June 14, 2021

A is for Anemone: A First West Coast Alphabet

Illustrated by Roy Henry Vickers
Text by Robert Budd
Harbour Publishing
28 pp.
Ages 2-6
June 2021

Don't be fooled by A is for Anemone's genre as a concept book into believing it is a simply book that "just" teaches the alphabet. A is for Anemone is so much more. In the hands of master collaborative duo Roy Henry Vickers and Robert Budd, A is for Anemone is a wonder of the sounds and textures of the West Coast, revealed through breathtaking art and rhythmic text.
From A for anemone to Q for the quillback fish and finally Z for the snoring of a sleeping grizzly, A is for Anemone rejoices in the animals, plants and waterways of the West Coast, taking young readers onto and into the water, along on hikes and into the air.
From A is for Anemone, illus. by Roy Henry Vickers, text by Robert Budd
There are dogfish and urchins, geese and humpbacks. There are islands and mountain peaks, rainbows and sunsets. There are totem poles and paddlers, fishboats and clamdiggers. And everywhere, there is art.
From A is for Anemone, illus. by Roy Henry Vickers, text by Robert Budd
Robert Budd keeps the text short–most statements are only 5 to 6 words–but impactful, sharing with readers the sensory nature of the West Coast and its elements, both natural and man-made.  Whether it's "Jellies waltz in watery swirls" or "Totem poles tell our stories," Robert Budd walks us into the West Coast, letting us spy on the beauty found in its heritage, its natural history and its landscapes.
From A is for Anemone, illus. by Roy Henry Vickers, text by Robert Budd
Artist Roy Henry Vickers brings that West Coast spirit into colour and shape with his illustrations. His digitally-rendered art is saturated with the vivid colours of rainbows, sunsets and vegetation and the duskiness of overcast skies and cool waters. From mountain ranges and coastal spits to oceans teeming with life, Roy Henry Vickers welcomes us to his West Coast. But in addition to the evident illustration that celebrates the West Coast, Roy Henry Vickers's art is embedded with spot-gloss illustrations that add a glow and textural element to each. There are the multiple totem poles on the "T" page and fish and birds and more throughout the book that invite the reader to touch and feel and discern forms not easily seen. With this spot-gloss art, Roy Henry Vickers has imbued the concept book with more than just the alphabet or the West Coast. He has shared with us his First Nations ancestry and artistry. (Do check out his gallery at https://royhenryvickers.com/.)
From A is for Anemone, illus. by Roy Henry Vickers, text by Robert Budd
Roy Henry Vickers and Robert Budd's First West Coast books are always a treat for teaching important first concepts like animals, numbers, colours, sounds, and now letters to young children. However, because of the sensory journey that young readers are taken on, the learning is elevated, carrying them over the water and land and into the air to truly see the West Coast as they read or listen.
A is for Anemone (2021)

June 10, 2021

The Player

Written by Paul Coccia
181 pp.
Ages 14+ (RL 2.0)
March 2021

Cooper knows he's gay. He was out to his old hockey team and even had a boyfriend on the team but, since it folded and his boyfriend moved away, Cooper is now back to keeping  this sexual orientation a secret to his new team, the Great Blues. So when his teammate Pesh makes a move on Cooper in their hotel room at an away game, he's pleased. But Pesh is an enigma to Cooper. The teen, the son of British Sri Lankan parents who aren't behind his hockey dreams of becoming the team's centre and captain on his path to going pro, is also going out with Bobbi, a girl who wants to go into sports PR and handles Pesh's social media and brand. 
Pesh likes flirting with Cooper and making out with him on away games but also starts wanting to fool around before games, convinced it improves their game. But, regardless of this "secret pre-game action" (pg. 110), Pesh is always one of the guys, leading the locker room chatter about girls, while driving his team with practices and high-handedness to ensure he'll look good to the scouts. Meanwhile Cooper can't resolve Pesh's egotism and expectations with the excitement of being in a relationship, albeit a secret one.

While Bobbi takes on helping Cooper with his image, having figured out that he is gay and determined to help him come out in a sport with little practice in being inclusive, Cooper works to keep his relationship with Pesh a secret from her, not wanting to hurt his new friend or jeopardize his position on the team or with Pesh.  But secrets are a dangerous currency and Cooper has to balance what he wants, what he feels and what he knows is right if he's to survive the evolving hockey drama.
Because The Player is part of Lorimer's SideStreets hi-lo series, addressing mature teen issues and written with text to engage the reluctant or less experienced reader, Paul Coccia helps all teens hear the voices of young men who are gay, or bicurious, or something else. As he did in his earlier book Cub (2019) and now in The Player, Paul Coccia makes sure that we see relationships like between Cooper and Pesh for what they are: young love, intoxicating and fulfilling, born of attraction and common interests. But as in any relationship, things can go wrong when the individuals have different expectations about exclusivity, openness and needs. The fact that Cooper is gay and Pesh bicurious or perhaps bi is irrelevant. What is important is what Cooper thinks and feels, because The Player is told in his voice. It's through him that we experience Pesh's actions and his own discomfort with Pesh's less-than-straightforward approach to their relationship and that with Bobbi. But, as in any relationship, it's being yourself first and foremost that gives you the strength to be able to give to another. By standing up for himself and what he needs, not only trying to be something for someone else, Cooper opens himself up to greater things in hockey and love.

