May 16, 2022

The Weird Sisters: A Note, a Goat, and a Casserole

Written by Mark David Smith
Illustrated by Kari Rust
Owlkids Books
72 pp.
Ages 7-10
April 2022 

Once upon a time there were three weird sisters: Hildegurp, the round one; Yuckmina, the bony one; and Glubbifer, the one whose knuckles dragged along the ground. Along with their cat Graymalkin, they moved into an old house in the town of Covenly and lived above their pet emporium business.

One day, a young girl, Jessica Nibley, seeks their help to locate her missing baby goat. After all, they knew about animals. But, along with that mystery is a mysterious note found on their doorstep; a neighbour named Cosmo Keene who doesn't like troublemakers and is sure the Weird Sisters are those; and a missing casserole dish of Jessica's teacher Chelsea Oh.
The Weird Sisters may be unusual in their appearance but their behaviour is a little unusual too. What they can pull out of their hats–like a flying broom or the Eye which will point them in the direction of answers–will astound but sadly they reveal to Jessica that they are trying to learn to not be bad witches. 

Will the Weird Sisters solve a mystery or two or will they become the mystery, at least to their neighbours in Covernly?
Early readers or early middle grade novels are very challenging to write well. Authors must  be cognizant of giving young children a great plot in a limited word count without the benefit of illustrations that carry the story and Mark David Smith has done this very well in The Weird Sisters: A Note, a Goat, and a Casserole. (Readers will love Kari Rust's black-and-white illustrations that lighten the text and add another element of fun but the art does not tell the story as would happen in picture books.)  How does Mark David Smith do this? Let's start with the plot. It's simple, with the characters seeking to answer three simple questions: Who wrote the note?; Where is the goat?; and What happened to the casserole? Then he's created characters who are quirky and memorable. Beyond the titular Weird Sisters, each one-of-a-kind, there's the poncho-wearing Jessica with her pet goat, the black licorice-loving, justice-driven Cosmo Keene, and the myopic Chelsea Oh. There's also Officer Golsa Nazeri and realtor Rupert Flinch. But for this reader, it's the word play that brought me the most joy. Kids know how confusing homophones can be but in a story in which misinterpretations arise because of those homophones or dual-meaning words, like kid for child and baby goat, and pen for writing and a farm enclosure, it's just entertaining. 
Looks like there's more Weird Sisters to come as The Weird Sisters: A Note, a Goat, and a Casserole is just the first book in the new series for young readers. The next mystery has Jessica helping the newly formed Three Sisters Pet Emporium + Detective Agency to solve another town crime so I anticipate more merriment and another well-received tale (or is that tail?) for younger middle grade readers.

May 12, 2022

Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes

Written by Mahak Jain
Illustrated by Anu Chouhan
Annick Press
36 pp.
Ages 4-7
March 2022

Palo loves doing Bharatanatyam, a classic Indian dance tradition, having learned from her mother whom she envisions as a queen of the dance. But when she heads to ballet class for the first time, she worries that she won't be able to dance and that her feet will fail her.
From Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes by Mahak Jain, illus. by Anu Chouhan
Though her toes seem eager to dance, Palo's apprehension grows as she meets young dancers Marco and Dana. They come from different backgrounds–Marco learned ballet as a baby and Dana learned to break dance from videos–and they are initially perplexed by Palo's unusual walk-dance. And when her Bharatanatyam moves get in the way of her ballet learning, Palo is not sure she'll be able to manage. Still Palo tells them about the Indian dance and about one of its most famous dancers, Rukmini Devi.

From Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes by Mahak Jain, illus. by Anu Chouhan

It's only when Palo can see, along with her new dance friends, that the glory is in the dance, whether Bharatanatyam or ballet or a blend of both, that she can accept that she really is a dancer.

While Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes will provide young readers with the inspiration to be themselves even if they worry that their differences will set them apart, I think that the picture book is more about the splendour of cultural diversity and inclusiveness of different art forms as both authentic and dynamic. How wonderful that a break dancer or a ballet dancer and a Bharatanatyam dancer can come together and learn, and even create something different. By doing so, Toronto's Mahak Jain, whose debut picture book Maya (Owlkids Books, 2016) gleaned her much positive attention, again brings her Indian culture to the forefront and introduces a classic dance tradition with its unique moves and costume (love the cross fan skirt). Moreover, she shows us that differences don't diminish who we are but rather enhance and that self-acceptance can mitigate any fears or worries about fitting in.

