October 31, 2011

True Blue

Written by Deborah Ellis
Pajama Press
229 pp.
Ages 11-14

Coulda,Shoulda,Woulda. That could be Jess’ catchphrase, especially when it comes to the choices she makes with respect to her best friend, Casey White, a.k.a. Praying Mantis:  fellow camp counselor at Ten Willows; budding entomologist; soon-to-be youngest field assistant at 4-month research stint in Australia working with the True Blue beetle; and alleged murderer. 

Jess’ mantra should be revised to Coulda,Shoulda,Woulda,Did because when Casey is arrested for the murder of eight-year-old camper/bully/thief Stephanie Glass, Jess doesn’t act like the BBF everyone believes she is.  While Casey sits in jail and continues to write letters to Jess, affectionately nicknamed Dragonfly, Jess is fighting incessantly with her mom (whose bipolar disorder has pushed her to manically fight for Casey’s innocence); latching onto new friends (the popular but insubstantial Amber and Nathan et al.); waking nightly at 2 a.m. to cycle to the camp and through neighbourhoods of their small town; and making decisions (always justifiably) that seem contrary to those of a best friend.

The mystery of Stephanie’s death, as well as that of Jess’ inexplicably unsympathetic actions, compels the reader on, but the answers are not necessarily gratifying.  And that’s because the notion of coulda,shoulda,woulda is a foible of human nature that cannot be answered with a “because…”  It simply allows the reader the chance to speculate with a “perhaps?”  A feel-good ending will not be read here, but an insightful exposé of one friendship, seen as true-blue, is open for scrutiny.

Many reviewers speak of True Blue as a departure for Deb Ellis from her issues-driven books such as The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, and I am a Taxi, set in developing countries.  But I see True Blue as a furtherance of Ellis’ writing into the behaviours of young people when faced with hardships (whether physical or emotional) in order to cope or even survive.  The choices may not always be the best, in the eyes of the reader or an adult, but they are adopted and their consequences endured or embraced.  Ellis has created a real story about young people we may know and given us much to ponder about choices made. Brilliant.

October 29, 2011

Ashes, Ashes

by Jo Treggiari
Scholastic Press
341 pp.
Ages 12+

We've all heard the dire predictions about where our world is headed.  With all the changes we've made to our planet, it's inevitable that the weather will become more unpredictable, disasters more frequent and colossal, landscapes immeasurably altered.  Such is the fate of New York City but twisted more so with a plague that has decimated the population.  Not surprising that Lucy Holloway, 16, survives alone in a camp she has created for herself in the former Central Park, trapping and hunting and eluding the hazard squads of Sweepers, the S'ans (scarred survivors of the plague) and other scavengers.

But, when Lucy is saved from the Sweepers' dogs by Aidan, whose community lives in The Hell Gate, and then a tsunami forces her to flee, Lucy joins the co-operative group of scavengers, hunters, and farmers that includes Aidan, Del, Joe, Grammalie Rose, Henry and several S'ans.  While trying to find her place in the community, Lucy realizes that she is being pursued as a love-interest, targeted as a rival, perceived as an anomaly, and even tracked for some reason.

Lucy Holloway is rich character whose layers of personality reflect her past but also her strong survival instincts.  Her naiveté regarding trust issues may lead to confusion for her, but her reactions are authentic.  On the other hand, Aidan remains a vague character, whose motivations and behaviour are not fully substantiated (perhaps just not yet), especially with regards to his affection for Lucy.  

As dismal as this dystopian new world is, with its conflicts and disease, hardships and pain, there is much promise for hope. The adventure and characters' drive for survival will keep the reader turning the pages, but it's this hope that will keep the reader waiting for Treggiari's sequel to Ashes, Ashes 

October 27, 2011

The Dragon Turn: The Boy Sherlock Holmes, His 5th Case

by Shane Peacock
Tundra Books
220 pp.
Ages 10-14

When Shane Peacock declared on CBC Radio's Fresh Air show

(Mary Ito's CBC Fresh Air interview with Shane Peacock) 
that there would only be six cases in his The Boy Sherlock Holmes series, I should have paced my reading better.  After all, why race through The Dragon Turn, the most recent and supposedly (please can I convince you otherwise, Mr. Peacock?) second to last book in the series?  But, fool, fool, fool that I was, I read through it as quickly as my time allowed. (If you didn't limit yourself to only 6 books in the series, Mr. Peacock, I wouldn't have to berate myself.)

