January 17, 2019

Yael and the Party of the Year

Written by Tamsin Lane
Simon & Schuster Canada
160 pp.
Ages 8-12

Yael Lewis is twelve and the party of the year is her upcoming bat mitzvah. That is, if it isn't railroaded by her mother, her anxiety over her Torah reading and public speaking, and a couple of boys that are turning her head. But that seems the norm for an almost-thirteen-year-old girl, right?

As much as I'd like to tell you more about the plot, I really can't. That's because there is no single plot line in Yael and the Party of the Year. Yael and the Party of the Year, and a second title, Tara Takes the Stage, released last year by Tamsin Lane, are part of a new series called Yes No Maybe So. I can tell you that Yael is preparing for her bat mitzvah, that she is expected to read a portion of the Torah and that there will be a party at which she is expected to give a speech. Those elements are cemented in the story as is the venue for her party, the Maize amusement park, and her friends, Tara, Gemma and Paloma, and three boys, Eli, Cam and Gabriel. After that, it's up to the reader to make decisions for Yael. Will she go to Eli's house to rehearse her reading or to the amusement park for a tour with her parents? Does she encourage Cam to attend synagogue with her family or not or does she feign illness not to go at all? Does she focus on her girl friends or give into her crushes? Who will get that special first dance?

I thought it might be impossible to review a book whose plot is determined by the choices of the reader. But a Yes No Maybe So book is less a choose-your-own-story than seeing that sometimes choices lead to only a few outcomes. Tamsin Lane, the pen name of a Canadian writer whose books I've previously reviewed on CanLit for LittleCanadians, recognizes how little things can become very big things for young people, especially when they are convinced that every decision could make or break their futures. Expecting that any decision could mean the difference between a complete and total disaster, as was Eli's bar mitzvah, and the party of the year is a heavy load for a young person upon whom great hopes are placed. Fortunately, young readers who undertake a reading of this interactive book will recognize soon enough that the outcomes may be different but they aren't always better or worse and that there's sure to be a few laughs along the way. From the epic tantrums of Yael's two-year-old sister Rivka to getting lost in a corn maze, Yael and the Party of the Year makes lightness out of seemingly critical choices. Fortunately Tamsin Lane makes sure that Yael gets a great party in the end, whether she gets kissed or not, or wears the T-shirt her mother chose or her own design, or whether her first dance is a slow one with a boy she likes or the chicken dance.

January 16, 2019

Red River Resistance (A Girl Called Echo Vol. 2)

Written by Katherena Vermette
Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson
Colour by Donovan Yaciuk
HighWater Press
49 pp.
Ages 14+
November 2018

Echo Desjardins's story began in Pemmican Wars (HighWater Press, 2017), the first  volume of Katherena Vermette's A Girl Called Echo graphic novel series. Echo is a thirteen-year-old Métis girl placed in foster care, dealing with her new circumstances when she repeatedly time slips onto the prairies of the early 19th c. Métis as they hunt bison and are thrust into the Pemmican Wars.  Red River Resistance continues Echo's story, this time plunging the teen into the famous altercation of 1869-1870.
From Red River Resistance by Katherena Vermette, illus. by Scott B. Henderson, col. by Donovan Yaciuk
As their teacher, Mx. Francois, begins their lesson on the selling of seven million acres by the Hudson Bay Company to Canada, Echo is transported to the Red River colony in 1869 where she witnesses land surveyors, on behalf of the Crown and Dominion of Canada, confronted by Louis Riel and others for trespassing on Métis land. Though Echo returns to the present day to sign up for the Indigenous Student Leadership group and continue with her daily activities, she is transported multiple times to the Red River settlement where the Métis resistance progresses from the taking of Upper Fort Garry through the organizing of a provisional government and the attacks after the trial and execution of Thomas Scott.
From Red River Resistance by Katherena Vermette, illus. by Scott B. Henderson, col. by Donovan Yaciuk
Though the history of the Red River Resistance of 1869-1870 is well documented in the timeline provided at the conclusion of the book, along with a map and the 1870 Métis Bill of Rights, telling the basics of that conflict in a graphic novel format, emphasizing the illustrations with limited dialogue, is clever as it leaves room for discussion and enquiry.  Moreover, because Katherena Vermette embeds Echo's own life of struggles in the basics of the resistance, Red River Resistance becomes more an echo of fitting in amidst conflict than simply teaching history. With Scott B. Henderson's illustrations, coloured by Donovan Yasiuk, the story is fuller. It is realistic but goes beyond an illustrated encyclopedic entry. It reveals an inclusivity of people and story and takes the perspective away from the history textbooks and into that of the people who endured the injustices and strife thrust upon them.
From Red River Resistance by Katherena Vermette, illus. by Scott B. Henderson, col. by Donovan Yaciuk
Volume 3 in the series, Northwest Resistance, is set for a November 2019 release.

