When returning from the time when Connal's blue body paint (in preparation for his sacrifice) smeared onto her, Clare declares that, "I was partying with Smurfs.  I wanted to fit in." Teens will also appreciate the hint of romance in Once Every Never, particularly as Clare is attracted to two different young men, one in the present, one in the past, confusing her even more.  Expertly, Livingston epitomizes the teenage mind, sharing Clare's thoughts, both erratic and sure, as she tries to figure things out, whether it be history or people and their motivations.

Just added: video of Lesley Livingston talking about Once Every Never

December 10, 2011

Canadian Fiction in Ancient Civilizations

Young Canadian readers may choose from a plethora of fiction in which travel from the present to an earlier historical time period fantastically occurs.  However, there are far fewer fiction titles in which the entire story is set in that time period, especially when we focus on ancient times.  Depending on discussions by economists, archaeologists, historians, etc., the end of ancient times will vary, but for the purposes of this blog, we'll use the early Middle Ages as its end point (although apparently that doesn't jive with Ancient Chinese history.)

Also, there are many books of nonfiction that may be based in ancient times (e.g., Good Times Travel Agency series, Linda Bailey and Bill Slavin, Kids Can Press) or retell myths or legends (e.g., Island of the Minotaur: Greek Myths of Ancient Crete, Sheldon Oberman, Tradewind Books, 2003) or even fictionalized accounts of historical persons (e.g., Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, Kristiana Gregory, Scholastic, 1999)  but I have focused here on novels with new story lines set in ancient times. (Sadly this prologue is longer than the list.)

Torn from Troy: Odyssey of a Slave
by Patrick Bowman
Ronsdale Press
978-1-55380-110-8
199 pp.
Ages 10+
2011
See this blog on December 8, 2011 CanLit LittleCanadians review

Shen and the Treasure Fleet
by Ray Conlogue
Annick Press
978-1-55451-103-7
320 pp.
Ages 11-15 
2007 
When the city of Nanjing is under siege, Shen's mother is imprisoned and his father, an Imperial Bodyguard, is presumed dead. Shen and his sister Chang flee with a travelling acrobat troupe, that gains passage on the new emperor's armada, the Treasure Fleet, led by the powerful Zheng He and then the notorious government official, Yang Rong, who has the power to free their mother. 

The Roman Conspiracy
by Jack Mitchell
Tundra Books
978-0-88776-713-5
164 pp.
Ages 10-13
2005
In the first century B.C.,  young Aulus Lucius Spurinna must formally be recognized as the head of the household with the sudden death of his uncle and incursions by bands of retired soldiers onto the estate's holdings.  Aulus immediately sets off for Rome to inform the family's Protector (who happens to be the Consul Cicero) of the bandits' threats and of his uncle's death/murder.  In Rome, Aulus meets Cicero and his enterprising daughter, Tullia, who manages to get him thoroughly involved in their attempt to foil the Roman conspiracy i.e., a plot to take over the government. Soon Aulus finds himself involved in burgling the house of a senator, reporting on traitorous speeches, and even taking command of a troop of Roman cavalry!

Ancient Ocean Blues
by Jack Mitchell
Tundra Books
978-0-88776-832-3
187 pp.
Ages 10-13
2008
Not content to create the stereotypical characters of Ancient Rome, Jack Mitchell seamlessly melds historical politicos and literati with the story of Marcus, a young man recently sent to Rome for an education.  Because of his cousin, Gaius, Marcus is soon sailing to Athens on a mission to thwart Cicero's political machinations which could foil the rise of young  Julius Caesar.  Marcus seeks Spurinna (from The Roman Conspiracy) as does Paula, his romance-loving, Spurinna-crushing betrothed who stowed away in Marcus' trunk of scrolls.  But this is no lame ship voyage: there are pirates, bribes, a poet, a shipwreck, a rescue, battles, romance, and much humour.  
 
Rise of the Golden Cobra
by Henry T. Aubin
Annick Press
978-1-55451-059-7
255 pp.
Ages 11-15
2007
Nebi, a 14-year-old Egyptian scribe, learns of a traitorous plot involving the Assyrians and Count Nimlot to take over Egypt. Nebi travels south to warn King Piankhi, a principled and compassionate man, chosen by the god Amon to rule the African kingdom of Kush.  King Piankhi is guided by maat, the ethical principle of ancient Egyptian religion denoting a life committed to justice, order, and truth.  He goes to war to protect his people from the harsh rule of the Assyrians, but Nebi finds himself dealing with the King's hot-headed young nephew, Sheb, who wants to win the war and exact revenge.