In this newest installment, Sherlock Holmes, now almost 16 years of age, continues to forge his investigative skills from his learning with the brilliant but slightly crazed apothecary, Sigerson Bell, but finds them strengthened and even compromised through his interactions with the lovely Miss Irene Doyle; with his ill father (who Sherlock has kept at arm's-length since his mother's murder); with family friend, Beatrice Leckie; and the police, specifically arrogant Inspector Lestrade and his son, Lestrade Junior.  Maturing into the talented but detached Holmes of Conan Doyle's is not a simple matter of growing up.

While escorting Miss Doyle to The Egyptian Theatre in London to witness the magic of "His Highness" Alistair Hemsworth, whose illusion includes the appearance of a dragon, Sherlock is drawn into a murder case in which Hemsworth is suspected. Apparently (there is very little evidence), Hemsworth's rival and better, The Wizard of Nottingham, has been murdered and evidence found at a secret workshop leased to His Highness, implicates him.  It seems rather simple to prove the man's innocence, as requested by Miss Doyle who hopes to audition for His Highness (she is a budding singer).  Too soon Sherlock realizes that it truly was too simple, and that his deductions have been orchestrated by others.  Consequently, compelled by his strong sense of justice, Sherlock pursues the case. 

If you haven't yet read the first four books in this series, treat yourself.

Eye of the Crow (Tundra, 2007)

Death in the Air (Tundra, 2008)

Vanishing Girl (Tundra, 2009)

The Secret Fiend (Tundra, 2010)

Visit Shane Peacock's website or The Boy Sherlock Holmes website

October 26, 2011

Dragon Seer's Gift

By Janet McNaughton
HarperCollins Canada
282 pp.
Ages 10+

In Janet McNaughton's Dragon Seer (HarperCollins Canada, 2009), a young slave of the 8th century, Madoca, is chosen as the Dragon Seer, a leader of the Pict people, to care for and learn the secrets of the dragons, threatened by the ravages of the Vikings.  In 21st century Newfoundland, the lone dragon in existence, Hermit, who has waited 112 years for a dragon keeper, is recovered by Gwyn Rae (12) and his sister, Maddie (14), whose ancestors were dragon keepers.

Being the few that can actually see Hermit, Gwyn and Maddie are compelled to keep Hermit a secret as they feed and protect him in their house.  Through archival materials and Hermit's revelations, they learn of the need to break an evil Viking seer's curse that keeps the dragons hidden.  With Gwyn pursuing his ancestry in a Heritage Project, and Maddie learning about ancient tablet weaving, Hermit reveals that the curse will be removed only when the weaving tablets (recently discovered at L'Anse aux Meadows and erroneously attributed to the Vikings) stolen from Madoca are recovered and Gwyn (who is identified as a dragon seer, not just a dragon keeper) can unweave the curse.

McNaughton admirably interweaves the themes of oppression with that of hope, with the people of the past (Picts) and of the present (Gwyn, Maddie, etc.) enduring mistreatment by others (the Vikings and bullies) but still wishing for, maybe even anticipating, a better future.

October 25, 2011

Brian Doyle, Jean Little and Michel Noël nominated for 2012 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Congratulations to Brian Doyle, Jean Little and Michel Noël for being nominated as Canada's children's author candidates for this extraordinary award.

The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (named for the beloved author of Pippi Longstocking) is the world's largest prize (SEK 5 million; well over $750 000 US)  for children's and young adult literature.  Even more mind-boggling is the fact that the Swedish government fully funds this award which is administered by the Swedish Arts Council.

The 2012 Award recipient(s) will be announced on March 20, 2012 at Vimmerby, Sweden (birthplace of Lindgren) and broadcast at the Bologna Children's Book Fair and at www.alma.se

The winner of the 2011 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award was Shaun Tan of Australia.