January 15, 2019

Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter Book launch (Toronto, ON)


Malaika’s Costume (Groundwood, 2016) 
and Malaika’s Winter Carnival (Groundwood, 2017)

 Nadia L. Hohn

is set to launch her new title 

just in time for Black History Month

Harriet Tubman
Freedom Fighter
Written by Nadia L. Hohn
Illustrated by Gustavo Mazali
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
Released December 31, 2018


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

 7 p.m.


A Different Booklist
779 Bathurst St.
Toronto, ON

Here are the details about the book from HarperCollins website:

Harriet Tubman was a brave woman who was born enslaved in Maryland in the 1800s. After risking everything to escape from her slave master and be free, Harriet went on to lead many people to freedom on a journey known today as the Underground Railroad.

This book covers some of the amazing aspects of Tubman's life: She led 13 escapes—all successful and at great personal risk—between 1850 and 1860. This book also covers some of the lesser-known amazing aspects of her life: During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman enlisted African American men to be soldiers. She served as a spy. AND she led a battle under the command of a Union Army colonel!

Beginning readers will learn about the milestones in Harriet Tubman’s life in this Level Two I Can Read biography. This biography includes a timeline and historical illustrations all about the life of this inspiring figure, as well as a rare historical photograph of her. Much mythology and conflicting lore exists about Harriet Tubman. This book was carefully vetted by noted Harriet Tubman expert Dr. Kate Larson.

Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter is a Level Two I Can Read, geared for kids who read on their own but still need a little help.

January 14, 2019

The Beauty of the Moment

Written by Tanaz Bhathena
Penguin Teen Canada
384 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2019
Reviewed from advance reader's edition

They say that those who look to the past are often saddened, those who look to the future only are anxious and those who stay in the present are content. While this is tremendously oversimplified, it could describe the experiences of seventeen-year-old Susan Foster who has immigrated from Saudi Arabia with her parents to Mississauga. Actually, although her father, whom she calls Appa, came with them to purchase a condo and a car, arranged for driving lessons for Susan and registration for school, and generally got Susan and Amma established, he has returned to Jeddah to his work as a doctor, hopeful of soon joining them permanently. So, except for regular Skype visits and phone calls to friends and family, Susan and Amma are left to navigate their new lives in Canada essentially alone.

While Alisha, her best friend in Jeddah, insists Susan is lucky to be in Canada, away from dating restrictions, Susan sees the complexity of her new situation. She will be living alone with her mother, a woman who focuses only on Susan's academic excellence and is bitter that they've moved essentially for Susan's education, and away from Appa who seemed more amenable to Susan's artistic proclivities.
In Jeddah, my father played the role of a buffer, the water to my mother's fire, a tree that bent to her wind instead of resisting its pressure. (pg. 75)
Though Susan has always excelled at school, she is learning that she is much better at rote and memorization than at interactive learning like labs and even her driving lessons. And not doing well is not an option, especially as Appa is directing her to medical school and Amma to engineering. She can't even tell them that what she dreams about is going to art school.

And then there are the boys. Actually there is one boy, Malcolm Vakil, who has caught Susan's eye, as she has caught his. Dealing with the death of his mother and a father who is abusive and cheated on his mother, Malcolm turned his grief and anger into behaviours his teachers and father see as problematic. But, though he's had a history of sneaking out, drinking and smoking, doing drugs and dating the beautiful but capricious Afrin Patel, Malcolm finds himself drawn away from those behaviours and towards Susan.

The Beauty of the Moment, told in alternating chapters from Susan and Malcolm's perspectives, focuses on the merging of two teens' stories, rich with back stories and future ambitions. Because their story is neither straightforward nor uncomplicated, exactly as life is, The Beauty of the Moment takes the reader backwards, sideways and in circles as the two may or may not find their way to each other and contentment in their family situations.

