December 03, 2021

I'm Good and Other Lies

Written by Bev Katz Rosenbaum
211 pp.
Ages 13+
September 2021 
It doesn't take long for me to start feeling a constant pit of dread in my stomach. The future... (pg. 108) 
Seventeen-year-old Kelsey Kendler has every right to be anxious about her life. If the recent past is any indication, things are not heading in the right direction. And the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't even hit yet. There will be lots more to set her off kilter and how she manages is only partly up to her. Parents, friends, school, work and social media will all have a hand in taking her down or bringing her up.

Kelsey and her parents Hannah and Mark have just moved from fashionable and wealthy Rosedale to transitional Parkdale because of Kelsey's celebrity comedian mom's fall from grace. Perennially stoned, drunk or abusing her pain meds, Hannah Kendler, a former participant on "Those Crazy Comics" TV show, is now unemployable and a raging, confused mess. Sadly, Kelsey's dad is less than helpful, either arguing with his wife or avoiding the household altogether. Not surprisingly, Kelsey vows to make some meaningful connections outside of their rat-infested house. There's Molly, a classmate whose perfect family doesn't prepare her for meeting the out-of-control Hannah, and crush Luca, which whom Kelsey begins a textlashionship. But, best of all, Kelsey gets a part-time job at an ice-cream place called Soft Spot. There she meets Chelsea, Veer, Quinn, Ruby, and Lee in addition to Kira, the owner's stoned niece and ineffective manager. Except for the rats in the house, her sleep paralysis that turns her nights into terrors, her warring and oblivious parents, and missing her only friend from before, Makayla, now in LA, things are stable. Then the pandemic hits.

They'd all been hearing about the virus. Makayla's mom, an actress, gets sick, as do others on her film set, and Kelsey worries that her mom's coughing could be it too. But when school is cancelled after spring break and then returns in some mishmash of independent learning and then virtual lessons, and Soft Spot is closed, and she's stuck at home with her worthless parents, Kelsey is left untethered. She may be saying she's fine but dealing with a tenuous support system and mental health during the trauma of a pandemic with lockdowns is just a lie.

We all know how difficult living through this pandemic has been but it's more than just difficult for some. For a teen, when life is in flux as they transition from dependence to independence, it's even more challenging. And for someone like Kelsey, whose home life is painful, she has no respite from the stress. Couple that with sleep paralysis that pervades her nights, this girl has trauma upon trauma with which to deal. I'm surprised she's as sane as she is. Maybe that's the hope that Bev Katz Rosenbaum has written into her story, reassuring her readers that as crappy as things are, there are glimmers of normalcy and even brightness that can help pull you through and out. Whether it's a socially-distanced get-together, texting with a new friend, connecting with a psychologist or being honest about what you're going through, there is hope even while "learning to accept uncertainty" (pg. 182). I'm Good and Other Lies is a powerfully authentic account of a teen living with a multitude of challenges, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes Kelsey accepts the challenge and puts it down and sometimes she buckles, but it is always real and enlightening. With I'm Good and Other Lies, Bev Katz Rosenbaum has told us a story of not being fine but finding a way to make it so.

• • • • • • •

If you would like to hear author Bev Katz Rosenbaum talk about I'm Good and Other Lies, register for Future Shock (and Future Hope), a webinar with authors Wesley King and Eric Walters.

Date:  Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Time:  11 AM-12 PM, 1-2 PM
Registration costs:  School ($150), Class ($65), Home ($10)

December 01, 2021

Oliver Bounces Back!

Written by Alison Hughes
Illustrated by Charlene Chua
North Winds Press (Scholastic Canada)
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
September 2021
Oliver is not having a good day. From struggling with his tangled hair and his favourite shirt being in the wash, his baby sister Annie throwing mushy banana in his face and the burning of his toast, the day doesn't start out well. In fact, it gets worse.
From Oliver Bounces Back! by Alison Hughes, illus. by Charlene Chua
With each new mishap, from breaking a shoelace and Carter taking Oliver's blue spot on the reading-time carpet, Oliver's mood slips from annoyed to irritable and then angry. With each new struggle, Oliver's circumstances are recounted through testimonials from his parents, his classmates, the bus driver and his teacher, attesting to the impact these unexpected troubles have on the little boy.
From Oliver Bounces Back! by Alison Hughes, illus. by Charlene Chua
But, he still is able to hope that the day will get better, and he finds small successes help him through, as does an amazing bouncing apricot that helps him see that he could bounce back too, metaphorically and physically. 

So I tried to make the day get better. I drew a picture. I helped out. I thought of my family and friends, and how nice they were being. I even laughed thinking about my sister chucking that banana at my head! Bullseye!