Germania
by John Wilson
Key Porter Books
978-1-55470-112-4

279 pp.
Ages 11+
2008
As Vesuvius erupts, old Lucius records his biography from his time as a young Roman soldier, battling the barbarians in Germany and Illyria, through the revolts of the barbarians against the Romans.

N.B. As stories set in Viking times may or may not belong here, I will prep a list of those titles separately.  But, if any reader discovers a Canadian title (excluding nonfiction and time-travel) set in an ancient time that I have not included here, please leave a comment to help me address any omissions. 

December 08, 2011

Torn from Troy: Odyssey of a Slave

by Patrick Bowman
Ronsdale Press
978-1-55380-110-8
199 pp.
Ages 10+
2011

Reading (and undoubtedly writing) a novel for children that is set in ancient times can be challenging, with its new vocabulary and cultural references, but the experience of immersing yourself in a completely foreign time-period is without equal.  Learning about ancient civilizations using non-fiction texts is valuable but incomparable to living the life through a character.  How many adults enjoy the experience of Canadian Pauline Gedge's Ancient Egypt  in The King's Man Trilogy (Penguin Canada), 8th century China in Guy Gavriel Kay's book Under Heaven (Penguin, 2010) or Ancient Rome in the Marcus Didius Falco series (Lindsey Davis)?  Our young readers have a rare opportunity to do the same here, with Patrick Bowman's Torn from Troy: Odyssey of a Slave (Ronsdale Press, 2011), a selection nominated for this year's Red Maple Fiction Award.

In Torn from Troy: Odyssey of a Slave, fifteen-year-old Alexi lives with his older sister, Melantha, in Troy when, after ten years of fighting, the Greeks capture the city using deceit and an infamous wooden structure.  By sacrificing herself in attacking and killing a Greek soldier, Melantha helps Alexi escape, although he is captured the next day.

Taken as just another slave with other Trojans, Alexi's ability to speak Greek (his grandmother was Greek) wins him favour with the Greek commander, Lopex (a.k.a. Odysseus, son of Laertes).  On board their ship, the Pelagios, Alexi's attention and cleverness continue to impress Lopex, but his tongue makes an enemy of him to Ury, a brute who Alexi learns is the brother of the Greek soldier killed by Melantha. After skirmishes with the Cicones (allies of Troy), Alexi is recognized as a healer, just as his father, Aristides of Herakleon, was and declared hagios (set apart as sacred) by Lopex.

Alexi's responsibilities continue to put him in tenuous situations: stupefied by the ophion and ministrations of Apollonia and the beautiful women of her town; fabricating stories (about miasms sent from Poseidon) to appease the Greeks threatening revolt; and surviving the attack by a legendary one-eyed creature.  Luckily, Alexi's good sense and cunning win him allies amongst the slaves and Greeks alike, save for Ury who continues to tyrannize the boy.

Alexi's exploits and ordeals command the reader's attention and support, but it's his sense of justice and loyalty that will endear him to the reader.  I found Bowman's writing captivating, although I might recommend that a glossary of Greek terminology be included to explain terms whose meanings could not discerned.  Regardless, the mystery which Alexi ultimately feels he must uncover (you'll need to read the book for this) will ensure my reading of his subsequent adventure, The Sea God's Curse (Ronsdale Press, fall 2012).

December 06, 2011

The Inside Story of Franklin the Turtle: From Book to Brand

If you're fortunate enough to be in Vancouver, British Columbia in January, you might want to check out this colloquium featuring Canadian picture book author, Paulette Bourgeois, creator of the Franklin the Turtle series.





Colloquium:  The Inside Story of Franklin the Turtle:    From Book to Brand

Presented by:   Paulette Bourgeois

Hosted by: The Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program, University of British Columbia

Date:   Thursday, January 26, 2012
Time:   4:30-5:30 p.m.
Location:   The Dodson Room, Room 302, Level 3
                  Chapman Learning Commons
                  Irving K. Barber Learning Centre
                  1961 East Mall
                  University of British Columbia

View the flyer here MACL Colloquium flyer

December 05, 2011

Happy 10th Birthday to . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Scholastic's DEAR CANADA series




By the end of 2011, twenty-nine diaries based on events in Canada's history will have been written by eleven authors for Scholastic Canada's series Dear Canada.   