Tanaz Bhathena rocketed onto the YA CanLit scene in 2018 with her debut novel A Girl Like That (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018) that captured the tragedies of a Saudi teen's relationship with a boy in a place of gender inequality and religious restrictions. By moving this story to Mississauga, while tethering it to Saudi Arabia via Alisha and Appa, Tanaz Bhathena expands her story to one of immigration and cultural contrast.  Yet The Beauty of the Moment is still a story of teens because Susan and Malcolm could be any teens, dealing with family, school, dating and considering their futures. Their stories are just more complicated because of cultural expectations.

Still it is the way Tanaz Bhathena tells their stories, imbuing them with the distinction of their situations and with the eloquence of voice and thought, that uplifts the plot. It may be titled The Beauty of the Moment, but the book makes sure to see that the lifetime beyond the moment helps create that beauty. There are former lives that we think were better but also hold uncomfortable memories. There is the future which generates dread but holds the promise of opportunity and change.
"Nothing lasts forever," I say. "Not this snowflake. Not our homes, not our families. But it doesn't mean you can't live in the beauty of the moment." (pg. 221)
It's being mindful of that moment and all the beauty it entails that brings contentment, and that's what Susan and Malcolm ultimately attain. That's a beautiful thing.

January 11, 2019

Meet Tom Longboat (Scholastic Canada Biography)

Written by Elizabeth MacLeod
Illustrated by Mike Deas
Scholastic Canada
32 pp.
Ages 6-10
January 2019

Tom Longboat will always be known as a world-famous runner, winner of the Boston Marathon in 1907 and Olympian in 1908 but his story is more of endurance and determination than just achievement.

Even from his humble beginnings, born in 1866 in Ohsweken on the Six Nations Reserve, Tom Longboat was a child who liked to have fun chasing cows and running around the reserve with his cousin. Even with the death of his father when Tom was just five years old, after which the family became very poor, Tom was often seen running. When placed in a residential school at age twelve, Tom ran away several times, finally hiding out at his uncle's home and never returning.
From Meet Tom Longboat by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
It wasn't until his first race in 1905 that Tom realized how much he wanted to win and the need to strategize to ensure a win. In his 1906 Around the Bay Road Race in Hamilton, Ontario, he surprised all by winning in record time. His unorthodox running training, which included lacrosse and walking stints, along with his unusual stride of keeping his feet close to the ground flummoxed observers and other competitors but seemed to work for Tom Longboat, especially at the 1907 Boston Marathon. At that point he was declared the world's top marathon runner and the toast of Toronto and Canada. Though he did not place in 1908 Olympics, a disastrous event for countless runners who succumbed to the heat wave prevailing in London, Tom continued to run in a series of running matches at Madison Square Gardens, earning himself the title of World Professional Marathon Champion.
From Meet Tom Longboat by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
When World War I hit, Tom enlisted and used his running skills to entertain and courier messages, thankful to return safely to Toronto after the war.  Though he never ran professionally again, choosing to make a home for himself and his family by working as a street cleaner and garbage collector, his legacy upon his death in 1949 was significant.  There was the creation of the Tom Longboat Award for Indigenous athletes, his induction into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, the establishment of the Tom Longboat Run on the Six Nations Reserve and the Tom Longboat Day in Ontario, as well as a striking statue called Challenge and Triumph which features Tom running.

In this latest biography in the new Scholastic Canada Biography series, Elizabeth MacLeod doesn't just shine a light on the achievements of Tom Longboat. She shows his beginnings, his love for running, and the challenges which he experienced throughout his life. From the poverty his family faced upon his father's death, to the torment of the residential school system and the discrimination faced there and elsewhere, as well as surviving World War I, Tom Longboat persisted, achieving greatness. Mike Deas's cartoon illustrations, with speech bubbles to maintain the message of Elizabeth MacLeod's text, never makes the story silly or irreverent, as comics may do. His work is reflective of Tom Longboat's varied experiences as seen from Tom's perspective as well as those around him. The illustrations elevate the text to make Tom Longboat's reality accessible.

Elizabeth MacLeod and Mike Deas ensure that we meet the real Tom Longboat, a boy who ran, and a man who won, both races and at life, and who, beyond obstacles placed in his way, chose for himself the direction his running and life would take.
From Meet Tom Longboat by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas

January 09, 2019

Will Giraffe Laugh?