Anu Chouhan is a Punjabi-Canadian artist and game art director from BC whose artwork balances the boldness and brightness of Bharatanatyam with the soft and muted ballet. Whether it's the delicacy or the exotic, Anu Chouhan's artwork plays up that which defines them and unites them.
From Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes by Mahak Jain, illus. by Anu Chouhan
Palo may worry that Bharatanatyam and ballet are far too different to allow her to become a true dancer but Mahak Jain's afterword reveals a historical connection between two of the most famous dancers of each: Rukmini Devi and Anna Pavlova. If these two dancers could find a commonality that allowed them to blend elements of their dance with that of the other, then there's enough room for Bharatanatyam, and break dancing and ballroom and hip hop and more, to share any dance stage and studio around the world and bring dancing joy to those who move and those who watch.

May 09, 2022

The Tunnel

Written by Sarah Howden
Illustrated by Erika Rodriguez Medina
Owlkids Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
March 2022

Something bad has happened. There is much concern for the child, with his mother offering hugs and his aunt asking him if he's okay. But the boy doesn't want to talk about. What he does want to do is dig a tunnel and crawl inside. So he does.
From The Tunnel by Sarah Howden, illus. by Erika Rodriguez Medina

Taking a small plastic shovel, the child starts digging into the floor of his bedroom. Deep, deep he digs, excavating a meandering tunnel that encounters worms and beetles and moles and more.  

From The Tunnel by Sarah Howden, illus. by Erika Rodriguez Medina
It's dark down there but I don't mind.

In fact, the boy realizes, after he comes up to the surface outside his home, that no one knows that he's out there.

I could just disappear.

From The Tunnel by Sarah Howden, illus. by Erika Rodriguez Medina
That empowering thought is enough for the boy. He doesn't have to disappear right now. 

I'll go home for now, I tell myself.
But I can always come back.

By returning home after his jaunt, the child can now take comfort in his room and his mother's presence.

I think she knows I need a secret place.
She might have secret places of her own.
I think she knows we sometimes travel far away. 
Alone, where we don't have to talk.
I'm glad Sarah Howden never reveals to young readers what nature of bad this boy experienced. By leaving it open, it could be anything and thus relevant to any child who has felt a trauma. His response, then, could be theirs. They might recognize the need for a parent or concerned adult to try to help but not knowing how. Fortunately, Sarah Howden gives this child the freedom to choose what he needs: to be silent or to escape, whether figuratively or literally. 
There is starkness in his situation and in Sarah Howden's words, so the bleakness of Vancouver's Erika Rodriguez Medina's artwork mirrors that atmosphere. There's not much colour in this child's life right now, nor are there in Erika Rodriguez Medina's illustrations. It's pretty much black and white, with some grey and only minimal red. I'm sure that's how this child feels. Whatever has happened to him, it has turned his world into monotones, gradations of badness. There is some colour, not unlike the goodness that is shadowed in his life, but it is so close to him that he might not be able to see it until he can look at it from a distance, perhaps outside his house or himself.
From The Tunnel by Sarah Howden, illus. by Erika Rodriguez Medina
Sarah Howden could've given her picture book a happy ending in which the boy's distress is erased with his tunnel and the love of family but, let's face, that's not very realistic. Trauma does not disappear because of good intentions or diversions. But, both Sarah Howden and Erika Rodriguez Medina show us that there is some light and colour in his life and they make sure he sees it too.

