July 19, 2018

The Whirlpool

Written by Laurel Croza
Illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Groundwood Books
978-1-77306-032-3
96 pp.
Ages 10-14
May 2018

Don't be deceived by the simple cover illustration and the less-than-100 page count. The Whirlpool, a collection of seven short stories from award-winning picture book author Laurel Croza, is not an early reader.  Its stories are sophisticated and aimed at upper middle grades, covering a wide variety of issues from emotional abuse and grief to destiny and bullying.

In It's a Step, the narrator Charity lives with her mother and abusive father.  As her dad rails against her mom taking a job at Tim's, both mother and daughter find the means to take a small step to a better life.  In Book of Dreams, Mike finds the support he doesn't get at home from his mom and her latest boyfriend at a restaurant where he gets respect, appreciation and a turkey dinner. While a very different story in terms of characters, OH! is also about finding home. The Oh! So Perfect Hair Dolly goes from factory to store shelf and dreams of being named by a child. The desolation of being passed over during Christmas shopping and then being relegated to the reduced price bin is reflective of any child who has felt unloved.  

The Whirlpool is the story of fifteen-year-old Jasmine who is the brunt of swirling rumours at the whirlpool that is school about her having a baby. As she deals with the gossip and nastiness, Jasmine resolves to "look the whirlpool in the eye" (pg. 30) and reveal her story. A Beautiful Smile also looks at nastiness at school, this time with a young teen from the north standing up to a mean girl at her new Toronto school. Most satisfying is the public and clever way in which Nicola finds support and salvation.

Although all the stories have something important to impart, my two favourite stories are The Sunflower and Destiny. Though told from the perspective of a squirrel, The Sunflower is neither trite nor silly. It is an emotional story about loss and grief and making connections, and I defy anyone not to sob at its telling.  Destiny is a revealing story about following one's dreams, regardless of others' desires and opinions.  Johnny helped inspire his younger sister Dani to play hockey even when her father thought figure skating would be more appropriate. Dani persevered and changed her father's mind about her playing hockey. Now, with Johnny drafted to the OHL, she wants to help her brother accept his true destiny too.

Each story in Laurel Croza's collection is packed with emotional growth, from taking first steps to fulfilling one's destiny, or saving yourself, or accepting strengths and weaknesses as part of the whole package. The stories may be brief (each less than 20 pages) but they wallop you with the power of their storytelling, dialogue and message. My favourite, The Sunflower, does that all in five pages.

I shouldn't be surprised that Laurel Croza can weave such powerful tales. Her highly-acclaimed picture books, I Know Here and From There to Here, which were beautifully illustrated by Matt James, conveyed amazing stories in few words. But these stories are not picture book tales transformed into text. They are not for our youngest readers, though, because of the length of the books, parents and teachers might expect them to be so.  The stories in The Whirlpool collection deal with issues of abuse, gossip, abandonment, and death. While these are issues with which younger readers may be familiar, the older protagonists in Laurel Croza's stories suggest that older middle grade readers might understand the messages better.

I've always loved short story collections for the breadth of stories that can be told and the piecemeal manner in which the text can be read. They are potent teaching tools and convenient for reading in shorter time periods. With The Whirlpool, Laurel Croza has provided a worthwhile addition to the youngCanLit collection of short story anthologies as it enlightens, reassures and inspires.

July 17, 2018

Whatshisface

Written by Gordon Korman
Scholastic Press
978-1-338-20016-4
231 pp.
Ages 8-12
May 2018

There's an anonymity that comes with being the new kid at school that can be refreshing. But most times, and twelve-year-old Cooper Vega knows this well, you're just Whatshisface, the guy no one cares to know. You're not part of the established cohorts or activities and many kids are not going to bother trying to include you in their lives.  Cooper feels like his job is just "to get out of the way." (pg. 1) But, in his new home town of Stratford, where Somerset Wolfson, Shakespearean fanatic and one of the richest men in the U.S., lives, it's looks like it might not work as it always has.

Being in Grade 7, Cooper and his classmates will be responsible for performing the annual Shakespearean play.  This year's play will be Romeo and Juliet, an endeavour supported financially by Mr. Wolfson. As much as Cooper might enjoy playing Romeo–the role assigned to the obnoxious Brock Bumgartner–opposite the incredible Jolie, he is selected for Second Watchman, a perfect role for a Whatshisface.