Resiliency has become a big buzz word in the last decade though teaching someone to become resilient is near impossible. However, what is possible is to share strategies that can improve resiliency and author Alison Hughes notes several of these in a page titled "Learning to Bounce" at the end of the story. Strategies like connecting with others, keeping things in perspective and actual bouncing are all demonstrated somewhere in Oliver Bounces Back! but so discretely that it never reads like a PSA or a directive to a child. Young readers will certainly sympathize and empathize with the boy and will see that he is able to pull himself out of that bad day and make it into something better but they won't feel like they are being schooled. However, they will remember a strategy that might work for them when they too are faced with a day when everything seems to go wrong.
From Oliver Bounces Back! by Alison Hughes, illus. by Charlene Chua
Because key figures in Oliver's day give their takes on what happens and Oliver's reactions to those circumstances–it feels like a reporter asking bystanders what they witnessed before talking to Oliver–Oliver Bounces Back! offers different perspectives on the child's day and shows young readers that they are part of something bigger beyond their own troubles. Oliver is part of several supportive communities, at home and at school, that will help him get through anything, if he asks and listens. Even Charlene Chua's artwork promotes the idea that, though Oliver's troubles may seem insurmountable to him, they are small enough to be manageable and put aside or seen through a different lens, thereby allowing coping and recovery. The brightness of her digital art, the affective faces of the children, and the progression of Oliver's reactions as he struggles and overcomes contribute to the message of childhood troubles survived.
Without instructing children how they should become resilient, let Alison Hughes, Charlene Chua and Oliver demonstrate that bad days happen but, with a few tools, it's possible to bounce back from any challenges that need to be faced.
From Oliver Bounces Back! by Alison Hughes, illus. by Charlene Chua

November 29, 2021

Birds on Wishbone Street

Written and illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo
Pajama Press
‎ 978-1-77278-219-6
40 pp.
Ages 5-8
November 2021

Wishbone Street is more than just a bunch of houses. It's a multicultural community, welcoming and supportive of all. And when a cardinal is injured, that community brings them all, newcomers and long-time residents, together to do good.
From Birds on Wishbone Street by Suzanne Del Rizzo
Moe loves her street, her neighbours, the parkette and all the things she can do there: bird-watching, tree-climbing, and treasure-finding. There's the elderly Ms. Francesca and her caregiver Ms. Frieda, Mei and her little brother Omari, and Mable, the massive maple tree in their neighbourhood parkette. When Syrian refugees Sami and his family (from Suzanne Del Rizzo's My Beautiful Birds) arrive on the street, Moe drops off a welcome box for the young boy. Moe and Sami realize soon enough that they share a love of birds so when winter's first snowfall comes and they discover a female cardinal stunned in the snow, they and their neighbours spring into action: Sami provides the box, Moe brings a blanket, and Ms. Frieda drives them to the vet.
From Birds on Wishbone Street by Suzanne Del Rizzo
Taking the bird home to recuperate, Sami shares with Moe his story and his treasures, memories from his homeland, and he teaches Moe and her friends to make suet treats and roosting pockets. (Directions are included at the end of the book.) With a happy ending, Moe and Sami and all their friends on Wishbone Street demonstrate that good things happen when we work together and show compassion for everyone.

Suzanne Del Rizzo's polymer clay art has always impressed, giving new textures and colours to already-strong stories. But when she illustrates her own stories, Suzanne Del Rizzo shines. There is a synergy of her words and art that elevates both into something truly extraordinary. In Birds on Wishbone Street, Suzanne Del Rizzo honours her own family and those of all immigrants to Canada, and upholds the idea that communities are based on an appreciation for our differences and acknowledgement of our commonalities. With that sense of community, great things can happen: a newcomer feels at home, a bird is helped, and important learning can happen. And with her magnificent art, created with polymer clay, acrylic glaze and other mixed media, Suzanne Del Rizzo takes us to Wishbone Street, into the parkette and into the snow, to bird-watch with Sami and Moe, to yearn for cannoli and churros shared between neighbours, and to feel those first snowflakes on our faces. We're there on Wishbone Street, watching as a world unfolds and enfolds, making one community out of many.

From Birds on Wishbone Street by Suzanne Del Rizzo

There may be snow in Birds on Wishbone Street and on our streets today but this picture book will serve as inspiration year round to promoting the joys of including everyone in our communities to the benefit of all.