Moonbeam Children's Book Awards 2011

The Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards are presented by the Independent Publishers to honour North America's best children’s books, authors and illustrators. As their logo states, these selections celebrate "youthful curiosity, discovery and learning through books and reading." In 38 categories (with an additional 5 Spirit Awards), these children's books represent the publishing efforts of main-stream publishers as well as small presses, and even those of self-publishers.

Congratulations to our Canadian authors, illustrators and publishers who were awarded Moonbeam Children's Book Awards for 2011.  They include the following titles:

Activity Book 1 - Games, Arts & Crafts, etc.
Gold: My Beastly Book of Twisted Tales by Bérengère Delaporte (Owlkids Books)

Picture Book - Preschool
 Silver: The Vole Brothers written and illustrated by Roslyn Schwartz (Owlkids Books)

Pre-Teen Fiction - Fantasy
Bronze (tie): Kingdom of Trolls by Rae Bridgman (Sybertooth Inc.)

Pre-Teen Fiction - Historical/Cultural
Gold: Ghost Messages by Jacqueline Guest (Coteau Books for Kids)
Silver (tie): Hannah & the Spindle Whorl by Carol Anne Shaw (Ronsdale Press)

Young Adult Fiction - General
Silver: Signs of Martha by Sarah Raymond (Great Plains Teen Fiction)
Bronze (tie): Drummer Girl by Karen Bass (Coteau Books for Kids)

Young Adult Fiction - Fantasy/Sci-Fi
Gold: Black Bottle Man: A Fable by Craig Russell (Great Plains Teen Fiction)

Young Adult Fiction - Historical/Cultural
Gold: Broken Trail by Jean Rae Baxter (Ronsdale Press)

Young Adult Fiction - Mature Issues
Bronze: Chance to Dance for You by Gail Sidonie Sobat (Great Plains Teen Fiction)

Non-Fiction - Young Adult
Bronze: Learn to Speak Dance: A Guide to Creating, Performing & Promoting Your Moves by Ann-Marie Williams; illustrated by Jeff Kulak (Owlkids Books)

Comic/Graphic Novel 
Bronze: Fishing with Gubby by Kim LaFave & Gary Kent (Harbour Publishing)

October 23, 2011

Orca Book Launch: November 3, 2011

If you're in the vicinity of Victoria, B.C. on Thursday November 3, 2011, consider attending Orca's Book Launch for nine of their children's authors. The event is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Union Pacific Coffee Company.
Authors scheduled to attend and launch their newest tomes include: Nikki Tate, Andrea Spalding, Mike Deas, Robin Stevenson, Caitlyn Vernon, Sarah Harvey, Sean Rodman and AlexVan Tol.

October 20, 2011

Binky Under Pressure

Written and illustrated by Ashley Spires
Kids Can Press
64 pp.
Ages 7-10

If you were loveable Binky (of Binky the Space Cat and Binky to the Rescue fame) and another cat had invaded your space, wouldn't you be under pressure too? Binky the Space Cat (Kids Can Press, 2009), winner of OLA's Silver Birch Express Award last year, has a lot of expectations to fulfill.  He still has to keep his space station (house) safe from aliens (bugs).  His humans need his cuddles.  He has to get enough sleep.  How can he do all that and deal with Gracie, the perfect foster cat?

My own Gracie (yes, that's really her name) is soon going to have a foster kitten around, and I can just imagine her reactions.  Luckily, fostering is not adopting, but poor Binky doesn't know that. He has to share - his food, his litter box, his humans, his best friend.

But, Binky is very clever; after all,  he's a F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel) certified space cat.  Through small acts of diplomacy and rigorous investigation, Binky learns of Gracie's true identity and realizes the value of working together.

Ashley Spires' graphic novels of Binky have such a sweet, light touch to them that they bridge the picture book-graphic novel genres beautifully.  Never too heavy in illustrations or in text, with the right mixture of plot and characterizations, Ashley Spires has conceived a well-loved creature sure to be around for many volumes.  Thank goodness.