June 09, 2021


Written and illustrated by Derek Desierto
Feiwel & Friends
32 pp.
Ages 2-6
May 2021
When a grey-feathered little bird finds his way to a community of colourful birds who preen and avoid cooling off in a pool for fear of blemishing their appearances, he is chagrined to see his own blandness for the first time. Though he finds a solution, ultimately it's what's inside of him that will unite him with the other birds.

From Oddbird by Derek Desierto
Finding a lovely blue pool in the jungle on a sweltering hot day, a little grey bird is perplexed why the birds surrounding it aren't in the water cooling off. When he dips his toes in, though, the other birds finally notice him.
"He has no color," said one bird.
"Are those even feathers?" said another.
All the birds agreed that Oddbird didn't belong there.
From Oddbird by Derek Desierto
To the screeches of "Out!" and with tears, the little bird flies off. Noticing how much colour there is in the jungle, he fashions himself a fabulous display of colours. When he returns, the other birds are mesmerized by his appearance, showering him with compliments and recognition.
From Oddbird by Derek Desierto
Emboldened with new confidence, the little bird heads to the diving board before plunging into the cooling pool. So happy is he to enjoy the water that he doesn't noticed that all his colourful "feathers" have fall off. The other birds certainly notice, but they also observe how refreshing the pool looks and jump in, disregarding the water's impact on their own appearances.
From Oddbird by Derek Desierto
This is Vancouver's Derek Desierto's debut picture book as an author and illustrator, having previously illustrated for others (e.g., Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes), but I hope there will be more. I think Derek Desierto was meant to tell stories. His tale of a little unadorned bird feeling out of place in a community of flashy and multi-coloured birds speaks to all of us who feel out of place and try to find ways to fit in. But by fitting in, the little bird gains the confidence to actually accept his colouring as it is and encourage others to enjoy a world beyond the superficial and to look inside to see what really counts.
By harmoniously intertwining his messages of self-acceptance and diversity with his vibrant digitally-rendered art, Derek Desierto has made Oddbird even more inspiring. Children know how much they want to fit in and unfortunately they know how often it's based on what they look like and what clothes they wear. With the boldness of his art, colourful and textured with patterns and expressive in shape and form–those eyes shout fear, distress, awkwardness and joy– Derek Desierto draws children into the story and helps them see that fitting in is sometimes more about being oneself than how others see you. Though the little grey-feathered bird may feel like his absence of colour makes him an oddity, his differences are what actually add the colour to this community and that inclusivity is the foundation for connectedness.

June 08, 2021

2020 Governor General's Literary Awards: Winners announced


On June 1st, the Canada Council for the Arts announced the winners for the Governor General's Literary Awards for books published in 2020.

Please join me in congratulating the year's winners in the two categories for young readers. 

Young People's Literature -  Text

The King of Jam Sandwiches
Written by Eric Walters
Orca Book Publishers

Young People's Literature - Illustrated Books

The Barnabus Project
Written and illustrated by The Fan Brothers 
(Eric Fan, Terry Fan and Devin Fan)
Tundra Books

June 07, 2021

Snazzy Cat Capers series: Guest review

 This review was written by teacher Elizabeth Cook.
Written by Deanna Kent
Illustrated by Neil Hooson
Imprint (Macmillan)

This series has been sitting in my TBR pile for quite some time and I am regretting how long it has taken me to get to this treasure by Deanna Kent and Neil Hooson. This middle grade series, which blends the text of novels with black-and-white graphic novel artwork, focuses on cat burglar Ophelia Von Hairball V, a fun and fabulous character who is a fusion of master criminal (though she always returns the stolen goods), secret agent and glamorous diva. Because I was instantly hooked by the globetrotting cat adventures, entertaining characters, and witty word play, I devoured the first three books in the series (see details below) in just two days and am already hoping that at least one more book will follow. 

