December 14, 2017

Birthdays Around the World

Written by Margriet Ruurs
Illustrated by Ashley Barron
Kids Can Press
40 pp.
Ages 3-7
September 2017

Global perspectives are difficult concepts for very young children to grasp.  They are typically just learning about their own place, here and now, and understanding that there is much beyond that is challenging.  By focusing on a familiar and shared concept such as birthdays, Margriet Ruurs has found a way for young children to connect with those around the world.
From Birthdays Around the World
by Margriet Ruurs
 illus. by Ashley Barron
Birthdays around the world, boldly illustrated by cut-paper collage artist Ashley Barron, looks at children in 14 different countries around the world and tells about their family, birthday greetings, celebratory activities and food.  The children and countries depicted in each double-spread include:

  • Arvaarluk from Canada (Nunavut, specifically)
  • Alana and Kainoa  from the United States (Hawaii)
  • Opal and Delroy in Jamaica
  • Mercedes in Peru
  • Ieva in Latvia
  • Dmitry in Russia (on the border of Europe and Asia)
  • Bram in Belgium
  • Maame in Ghana
  • Nthabeleng in Lesotho
  • Ninoshka in India (Kashmir region)
  • Shinobu in Japan
  • Athom and Arunny in Cambodia
  • PhΓΊc Khang in Vietnam
  • Thea on Norfolk Island, Australia
From Birthdays Around the World 
by Margriet Ruurs 
illus. by Ashley Barron
A mixture of boys and girls of different ages and living in different types of communities (big cities, islands, remote towns, rural areas) will ensure that young readers might see something of themselves in these children.  Some of their stories are presented by a sibling e.g. Athom speaks for baby sister Arunny.  Some are atypical celebrations that are held country-wide rather than commemorating the birth day of an individual. And, even though many of their celebrations will be foreign to young readers e.g. the dumping of flour on Delroy's head, there is much that they can envision, different as they may be.  Special foods and treats, good wishes and blessings, family and friends.  Whether they dress in a silk kimono, a palaka aloha shirt or a favourite outfit, these children know how special this day is for them and others to celebrate with them.

Margriet Ruurs does a stellar job of bringing the world in a little closer to home.  She always does (e.g., Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey, illus. by Nizar Ali Badr, Orca, 2015). In Birthdays Around the World, Margriet Ruurs has endeavoured to include all continents (except Antarctica) and cover the full range of birthdays, from simple days of food and family to elaborate days of military parades and more. Both secular and religious observances are included, as is appropriate, and Margriet Ruurs even helps direct discussions of the reader's birthday celebrations in an addendum called "Your Birthday" and provides activities for parents and teachers relating to the book's contents and more.  And everything is so much better for the unique art of Ashley Barron, whose cut-paper graced earlier works Up! How Families Around the World Carry Their Little Ones (Susan Hughes, Owlkids, 2017) and Kyle Goes Alone (Jan Thornhill, Owlkids, 2015).  The cut-paper artwork adds astounding depth and clarity to the text, guaranteeing that Birthdays Around the World is a relatable and visually expressive children's book on the global perspective of birthdays.
From Birthdays Around the World 
by Margriet Ruurs 
illus. by Ashley Barron

December 12, 2017

Mermaid Warrior Squad

Written by Karin Adams
Illustrated by Janine Carrington
James Lorimer & Co.
150 pp.
Ages 7-11
August 2017