October 19, 2011

The Whole Truth

by Kit Pearson
HarperCollins Canada
261 pp.
Ages 9+

Hidden away is the truth.  But whose truth?  Which truth?  All ten-year-old Polly knows are the rules, as itemized by her fifteen-year-old sister, Maud, about what she should or shouldn't do regarding their father.  She's not to tell anyone what happened; she's not to think about Daddy or what happened; she's not to trust anyone but Maud; she needs to be brave; and she must be well-behaved with her new guardian, a grandmother they don't know, and other family.  That's a tall order for a young girl in 1932, displaced from her home in Winnipeg to Kingfisher Island off the B.C. coast, moving in with strangers, missing her dad terribly, and soon to lose her sister to a private school in Victoria.

Polly tries so hard to follow the rules.  Luckily her new family i.e., grandmother Noni, Great Aunt Jean and Great Uncle Rand, and their son Uncle Gregor, embraces them with much love, understanding, and a very comfortable lifestyle.  Still following the rules, Polly takes comfort in writing letters, which she hides, to her father.  But nothing ever stays the same, even the truth as she has been told it.

When bits of the truth about her father are revealed, and then Polly takes on another truth that she hides from almost everyone, she finally recognizes the subjectivity of truth and its nebulous nature.

Kit Pearson takes us into the 1930's when, still reeling from the stock market crash and the consequent depression, families were forced to make difficult decisions and separation was not unusual. But life on the fictional Gulf Island seems less trying, particularly for Polly's wealthy grandmother, perhaps reflective of the smaller community and relative isolation from cities with their higher populations and few jobs.  As such, Polly often feels conflicted regarding their meager existence in Winnipeg with their father compared to their rich life (both in experiences and financially) without him, another truth that may or may not be accepted.

Although Polly's revelation on the last page about the nature of truth seemed somewhat pat to this reader, I needed to remind myself that truth can be what we need it to be and, for a young girl dealing with family secrets and disappointments, Polly reconciled the truth about truth for herself alone.

October 18, 2011

Governor-General Literary Awards 2011 Announced

On October 6, 2011, the Canada Council for the Arts announced the finalists for the 75th Governor-General Literary Awards.  Below are the nominees for the two children's literature awards:

Children’s Literature: Text
  • Jan L. Coates, A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk (Red Deer Press)
  • Deborah Ellis, No Ordinary Day (Groundwood Books)
  • Christopher Moore, From Then to Now: A Short History of the World (Tundra Books)
  • Kenneth Oppel, This Dark Endeavour (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Tim Wynne-Jones, Blink & Caution (Candlewick Press)
Children’s Literature: Illustration
  • Isabelle Arsenault, Migrant; text by Maxine Trottier (Groundwood Books)
  • Kim La Fave, Fishing with Gubby; text by Gary Kent (Harbour Publishing)
  • Renata Liwska, Red Wagon; text by Renata Liwska (Philomel Books/Penguin)
  • Frank Viva, Along a Long Road; text by Frank Viva (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Cybèle Young, Ten Birds; text by Cybèle Young (Kids Can Press)

Books Winning Awards or Award-winning Books?

If it's fall, then it's Canada's book award season. We've just had the TD Canadian Children's Literature Awards, and the short lists for the Governor-General's Book Awards and the Giller have been announced.  This week the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading announced the nominated titles for its reading programs (including Blue Spruce, Silver Birch and Red Maple).  Just being nominated is a huge accomplishment and a designation that many publishers are delighted to see on their books.  These nominations, regardless of the final selection, will translate readily into sales and promotions and recognition.  It's a big deal.

But then, everyone - readers, booksellers, publishers, authors, illustrators, book clubs, judges and juries, librarians, consumers - awaits the ceremonies and the naming of the triumphant tomes.  No matter what book is selected for an award, there will be some grumblings.

Having been on enough award selection committees, I know how diligent juries are about their readings and determinations and ultimately their selections.  When you're on a committee, your first choice may or may not be selected the winner.  But, with thorough discussions and in-depth analyses and consideration, all committee members agree on the single title to be declared the winner.

