November 19, 2018

The Divided Earth: The Nameless City, Book 3

Written and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks
Color by Jordie Bellaire
First Second
269 pp.
Ages 8-13
September 2018

The Nameless City, Book 1 in Faith Erin Hicks's graphic novel series, introduced young readers to the Nameless City, a metropolis of Ancient China conquered repeatedly and changing names with each new occupation. Currently the Dao people, under the rule of the General of All Blades, are in power. Young Dao Kaidu arrives to take his warrior training at the palace and meets a roof-jumper Rat who lives at the Stone Heart monastery after her parents are killed. Learning of the divided nature of the people of the Nameless City–the conquered and the conquerors–Kai and Rat try to help make things right, especially after the General of All Blades is assassinated by his own son, Erzi, and a struggle begins to possess an ancient text in The Stone Heart, Book 2 of the series. The conclusion of that struggle for the power over the city and of that text is the story of The Divided Earth.
From The Divided Earth by Faith Erin Hicks
The ancient manual which harbours the secret of Napatha, the sacred fire which was used by the Northern People to tunnel through the mountain to create the Nameless City, is now in Erzi's possession. He has had the document translated and has his right-hand person, the formidable Mura, begin preparation of the formula. Meanwhile, outside the city, Kaidu's father, Andren, and monk Joah are attempting to enlist the help of the Yisun people, those who ruled the city before the Dao took it. With their help, Andren and his wife Kata, hope to compel the current General of All Blades to form an alliance amongst all peoples in a council of nations, a premise his father had supported before his murder. Kai and Rat are also at work, but within the city, determined to retrieve the book that Erzi stole from the Stone Heart monastery.
From The Divided Earth by Faith Erin Hicks
The Divided Earth is resolved via a series of altercations, including one in which Erzi surprises the Yisun army with weapons enhanced with Napatha, extraordinary chase scenes and some tricky negotiations, leaving the fates of the city and the ancient text settled fittingly.
From The Divided Earth by Faith Erin Hicks
I know The Divided Earth and all books in The Nameless City series are fiction but the history embedded within make it compelling text for teaching everything from ancient civilizations and the development of gunpowder to the nature of conquest and class structure and struggles. That's very impressive for a graphic novel. But that's me wearing my teacher hat. Young readers won't care about that.  They'll be too enthralled with Faith Erin Hicks's illustrations, coloured by Jordie Bellaire, that take them to an expansive city in a formidable mountain landscape where battles are for survival and land occupation, for power and for control, are the order of the day.

Though Faith Erin Hicks's The Divided Earth is a fast read, even as a graphic novel, its life lessons are long-lasting, impressing children with the need to get along and find room for all. There may be knife fights and arrows flying, all with the intention of subduing the enemy, but the message that we all deserve a place in the world is clear.
Please, stop the cycle of war and invasion. We can all live here side by side. (pg. 228)
No one needs to be nameless. We all belong.

November 16, 2018

The Almost Epic Squad: Mucus Mayhem

Written by Kevin Sylvester
Illustrated by Britt Wilson
Scholastic Canada
187 pp.
Ages 8-13
September 2018 

In a hospital nursery in Dimly, Manitoba thirteen years earlier, a storm overloads the emergency lighting system and four babies are showered with the glowing dust from the reidium bulbs (the once famous Dimly Bulbs).  Four babies, four characters, four books.  This is Baby Flem's story. 

Baby Flem is actually Jessica Flem, an extraordinary gamer of Gang of Greats who is bizarrely afflicted with allergies. The thirteen-year-old, whose nose had been affected in the accident, must use copious tissues as well as her puffer, to relieve her congestion. Turning 13, Jessica is prepared for her annual checkup and bizarre questioning by Dr. Fassbinder, now of the Insitut de l'ennui, and another superfluous visit from her "babysitter" Garvia Greep who gifts her with a diary in which to chronicle her "changes."
Her voice sounded sickly sweet like a snake trying to do a Taylor Swift imitation. (pg. 25)
Dr. Fassbinder's questions about magic and flying and other weird stuff may seem outrageous but not as crazy as the small green gummy-like man who appears amidst her used tissues to sweep them up. Dr. Fassbinder doesn't seem too flummoxed by the green janitor who grows as Jess uses more tissues but disappears when finished, though her only friend, Cliff Snuffington, is fascinated by her "snot golem." (Of course, he's the guy who collects her used tissues, calling them "ori-gummy creations" and gathers them in plastic sandwich bags for his collection.)

Then the really weird stuff starts happening. You're probably wondering how things could get any weirder.  Well, Jess's notes begin disappearing from her diary; she discovers a dossier about her situation; her parents disappear; an old blimp manned by Garvia Greep starts pursuing them; a talking lab mouse named Algernon comes to their aid; and Jess tries to control her mucus-transforming power. And all the while she is participating in a Game of Greats tournament, aiming to reach Grand Master.