But when his new cell phone, the GX-4000, starts acting up and connects with the ghost of a young printer's apprentice, Roderick Barnabas Northrop, from 1596 England, staying a Whatshisface becomes a little harder.  This is especially true when Roddy, in his efforts to help Cooper become less of a Whatshisface and win Jolie's attentions, learns that the play they are performing is one he had started writing prior to his death!

Gordon Korman is a writing hero to middle graders. He has the heart of a middle grader or at least he writes like one and that's why young readers LOVE his books. He writes funny stories with great plots, relatable characters and satisfying endings that resolve with honesty and realism. That's pretty amazing considering there's a ghost in a cell phone in Whatshisface. Still the characters, other than Roddy, are real kids who want to fit in or be popular or get the lead role or want to stay under the radar. Most are just trying to survive middle school. Readers will see themselves in Cooper, a boy who doesn't feel like he belongs but does feel like he's always messing up.  He's not a loser but he certainly feels like one at times, not unlike just about everyone in the world. And they'll cheer for him when Roddy whips out insult after insult, in true sixteen-century style, to come to Cooper's defence.
"...had my fat hound thy face, I should shave its hindquarters and train it to present itself rearward." (pg. 81)
 (This is paraphrased by Cooper as "...if my dog had your face, I'd shave its butt and teach it to walk backward."; pg. 81) What child would not laugh uproariously at that irreverence?

While many young readers will be grabbed by the familiar plot of trying to fit in, the subplot related to Shakespeare's alleged theft of manuscripts is a fascinating one. By incorporating that controversy (and there is a history of allegations that Shakespeare may have adapted, if not stolen, the works of others) with the quirky friendship between boy and ghost, finding one's place, whether in middle school or in history, takes on a whole new dimension.

July 13, 2018

Past Tense

Written by Star Spider
HarperCollins
978-1-443452113
304 pp.
Ages 13+
April 2018 

When you're fifteen years old (Julie) and you think you're in love with your best friend (Lorelei) and dreaming of that first kiss while your mother (Olive) is acting weird, telling you her heart is gone, and your best friend's ex (Henry) whom you never liked is hanging around and Dad (Max) is always working and your baby brother is only six months old, everything is a worry.  Your world is beyond tense, it's almost unendurable.

This is Julie's present. Her friendship with Lorelei has always been solid, though probably more so because Julie usually accommodates her popular and assertive friend, more so now that she is crushing on her.  But Lorelei is keeping secrets and making choices that Julie is questioning, at least to herself, so Julie doesn't confide in her best friend when her mother starts acting really, really weird.  Julie has discovered her mom, a former firefighter, is barely eating, thinks she no longer has a heart, and driving out to the cemetery at night with the baby. Stranger yet, when Julie insists on going with her on these excursions, her mom wants her to play out a game called Rest in Peace where Julie eulogizes her mother.  Does she tell her father? No. He's too busy and just contends that her mom is tired.

And into the mix comes Henry, Lorelei's ex. At first, Julie is convinced Henry just wants to reconnect with Lorelei, but it soon becomes obvious to all that Henry likes Julie. Julie doesn't know what to think. Maybe she just likes girls. Maybe she likes both boys and girls. Still, Henry who has his own worries is the one person she can talk to about everything. But can she reveal everything to her new ally when Mom is trying out caskets and Lorelei may be hiding a secret about their teacher Mr. Gomez?

Though a writer of some acclaim, Past Tense is Star Spider's first novel, and it's a doozy. Having a young teen questioning her sexuality is not unusual, though the path Star Spider takes her on to help understanding it–watching others, listening to her heart, and pondering what her head is telling her–is fresh. But when mixed in with her mother's mental illness, later diagnosed as Cotard's delusion, and a family on the edge, along with friend who is both secretive and affectionate, Julie's story is far more angsty. Fortunately, by looking back through the past–each chapter begins with a memory of Julie and her mother–the reader will realize the past shapes our relationships and our future but does not determine it.  Julie's friendship with Lorelei does not have to remain as it was when they were younger, just as her relationship with Henry can be something different than it was when he dated Lorelei.  And her strong and capable mother is no less because of her illness or status as a stay-at-home parent.  Living in the past is futile. Moving forward is a necessity.