When Dylan meets the friendly Coral at art camp, the two eleven-year-old girls seem destined to become partners.  They both love oceans and know a lot about the sea animals, perfect for an art camp themed as "Art Under the Sea." Even better, they come into the camp with different strengths:  Coral loves to draw and Dylan likes to write.  In fact, both had already created mermaid characters: Coral's is a tough-looking mermaid she calls Crash, the Mighty Mermaid Warrior, and Dylan's is a mermaid renegade named Driftwood whose mission it is to protect the oceans.  The two decide to merge their ideas and collaborate on a comic book in which the two mermaids become the Mermaid Warrior Squad.
From Mermaid Warrior Squad 
by Karin Adams
 illus. by Janine Carrington
While the two girls work on their project, as depicted in illustrator Janine Carrington's graphic insets of the two mermaids, they are also dealing with getting to know each other and their fellow campers.  Dylan loves having a friend–she's obviously a bit of an introvert–but she's having difficulties dealing with Coral's exuberance and tendency to get carried away with her efforts, silliness and volume.  The other campers include Lynn, another quiet girl; Ben, the annoying prankster; Jade and Sarina, the trendy girls; and decent guys Ryan and Lamar.  From this crew, Dylan and Coral contrive new characters like a dolphin-mermaid hybrid, the villain Captain Fishhead, the evil Seaweed Sisters, and Shark Dudes.  Their story is evolving but so is their friendship as Coral decides unilaterally on their skit for the camp's culminating performance and Dylan is compelled to stand up for herself. Ultimately, though, their friendship means more to Dylan than sitting back and watching Coral be humiliated, and she's there to rescue her friend, even if it need happen on stage.

Karin Adams's story approaches multiple themes of oceans and creating art as well as clashing personalities with humour and much insight.  It's obvious that, as much as they have common interests, Dylan and Coral have very different personalities.  Overcoming these differences so that they might work together and be supportive of each other is a key element of Mermaid Warrior Squad.  Just like their mermaid characters, the two girls' efforts are more impactful when they work together than when they are at odds with one another.  This is an important lesson for children who are often forced to work together in school and extracurricular activities.  Not every child is a Coral who wants to be at the heart of the action.  Some need to quietly work at the side in order to reach their full potential.  Though most people, including teachers, are extroverts who don't see the harm done by expecting all children to love group activities or being part of the rah-rah crowd, Mermaid Warrior Squad recognizes that children will find their own ways to be true to themselves, taking risks as they choose, and still make friends with those unlike themselves.  Strength comes from both being yourself and working with others, whether you have a mermaid tail or not.

Whether a child is heading to camp, dealing with making and keeping friends, understanding their own personality or one who loves oceans or comic books, Mermaid Warrior Squad is an entertaining light read that will engage those who are beyond early readers but might find much middle-grade fiction more daunting.  It's a nice little package of humour and lessons for middle-graders.

December 07, 2017

Coyote Tales

Written by Thomas King
Illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler
Groundwood Books
60 pp.
Ages 6-9
October 2017

If anyone ever believes that the storytelling tradition of First Nations has disappeared, they need only read aloud the Coyote stories of Thomas King.  Undoubtedly told better in his own booming voice, these Coyote Tales are told with the mischief and wisdom to impart awe and lessons aplenty.

Coyote Tales is actually two previously published Coyote stories by Thomas King.  The first, Coyote Sings to the Moon (originally published in 1999), has that trickster Coyote interrupting the nightly song by Old Woman and the animals praising the Moon.  When Coyote offers to join them, they deny him a voice, knowing how poorly he sings.  Chastized, Coyote leaves in a huff, criticizing the Moon for its disturbing brightness.  Moon, not to take criticism, plunges itself into a pond to enjoy a game of chess with Sunfish.  While Old Woman and the animals search for Moon, Coyote struggles in the darkness, using a skunk as a pillow and falling off a cliff.  But clever Old Woman uses Coyote's horrible singing to force Moon to flee the pond and fating Coyote to a nightly song to keeps Moon from returning to the pond and a life of leisure.