Written and illustrated by Hilary Leung
Cartwheel Books (Scholastic)
38 pp.
Ages 2-5
January 2019

For a sweet concept lesson in how friends and a chuckle can make life better, it's Hilary Leung's newest board book Will Giraffe Laugh?
From Will Giraffe Laugh? by Hilary Leung
When Giraffe wakes up grumpy, his friends are there to help. Bear brings on his juggling skills, with no less than a ball, cherries, a plunger, a toothbrush and strawberry, but that doesn't seem to do the trick. Talented Crocodile performs a puppet show for Giraffe who ends up with a puppet stuck to his nose. Sheep makes an awesome balloon dog which unfortunately deflates and torpedoes into Giraffe's eye. Even Frog's versatile tongue gets out of hand and ties up Giraffe while seeking a fly. Finally Ladybug (remember her from Will Ladybug Hug?) tries for a smile with some flowers that only cause Giraffe to sneeze.
From Will Giraffe Laugh? by Hilary Leung
And then it starts to rain. Now everyone is sad, and Giraffe uses all their tricks to attempt to cheer up his friends. The tricks may not work but some humourous tumbles into a muddy swamp has everyone laughing.
From Will Giraffe Laugh? by Hilary Leung
Concept book–books that teach concepts like numbers to very young children–can be dull and lifeless but Hilary Leung's board books, all based on animal questions, are not. Of course, they use bright colours and bold shapes with simple text but the depth of the messages and the emotions evoked in the eyes and body language of Hilary Leung's characters make them neither boring nor facile. In Will Giraffe Laugh?, there is a message about emotions, particularly grumpiness or sadness. While it may be unreasonable to wipe away a friend's depression–though we tend to try to do so–it may be possible to draw someone out of a bad mood, and Will Giraffe Laugh? teaches that, with a little effort and some wonderful friends, relief is within reach. It may be a little messy and not as planned but, in the end, it's a worthwhile endeavour to help improve another's life, even if only temporarily.

January 08, 2019

Dr. Coo and the Pigeon Protest

Written by Sarah Hampson
Illustrated by Kass Reich
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 3-7

Wherever and whenever there are judgements that something or someone is better, you have discrimination. It's done with people, animals, places, movies, and more. In the bird world, it's rampant, with some birds considered good birds, worthy of protection, and others dismissed as too ubiquitous for consideration. Pigeons were once revered as signs of peace and couriers of messages but are now often repudiated to be "rats with wings," in itself a judgement against rats. That is, until Dr. Coo and his pigeons take action.
From Dr. Con and the Pigeon Protest by Sarah Hampson, illus. by Kass Reich
Dr. Archibald Coo is a sophisticated urban pigeon who appreciates the best places to hang out and takes note of humans' attitude to pigeons. When he meets with his pigeon pals, Hootie Claw, Vern Birdman and Dove Blanchett, they begin to discuss the lack of respect afforded them.
     "Calm down?" hooted Hootie. "No one appreciates us! I'm the voice of the next-generation pigeon, and I'm not standing for it!"
     Oh, yes, he was in a flap.
From Dr. Coo and the Pigeon Protest by Sarah Hampson, illus. by Kass Reich
They've seen which birds are revered for their colour or song and Dr. Coo, the academic of the group, recalls how they were once the companions of the gods of ancient worlds and carriers of messages during battle. He comes up with a plan that they share with other pigeons in the city. They disappear. When the community finds a way to show their respect for the pigeons, helped with a few suggestions in a missive to the mayor, the pigeons show their own gratitude with a final message they drop on the humans.
From Dr. Coo and the Pigeon Protest by Sarah Hampson, illus. by Kass Reich
This final message makes Dr. Coo and the Pigeon Protest an effective allegory about acceptance of differences and give-and-take in relationships. The pigeons want to be respected and find a way to educate and share important information with humans while accepting that their droppings may be problematic and are willing to direct them to compost areas. It's a win-win situation but only if both parties are willing to accept responsibility and work together to find solutions to their perceived deficiencies.

Dr. Coo and the Pigeon Protest is Sarah Hampson's first book, yet she tells the story with the flair of a seasoned author.  She knows to use her words with frugality and punch, telling the bulk of the story but leaving openings for readers to see more than is written.  While Kass Reich is an illustrator whose artwork has graced her own darling Hamster books (Orca) as well as those of others, her illustration style seems to evolve with each project. In all honesty, I was swayed into believing that Dr. Coo and the Pigeon Protest was a book of non-fiction about people protesting pigeons–it could happen!–based solely on the cover which suggested a realism to the story. But Dr. Coo and the Pigeon Protest is a fictionalized story, albeit a whimsical one with an important message, told about some pigeons who recognize the need to take a situation under their own wings to effect change. In its own way, Dr. Coo and the Pigeon Protest is a big story about taking small steps.