July 11, 2018

Eden Mills Writers' Festival 2018: September 9, 2018

This year the Eden Mills Writers' Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary of bringing writers and readers together. We always have an incredible line-up of authors of books but I like to let readers at CanLit for LittleCanadians know about those writers of books for young people.  Do check out the full line-up as well as the other special events, workshops, contests, and details about tickets and getting here at the EMWF website at https://edenmillswritersfestival.ca/2018-festival/.

For now, mark September 9, 2018 for your chance to hear these outstanding authors of youngCanLit at this year's Eden Mills Writers' Festival.


Sigmund Brouwer


Lana Button


Dennis Lee 


Casey Lyall


Sylvia McNicoll 

Also, appearing in Children's venue will be storyteller Brad Woods


Because it's a special anniversary for the Eden Mills Writers' Festival, we'll be doing something a little different in the Young Adult Authors' venue this year.  Instead of just having readings by the authors, we'll be holding two panels, each with three authors. In each panel, the authors will read from their most recent books, discuss their writing and answer questions including those vetted from the audience.

Speculative Fiction: Young Adult Novels of the Fantastic

Natasha Deen


Cherie Dimaline


Lesley Livingston


Historical Fiction: Writing about the Past for the Contemporary

Karen Bass


Gillian Chan


Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

See you at the Festival!

July 10, 2018

The Muskox and the Caribou

Written by Nadia Mike
Illustrated by Tamara Campeau
Inhabit Media
978-1-77227-163-8
36 pp.
Ages 5-7
February 2018

While The Muskox and the Caribou is obviously a story rooted in the Arctic where both species co-exist, children everywhere will appreciate the story of Baby Muskox and Baby Caribou and Mother Caribou who loved them both.

The story begins with the birth of Baby Caribou who is born to a loving Mother Caribou and learns to walk and gallop with the herd. One day, Mother Caribou spots Baby Muskox wandering helplessly alone and lost and leads him along with her own offspring back to the herd. Baby Muskox knows he is different. He has long and dark shaggy hair and his legs are short and stocky, very different from the caribou. Sadly, Baby Caribou and his friends don't seem to like Baby Muskox very much and tease him about his differences.  It is only with Mother Caribou that Baby Muskox feels love and comfort.
From The Muskox and the Caribou by Nadia Mike, illus. by Tamara Campeau
Months pass and the young animals grow. Even when the young are prodded by Mother Caribou to go out and explore independently, Baby Muskox returns to the safety and love of his adopted mother. Finally, when fully grown, Mother Caribou takes Baby Muskox on a long walk to see animals such as himself. For the first time, the muskox understands why he never fit in and, though he is sad to learn he isn't a caribou at all, he is excited to get to know others who are just like him.
But most of all, he was grateful for Mother Caribou because she had always shown him love. (pg. 26)
From The Muskox and the Caribou by Nadia Mike, illus. by Tamara Campeau
All children will feel different from others at one point or another.  It may be the way they look or what they can do or can't do or the way they feel.  Some may not feel like they belong in the family to which they were born or with whom they live.  But if The Muskox and the Caribou teaches anything it is that love can make things tolerable and allow growth. Baby Muskox may never have realized he was a muskox but he knew he wasn't like the caribou and that caused him much sadness. Only Mother Caribou made things right. Unfortunately Baby Caribou who'd always known that he belonged could have been a better sibling to Baby Muskox but he did not see the impact of his actions on the young muskox.

Nadia Mike's humble story of a baby muskox taken in by a mother caribou and loved and sheltered along with her own young provides may teachable moments about love and differences and empathy.  Children who live in the Arctic will more likely recognize the two animals and how different they are, but all children will accept that the muskox and the caribou could be any individuals who are different and can still coexist. With love, all is possible.

Northern Quebec illustrator Tamara Campeau provides a natural landscape for The Muskox and the Caribou, emphasizing the rugged terrain and tundra vegetation as the backdrop for the story.  While the animals as babies are softened and simplified, they are true and realistic, and Tamara Campeau makes The Muskox and the Caribou as much a teaching book about the Arctic as she does enhancing Nadia Mike's story with art.