Snazzy Cat Capers 
(Book 1)
Written by Deanna Kent
Illustrated by Neil Hooson
Imprint (Macmillan)
240 pp.
Ages 7-10
In the first book of the series, we are introduced to Ophelia Von Hairball V.  She is a classy cat burglar who steals only the most precious items from around the world to enjoy at her house. But, after she's played with the trinkets, she always returns them to their owners, since keeping them would make her a criminal! While she loves the glitz and glimmer of her sparkly treasures, it is the thrill of the chase that she enjoys most and she is quite good at it too!  Ophelia Von Hairball V is the #1 rated cat burglar in the FFBI (Furry Feline Burglary Institute). This title is hard earned as the dogs of CCIA (Central Canine Intelligence Agency) are always on her tail, as is her evil uni-browed cousin, Pierre, who regularly ranks at #2 because of his sloppy execution. Though the FFBI provides their agents with access to inventors, Ophelia prefers to work alone, though she finds inventor Oscar Fishgerald Gold, a hard-working goldfish, useful and so she keeps him around...but at a paw’s length. In this book, the FFBI have challenged their cats to steal a rare Himalayan diamond and deliver it to headquarters for the opportunity to earn the top spot. Using her cunning, Oscar's incredible gadgets, a good plan and the ability to think on her paws, Ophelia is determined to hold onto her top ranking, even if she has to evade the CCIA and her evil cousin Pierre to do so.

The Fast and the Furriest 
(Snazzy Cat Capers, Book 2)
Written by Deanna Kent
Illustrated by Neil Hooson
Imprint (Macmillan)
224 pp.
Ages 7-10
The second book in the series starts with the theft of the valuable Secret Claw from FFBI’s vault. This device emits a red laser beam so strong that it can control all of the cats around the world. Naturally, the dogs of CCIA want control of this device to prevent thefts by the cats. Ophelia, as the FFBI's top cat burglar, is tasked with travelling the world to locate the three pieces of the device and return them safely to the Institute's vault. Ophelia plans to use her panache and global connections to help steal the components back, though she knows that the CCIA and her cousin Pierre will be out to thwart her efforts. Luckily, she has her fin-ventor, Oscar, and their loyal invention P.U.G. (Personal Ultra Gadget) to help her.

Meow or Never 
(Snazzy Cat Capers, Book 3)
Written by Deanna Kent
Illustrated by Neil Hooson
Imprint (Macmillan)
224 pp.
Ages 7-10

In Ophelia Von Hairball V's third book, the feline burglar is presented with perhaps her greatest challenge yet.  Every cat burglar has been instructed to steal the most valuable item they can and bring it to FFBI headquarters for judging within seventy-two hours.  For a cat burglar of her calibre, stealing is the easy part. For Ophelia, though, the real challenge is working cooperatively in a team, as each burglar must work with an inventor to demonstrate that "teamwork makes the dream work." Having fired 16 previous inventors before Oscar Fishgerald Gold, and relentlessly trying to give Oscar the slip on every mission, Ophelia needs to learn how to cooperate with her team if she is to be successful on this mission. Fortunately, Oscar creates many fabulous disguises and inventions to keep Ophelia interested and readers entertained, including the O.M.G. (Ophelia Mew-bile Go) car which boasts endless modes, including pirate, cuppa-tea and leprechaun, and which comes in very handy as they travel across the globe to steal a jewelled purple sceptre. Now if Ophelia can out-manoeuvre her evil cousin Pierre and the CCIA, she is sure to win this competition paws down!

I highly recommend this series for its fun themes of cat and mouse, or should I say cat and dog! Young readers will enjoy delving into Snazzy Cat Capers themselves but older readers will also appreciate the humour and be encouraged to read them aloud to younger children.  I especially enjoyed the oodles of puns including “paw-rtner”, “fin-tastic”, and “hiss-tory.” In fact, almost every chapter title is a clever play on words that will make adults and astute young readers chuckle. Moreover, every chapter is preceded by a quote from Ophelia Von Hairball V that is a misappropriation of a famous line from history. A few of my favourites include: "To be fabulous or not to be fabulous? That is the question. Except it is a ridiculous question because we all know the answer" and "I came. I clawed. I conquered."  The clever wit embedded throughout the series will definitely entertain readers of all ages.
~ Reviewer Elizabeth Cook is a teacher in the Halton District School Board. She is an avid reader and fan of Canadian literature.  

June 04, 2021

Sonata for Fish and Boy

Written and illustrated by Milan Pavlović
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
May 2021

I love a good wordless picture book and Sonata for Fish and Boy is a good one. In the hands of illustrator Milan Pavlović, Sonata for Fish and Boy rejoices in the ability of music to endow our spirits and transport us to other worlds.
A fish in the water catches a musical note coming from a child playing a violin on a bench beside the water. In their watery and terrestrial worlds of rose taupe hues with minimal splashes of pale teal, the two are together but separate.