Sitting in an audience, awaiting the announcement of the winners of the TD Canadian Children's Literature awards, hundreds of us had undoubtedly made our own selections.  Personally, I picked 4 of the 5 award winners.  The winner of the fifth (and I refuse to tell you which one) had not even been on my radar as a winner.  That doesn't mean it didn't deserve to win.  It just means that a jury of gifted writers and/or readers experienced some aspects that I had not.  Somewhere, within the wealth of their past reading, the burdens of their regrets or traumas, the joys in their reminiscences or their life context during their perusal of that book, the story touched them and held fast onto their hearts.  Since we each have our own portfolio of experiences, we may be touched by different facets of stories or not touched at all.

So, the next time you hear someone grumbling that a book shouldn't have won, be sure to correct the speaker, because it did, so it should have.

October 17, 2011

Ontario Library Association announces 2012 Forest of Reading® nominees

This morning the Ontario Library Association announced the nominated titles for it 2012 Forest of Reading programs, and everyone is tweeting about them. Congratulations to all nominees, and to the OLA for its continued success with this outstanding reading program.

  • A Flock of Shoes by Sarah Tsiang and Qin Leng Published by Annick Press
  • Giraffe and Bird by Rebecca Bender Published by Dancing Cat Books/Cormorant Books 
  • Kiss Me! (I'm a Prince!) by Heather McLeod and Brooke Kerrigan Published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside 
  • The Little Hummingbird by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas Published by D&M Publishers/Greystone Books 
  • Making the Moose Out of Life by Nicholas Oldland Published by Kids Can Press
  • Noni Says No by Heather Hartt-Sussman and Geneviève Côté Published by Tundra Books
  • One Hockey Night by David Ward and Brian Deines Published by Scholastic Canada/North Winds Press
  • Rosyln Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth! by Marie-Louise Gay Published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press
  • Small Saul by Ashley Spires Published by Kids Can Press
  • Stanley's Little Sister by Linda Bailey and Bill Slavin Published by Kids Can Press


  • Better Than Weird by Anna Kerz  Published by Orca Book Publishers
  • Crossing to Freedom by Virginia Frances Schwartz Published by Scholastic Canada
  • Ghost Messages by Jacqueline Guest Published by Coteau Books
  • Ghosts of the Titanic by Julie Lawson Published by Scholastic Canada
  • The Glory Wind by Valerie Sherrard Published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside
  • The McGuillicuddy Book of Personal Records by Colleen Sydor Published by Red Deer Press
  • Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg Published by Simon & Schuster Canada
  • Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction by Kevin Sylvester Published by Simon and Schuster Canada/Harper Collins Canada
  • That Boy Red by Rachna Gilmore Published by Harper Trophy Canada/Harper Collins Publishers
  • Undergrounders by David Skuy Published by Scholastic Canada

  • 50 Poisonous Questions: A Book With Bite by Tanya Lloyd Kyi and Ross Kinnaird Published by Annick Press
  • Africans Thought of It: Amazing Innovations by Bathseba Opini and Richard B. Lee Published by Annick Press
  • Animals That Changed the World by Keltie Thomas Published by Annick Press
  • Case Closed? Nine Mysteries Unlocked by Modern Science by Susan Hughes and Michael Wandelmaier Published by Kids Can Press
  • Don’t Touch That Toad & Other Strange Things Adults Tell You by Catherine Rondina and Kevin Sylvester Published by Kids Can Press
  • Game Day: Meet the People Who Make It Happen by Kevin Sylvester Published by Annick Press
  • Highway of Heroes by Kathy Stinson Published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside
  • Mathemagic! Number Tricks by Lynda Colgan and Jane Kurisu Published by Kids Can Press
  • Totally Human: Why We Look and Act the Way We Do by Cynthia Pratt Nicolson and Dianne Eastman  Published by Kids Can Press
  • Who Wants Pizza? The Kids’ Guide to the History, Science & Culture of Food by Jan Thornhill Published by Maple Tree Press