November 26, 2021


Written by Priti Birla Maheshwari
Illustrated by Ashley Barron
Owlkids Books
24 pp.
Ages 3-7
October 2021

For kids in North America, it may be a treat to pick up a hot chocolate or a smoothie at their local fast food spot, but for this young girl it's all about the chai, and getting it from the skilled and artistic chaiwala at the train station.
From Chaiwala! by Priti Birla Maheshwari, illus. by Ashley Barron
When she and her mother disembark their train, the child runs to the line for the chaiwala, a person who makes the aromatic and tasty beverage, chai. 
From Chaiwala! by Priti Birla Maheshwari, illus. by Ashley Barron
But waiting for a cup of chai to be made is a whole experience. There is no impatience for the time and effort the chaiwala takes to make that heavenly chai. In fact, judging by the expression on the child's face, every sound and every scent enhances that experience to something ethereal. From the "clink" of the cups to the grinding of the ingredients and the  scooping of tea leaves, the child observes and enjoys. This is not a child irritable with waiting. For her, the making of the chai is as gratifying as drinking it. And her appreciation is as palpable as the tea itself.
From Chaiwala! by Priti Birla Maheshwari, illus. by Ashley Barron
This is teacher Priti Birla Maheshwari's first picture book and, by basing it on a childhood memory of enjoying chai with her family, she is able to evoke an anecdote about the chaiwala and turn it into a sensory celebration. From the smells of the spices, the sounds of the chaiwala at his task, and the colours of the train station and its people, Chaiwala! celebrates an attribute of Indian culture that may be familiar for those living or visiting India but new to others. By sharing, Priti Birla Maheshwari is teaching and inviting readers to see something amazing and perhaps different.

Those same sensory experiences burst from Ashley Barron's paper collage work. Like the busyness of a train station and the symphony involved in the making of the chai, Ashley Barron bombards us with feeling through colour and form. She lets us breathe in the sweet and the spicy, feel the warmth of location and drink, and enjoy the taste of a cup of chai. By focusing on the child and her experiences, Ashley Barron's cut-paper art brings an intimacy to the process of watching the chai being made and then savouring it with family.

Although I've enjoyed a cup or two of chai, I've never visited India, that is, until I read Chaiwala! With this picture book, I experienced a brief moment of being in that train station in Jaipur, watching a child watch the chaiwala and appreciating the specialness of that moment with her mother. I believe my next cup of chai may seem somewhat bland compared to that made by the chaiwala but it'll certainly evoke memories of reading Chaiwala!

November 24, 2021

Do You Know...? series: Guest review

This review was written by Grade 3 student Hudson G.

Written by Alain M. Bergeron, Michel Quintin and Sampar
Illustrated by Sampar
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
64 pp.
Ages 7-11

The Do You Know...? series by Alain Bergeron, Michel Quinton and Sampar are little books that are only 64 pages long. This small graphic novel is the size of a regular novel, but is packed with a lot of information and funny cartoons. Children who read this book won’t realize they are learning because the book is one big long cartoon about the animals with scientific facts listed at the bottom. The focus is on the joke with the large picture taking up almost the whole page. The artwork is very cartoonish and that is very good for when kids are learning. This type of artwork attracts children and makes them want to read more. The cartoons are still realistic because dinosaurs look accurate, but it is funny because they are wearing clothes.

Each book in the series is a quick read, taking me about twenty minutes to finish. In those twenty minutes, I learned a lot. The facts were new to me and very interesting. The information learned is quite advanced about these animals. Each book has a glossary at the back to explain the new vocabulary. The graphic novel reads like a comic book and you don’t realize you are learning. So, if you want specific information about a topic, you can look at the index at the back, since there aren’t headings or a table of contents.

I would give this series a 9 out of 10. I couldn’t give it a perfect score because I would like each book to be longer. I wanted to keep reading. I would recommend this book to children in grades three to five because some of the words are harder to understand for younger readers. I only got to read four of the books in the series but I would like to read all of them listed on the back. I am going to ask my librarian to buy the rest of the series for our school so I can read them all.

~Review by student Hudson G., Gr. 3 
• • • • • • •
To date, I believe there are 16 (!) titles in this series so Hudson can look forward to more great reading and learning since, like Hudson, I recommend them all as entertaining and informative.
Do You Know Spiders? (2013)
Do You Know Crocodiles? (2013)
Do You Know Leeches? (2013)
Do You Know Rats? (2013)
Do You Know Crows? (2013)
Do You Know Porcupines? (2013)
Do You Know Toads? (2013)
Do You Know the Rhinoceros? (2015)
Do You Know Tigers? (2015)
Do You Know Piranhas? (2018)
Do You Know Owls? (2018)

November 22, 2021

Death & Sparkles

Written and illustrated by Rob Justus
Chronicle Books
368 pp.
Ages 10-14
October 2021