The second story is Coyote's New Suit (originally published in 2004), a charming tale of vanity and envy.  Coyote is perfectly content with his suit of gold, toasty brown until Raven's comments convince Coyote to steal Bear's suit left on a pond's shore. When Bear returns to find his suit missing, Raven tells him that the humans hang clothes they no longer need on ropes and encourages him to help himself.  Coyote continues to steal the suits of Porcupine, Raccoon, Beaver and more animals who, in turn, help themselves to the human clothes hanging on the clothes line.  All orchestrated by Raven, the shenanigans come to a head when Coyote holds a yard sale to clean out his closet and humans and animals alike come in search of new suits.
From Coyote Tales 
by Thomas King 
illus. by Byron Eggenschwiler
Thomas King's Coyote Tales recognizes the traditional Coyote stories of First Nations, taking readers to "a long time ago, before animals stopped talking to human beings" (pg. 11) when lessons were learned at the antics of a mischievous and oft humiliated Coyote and the clever playfulness of Raven and the natural world was honoured and celebrated. The legends are told here as comical allegory but are rich in lessons and advice.

Groundwood Books is doing something very clever in opening up previously published picture books to new audiences.  By re-releasing them as very short anthologies, perhaps only two or three stories, with new and fewer illustrations (here by Calgarian Byron Eggenschwiler), they are capturing the early reader and middle grade reader who might not want to be seen reading "babyish" picture books.  Margaret Atwood's A Trio of Tolerable Tales (Groundwood, 2017) was such a collection and I'm hoping that there are more in the offering from Groundwood, especially for Thomas King who still has more Coyote tales to share.

December 06, 2017

The Hanging Girl

Written by Eileen Cook
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
308 pp.
Ages 13+
October 2017

Skye Thorn is a tarot card reader, helping her peers with their questions about love, school and more.  But, though she cultivates an image of having psychic powers, Skye is just an astute observer of human nature and a sneak at private files and conversations.  Her mother might purport to have the gift but Skye knows she herself does not.

Still Skye is a teen who has always wanted a certain life and had a willingness to make it happen. 
Destiny is like a boulder.  Bulky and hard to move.  It's easier to leave it alone than to try to change it.  But that never kept anyone from trying.  Trust me: I'm a professional. (pg. 1)
She hates her name, Candi, the one she was given by her 15-year-old mother, and has managed to get her friends and school to use her middle name, Skye.  She had woven a story about her father, whom she has never known, being a military hero.  That story ended badly, though, and had her labelled a liar and headed for counselling.  Now, she’s telling her best friend Drew that she’s saving her money so that they’ll be able to get an apartment in New York City when Drew heads to art school next year.  But she hasn’t. 

When she is approached to use her psychic flair in a scheme to kidnap popular and wealthy Paige Bonnet, Skye convinces herself that it would be alright.  Paige would not be hurt and Skye would get some of the ransom money.  Her role would be negligible: all she had to do was convince the police that she was having visions of Paige’s disappearance and to help direct their investigation.  Ah, the best laid plans…

Like the tarot card called the Hanged Man, which suggests someone at the crossroads, Skye is balancing who she really is with what she wants people to see and what they actually do see in her.  From her mother to Drew and classmates and then the police and others, Skye's self is hanging, perhaps precariously as she makes choices.  She truly is The Hanging Girl. But the mystery that is Skye extends beyond her, embedding readers in a young adult thriller with a myriad of twists and reversals and red herrings.  Never, never can the reader tell what will happen next or whom to believe.  The tagline "Trust no one. Deceive everyone" is especially apt.  The plot is intricate and multilayered and, even when Skye figures things out in a climactic graduation ceremony setting, I was never convinced I knew the truth. That just tells you how convincing Eileen Cook's writing is.  It is tight but complex, and she never lets the plot lag or the storyline get caught on ineffectual plot twists.

Eileen Cook, whose books Unraveling Isobel (Simon Pulse, 2012), The Almost Truth (Simon Pulse, 2012), Remember (Simon Pulse, 2015), and With Malice (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) have been reviewed on CanLit for LittleCanadians, always has some mystery amidst the teen drama but she is particularly adroit at relationship dramas.  Her characterizations and dialogue between characters and inside Skye's head are especially compelling in The Hanging Girl.  Except for several chapters conveyed as Paige's written account of her ordeal, most of Eileen Cook’s text is in the first-person narrative of the young tarot card reader trying to assess her situation prior to Paige's disappearance and then while the teen's family and police investigate.  She's gotten herself involved in something desperate and is in far too deep to get out cleanly.  Still, though she lies and manipulates, it's surprising how sympathetic Skye is as a character.  She always believed that she was destined for a nothing life, so the readers will cheer for the girl who tries to see herself beyond a life at Burger Barn.  As such, the ending will floor you.