  • All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine by Monica Kulling and Bill Slavin Published by Tundra Books
  • Banjo of Destiny by Cary Fagan and Selçuk Demirel Published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press
  • Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Wallace Published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press
  • The Gargoyle Overhead by Philippa Dowding Published by Napoleon & Co.
  • The Last Loon by Rebecca Upjohn Published by Orca Book Publishers
  • Our Earth: How Kids are Saving the Planet by Janet Wilson Published by Second Story Press
  • Saving Arm Pit by Natalie Hyde Published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside
  • The Time Time Stopped by Don Gillmor Published by Scholastic Canada
  • Uumajut: Learn About Arctic Wildlife! by Simon Awa, Anna Ziegler, Stephanie McDonald, Leah Otak, Romi Caron  Published by Inhabit Media
  • When Apples Grew Noses and White Horses Flew: Tales of Ti-Jean by Jan Andrews and Dušan Petričić Published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press

  • Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom by Susin Nielsen Published by Tundra Books
  • Dust City by Robert Paul Weston Published by Puffin Canada / Penguin Group Canada
  • Fanatics by William Bell Published by Random House Canada / Doubleday Canada
  • Fly Boy by Eric Walters Published by Puffin Canada / Penguin Group Canada
  • Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel Published by Harper Collins Canada
  • Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey Published by Walker & Company
  • Home Truths by Jill MacLean Published by Dancing Cat Books/Cormorant Books
  • No Safe Place by Deborah Ellis Published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press
  • Thunder Over Kandahar by Sharon E. McKay with Rafal Gerszak (photographs) Published by Annick Press
  • Torn from Troy by Patrick Bowman Published by Ronsdale Press

N.B. Although the readers of White Pine are typically beyond the scope of CanLit for LittleCanadians, I have included their lists here, as they are still school readers.


  • Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari Published by Scholastic Canada
  • Beat the Band by Don Calame Published by Candlewick Press
  • Blood Red Road by Moira Young Published by Random House Canada/Doubleday Canada
  • Chance to Dance for You by Gail Sidonie Sobat Published by Great Plains Publications
  • Death Benefits by Sarah N. Harvey Published by Orca Book Publishers
  • The Fifth Rule by Don Aker Published by Harper Trophy Canada/ Harper Collins Publishers
  • The Gathering by Kelley Armstrong Published by Random House Canada/Doubleday Canada
  • Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor Published by Random House Canada/Vintage Canada
  • Something Wicked by Lesley Anne Cowan Published by Puffin Canada/Penguin Group Canada
  • The Way It Is by Donelda Reid Published by Second Story Press


  • The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha Published by Penguin Group U.S.A/Amy Einhorn Books
  • Call Me Russell by Russell Peters Published by Random House Canada/ Doubleday Canada
  • Canada’s Wars: An Illustrated History by Jonathan Webb and J.L. Granatstein Published by Scholastic Canada
  • Hockey Now! by Mike Leonetti Published by Firefly Books
  • I.D.: Stuff That Happens to Define Us by Kate Scowen and Peter Mitchell Published by Annick Press
  • Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit: 10 Clean Technologies to Save Our World by Tom Rand and Dave Clark Published by Eco Ten Publishing
  • Nice Recovery by Susan Juby Published by Penguin Group Canada/Viking Canada
  • Stick to Your Vision: How to Get Past the Hurdles & Haters to Get Where You Want to Be by Wes “Maestro” Williams Published by McClelland & Stewart
  • Two Generals by Scott Chantler Published by McClelland & Stewart
  • Will to Live: Dispatches from the Edge of Survival by Les Stroud Published by Harper Collins

Full information about the Forest of Reading Program and this year's nominated titles can be found at OLA Forest of Reading 2011

October 15, 2011

I'll Be Watching

by Pamela Porter
Groundwood Books
280 pp.
Ages 12+

Creating novels in verse requires such superb craftsmanship that few writers even attempt the genre (thank goodness).  Luckily, Pamela Porter, poet and author, has written another superb story in free verse, following up on her successful The Crazy Man, winner of the 2005 Governor-General's Award for Children's Literature.

It's the 1940s, and the Loney family of the small community of Argue, Saskatchewan are seem to have more than their share of hardships.  Their mother, Margaret, has passed on; their dad, George, drinks and remarries bitter and self-righteous Effie Slade; eldest son, Ran, enlists to make some money for the family (especially needed after George freezes in the cold, and Effie runs off with a Bible salesman) and the letters and money he sends all repeatedly disappear in the mail; and fourteen-year-old Nora works to take care of her younger brothers, Jim (mischievous at 12) and youngest Addie (non-verbal and "touched in the head"), eventually with little money for lights, heat or food. 