From Sonata for Fish and Boy by Milan Pavlović
When the child puts down his violin and lays down on the bench to sleep, the fish catapults itself out of the water and hovering around the child, draws him into the air to journey from the darkness to the colours of new worlds. In a city of buildings and a tall red poppy, the boy and fish witness the liveliness of a community playing, dancing, singing and listening to music. Bold reds and pinks, orange and blues, green and purples create a glowing landscape of song and energy.
From Sonata for Fish and Boy by Milan Pavlović
Then they continue to travel through flocks of singing and mesmerized birds to the planets, bouncing from one to another as the music accompanies them. Next they enjoy a crossing through a park with people flying balloons, children eating ice cream, and a musician playing a concertina. Finally a trip through a field of giant dandelions leads the boy and fish to a cottage where an orchestra of animals plays with relish, before leading them into a storm that tosses both in its darkness.
From Sonata for Fish and Boy by Milan Pavlović
In the end, an old man discovers his violin at the bench from the story's beginning and, playing it once again, is reunited with his piscine friend.

Artist Milan Pavlović needs no words to tell this story of the transformative nature of music, how it enriches our lives and moves us through and to places hitherto unknown. I know that Milan Pavlović has embedded clues to several important pieces of music such as Gustav Holst's "The Planets", Camille Saint-Saëns's "The Carnival of the Animals", and Bohuslav Martinů's "The Romance of the Dandelions", but I challenge young readers, especially music students, and the adults in their lives to discover the Easter eggs that may hint at other important classical works. (The park scene with the balloons stumped me completely.) 
From Sonata for Fish and Boy by Milan Pavlović
With sound conveyed in the colours and shapes, Milan Pavlović allows the movements of this sonata to carry readers through quiet reveries and joyous exuberance, imaginative frolics, and tempestuous storms (perhaps Tchaikovsky's "The Tempest"). This sonata may have started for a child soloist but it becomes one for a duo of friends, taking them through time and place, and bringing new joys into their lives, just as music has always done.

June 02, 2021

Outside, You Notice

Written by Erin Alladin
Illustrated by Andrea Blinick
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
April 2021

How often do we notice things, especially things in the outdoors, that are right under our noses? Erin Alladin wants us to open our eyes, ears, noses and touch the world to know the wonders that our world holds outside, no matter what your outside looks like.
From Outside, You Notice by Erin Alladin, illus. by Andrea Blinick
As children and others participate in the world outside, whether it be a backyard, a park, a playground, a sidewalk or something else, there are so many things to check out, and Erin Alladin makes sure we see it all. Each double-spread asks the reader to notice one attribute of nature like the rain, the soil, leaves or colours, and then info boxes provide brief content related to that focus. For example, when asked to notice "How after the rain everything smells greener," we learn about leaves capturing rain, how a tree's canopy provides cover, why the rain can smell like it does, and why plants get the rain they need.
From Outside, You Notice by Erin Alladin, illus. by Andrea Blinick
We discover how animals make the outdoors their homes, how they live, and the sounds they make. We learn about life cycles of plants, from seeds and germination, to flowers and fruits. Above ground and below, along water ways and at farmers' markets, there is so much to see and learn.
From Outside, You Notice by Erin Alladin, illus. by Andrea Blinick
With Outside, You Notice, Erin Alladin has invited the reader to explore and make observations and grow themselves into sentient beings beyond the confines of our indoors. She may provide information tidbits that instruct and direct inquiry, so perfect for science lessons with little ones, but she also asks us to be mindful of our worlds. Outside, You Notice gives us the prompts to stop and smell and look and touch in the moment, wherever that moment may be. The experiences will be as diverse as the children who are doing the noticing, and the learning as fulfilling and filling as can be. With that, a calmness will envelop the reader, taking away the bustle and the tech, as the focus is on the world we too often take for granted.
Outside, you notice
The breath in your body
Your feet on the ground
Your self in the world
Toronto artist Andrea Blinick uses gouache, coloured pencils, collage and chalk pastel to create the diversity of textures, colours and shape that convey the sensory nature of the text and take us into the outdoors. The eyes that see, the dog that sprints, the dandelions being picked, the sweetness of a strawberry about to be eaten–Andrea Blinick takes us there, to appreciate and acknowledge the outdoors and its moments.
Whether a child of the city or the country, of a place of rain or sunshine, trees or fields or concrete, there is a world of wonder that is the landscape of our lives. With Outside, You Notice inviting us to explore and appreciate the sensations and marvels of the outdoors, young readers can only flourish.

From Outside, You Notice by Erin Alladin, illus. by Andrea Blinick