Death has no friends–why would he when his touch kills everything, except if it has a hard shell–and Sparkles, the Last Unicorn, is a celebrity with countless admiring fans a.k.a. Besties worldwide. In Death & Sparkles, the unlikely duo defy all odds to become something special to each other.
Yep, death is no fun...
and it's no fun being Death, either. (pg. 18)
Death, the purple-cloaked floating grim reaper of Rob Justus's latest graphic novel, has a lonely job fulfilling the claims he is sent daily. (Boy, does he have paperwork and emails!)
From Death & Sparkles by Rob Justus
But everything changes when Sparkles, the well-branded, world-famous and last unicorn, is coerced into yet-another stunt to promote his socks. A wild chariot ride between tall buildings doesn't go to plan and he makes the acquaintance of Death (who still takes a moment for a selfie). However, Sparkles's transition to the other side likewise doesn't go to plan, first because his horn has broken off in Death's backside and secondly, because he's told he has wasted his life with vanity and ego and must change his ways.
From Death & Sparkles by Rob Justus
After Sparkles is recognized by a group of farmers and his cupcake partying with them results in their deaths–Death simply falls into the crowd–the once much-loved unicorn is vilified and the media and his fans turn on him. After all, they are now following the popular Lizard Bros, three lizards from across the universe who having arrived to help the planet become "responsible cosmic citizens" but were recruited by Sparkles's sleazy manager to promote skateboards and energy drinks. 

In a tug-of-war between being popular and doing what's right, the characters in Rob Justus's latest graphic novel exemplify the worst of celebrity, marketing and media. Though Sparkles is the bright and colourful Last Unicorn, he is also just a marketing ploy, a creature with a high opinion of himself, who loves being adored and fawned over, and living a life of shallow pursuits. He is manipulated by his manager, his fans and even the media. They all support him as they want him to be but not the real Sparkles, or at least the Sparkles he could be. Death, on the other hand, becomes a sympathetic character, one who is just doing his job and craving a friend. Both characters change to become better versions of themselves because of their acquaintance and ultimately their friendship. And Rob Justus gives us laughs and rainbows and silliness as he takes us along with them on their journey of self-discovery, growth and triumph.

I believe there will be more Death & Sparkles stories judging by the "Next Time with Death & Sparkles" section at the end of this book and I'm all for it. From the hilarity of his story lines and characters to the joy of his artwork (yes, even in death), to the important messages about media, celebrity and trends, Rob Justus has given young readers a story that is light and enlightening.

November 19, 2021

Burying the Moon

Written by Andrée Poulin
Illustrated by Sonali Zohra
Groundwood Books
112 pp.
Ages 9-12
October 2021

Every night
in the field 
     of Shame
Latika has only
     one thought
     one wish:
     to bury the moon. (pg. 14)
That's because Latika and the girls and women of her Indian village always head to the field on the outskirts to crouch and do their business in the night as there are no toilet facilities available to them. They are silent, they are ashamed and they are fearful. And Latika resents that moon shining down on them and revealing them in the shame of their bodily functions.
From Burying the Moon by Andrée Poulin, illus. by Sonali Zohra
At home, Latika's grandmother is bedridden, her Aunt Nita sobs for the loss of her young son, and her older sister Ranjini, once the brightest student at school, rages at everything now that she has turned twelve and been forced, as a young woman, to stop attending school.

When a very-important-government-official, Mister Samir, comes to Padaram to see how the government could help the village, Latika is desperate to ask about "you know what" but she is dissuaded by her mother.
It's so hard
to stay silent
when you have
important things
          to say.
Important things
  that everyone
      stays silent
          about. (pg. 41)
When Mister Samir brings an engineer to the village to install a well, Latika tries to speak with Mister Samir, whose smiling eyes encourage her. But when the sarpanch–village leader–and Mister Samir have a disagreement, Latika is terrified to approach him. Still Latika finds a way to engineer something that will work before she is able to share their need for sanitation with Mister Samir and change minds, including her own about burying that moon.
From Burying the Moon by Andrée Poulin, illus. by Sonali Zohra
Today, November 19, is World Toilet Day and Burying the Moon makes a significant contribution in recognizing the great number of people globally who do not have access to toilets and sanitation. Worse yet is the gender inequality and discrimination that accompanies this deficiency. With girls prohibited from going to school once they turn twelve in anticipation of them getting their menstrual periods, the stigma of expelling their bodies' waste is compounded. But Andrée Poulin does more than just indicate how inconvenient the lack of toilets are for women. She recognizes that the Shame, always capitalized in Burying the Moon, is a greater burden for them. It robs them of their pride, their voices and their education. 
Telling Latika's story in free verse is inspiring. The text is heavy with meaning and emotion but short on filler. The depth of Latika's loathing for the moon, her jealousy at what boys are allowed to do, and her anger at the harm their village's unsanitary conditions have done is so palpable that readers will feel all that. Even though most who read this book will know nothing of these conditions, whether sanitation or gender discrimination, they will sympathize and hopefully learn more. (Andrée Poulin who previously worked in international development assistance offers further reading to help inform readers.)
With India's Sonali Zohra's digitally-rendered illustrations, rich in purples, roses and blues with lines of vitality, providing the context for Andrée Poulin's story, Burying the Moon is both a story to inform about a global issue and one of empowerment as Latika steps up to find a solution while discovering her own voice.