December 14, 2018

The Birdman

Written by Troon Harrison
Illustrated by François Thisdale
Red Deer Press
48 pp.
Ages 8+
October 2018

While The Birdman is an illustrated biography, more picture book than non-fiction text, similar to several I've reviewed in the last few weeks, the illustrations of François Thisdale, an artist of inimitable skill, blends the realistic with the ethereal and elevates Troon Harrison's story of abolitionist and birder Alexander Milton Ross (1832-1897) from storybook to art book.

From his birth in the town of Belleville, Upper Canada and through his childhood, Alexander Milton Ross was brought up to appreciate and love the outdoors. He probably would have been a naturalist if not for an incident in which his parents gave food and shelter to a group of escaping slaves and the young boy was shocked to learn of the tragedies of their lives while admiring their courage and determination to seek freedom.
Alexander never forgot the suffering he saw in the eyes of those former slaves. He though about how a bird could fly free but a person could be bought and sold, beaten and whipped.
From The Birdman by Troon Harrison, illus. by François Thisdale
Following his mother's belief that "The most worthy ambition is to alleviate people's suffering", Alexander studied to become a doctor, while meeting abolitionists and reading Uncle Tom's Cabin which turned him onto helping slaves reach freedom.  When he finished his medical studies, he travelled to Virginia and Tennessee where he met with slaves secretly to help them on their journeys, including providing them with items needed and teaching them a bird call as a signal to find help. When he became a wanted man for his work, he escaped to Canada, still helping a woman whose slave owner intended to marry her off, and learning firsthand the true terror of escape.
From The Birdman by Troon Harrison, illus. by François Thisdale
But Alexander Milton Ross would not diverted from his mission to help slaves escape to Canada. Now undercover as an ornithologist interested in the collection and classification of birds, Alexander got permission from wealthy plantation owners in states like Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky to roam their lands, giving him the opportunity to secretly talk to the field slaves about the Underground Railroad and provide them with the information needed to flee to safety. He soon became known to all as the Birdman.

Troon Harrison tells multiple anecdotes of Alexander's helping slaves escape as well as the tale of his own imprisonment–he was released when an escaping slave returned claiming that he hadn't escaped but was only late in returning because of a sprained ankle–all supporting Alexander Milton Ross's mother belief that it was important "to leave the world some better than you found it."

Alexander Milton Ross's story is a tense read because of the circumstances of those he intended to help and the danger in which he placed himself. I suspect there are more and more stories from which Troon Harrison could have drawn but, by focusing on the man's beginnings and his love of the natural world to help him achieve much in aid of escaping slaves, his story is well told. And for those who want to learn more about the man, Troon Harrison provides an extensive historical note, timeline and bibliography to help. (I also recommend Caroline Pignat's Governor General award-winning novel in verse The Gospel Truth (Red Deer Press, 2015) in which Alexander Milton Ross plays an integral role.)

Troon Harrison weaves these events about Alexander Milton Ross's life into a compelling narrative of a compassionate man of action while François Thisdale's artwork gives the story depth. Look for the birds on almost every double-spread illustration of an outdoor scene. There's the oriole and the brown thrasher, the bluebird and the killdeer, and many more. They are all flying free or untethered, offering hope of a heaven in a new land where freedom might be found. In a fusion of drawing and painting and digital imagery, François Thisdale melds the natural world with historical realism and enhances the text of Troon Harrison by acknowledging the efforts of abolitionist Alexander Milton Ross while reminding young readers that sometimes courage is needed for worthwhile change to happen.
From The Birdman by Troon Harrison, illus. by François Thisdale

December 12, 2018

The True Tale of a Giantess: The Story of Anna Swan

Written by Anne Renaud
Illustrated by Marie Lafrance
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
September 2018 

Stories about extraordinary people will always grab young readers' attention. They want to know how they lived, mundane and otherwise, with this need, subconscious or otherwise, to compare to their own lives. What would it have been like? How would they have managed the celebrity or the attention or the tragedies? Biographies give us a glimpse into the lives of others while providing us with opportunities for introspection. And for children, seeing into these lives can spark empathy and compassion and greater understanding about the world at large.  Though Anna Swan's story is undoubtedly greater than can be revealed in a picture book–Anne Renaud does append the story with more details about Anna Swan, including photos and references–The True Tale of a Giantess allows children the opportunity to learn and grow.
From The True Tale of a Giantess by Anne Renaud, illus. by Marie Lafrance
Anna Swan, born in 1846 near present-day Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, was a large baby at birth (13 lbs.) and, continuing to grow, drew the attention of the local communities, shown off by her parents at country fairs as the Infant Giantess. As a teen, she was invited by P. T. Barnum to participate at his Barnum's American Museum in New York City and also travel. While her childhood may have been filled with Anna trying to fit into clothes, shoes, beds, desks and through doorways, her new life gave her a chance to "dream of a life as big as me." She met Queen Victoria and fell in love and married Martin Van Buren Bates, the Kentucky Mountain Giant, with whom she toured as the Tallest Married Couple on Earth. (Anna was 7'11.5" and Martin was 7'8".)

The couple eventually settled in Ohio where they built a house with furnishings to accommodate them as well as their guests, adopted a monkey named Buttons and farmed. "At last, we had a life where everyone fit."
From The True Tale of a Giantess by Anne Renaud, illus. by Marie Lafrance
Though Anna Swan is seen as a curiosity, Anne Renaud speaks little of her height and more about her experiences growing up and seeing the world before finding a way to make the world fit for her and those she loved. Thus, The True Tale of a Giantess is more about the positive messages of the wonder than the difficulties of the weird. Anna Swan is portrayed as a child of grace who appreciated her home and became a woman of dignity who showed compassion and acceptance.  That gentleness of story is embodied in Marie Lafrance's drawings. From her soft lines of dress and nature to the greens and greys so prevalent in her colours, Marie Lafrance takes the reader to another time when girls wore long dresses and a little girl from Nova Scotia could become a celebrity as the Tallest Girl in the World.
From The True Tale of a Giantess by Anne Renaud, illus. by Marie Lafrance

December 11, 2018

Helping Me Helping You with promoting youngCanLit (Revised post)

No, this is not a parody of an ABBA song. This is actually a revised post of one originally published on June 30, 2016 called "May I suggest...? Five ways to help me help you promote your youngCanLit." My intent was, and still is, to help promote Canadian authors' and illustrators' work. But I am painfully aware that I can always use a little help from writers, artists, publishers and readers to achieve this mandate.  Because I can tell,  through analytics on Blogger, Twitter and Facebook and more, when a review is getting support from the youngCanLit community, I know when an effort is being made to help me help you. There are so, so many who work to support my work and I wish I could acknowledge every one of you. But for those who don't realize that you can help yourselves and me, here are a few handy suggestions to help.

First let me thank those generous authors, illustrators, publicists and publishers who are so kind to provide me with copies of their books for review, as well as include me in blog tours and allow me to interview our contemporary youngCanLit A-listers.  Without these submissions, I could not afford to review as many books as I do on CanLit for LittleCanadians.

By the way, thank you to all those publishers who make an effort to send me hard copies of your books. I appreciate having a book that, after reading it, I can share with others, including schools, if I don't squirrel it away on my own shelves. I know that it's less expensive to send me a pdf or an unbound copy but, when I'm not receiving any remuneration for my reviews, having a final copy feels like a nice trade. 

That said, please limit the books you send for review to those written for young people by Canadian authors or illustrated by Canadians, born or residing here.  Just because there is a young person in the book does not mean that it is a book appropriate for or of interest to younger readers.  Imagine expecting Timothy Findley’s The Piano Man’s Daughter (HarperCollins, 1995) or Heather O’Neill’s Lullaby for Little Criminals (HarperCollins, 2006) to be reviewed as youngCanLit. Not going to happen.  And just because a younger reader is able to read the book doesn’t mean it’s youngCanLit.   If your catalogue is promoting a book as adult fiction, it’s not a juvenile or teen read, regardless of the age of the protagonist.  Save yourself the review copy and the disappointment, and save me my reading time and the communication explaining why I’m not reviewing the book.

If I do review your book, there are several ways to ensure that review gets read by more and more people.  While I may not get the million hits of a kitten playing with a bird on YouTube, CanLit for LittleCanadians does very well as a book blog.  It is linked through multiple schools and school boards and universities with teacher education programs, English and creative writing programs and library studies, as well as the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and other blogs.  But it could always do better. Add a link to on your website with a quote from the review or add me to your blog roll or become a subscriber.  Doesn’t hurt, always helps. Publishers, this is especially important for you to do.

Post a comment on the review.  Thank you to so many of you who leave comments on reviews of your own books and those of others, who share with me what they are reading, and correct my mistakes (of which there are many). Judging by the numbers on Google Analytics, comments always brings in more readers. It suggests that readers of the reviews are engaged with the text and that helps get others interested too. And don’t be dissuaded by my need to moderate the comments.  I do this to avoid horrific amounts of spam, both commercial and irrelevant.

Support CanLit for LittleCanadians on social media.  Each time I post on my blog, I will tweet several times about the book or the review or the event, ensuring the relevant parties (author, illustrator, publisher) know.  Your retweets and likes bring in more and more followers and links and you know that in the end that means sales, the all-important bottom line for YOU.  Whether I’m using the hashtags for youngCanLit or for teachers or teacher-librarians, those tweets are getting read.  And don’t be shy about retweeting multiple times or with multiple tweets about the same book.  What catches one reader on Twitter may not be the same as for another.  They all count.  Toot your own horn or at least join the band as I’m tooting away.  I have worked with amazing publicists over the years who retweet religiously and ♡ my tweets and do so on the day the review hits the blogsphere but also weeks later. And all those publishers who bring attention to my reviews through your Facebook pages and book pages, thank you.

Please don’t take it personally if I don’t review your book or don’t do it in a timely fashion. (BTW, sending a book months after it has been published and expecting me to review it immediately assumes that I don't have hundreds of books already waiting in my TBR pile. And you know what they say about assuming.) Sometimes life takes precedence over blog and I get backlogged in reviews and can’t catch up. And sometimes the book just doesn’t grab me and I’d rather not review it than write a rant of an opinion piece. I firmly agree with Paulo Coelho who said, "The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion." I alone write posts for CanLit for LittleCanadians, except for rare student reviewers, and I do what I can under constraints of time, health and motivation. With the plethora of outstanding Canadian authors and illustrators out there ready to have their works promoted and applauded, it’s a daunting task. (Also, I do have a difficult time reading stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, in which animals are key characters. I'm not talking cartoon characters. I'm talking stories in which animals are integral to a dramatic story. I have to find a compelling reason to read these books and I rarely do. I almost missed Shari Green's Missing Mike from Pajama Press for this reason.)

I know from the comments I receive regularly that many of you get it. You understand what I will and won't read and that I can't do it all. And you respect what I do get done. Thank you to author-illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi who recently honoured me with a badge (to the right of this post) for championing kidlit. Though I don't always feel deserving, it is wonderful to have my efforts encouraged.  For those who never knew how to help me help you, I hope this blog post will be a first step in doing so.

Let's continue to get everyone reading youngCanLit!

December 10, 2018

Meet Chris Hadfield (Scholastic Canada Biography)

Written by Elizabeth MacLeod
Illustrated by Mike Deas
Scholastic Canada
32 pp.
Ages 6-10
August 2018

Just last night, CBC televised the 2018 Canada Walk of Fame gala at which Chris Hadfield was among the guests of honour being celebrated. Though most Canadians, young and old alike, will know Chris Hadfield as the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space, Meet Chris Hadfield will enlighten young readers about how he was able to fulfil his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.
From Meet Chris Hadfield by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
From his television viewing of the first moon walk in July 1969, Chris wondered about the possibilities of going into space. His hard work on the family farm and in school, as well as joining the Air Cadets, helped steer a young Chris to a life in the Canadian Armed Forces, having earned a degree in mechanical engineering before training as a fighter pilot. In 1992, he was chosen as one of Canada's newest astronauts, extensively training for three years, including learning Russian, before travelling to space in 1995 as a mission specialist whose work included operating the Canadarm. 

For his second mission in 2001, Chris was tasked with helping to add new sections to the International Space Station (ISS) which would require him to leave the ISS and walk in space. Even through a terrifying mishap which temporarily blinded him, Chris and his fellow astronauts successfully completed their missions. 
From Meet Chris Hadfield by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
Back on Earth, Chris worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space centre in Houston, training other astronauts and working as the voice of Mission Control, and then as NASA's Director of Operations in Russia. It wasn't until 2012 that he returned to space, this time as the commander of the ISS for 146 days. Readers will learn details about the ISS as well as how the astronauts ate and stayed clean and in shape. But Elizabeth MacLeod makes sure to discuss Chris Hadfield's efforts to get people excited about space. His social media postings, engaging with schools, singing, and helping to create a music video with David Bowie are all mentioned.
From Meet Chris Hadfield by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
Upon his return to earth, Chris Hadfield has continued his mission to get everyone excited about space.  Through his speaking engagements, publication of his children's book (The Darkest Dark, 2016), or promotion of space education (check out his website), Chris Hadfield pursues objectives of education and appreciation of our world and those beyond.

Elizabeth MacLeod and Mike Deas could have just told the dry facts of Chris Hadfield's background but, by making it  an illustrated story, Meet Chris Hadfield delves a little deeper and gives children the anecdotes that will be most relevant to them. It's about dreaming and working hard and having fun while engaging with others about your passion. Timeline details of his life are appended, alongside a few photos, but it's with Elizabeth MacLeod's text and Mike Deas's revealing but lively artwork that Meet Chris Hadfield will continue to stimulate interest in space as well as in being good citizens on Earth in ways that Chris Hadfield might never have dreamed.
 A French-language edition, Voici Chris Hadfield (978-1-4431-6390-3), is also available. 

December 05, 2018

Sleep, Sheep!

Written by Kerry Lyn Sparrow
Illustrated by Guillaume Perreault
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
October 2018

Duncan may be the little guy who can defer sleep with an endless stream of demands and excuses but he meets his match in Sheep #68, one of the counting sheep Duncan needs to help him fall asleep. Getting a sheep to jump in its predetermined sequence seems to be as hard as getting a little one to sleep. Go figure.
From Sleep, Sheep! by Kerry Lyn Sparrow, illus. by Guillaume Perreault
Duncan didn't mind going to bed but he'd do anything to avoid sleep. He would need to change his jammies, to change his socks, to get a night light or two, to get a drink of water, to read another story, to find his favourite toy, to change his pillow, etc., etc., etc. But one night, his clever mother makes sure every thing he might ever need and more is in his room (except for the washroom). When he declares he is not sleepy, she recommends that he count sheep.
From Sleep, Sheep! by Kerry Lyn Sparrow, illus. by Guillaume Perreault
Soon a barrage of sheep, labelled with different coloured race numbers, are jumping over Duncan's bed and he counts. He starts to get sleepy but he has to sit up when Sheep #68 refuses to jump. Seems there's always something to prevent Sheep #68 from leaping and keeping up Duncan's count. With every request, Duncan gives in. Water, bathroom, the need to stretch, consider his green socks, and on and on. Eventually Duncan recommends that Sheep #68 join, without leaping over the bed, the first sixty-seven sheep already sleeping on one side of the bedroom. And with that, Duncan and Sheep #1 through #68 are asleep. 
Who knew that bedtime could be so exhausting?
What a turnaround of a story, from little boy who frustrates his mother with his relentless bedtime demands to a sheep frustrating the same boy with its exhaustive appeals. It's probably maddening for all concerned: mother, child, sheep. But, told with the seriousness of children who are trying to reason their way through difficult situations, it's actually maddeningly absurd. But, Kerry Lyn Sparrow, parent and teacher, seems to know how to handle the wearisome bedtime antics of children and makes sure that Duncan gets as good as he gives without any nastiness or offence. In Sleep, Sheep!, Kerry Lyn Sparrow's first book, she gives Duncan and Sheep #68 true voices that reflect their anxieties and resoluteness but still makes them empathetic characters.
From Sleep, Sheep! by Kerry Lyn Sparrow, illus. by Guillaume Perreault
Even Quebec's Guillaume Perreault makes his cartoon characters relatable, giving them expressions of confusion, embarrassment, fear and even pleasure. I couldn't help but feel pity for Sheep #68.  Just as Duncan feels the pressure to fall asleep, it feels the pressure to perform. Appropriately, Guillaume Perreault, who shared the win for the 2017 Le Prix TD with Larry Tremblay for their book Même pas vrai (Éditions de la Bagnole, 2016), works with Kerry Lyn Sparrow's story to make it evident that compassion is required to help make an awkward situation right. After all, who is going to stay up all night waiting for one sheep to jump? Here's hoping Duncan wakes up in the morning still recognizing the similarity in the sheep's actions with his own and the consequent happy endings that come with sleep.

December 04, 2018

Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is Revealing the Past

Written by Claire Eamer
Illustrated by Drew Shannon
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 8-12
September 2018

In another life, I did research on the historical record trapped in peatlands in Alberta. Most people would be fascinated to learn that deep within the plant material there are records of volcanic eruptions from thousands of years ago, deforestation and agriculture in the surrounding areas, and more.  Claire Eamer, prolific writer of non-fiction including Inside Your Insides: A Guide to the Microbes That Call You Home (Kids Can Press, 2016) and What a Waste! Where Does Garbage Go? (Annick Press, 2017), brings similar information from the past as it is trapped in frozen water from glaciers, permafrost, and more, now being revealed with the global warming of the Earth's air, ground and water.

Starting with explanations about global warming and how the Earth acts as a greenhouse, Claire Eamer then focuses on specific circumstances under which clues from the past become revealed. There is the 4300 year old stick with a bit of feather and sinew found in ice patches in the Yukon alongside 2400 year old caribou dung, revealing the first organic evidence of the hunting atlatl, a stick used to throw darts. There are more archaeological clues from Norway, spurred on by the Yukon finds, of large groups of people using scaring sticks to funnel herds of reindeer for easy hunting. In 1999, the mummified body of Kwädąy Dän Ts'ìnchį, meaning "long-ago person found", was discovered at the edge of a melting glacier in BC, providing evidence of his age, food eaten, and clothing worn, as well as his ancestry through DNA. The famous Iceman, Ötzi, found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991, is also discussed, as are the Scythians in the permafrost of the Altai Mountains of Asia, the Incan children of Llullaillaco, sacrificed to the gods and buried high in the Andes, and the cave-lion cubs and mammoths discovered in Siberia and Russia.

From Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is Revealing the Past by Claire Eamer, illus. by Drew Shannon

 All these discoveries further our understanding of the people and animals who inhabited these areas, hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of years ago. With contemporary testing and advances, like radiocarbon dating, and biochemical and DNA analyses, more and more can be learned about them and their world, which Claire Eamer recognizes is our world too.

 "The past is us." (pg. 29)
Drew Shannon, a Toronto illustrator, provides realistic depictions of how these people and animals might have lived, giving context to the circumstances of the artifacts and bodies recovered. A photograph for each story is usually provided but Drew Shannon's illustrations help the reader see beyond the science and into the lives of those left behind and now being exposed. Coupled with information boxes, a glossary, a timeline and references for further study, Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is Revealing the Past becomes a well-organized and informative read that still draws the reader in with its compelling stories of lives lived before, useful for teaching the science of climate change or history and archaeology.
From Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is Revealing the Past by Claire Eamer, illus. by Drew Shannon

December 03, 2018

The Ice Chips and the Haunted Hurricane

Written by Roy MacGregor and Kerry MacGregor
Illustrated by Kim Smith
HarperCollins Canada
167 pp.
Ages 7-10
September 2018

Many readers grew up reading Roy MacGregor's extraordinarily successful Screech Owls series of middle grade novels about the peewee hockey team. For adventure and mystery and, of course, hockey, these were the go-to books for kids. Now, for a slightly younger set–let's say early middle-grader–Roy MacGregor has teamed up with his daughter Kerry MacGregor to take their minor hockey team, the Ice Chips, on the road but through time and history too. And, in The Ice Chips and the Haunted Hurricane, the kids meet a hockey hero and a few ghosts as well.

Lucas Finnigan a.k.a. Top Shelf and his friends and teammates Swift, Edge and Crunch decide to recreate their initial magical experience of time slip that had them meeting Gordie Howe. They know that after Scratch, the magical Zamboni, resurfaces the rink with its magical flood and they skate across the centre line, they will be transported...somewhere, sometime. But, as the Ice Chips are again matched up against their ice nemeses, the well-equipped and moneyed Stars, they know they are at a significant disadvantage, especially having lost valuable time waiting for the Riverton Community Arena to reopen. So Lucas, Swift and Edge, this time prepared with walkie-talkies, a camera, boots–they can't walk around in their skates everywhere–and other tools, and Crunch staying behind as tether with a walkie-talkie, jump back in time and into their newest adventure.

Strangely, the kids find themselves on a boat in the middle of a storm and it's two other Ice Chips, Bond and Mouth Guard, who unknowingly followed the trio of time-travellers to Nova Scotia, who meet a young hockey player and introduce him to the others when they're finally reunited. Though the kids don't connect the dots about this young star from Cole Harbour until near the end of the book, they're still impressed by his determination and drive, especially after taking them through some intense and very worthwhile hockey drills at the Citadel in Halifax. There's also a few encounters with ghosts including a sea captain from the Halifax Explosion, making The Ice Chips and the Haunted Hurricane a bona fide story of the Maritimes.

But, as in the first book in the series, The Ice Chips and the Magical Rink, Roy MacGregor and Kerry MacGregor's new book promotes lessons about getting the kids to work together, seeing beyond their weaknesses and looking towards empowerment with strategies to make their playing and their lives better while still immersing young readers in the hockey culture of today and then. Moreover, with the diversity of kids on the team–boys and girls of different ethnicities and physical and intellectual abilities including Swift who has a prosthetic leg–all children will see themselves in the Ice Chips. (I love that most of the teammates call each other by their nicknames and the gender of the player is rarely discussed.)

Hockey fans will definitely love the scrimmages on the ice, well told by Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Roy MacGregor and journalist Kerry MacGregor, but they'll be grabbed by the story of kids finding themselves in new circumstances, getting guidance from hockey greats and working together to find their way home. With Calgarian Kim Smith's illustrations to give the story some graphic spice, The Ice Chips and the Haunted Hurricane will be taking home a win. Though it will still be a few more months until The Ice Chips and the Invisible Puck comes out in April of 2019, I'm pretty sure that authors Roy MacGregor and Kerry MacGregor, who plan to make Swift's idol, one of Canada's most decorated Olympians, the focus of that story, will be able to keep up their stickhandling magic.
From The Ice Chips and the Haunted Hurricane by Roy MacGregor and Kerry MacGregor, illus. by Kim Smith