May 06, 2022

The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei

Written by Christina Matula
Inkyard Press
288 pp.
Ages 8-12
April 2022

Twelve-year-old Holly-Mei Jones knows she needs to filter more. After she costs her class a pizza party when she reveals cheaters–she also loves following rules–and loses her best friend, Holly-Mei might have despaired but she's still hopeful about turning things around. Then her mom announces that they are moving to Hong Kong and without Holly-Mei's dearest grandmother, Ah-ma. So off they go: her mom to a posting as chief operations officer for Asia-Pacific for Lo Holdings International; her dad, a prof, to a leave and an opportunity to write; and Holly-Mei and her eleven-year-old sister Millie to the prestigious and very expensive Tai Tam Prep. 
As they begin their new lives, Holly-Mei is confident that this fresh start will offer her unique opportunities, particularly in making friends. Fortunately the girls' cousins, Rosie and Rhys, and Aunt Helen and Uncle Charlie already live in the same building complex and the twins are in Grade 7 of the upper school along with Holly-Mei. Tai Tam Prep, with its own beach, sailing club, tennis courts, organic vegetable garden, swimming pool with retractable roof, and restaurant-quality caf–the food, oh, the food!–may be the school of the rich and famous but it's also where Holly-Mei hopes to find new friends. Among those she meets, there's queen bee Gemma Tsien, daughter of a toy factory magnate and a former film star; her sidekicks Rainbow Hsien and Snowy Wong, a YouTuber; Jinsae Kim; Henry Lo, of the Lo family of mom's company; his cousin Theo Fitzwilliam-Lo; and Dev Singh, a skilled field hockey player. But as she meets new people and works hard to fit in, she is reminded constantly by her mother that this is her opportunity to meet "the right people" and to always make a good impression. It's all about giving the family face i.e., honour and respectability.
"Guanxi, my darlings, is the Chinese word for connections, but it's so much deeper that that. It's not just knowing someone. It's about trust and loyalty. Opportunity." (pg. 113)
Of course, with her tendency to blurt things out and need to adhere the rules as she knows them, Holly-Mei has a few fumbles. Worse yet, they happen while she is working with a small group of her peers for a performance to celebrate the opening of the new Tsien Wing, named for its benefactors, Gemma's family. Holly-Mei is reminded of Ah-ma's Taiwanese saying ku jin gan lai which means bitterness finishes, sweetness begins, but she's starting to see that sometimes someone is "seemingly sweet like chocolate but bitter like raw cocoa." (pg. 125) Can Holly-Mei make some new friends, not alienate others with her unfiltered comments, and uphold her own family's standing in this new and very different society?
If you blended "Crazy Rich Asians" with "Mean Girls," you'd have The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei. It's the opulence of a wildly wealthy community and the tricky family expectations experienced by a group of preteens trying to find their ways with each other and their families. The struggles of Holly-Mei and her peers may be familiar to young readers but set in the gloriously exotic Hong Kong, rich in architecture, history and culture, The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei becomes an incomparable story. Many, nay most, young readers will not be familiar with affluence depicted but they will know about messing up, fitting in and pleasing their families. They'll know that things don't always go smoothly and sometimes they work out well and that how things turn out may or may not be up to them. But, like Holly-Mei, they have some of the means to make things right to move from bitterness to sweetness. 
This is Christina Matula's debut children's book and her "Author's Note" suggests she knows much about what Holly-Mei lives. Christina Matula's Chinese heritage comes from her mother's Taiwanese side while her father is European–Holly-Mei's is British, Christina Matula's Hungarian–and the opportunity to live abroad is part of her background. She brings that familiarity with being biracial and culturally diverse to Holly-Mei and several of her peers to help young readers understand the challenges of fitting in and being oneself while loving who you are as you are. Hopefully Holly-Mei will learn to grow into herself and be comfortable with who she is in possible later stories, as HarperCollins lists this book as A Holly-Mei Book: Volume Number 1, suggesting a sequel. Here's hoping we get to revisit Hong Kong and Holly-Mei and her family and friends soon to enjoy more tasty treats (two recipes append the story), take in a tourist attraction or two, and have some sensational fun.

May 04, 2022

As Glenn As Can Be

Written by Sarah Ellis
Illustrated by Nancy Vo
Groundwood Books
40 pp.
Ages 4-8
April 2022

Who was Glenn Gould? To many adult Canadians, he was the classical pianist whose interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations is beyond comparison. For others, he is a bronze cast on a bench in front of Toronto's CBC building, where a studio is named for him. And to the world, he is a musical genius. But how did Glenn Gould become one of the world's finest musicians and also a man of some mystery? Now, with As Glenn As Can Be, young readers will know him as well.
From As Glenn As Can Be by Sarah Ellis, illus. by Nancy Vo

As a child and an adult, Glenn knew what he liked and didn't like. While these might seem incongruous at times, they made perfect sense to Glenn. He liked boats and being on the water but he didn't like fishing. He liked word play and pranks and humour but he didn't like when it was used to bully or humiliate. He liked the outdoors and nature but not the cold that came with it. (He might wear a coat, scarf, cap and gloves to the beach in summer to avoid it.) He liked reading and learning, but not school. And he had a love-hate relationship with rules. Rules that dictated math and puzzles and music were much appreciated. But rules that squashed him were not.
From As Glenn As Can Be by Sarah Ellis, illus. by Nancy Vo
But he loved playing the piano. 

Playing the piano is when Glenn gets to be totally and completely Glenn.

And everyone wanted to hear him play in concert. All over the world he was heralded as the virtuoso he was. Problem was that there were times when Glenn didn't want to perform. He didn't like the crowds who made noises, and coughed and sneezed. He didn't like cold concert halls. Finally Glenn found a way to make the music he and others loved while being true to his own likes and needs.
From As Glenn As Can Be by Sarah Ellis, illus. by Nancy Vo
Glenn Gould has always been a bit of an enigma to those who didn't know him well.  His passion for his music and playing of the piano were paramount to him but performance to large audiences did not support his needs for quiet, solitude and more. Instead of playing up his perceived eccentricities, Sarah Ellis lets us see Glenn Gould as a child and then an adult with likes and dislikes that direct his choices and preferences. She helps us all see him as human, and acknowledges that young children may feel different at times or be perceived as such but that doesn't mean they are less than others. Sarah Ellis demonstrates such a sensitivity to Glenn Gould's challenges of balancing what he likes and doesn't like that he only comes across as brilliant. Period. There is no "in spite of" anything or judgements. He was as Glenn Gould could be: exceptional in his art, individual in his likes and dislikes, and forthcoming in his needs. 

Vancouver's Nancy Vo's earlier picture books, The Outlaw and The Ranger, hinted at the greatness that she would bring to an picture book biography of Glenn Gould. Using pen and watercolour with acetone transfer, Nancy Vo has given gravitas to the story of Glenn Gould, not unlike the man himself. Emphasizing the earthy tones of browns, greys and blues, with only occasional splashes of gold, Nancy Vo gives Glenn Gould's life a weightiness–though not heaviness–that is occasionally brightened with light. It's easy to see Glenn as a child, listening to the radio during WWII, spending time with his many pets and engrossed in his piano playing. 
From As Glenn As Can Be by Sarah Ellis, illus. by Nancy Vo
As Glenn As Can Be cannot possibly tell us everything about Glenn Gould, though Sarah Ellis's afterward and notes to help kids and adults learn more about him bring us a little closer to understanding him better. It's easier to appreciate a great man when we can witness how he balanced his needs and wants against his dislikes and obligations. Though As Glenn As Can Be doesn't speak about the end of his life, it is reassuring to know that the music that he made and made him will live on for generations, and now this book will help do that too.

April 29, 2022

Love is for Roaring

Written by Mike Kerr
Illustrated by Renata Liwska
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
January 2022

While I probably should have reviewed this lovely picture book in January when it came out so that it would be ready for Valentine's Day, I think that books about love in all its forms are important all year round, don't you think?

From Love is for Roaring by Mike Kerr, illus. by Renata Liwska
At school, the animals are given the assignment of showing their love as a crafty card. But this work distresses Lion who is perplexed by what is required.  Mouse can see the stress this causes Lion and tries to draw out of Lion what he understands love to be and what he might love. But that doesn't go well. Everything Mouse suggests, from hugs and kisses and sweet treats, are negated by Lion whose experiences with or perceptions of those are aggravating.
From Love is for Roaring by Mike Kerr, illus. by Renata Liwska
Finally when Mouse suggests activities like running and playing, roaring and chasing, Lion realizes that there are many things he loves doing, including being and having a friend.
From Love is for Roaring by Mike Kerr, illus. by Renata Liwska
As teachers, we know that understanding any assignment relies on both the teacher's ability to explain it and the student's ability to make connections with it. It's no wonder that Lion, a fearless creature, finds the homework assignment to "Show your Love" to be "impossible, the undoable, the unimaginable" and it causes him much anxiety. Thankfully Mike Kerr gives Lion a friend in Mouse, an animal with infinite wisdom and the patience to help Lion see that love is possible and even familiar. Mike Kerr may be an instructor of illustration at the Alberta University of the Arts but the text of Love is for Roaring suggests that he has the right words to tell a story beyond the artwork. Lion's distress is palpable as is Mouse's concern. And Renata Liwska's illustrations elevate the story with something special. It's a mixture of soft colours, cushioned textures and recognizable body language. From frustration to solemn introspection and playful exertions, Lion and Mouse and their classmates are the children who will read this book and see themselves within the digital artwork. They will know about frustration and wanting to help a friend. They will know distress and confusion and the relief of resolution. Love is for Roaring may be every child's story of uncertainty about school work and finding a connection where one might not have been evident initially.

April 27, 2022

Last Week

Written by Bill Richardson
Illustrated by Emilie Leduc
Afterword by Dr. Stephanie Green
Groundwood Books
64 pp.
Ages 9-12
April 2022

Last Week is a sombre little book. It is based on the last week of a child's grandmother, affectionately called Flippa, as she with her family prepare for her death via Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD). It is sombre because of a child's recognition of time passing swiftly before that death in a week of six hundred four thousand and eight hundred seconds or in the seven chapter days.
From Last Week by Bill Richardson, illus. by Emilie Leduc

This last week begins with Monday and with a child and their father flying across the country to be with the parent's mother during her last week. The child recalls how Flippa used to swim every day in the sea, walking in her wet suit, goggles and flippers the three blocks to the ocean. But no more. Because Flippa always felt it was important to make every second count, the child does that with the seconds they have left with her, chatting while she rests in bed, trying to make her laugh, and more.

From Last Week by Bill Richardson, illus. by Emilie Leduc

Visitors come and bring food and stay to chat and cry and reminisce. When Flippa feels well enough to come out of her room, she recalls being there for the child's birth. Now they will be there for her, "For when I'm set free," she declares. A visit from the green grocer, Mr. Bark, has the two ribbing each other about the tomato plants she'd bought from him having not produced any tomatoes. It's all very low-key with everyone knowing that Flippa's end is near but rarely really discussing it directly. With Flippa's doctor scheduled to come Sunday at 11 a.m. and administer the trio of medicines, the conclusion of that last week is imminent, and the child finds a way to be with Flippa, connect with her and even share a good-bye gift.

From Last Week by Bill Richardson, illus. by Emlie Leduc
Bill Richardson has written a story of such elegance in Last Week. The death of a grandparent can be one of the first significant deaths a child can experience, except for that of a pet, but a scheduled death is a whole different issue. With that last week, the child understands the momentousness of that juncture while preparing for a loss, appreciating every moment and witnessing others' responses. Bill Richardson keeps the story from the child's perspective and what they see, feel, hear, and know. By doing this, it becomes the child's story, not about the death. In fact, Flippa's death is never revealed though readers will know it was impending and unavoidable. That inevitability permeates the story and the child's narration of it but this child does not manifest the same grief as their father or the other visitors. After all, grief for the dying or the dead is different for all. For this child, it's making those seconds count with support and love, easing Flippa through that last week in their own way.
From Last Week by Bill Richardson, illus. by Emilie Leduc
While it is an illustrated chapter book, Last Week is not awash in the colour or boldness of art. Emilie Leduc's illustrations are stark and hushed. The black, grey and white palette keeps the tone of the story soft and quiet. Even though Flippa's last week is busy with visitors and family, those moments are important but fleeting, not unlike the art. Both Bill Richardson and Emilie Leduc can do bright and cheerful, humorous and busy. (Check out Bill Richardson's The Alphabet Thief or Hare B & B and Emilie Leduc's All Year Round.) But they set the tone of the book with their words and art, making Last Week important in its dignity of story message –which includes an Afterword by Dr. Stephanie Green about assisted dying–while taking the opportunity to introduce young people to an important end-of-life discussion.