Transforming mucus into creatures to do your bidding, whether cleaning or fighting bad guys, may not exactly be a superpower all would aspire to have but it's completely appropriate for a young teen of the The Almost Epic Squad. (We'll have to wait for Books 2, 3, and 4 by Ted Staunton, Lesley Livingston and Richard Scrimger, to learn about the almost epic superpowers of the remaining thirteen-year-olds. See below for details.) Mucus Mayhem is an elevated Captain Underpants for the middle grade set. The humour is slightly gross but always clever, with a splash of the supernatural and filled with the action of chases, mad science and nefarious plots. The irreverence of Kevin Sylvester's premise will freak out and amuse readers to no end. And his punning and crackerjack writing will have everyone giggling with its tongue-in-cheek sauciness.
My head was swimming. But then my nose completely jammed and I began my tissue tango–nose, tissue, garbage basket. Or, more accurately, floor. Nose. Tissue. Floor. Repeat. Cha-cha-cha. (pg. 25)
Illustrator and cartoonist Britt Wilson's black-and-white cartoons pepper the story and will grab a few more readers who love artwork to help move the story, though Mucus Mayhem is already a zippy read of laughs and ickiness.
From The Almost Epic Squad: Mucus Mayhem by Kevin Sylvester, illus. by Britt Wilson
Fortunately, with additional titles in the series slotted for January (What Blows Up by Ted Staunton), May (Super Sketchy by Lesley Livingston) and September (Irresistible by Richard Scrimger) of 2019, it looks like The Almost Epic Squad will be tickling funny bones for a while.
Covers of The Almost Epic Squad books (covers not finalized for Super Sketchy and Irresistible)

November 14, 2018

Giraffe and Bird Together Again

Written and illustrated by Rebecca Bender
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
November 2018

Friends don't always see eye to eye, or nose to beak. But, sometimes it's because of these  differences that the friendship is made even more special. Little ones who know Rebecca Bender's other books in this collection, namely Giraffe and Bird (DCB, 2010), Don't Laugh at Giraffe (Pajama Press, 2012) and Giraffe Meets Bird (Pajama Press, 2015), already understand the basis for this extraordinary friendship. And, even with a plot that has Bird missing, you know Rebecca Bender won't disappoint her readers. She helps the two find their way back to each other.

From Giraffe and Bird Together Again by Rebecca Bender
Bird loves adventures, Giraffe does not. But when Bird is absent for awhile, Giraffe begins to worry that something has happened to Bird and decides to follow the feathers. Even when he gets tangled in vines when searching through a dark forest, Giraffe is compelled to go on. Even when Giraffe goes up a craggy mountain upon which he tumbles backwards and needs the help of a couple of mountain goats, he is determined to find his friend. From his high vantage point, Giraffe glimpses a shiny sign and "a small and beaky someone next to it." Finding Bird stunned from a collision with the sign, both are happy to be reunited. Unfortunately, Giraffe fails to notice the quicksand nearby. Now it's Bird turn to help out. By distracting his friend and enlisting the help of others, Giraffe makes it home safely.

Everyone loves Giraffe and Bird. The two animals are so different yet so understanding and accepting of those differences. Giraffe stretches beyond his comfort zone to help his little friend, and Bird recognizes when Giraffe may be in need of help. Even in the end, the two find a compromise to help them continue to be friends and honour those differences. 

Bird will wander a little less...
if Giraffe will explore a little more.
From Giraffe and Bird Together Again by Rebecca Bender
One of the best elements of Giraffe and Bird Together Again is the artwork. Rebecca Bender's use of colour to place the reader in the forest, on the mountain and looking out over the plain is extraordinary. It's warm and rich in tone and evocative of a setting many of us in Canada will never experience. But, of course, it's her characters that draw the reader back every time. Generally using only body language and eyes, Rebecca Bender lets the reader see what Giraffe and Bird are thinking and feeling. Frustration, joy, distress and relief are all there in those few elements. It's impossible not to fall in love with Giraffe and Bird. Moreover with details like Bird hiding under a traditional Canadian work sock or Giraffe in knee pads and helmet or the weird assortment of detritus lodged in the quicksand, kids will seek and find and laugh.
From Giraffe and Bird Together Again by Rebecca Bender
Rebecca Bender's Giraffe and Bird was recently honoured as the selection for the 2018 TD Grade 1 Book Giveaway. That means every child in Grade 1 in Canada should have received their own copy of that special first book (unless their school board sadly opted out of the program). The enduring affection between these two unlikely friends continues to endear them to young children, perhaps seeing something of themselves in Giraffe or Bird. Whether sensitive to teasing, or homebody or adventurer, there is something of everyone in these two characters, and we're so glad that Giraffe and Bird are together again.
From Giraffe and Bird Together Again by Rebecca Bender

November 12, 2018

Tout le monde à bord!