Their story is told through the voices of Ran, Nora, Jim, and Addie, as well as those of their parents, who watch over them and help as best they can.  The voices of the community - Gideon Freeman, an elderly black man; Dr. John Payne and his daughter, Susanna, Ran's sweetheart; the postmistress, Carol Williams; small-minded Effie Meany and Rev. Albert Meany (who keep silent about his sexual abuse of their daughter, but have sharp tongues levelled against the schoolteacher, Franz Lahr, who shares poetry with her); the good Father Andrew Innes and his wife Clara; and all manner of friends and acquaintances who flit in and out of the children's lives.

Though the story of the Loney's is one of hardship and undoubtedly a heavy one to endure, much less experience through the author's words, Pamela Porter puts the reader into the role of observers from above, akin to Margaret and George (although they do direct events).  Porter's depiction of each character, so varied and rich, as well the Saskatchewan landscape and life of WWII Canada, are so authentic that we have no question that this could be one family's story.

An emotional, poignant story not to be missed, exemplary of fine writing in free verse.

October 13, 2011

Mind Gap

by Marina Cohen
Dundurn Press
168 pp.
Ages 12+

There's teen angst and there's teen anguish.  Jake MacRae sadly is experiencing the second, probably because of the first.  At 14, Jake has been trying to fit in, through drinking, gambling and sneaking around, and now he and best-friend, Cole, are being recruited to make a delivery for the 5 King Tribe, a local gang.  With his father abandoning the family ten years earlier, and now Jake getting into trouble regularly, his mother seems to want him out too.  Trying to avoid making any decisions to Cole's and his mom's demands that he decide whether he is "in or out," Jake sneaks out to a midnight party meeting at St. George subway station, to take the southbound train at midnight.

But missing the train throws Jake into another world, one which first takes him to the past, to meet his father on the day he leaves, then later into the future and finally returning to the present.  This is no tale of Scrooge, with the joys and possibilities of Christmas, seeing his life as it could be.  This is a brief look into a darker world, in which things don't always turn out for the best and you see people as they truly are, not as they show themselves to you.

At one point, when Jake asks himself half-heartedly whether he was experiencing something from The Twilight Zone, he gives voice to the impending terror the reader experiences from the onset of Cohen's fourth novel.  Time-travel novels are ubiquitous but in Mind Gap the travel and the destinations are the stuff of nightmares, where your voice is unheard, your face unrecognizable or invisible, and your influence ignored. 

Cohen leaves no gaps in her story-telling, taking the reader forth on a chilling journey with multiple stops and an unknown destination, leaving no one doubting that there are always consequences to our decisions when asked, "In or out?"

October 10, 2011

Grim Hill Forest of Secrets

by Linda DeMeulemeester
Lobster Press
189 pp.
Ages 9-12

Oh, Cat and Sookie! Can't anything be simple in your lives?  Most kids don't need to worry about being abducted while on their high school orientation.  And, Cat, what are the chances that your magically-inclined little sister ends up with you on that same bus that is hijacked by some creepy guy with a gun?

If you're Cat Peters, originally of The Secret of Grim Hill fame, the chances are very good that all will not go as planned.  Even your various attempts to escape and evade the thugs, who are looking for their goods and you in Headless Valley, never go smoothly.  How much "bad luck" can a hero have? (Oh, I forgot that the story takes place around the summer solstice, when the veil between the Otherworld and our's is thinnest, and the spirits easily mix and mingle with humans.)

Luckily Cat has a few positives going for her.  First, Jasper, Amanda, Amarjeet, Mia, Mitch, and Clive, her soccer mates, are along for this ride and several of them have the skills to help them get out of this mess. (Too bad that Cat's little sister, Sookie, and Clive's younger brother, Skeeter, are also with them.) Secondly, Cat just happens to have the mirror that her fairy friend, Lea, had gifted her.  (Unfortunately, Sookie is anxious to use the mirror to put her magic, which leans towards the dark craft of witches, to work.)  Thirdly, from her science project, