March 29, 2017

Waiting for Sophie

Written by Sarah Ellis
Illustrated by Carmen Mok
Pajama Press
48 pp.
Ages 5-8
April 2017

Waiting can be so hard for little ones, especially when it's for a baby sister who is taking her time being born and growing up so you can play with her.  And this waiting is just about killing little Liam.
"Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. I waited through half of kindergarten.  I waited through my birthday." Liam bounced on the bed. "Waiting is my worst thing. I want to jump on waiting and smash it to smithereens and flush it down the toilet." (pg. 8)
Fortunately Liam's Nana-Downstairs is adept at keeping him occupied with all kinds of "being bad" to pass the time: wearing pajamas all day, eating marshmallow sandwiches, painting Liam's bedroom door with purple polka dots and hurling playful insults at each other.  Finally Baby Sophie arrives in the world and is brought home and Liam thinks she is practically perfect.  
She had toes like peanuts and ears that the sun shone through.  The top of her head smelled especially nice.  (pg. 14)
From Waiting for Sophie 
by Sarah Ellis
illus. by Carmen Mok
For weeks, Sophie's big brother delights in making her laugh and stopping her from crying and getting her to burp.  But he wants more, hoping that the day when Sophie can walk and talk comes sooner than expected, since waiting can be so tiresome.  After months of more waiting, Nana-Downstairs, a handy person, has a new idea, and helps Liam create the G. O. F. (Get Older Faster) machine, an spectacular box of dials and screens and fancy pasta.  And though it doesn't seem to work on Sophie, it does seem to have an impact on Nana-Downstairs and on Liam's stuffie Lelefant and even on helping Liam grow up enough to help his father out. But will Sophie ever grow up?
From Waiting for Sophie
by Sarah Ellis 
illus. by Carmen Mok
I suspect Sarah Ellis is the indomitable Nana-Downstairs (who bears a striking resemblance to the author) who recognized the heartbreak of a child's waiting and possessed the unique imagination to create magic for her grandson to help ease that relentless waiting.  And even though it only appeased the waiting temporarily, Nana-Downstairs was able to provide him with skills that would serve him well for a long, long time.  

Sarah Ellis gives Liam a voice that is so filled with hope about his new sister and the promise of having a familial playmate that even his frustrations are natural and unfeigned.  He speaks with his heart, never with meanness or anger, though he acknowledges the annoyance of biding his time.  Sophie has a great big brother. And, although Waiting for Sophie is an early reader, rather than a picture book, the illustrations by Carmen Mok augment Sarah Ellis’ story with the innocence and family that the author’s words already convey.  

Young children being challenged to read their first chapter books will appreciate this early reader as it will undoubtedly speak to them.  So many know the anguish of waiting, whether for a new sibling to be born or some other significant life event, and will easily put themselves in Liam’s shoes.  Maybe they’ll undertake their own DIY project, with a little help from an adult, or maybe they’ll find their own coping strategies but you can be sure that they’ll appreciate Liam’s story of Waiting for Sophie and the fun that can be had with it.

March 28, 2017

A Horse Named Steve

Written and illustrated by Kelly Collier
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
April 2017

Steve is a horse who wants to be exceptional.  When he finds a golden horn in the woods, he attaches it by string to his head, convinced it will make him very special. As Steve parades it in front of his miscellaneous animal friends, cooing about how fancy he is and how ordinary everyone else is, the horn begins to slip from his head until it’s hanging around his neck.  As the other animals begin attaching random embellishments like a branch, an acorn, a mushroom, or a leafy twig to their own heads, Bob the raccoon reveals to Steve that there is no beautiful gold horn on the horse’s head.  Steve starts to panic, searching everywhere and crying despairingly.  When he is convinced that his horn has fallen into the water, Steve demonstrates the lengths to which he’ll go to be considered distinct, revealing more about his desire for individuality than it does for his need for celebrity.
From A Horse Named Steve 
by Kelly Collier
There is definitely a Mélanie Watt Scaredy Squirrel tone to A Horse Named Steve, primarily because of Kelly Collier’s ridiculously self-absorbed horse, sidebar comments throughout the multi-fonted text, and the awkward relationships between Steve and his cohorts.  But A Horse Named Steve is as unique as Steve himself wants to be.  Few characters are a blend of Steve’s ludicrousness and wretchedness so evident in his pursuit, especially since he is convinced that a golden horn will fulfil that need.  But Steve is more childish than mean, craving attention and not knowing how to get it in a positive way.  Kelly Collier’s story reminds us how much the world is driven by individuals desiring fame and celebrity when their uniqueness would serve them better in highlighting their exceptionalities.

A Horse Named Steve is a quirky story about a horse who doesn’t realize how original he already is, and Kelly Collier’s illustrations are as eccentric as he is.  With simple lines and very few colours (black and white with beige), Kelly Collier both pokes fun at her characters, whose distinct facial expressions share hidden meaning, and society in general while amusing young readers with the absurdity of Steve’s passion for a distinction he already has.  They’ll laugh at his silliness but I hope they’ll appreciate his differences as hallmarks of extraordinariness.
From A Horse Named Steve 
by Kelly Collier

March 27, 2017

Breaking Faith: Book launch (Burlington, ON)


E. Graziani

author of
War in My Town
(Second Story Press, 2015)

for the launch of her new young adult novel

Breaking Faith
by E. Graziani
Second Story Press
248 pp.
Ages 13-17
March 2017


Sunday, April 2, 2017

2 p.m.

A Different Drummer Books
513 Locust St.
Burlington, ON

In addition to a book reading and signing, 
youth mental health expert Dr. Vimala Chinnasamy will give a talk.

Faith Emily Hansen just wants to be loved and to live without the weight of addiction. But the lure of drugs is strong. The relief that she gets from being wrapped up in the cozy little cotton ball of heroin is impossible to ignore.

Faith’s story starts in her earliest days, before drugs, before her family falls apart. Before her mother leaves. Before her sister betrays her, taking away Faith’s last connection to home. She eventually becomes consumed by the need to “chase the dragon” – the heroin addiction that seems to keep the Darkness at bay, but leads her to live on the street. The determination to find love and comfort that lures Faith to drugs is ultimately the same stubborn force that can drive her to recover.

Retrieved from on March 13, 2017.

Breaking Faith

Written by E. Graziani
Second Story Press
328 pp.
Ages 13+
March 2017
Reviewed from advance reading copy

For most people, turning points help define them in terms of before and after.  They are sparks of tragedy or ecstasy that depress or elevate, twisting the trajectories of lives onto paths unpredicted.  For Faith Emily Hansen, her turning points began with those of her mother, Lacey, but when her own begin to accumulate, they lead her down paths that are both random and dangerous, and sadly all her own.

Life for Faith’s family has never been easy.  Her mother had been devastated when her husband Simon had died, leaving her with a two-year-old daughter Constance.  She tried to get on with her life, moving back in with her criticizing and argumentative mother Dot, and even getting involved with two different men and having Faith a year later and Destiny two years after that.  Still Lacey’s life is tenuous at best, and out of control at worst.  Although her love for her children is evident–including coming to Faith's rescue when the four-year-old becomes an innocent victim in a horrific act of violence–she leaves them when Faith is just seven, moving to Toronto and making promises she'll never keep.

When Constance moves in with her other grandmother, the affluent Josephine, Faith is left to mother her younger sister and navigate her own Darkness, ever difficult as she is overwhelmed with sadness and anger, hurt and loneliness.  And she is just a child.  As they all deal with Lacey’s spiral into drug use, Faith yearns for normal but is unable to make choices that support that.  Even some counselling and making friends with Norma and Ishaan in middle school can't keep Faith from eventually breaking and heading to a life on the streets of Toronto and into using heroin, eventually hitting rock bottom.
"And my soul was broken–I'd lost Faith.  Lost hope. Lost my belief in my own destiny." (pg. 264)
The story that E. Graziani tells with heart-breaking power and poignancy is devastating in its sadness and bleakness.  Though Faith's reactions are her own, the circumstances of her life were thrust upon her by a mother with her own addiction and mental health issues, by a random act of violence and by familial circumstances which burden her and for which she, as a child, was unprepared emotionally and physically.  Even happiness was a burden.
"And the feeling of constantly being on edge, walking on eggshells, and feeling guilty (though outlandish as that may seem) if I felt a positive emotion." (pg. 17)
But, though Faith sees little positive in her life, she is the poster child for the Bob Marley quote she repeats throughout: "You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice."
The reader may be hopeful that, since it is a nineteen-year-old Faith who is writing about the events and conditions that led her to a point where she needs to be rescued, Breaking Faith must have a happy ending i.e., she survives to write her story.  But I don't think there are any happy endings here.  As the Afterword by psychiatrist Dr. Vimala Chinnasamy states, Faith's story is not an uncommon one, one in which mental illness and addiction are perceived as emotional weaknesses and for which inadequate support, both within the family and outside, is provided, thus contributing to the tragedy.  And Breaking Faith is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.  The only saving grace is that Faith survives these chapters of her life and that E. Graziani provides a deep look into a life we need to witness so that we might walk with the Faiths of this world before we need to pull them up and rescue them or worse.


Check out the next post for details of the book launch for Breaking Faith this Sunday at A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, ON

March 24, 2017

Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined

Written by Danielle Younge-Ullman
368 pp.
Ages 13-17
February 2017
After, I stand for a few moments looking out over the water, the moon reflecting off its glass-like surface.  It's beautiful, yes.  But the beauty doesn't reach me the way it's supposed to because I feel like it's been shoved down my throat.  I register the stark gorgeousness of the dying day, and what it fills me with is unease, and an ominous sensation of cracking inside–of cracking open, of a corresponding excruciating pain I have kept at bay by incredible discipline beginning to seep toward the surface. (pg. 87)
Ingrid Burke must feel like she's been deposited in another world, and one not of her choosing.  In fact, not even one like in the brochure her mother, retired opera singer Margot-Sophia Lalonde, had shown her of Peak Wilderness, an outdoors camp in northern Ontario, to which Ingrid has agreed to go so her mother would permit her attendance at a prestigious music school in London England.  Worse yet, Ingrid, who perceives herself to be “a model citizen and paragon of stability” (pg. 53) compared to the miscellany of other troubled youth campers, must survive three weeks of hiking, canoeing, roughing it, and sharing under the supervision of leaders Pat and Bonnie who seem to enjoy the group’s failures at near impossible tasks.

What happened that led Ingrid to this challenging and repeatedly dangerous situation is told in alternating chapters, organized by Ingrid's age, that speak to her life before Peak Wilderness.  They tell of her life travelling the world with her famous mother and then, after damage to Margot-Sophia’s vocal chords leads them home to Toronto,  the reversal of roles when Margot-Sophia is overcome with depression.  Revealed slowly but with ease are Ingrid’s experiences at school and home, feeling vulnerable and frustrated, fearful and positive, and her attempts to achieve normalcy and some happiness. Eventually we also learn what led her to Peak Wilderness.

My words cannot do justice to the depth of Danielle Younge-Ullman's characterizations and story-telling.  There is so much to share with readers that my words seem sparse and ineffective. But I can tell you that Danielle Younge-Ullman weaves Ingrid’s present and past into a fabric of ordinary and extraordinary, creating a life of tenacity to which most of us could aspire.  Though Ingrid doesn’t want to acknowledge the vulnerabilities that brought her to the camp, Danielle Younge-Ullman provides hints throughout the story–Isaac, an axe and an injured leg–that there is more to the teen’s story than she reveals to others and even to herself.  Her go-to survival mechanisms include a strained positivity –“How exciting, and what a magnificent opportunity to get in touch with my inner savage” (pg. 29)– and silence with a dose of denial.  But beyond Ingrid’s inner turmoil are the relationships the teen has with her mother, her new father, a boy with whom she has a connection, and all the campers.  These relationships drive Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined.  They ebb and flow, both serene and passionate, not unlike the music of a great opera that Margot-Sophia might have performed.  Though Ingrid might think she knows the music of her life really well, she’s just learning to perform it with passion so that she can make it successfully to the triumphant finish.   And Danielle Younge-Ullman makes sure that we want to stay for the whole performance without ever nodding off.


On May 6, 2017, Danielle Younge-Ullman will be speaking at the Stratford Writers Festival Young Adult forum along with numerous other YA authors.  I'll post about it here soon but you can get details at

I'll be there and you should be too!

March 22, 2017

Town Is by the Sea

Written by Joanne Schwartz
Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Groundwood Books
52 pp.
Ages 5-9
April 2017

A little longer than most picture books, Town Is by the Sea needs all those pages to envelop the daily life of a father and son, one above ground in the sunshine of a summer day and the other in the dark deeps of a coal mine.  It's a picture book about legacy, family, work and child's play.  Amazing that Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith managed all that in 52 pages.

Long before a little boy awakens to stand in his underwear at the window and gaze upon the sea, his father has breakfasted, grabbed his lunchbox and joined the multitudes of men making their way to work in the coal mines. The father's routine in the darkest dark is juxtaposed against the brightness and lightness of the young boy's day.  Working underground versus playing and running in the sun. Both close to the sea but different.  Though the boy's day is filled with different activities like swinging in the playground, enjoying his lunch, going to the store, visiting his grandfather's grave, and sitting by the sea, his father's day is the same throughout, sombrely depicted with one line, repeated with similar oppressive illustrations:
"And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal.
From Town Is by the Sea 
by Joanne Schwartz 
illus. by Sydney Smith
While it might appear that the end of the day has come when his father returns home safe and the family is drawn together for supper and a sit on the porch overlooking the sea, the young boy's day ends with thoughts of the two different types of days and his own inevitable future in the mines.

"In my town, that's the way it goes."

Town Is by the Sea is a powerful story in words and text of lives lived in a town based in coal mining. Both author Joanne Schwartz and illustrator Sydney Smith are Nova Scotia-born and the depth of their knowledge is evident in the weight of their contributions to the book.  Though Town Is by the Sea could be an oppressive story of a dangerous vocation and the formidable eventuality for the boy and his cohorts, Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith play up the lightness of childhood, giving a shine to the boy's movements, even in the visit to his grandfather's grave.  

  My grandfather used to say,
Bury me facing the sea b'y,
I worked long and hard

From Town Is by the Sea 
by Joanne Schwartz
 illus. by Sydney Smith
The antithesis of the two lives is reflected in the very sea that pervades their landscapes and their livelihoods.  It is both brilliant and overbearing, life giving and life sapping.  It can sparkle and shimmer or be frothy and tumultuous.  In her words, Joanne Schwartz gets it right.  In his artwork, Sydney Smith is definitive. His watercolour and ink illustrations, the very style that garnered Sidewalk Flowers (JonArno Lawson, Groundwood, 2015) numerous awards and had me effusive over The White Cat and the Monk (JoEllen Bogart, Groundwood, 2016), produces that contrast of light and dark, and easy and difficult, so apparently effortlessly that it's as if Sydney Smith was born to illustrate this very book.  

I'm so pleased that neither Joanne Schwartz, a Toronto librarian, and Sydney Smith, illustrator extraordinaire, were destined to lives beneath the sea digging coal.  Without them,  there would be no Town Is by the Sea and this story book is far too important to never have been shared with those who live by that sea and those who do not.
From Town Is by the Sea 
by Joanne Schwartz 
illus. by Sydney Smith

Town Is by the Sea: Book launch (Halifax, NS)

Halifax Public Libraries


Groundwood Books

are partnering for the book launch 

of the first collaboration


author Joanne Schwartz 


illustrator Sydney Smith

Town Is by the Sea


Saturday, March 25, 2017

10 a.m. -12 p.m.


Halifax Public Library
Central Branch
Lindsay Children's Room
5440 Spring Garden Road 
Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada

From the website of the Halifax Public Libraries:

Families are invited to help launch the new picture book Town Is by the Sea with the author Joanne Schwartz and illustrator Sydney Smith. In this beautifully understated and haunting story, a piece of Canadian history is brought to life. A young boy wakes up to the sound of the sea, visits his grandfather's grave after lunch, and comes home to a simple family dinner with his family, but all the while his mind strays to his father digging for coal deep down under the sea. Stunning illustrations by Sydney Smith, the award-winning illustrator of Sidewalk Flowers, show the striking contrast between a sparkling seaside day and the darkness underground where the miners dig.