Written by Rhéa Dufresne
Illustrated by Marion Arbona
Monsieur Ed
32 pp.
Ages 4+
April 2018

Prepare for an explosion for the senses amidst the busyness of the animals as they leave the city for vacations. Tout le monde à bord! has all the hallmarks for a holiday read for little ones with the bustling activity of locating creatures and solving shadow mysteries to keep them engrossed for the duration of travel.

A wild assortment of animals, including a zebra, penguin, giraffe, fish, and aardvark, gloriously rich in colour and shape, gather at the train station to board the train. It's mayhem as they search for their companions and squeeze aboard ready to set out.
From Tout le monde à bord! by Rhéa Dufresne, illus. by Marion Arbona
Parents will recognize the cries of the animals as they wonder if they've forgotten anything, as they urge others to hurry, as they complain that it's going to be crowded, and then the need to wait for that ever late traveller.

Even as the train winds and weaves its way through forests and hills to the sandy desert into the snowy mountains, jungle, sea and marsh, different shadows of creatures appear.  Young ones might think they can identify each animal behind the clouds of dust or hot chocolate steam or whale blowhole stream, but they'll probably be wrong every time. (The shadow creatures in the illustration below certainly look like birds with webbed feet and beaks, but don't be fooled.)
From Tout le monde à bord! by Rhéa Dufresne, illus. by Marion Arbona
And as they travel, the hilarity of their dialogue and outbursts reveal family squabbles, worries, joys, and more. From the penguin chastizing her mate-Je t'avais dit qu'on aurait mieux faut d'aller chez ma mère au Pôle Nord ("I told you it would be better to go to my mother's at the North Pole")–to the vendor selling plankton ice cream at the sea, Tout le monde à bord! is rich in dialogue and commentary. And with Marion Arbona's wonderfully stylized creatures and the assortment of travel spots, Tout le monde à bord is a trip for the visual senses and geographical sensibilities.

Rhéa Dufresne and Marion Arbona are both stars in the Quebec children's literature world. Having collaborated on award-winning titles like Arachnéa (Éditions de l'Isatis, 2012) and La nuit (Éditions de l'Isatis, 2015), as well as on books separately, they are well-known amongst French-language youngCanLit creators and to young readers. But, even though Tout le monde à bord! is a French-language picture book, the simplicity of the story and the bounty of its illustrations make it accessible to both French speakers andthose learning the language. (Teachers, it would also be a superb book for developing visual literacy and using the artwork to help translate the text.)

Whether a holiday in the summer or a winter vacation, take a trip with this motley crew of animals on their vacances. There's lots to experience throughout their journey and your reading of Tout le monde à bord!

November 08, 2018

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children

Written by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Julianna Swaney
Tundra Books
32 pp.
Ages 5-8
October 2018

Sara Josephine Baker (1873-1945) had always been an unconventional person. She didn't hold by conventions that only boys played ball and climbed trees and became doctors. Fortunately, the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary had been established in 1868 and accepted her as a student of medicine. But, after setting up a practice with a fellow female physician, Florence Laighton, in 1898 and providing excellent care to her patients, Dr. Jo realized she did not have enough patients to stay in business and instead she became a health inspector for the city of New York.

Working in the neighbourhood of Hell's Kitchen, Dr. Jo was saddened to see so many immigrant families living in harsh conditions and subject to terrible illnesses and health issues, especially the children. She helped establish courses for midwives, nurse visits for new mothers, milk stations, and antiseptic beeswax containers for silver nitrate drops used on newborns. She even designed infant wear that was less restrictive and could regulate temperature–preventing heatstroke from typical swaddling–in babies. Her efforts on behalf of the children helped reduce New York City's infant mortality rate to levels not seen in other major American cities.
From Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children by Monica Kulling, illus. by Julianna Swaney
Monica Kulling always tells a good story in her illustrated biographies. (Check out all the books in her Great Ideas series including Clean Sweep! Frank Zamboni's Ice Machine and Zap! Nikola Tesla Takes Charge) She knows the right balance of information and text to educate and enlighten. Although she provides a brief page "More about Dr. Jo" with a few more details, Monica Kulling never makes the information read like an encyclopedic notation about the doctor's accomplishments. Instead, it focuses on Dr. Jo's motivations and achievements in terms of service to others, specifically children. Young readers will know about pediatricians, hopefully through their own health care, but will be surprised to learn that Dr. Jo was the first. Moreover, they will learn about a time and place when health was not a given, and the most vulnerable, children such as themselves, needed someone to advocate for them and care enough to help. Personally I appreciated hearing about a woman who broke down barriers in the medical field while managing to do extraordinary things.
From Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children by Monica Kulling, illus. by Julianna Swaney
Monica Kulling's stories come to life with exceptional illustrators like American artist Julianna Swaney who balance the real with the fictionalized. Images depicting the conditions of Hell's Kitchen would have been tragic yet Julianna Swaney shows the reality with a subtle touch of colour and shape. It is honest without being scary, and bright without being saccharine.

Learning about great people through illustrated biographies is always a winner for children. There's history being told but at a level relevant to them. I'm especially delighted that Monica Kulling has shared one about a female physician who never let societal conventions hold her back and was able to achieve much good by not doing so. It's an important lesson for all of us.

A free educator's guide for Dr. Jo is available from Tundra Books at

November 06, 2018

How to Catch a Bear Who Loves to Read: Book launch (Toronto)

Join author Andrew Katz 

for the Toronto launch of his picture book

How to Catch a Bear Who Loves to Read
Written by Andrew Katz and Juliana Léveillé-Trudel 
Illustrated by Joseph Sherman
CrackBoom! Books 
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
November 2018


Sunday, November 11, 2018

2 p.m.


Queen Books
914 Queen Street East
Toronto, ON 

There will be:
 • a reading of the book by Andrew Katz 
(with music provided by singer-songwriter Peter Katz) 
• book signing by author Andrew Katz and
illustrator Joseph Sherman

The event is detailed as follows:
Queen Books invites you to join a spunky girl, her forest animal friends, and a book-loving bear for a reading by Montreal author Andrew Katz of his new picture book How to Catch a Bear Who Loves to Read (ages 4-7), co-written with Juliana Léveillé-Trudel. Special musical guest, JUNO-nominated and Canadian Screen Award-nominated singer-songwriter Peter Katz, will be lending his guitar to the storytelling, and Gemini Award-winning illustrator Joseph Sherman will be there as well for a book-signing following the reading.

Bear- and book-lovers of all ages are welcome!

Details here.

November 01, 2018

Out of the Blue

Written and illustrated by Wallace Edwards
Scholastic Canada
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
August 2018

The message of Wallace Edwards's newest picture book, a story deceptively simple but unusually rich in context and imagery, is all about differences and finding commonalities to evoke compassion. Out of the Blue may be aimed at ages 3 to 7 but it's a directive that should be picked up by all of society.

Ernest is a rhino (Wallace Edwards does illustrate great rhinos, as well as elephants, zebras, lions, cats, mice, etc.) who gets his kite stuck in a tree.  While he contemplates a solution to his problem, he gets a fleeting glimpse of an aerial object (really it's a UFO) and hears a loud noise in the sky. Worrying that someone might need his help, Ernest embarks on a trek, with the help of a large egret, across the plain and then alone up a treacherous mountain. When he discovers the space ship and bumps into a green amorphous alien, both he and the creature are terrified of the monster each sees in the other.
From Out of the Blue by Wallace Edwards
When they both venture out to eye the other, they attempt to communicate. But, as with all whose languages are different, Ernest and the creature endeavour to find commonalities, whether in the shape or colour or emotion of their communiques.
From Out of the Blue by Wallace Edwards
Displaying their dialogue bubbles as puzzle pieces that struggle to find the means to fit, Ernest and the creature finally discover that they may each be familiar with different things but they both love. And what the alien needs help with is his transport which has lodged in the ground. Ernest is happy to help his new friend who, in turn, offers his support, courtesy of some extraordinarily malleable appendages, before waving goodbye.
And there were no more monsters, only friends.
Because Out of the Blue is about communication and perception, Wallace Edwards was astute to have little text in the story.  The reader is given the opportunity to interpret the story and the dialogue between the two creatures, familiar and not, while still recognizing their fears, troubles, and helpfulness. Moreover, extra activities from Scholastic include What Would You Say? and Take Turns Telling the Story offering children the opportunity to create their own discussions between Ernest and the alien.
Scholastic Canada's extra activities for Out of the Blue by Wallace Edwards
Wallace Edwards's stories always have a surreal quality to them, particularly in the art that brings the familiar, like rhinos and trees and mountains, into the realm of the fantastic. Yet Ernest, who is very earnest in his endeavours to help and communicate with the other-worldly creature, is very real and down-to-earth in his efforts and his feelings. Fortunately, he sees beyond the monster he assumes the unfamiliar being is and instead finds a friend. 

Out of the Blue shares a positive message that fits into our troubled times of suspiciousness and antagonism. Too many see the differences as strife when it would seem that we're more alike than we often know. Thank you Wallace Edwards for reminding us of this.