See beyond the mess that is Skye and the situation in which she finds herself and discover a thrilling plot of truths and lies and shadows in The Hanging Girl. It's a little dark but more angsty than criminal and definitely an accurate take on the desperate measures people will take to achieve the lives they feel are warranted.

December 05, 2017

Woodrow at Sea

Written and illustrated by Wallace Edwards
Pajama Press
24 pp.
Ages 3-5
November 2017

Not since an owl and a pussycat set off to sea have two wholly unlikely friends shared a boat on the open water.  But the story of Woodrow at Sea is less love story than story of friendship and a far more poignant one than Edward Lear's nonsense poem.
From Woodrow at Sea 
by Wallace Edwards
When Woodrow, the elephant, waves goodbye to his family, setting off on his adventure with only a boat, a paddle and a spyglass, he could never imagine finding a small white mouse marooned on a purplish mound in the open water.  The mouse tells of his own tale of saying goodbye to his own family who gift him with a compass and heading out in a teacup vessel until upturned by a purple, gold and orange creature. 
From Woodrow at Sea 
by Wallace Edwards
Together the travellers set out to seek adventure, with the mouse teaching Woodrow to sing. When a foul cloud blows in nasty weather and the calm sea is awoken into turmoil, the little mouse uses the spyglass to rescue Woodrow. Together they battle their way to calmer waters and, though they both return to their different island homes, they're both richer for their encounter and adventures.
From Woodrow at Sea
by Wallace Edwards
Because Woodrow at Sea is a wordless book, author-illustrator Wallace Edwards allows his illustrations to carry the story.  But it really isn't just one story.  Everyone will read something different into his touching and considerate artwork.  Though less elaborate than his art in earlier books such as Once Upon a Line (Pajama Press, 2015) and Unnatural Selections (Orca, 2014), Wallace Edwards provides more than enough depth of detail for our youngest readers to interpret the illustrations in a myriad of ways.  They will easily recognize the value of friendship and teamwork but there will be questions.  Why did Wallace Edwards choose and elephant and a mouse? Are the elephant and mouse singing or whistling?  Does Woodrow know how to sing or did the mouse have to teach him?  Were the two animals planning on an extended adventure that was interrupted by calamity or were these just day trips? When recounting their adventures to family, why did they focus on different events though both emphasize the goodwill of the other?  For a story told with no words, Woodrow at Sea has much to tell.  And a lesson in creative thinking and visual literacy would not go amiss here.

Woodrow at Sea is truly a story about the importance of friendship and the good fortune of having a friend who has your back when seas get a little rough. It may not always be an angry ocean or a purple monster, but there's always something that is eased with the support of a friend.
From Woodrow at Sea 
by Wallace Edwards

Wallace Edwards will launch his newest picture book this weekend in Toronto. Details for this event were posted here.

December 04, 2017

Woodrow at Sea: Book launch (Toronto, ON)

The wonderfully talented author and illustrator

Wallace Edwards
is set to launch his newest picture book of youngCanLit

Woodrow at Sea
Written and illustrated by Wallace Edwards
Pajama Press
24 pp.
Ages 3-5
November 2017
Review here


  Saturday, December 9, 2017

11 a.m. -12:30 p.m.


Queen Books
914 Queen St. East
Toronto, ON

In addition to book sales and signing by Wallace Edwards,
there will be:
• story time
• a drawing lesson
• crafts
• light refreshments

Look for my review of this special wordless picture book tomorrow!

November 30, 2017

Louis Undercover

Written by Fanny Britt
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou
Groundwood Books
160 pp.
Ages 9-14
October 2017

From the acclaimed partnership of Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault that brought us the award-winning Jane, the Fox and Me (Groundwood, 2013), which was also translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou, comes a second graphic novel of emotional sensitivity, this time in a complex familial context.

The title may suggest a children's game of spying but Louis is more discrete observer and listener.  He watches important people in his life and sees what they do and hears what they say.  These observations form the fabric of his interactions with them, bringing out his sensitivities, fears and compassion. And he has much to observe, as he and his little brother Truffle bounce between their city apartment where they live with their mother and their country house where their alcoholic father still lives.
From Louis Undercover 
by Fanny Britt 
illus. by Isabelle Arsenault
Louis sees the ups and downs of his father's alcoholism: the manic periods of song and big plans and the depressive times of tears and melancholy, especially when the boys leave.  At home, he sees the joy in his mother when they return but also her sarcasm and loneliness.  Louis has his own secret burdens which he only shares with his good friend Boris.  Louis is in love with Billie.
She’s a spectacled siren, a rainstorm,
A chocolate fountain, a silent queen.
 (pg. 50)
From Louis Undercover 
by Fanny Britt 
illus. by Isabelle Arsenault
He is overwhelmed by his affection for Billie but he is immobilized into inaction.  
I had no idea that love is like a rock shattering your heart, as painful as it is life-giving, and that even as it makes you want to bolt, it keeps you glued to the spot. (pg. 58)
Though he makes plans to speak with her, just to say a few words to the gutsy girl who stands up to injustice and reads voraciously, he can't do it, even with the summer holidays imminent and a gift of dice for her in his pocket.  

From Louise Undercover 
by Fanny Britt 
illus. by Isabelle Arsenault
But two weeks of the summer at their father's becomes a turning point for the family.  Their father has stopped drinking and seems to be his old positive self, as reflected in the splashes of yellow, hitherto reserved for Billie.  Though their mom is seen as mired in the sadness of the turquoise and the browns of regular life, when Truffle is injured and sent to hospital, she rushes to his side and stays with them at their old house.  She makes breakfast and laughs with their father and sleeps in his bedroom.  They're back to their "normal" family and a trip to New York City holds the promise of a complete reunion.  But, sadly and realistically, the yellows give way to the family's blues of the past.  Returning to school in the fall, Louis can take this experience as a life lesson that love can end badly or he can see the hope that it can conquer the worst.

Fanny Britt has given us a story about a family dealing with an alcoholic parent and creates a story of understanding.  Louis sees what has happened to his family and is disheartened by it.  He recognizes the signs of his father's drinking and the impact on his mother and their family.  He is wary of love and how it can go horribly wrong.  (Note Louis' watching of his sober father playing with the happy Truffle in the illustration above.) Even his mother, ever immersed in the sadness of needing to be separated from her husband, holds out hope for recovery and reconciliation.  How Louis will adapt that understanding to his own crush on Billie, desperate to speak with her but reluctant and apprehensive about the outcome, is an ending that must be read and seen to be fully appreciated.  
From Louis Undercover 
by Fanny Britt 
illus. by Isabelle Arsenault
Isabelle Arsenault does emotional storytelling in illustration. She doesn't just draw pictures to go with the story; she builds the story with surreal elements that create depth and carry the nuance of Louis' family's circumstances.  The use of yellow and turquoise, with the browns and greys, subtly convey the emotion of each situation.  The yellow is positive and hopeful and cheery, as when Louis watches Billie or his family is happy and Dad is sober.  Turquoise permeates those illustrations of lives living with heartbreak.  Real life is brown and grey because it's sobering and no-nonsense.  

There is much sadness in Louis Undercover.  Turquoise and browns and greys are the overwhelming colours.  But be assured that there is yellow in Louis' life and Fanny Britt resolves his story with a subtle explosion of positivity matched by Isabelle Arsenault exquisite artwork.