From the tactile pleasure of their hardcovers, to the delicacy of the trademark ribbon bookmark, to the rough, deckle edges of the ivory pages and the intimacy of the story telling from the diarist's perspective, our young readers are carried into a Canada of a different time.


Congratulations, Scholastic Canada, for bringing Canadian history to life for many young readers. 



All books are listed at Scholastic Canada's website, Scholastic Canada: Dear Canada series book list
including Dear Canada's newest, That Fatal Night: The Titanic Diary of Dorothy Wilton by Sarah Ellis (Scholastic Canada, 2011)

Fostergirls

by Liane Shaw
Second Story Press
978-1-897187-90-6
256 pp.
Ages13-16
2011

Regardless of how romanticized the life of an Anne-of-Green-Gables orphan may seem, living apart from family, whether you have one or not, is hardly a life of fulfilment.  Sadie Thompson, 15, knows this all too well, having endured the moniker of "fostergirl" for the past 12 years, although she now has progressed to that of "grouphomegirl."

With moving onto her thirteenth school, Sadie is determined not to be singled out for help of any sort, believing that if she just keeps to herself until her sixteenth birthday, she can get out by requesting legal emancipation (freedom to get her own place and get a job).  But her plans not to engage with anyone are set awry.  At school, she meets chatterbox Rhiannon Kerry who chooses to make Sadie her friend, and then Ms Jackson, a guidance counsellor, who believes that a learning disability may be at the root of Sadie's school issues.  Both seem to see something beyond Sadie's "fostergirl" label.

At the group home, Sadie tries to stay under the radar of the other fostergirls: Alisha (who continuously proclaims that her alcoholic mom will be taking her home soon), Buffy (who regularly snaps and becomes vicious) and two inseparable younger girls whom Sadie calls the K's (Kendra and Krista). Sadie convinces herself that she really doesn't care to know what has brought them into care, including knowledge of her own story (beyond her memory of wandering door-to-door with a five-year-old brother).

Having and being a friend are foreign to Sadie.  So, when she is told that Rhiannon is also labelled a "fostergirl" (because her mom and dad are enthusiastic foster parents to numerous children) and is just "collecting" another foster child in Sadie, Sadie uses that to rationalize a return to her disaffection.  But a death, a tragic accident, some educational testing, and another transfer (because of the closing of their group home) all bring Sadie to a point she never envisioned for herself: feeling embraced by caring.

Liane Shaw's professional background in special education has provided her with the experiences and understanding to share the narratives of any number of Sadies.  However, it is Sadie's voice, one based in despondency and unrecognized courage, that prompted me to investigate for myself the extent of  issues troubling children in foster care.  Sadly, my cursory search suggests that Sadie's educational and socio-behavioural challenges are not unusual amongst foster children.  As such, I congratulate Shaw in providing such a convincing context by which the lives of many foster children are expressed, and the impetus for the reader to pursue greater understanding with empathy.

Check out Second Story Press' book trailer for Fostergirls on my Book Trailer page

December 04, 2011

Deborah Ellis' "No Ordinary Day": Theme for Write/Right to Read contest

 
Having recently (November 7, 2011) reviewed Deb Ellis' No Ordinary Day (Groundwood, 2011) and recognizing its valuable contribution to children's understanding of poverty and global issues, I was thrilled to see that World Literacy Canada's annual writing contest for children in Grades 4-6 is using Ellis' book as the basis for this year's contest.

Contest details and entry forms are available at Write/Right to Read contest here


December 01, 2011

Kudos (again) for Forest of Reading®

If you haven't guessed yet, I am a HUGE supporter (and promoter!) of the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading® programs.  How can you not love, adore, cherish, treasure, etc. (thesaurus busy today!) a program that provides for all readers (children, young adult and adult) and shares fantastic, outstanding, extraordinary, remarkable, exceptional, etc. literature that's new and Canadian?  You can't, or at least shouldn't.  And when another province is recognizing the Forest of Reading®'s positive influence on Ontario children, it's time to pay attention.

Read this December 1, 2011 Montreal Gazette article by Henry Aubin titled, "There's something to learn from bookish Ontario" to see how lucky Ontario readers are.
There's something to learn from bookish Ontario