Though all children will delight in a story about baby animals, The Muskox and the Caribou should be read to send a message that we all belong somewhere and, until that somewhere is found, love can help brook time and place.

July 09, 2018

All That Was

Written by Karen Rivers
Farrar Straus Giroux
978-0-374-30246-7
384 pp.
Ages 12-18
January 2018

Seventeen-year-olds Piper and Sloane are friends. On the surface, they are very similar, or at least make themselves appear similar in hair style and colour and clothing, and spend all their time together or they did until the No-Boyfriend Rule is broken.  But Piper and Sloane's friendship is one of contradictions: love and hate, appreciation and disrespect, and camaraderie and rivalry. With that kind of a basis for a friendship, what happens when one of the friends is gone?

Though Sloane Whittaker thinks of herself as common compared to the more exotic Piper Sullivan, Piper is actually more like the flirty alpha in their friendship. If she wants something, she goes after it and is oblivious to the nuances in their friendship that might indicate Sloane may think differently.  So when they attend an art show that includes the work of Soup Sanchez, a boy Sloane has liked since fourth grade, Piper teases her shamelessly until Sloane denies liking him. The next day Piper reveals she and Soup connected after the show and are now going out. Now Sloane must endure Piper's personal divulgences about their kisses and sex all while secretly yearning for the boy she has always liked and coincidentally seems to like her. But it's hard to say "No" to Piper. So when Piper decides that Sloane must experience sex, and she sets her up with a boy, James Robert Wilson, Sloane goes along. 

But trouble is brewing as Soup and Sloane are regularly thrown together and Piper, oblivious until one fateful night, continues to direct their lives and her story to her best advantage.  That all changes when Piper dies.

All That Was is told in the voices of Sloane and Soup in terms of "Before" and "Now" relative to Piper's death. Most of the story is the "Before" in which we learn about the basis for Sloane and Piper's friendship; their revealing discussions which are both friendly and hostile; Sloane's aspirations to be a documentary filmmaker; and Soup and Piper's relationship. The "Now" brings to light the police investigation and arrest of a murderer, the guilt Sloane and Soup harbour, and the necessity of perspective and forgiveness, even of oneself.

Although many would consider Piper and Sloane frenemies and their friendship essentially doomed, I think it goes far deeper than that. The two girls sincerely love one another as friends but there is an inherent meanness to their interactions.  Theirs is a dance of sarcasm and one-upmanship, trying to be individuals but scared to be separated.  It's a very real relationship though not one to which anyone would aspire. Although I like some aspects of Sloane, probably identifying her as the underdog of the two, neither Piper nor Sloane are very likable. Karen Rivers made them very real–I suspect most teens know a Piper and a Sloane at their high schools–and their connectedness authentic though strained. Whether there is a message here about forgiveness or getting past tragedy, I don't know.  I do know that Karen Rivers makes it clear that not all friendships are rainbows and unicorns, just as she did in her earlier book Finding Ruby Starling (2014).  Some relationships are darker and deeper like crows and tumultuous waters, but they still build our life experiences, good or bad. Sloane and Soup, and yes, even Piper, can take from this chapter and move forward. Sometimes it is what it is. And All That Was just was.

July 07, 2018

Sterling, Best Fork Dog Ever: Book launch (Salt Spring Island, BC)

Join author-illustrator

Aidan Cassie 

for the launch of her first picture book

Sterling, Best Fork Dog Ever

 Written and illustrated by Aidan Cassie
Farrar Straus Giroux
978-0-374-30614-4
40 pp.
Ages 3-6
July 2018 

on

Saturday, July 28, 2018

1-2 p.m.

at

Salt Spring Island Public Library
129 McPhillips Ave.
Salt Spring Island

There will be:
• an author reading
• a book giveaway
• crafts for children
• Sterling bookmarks and stickers
and
• cupcakes!

If you're fortunate enough to live in the vicinity of Salt Spring Island, 
do take in this book launch.  

Sterling, Best Fork Dog Ever
is a special picture book that is sure to be enjoyed by children, parents and teachers.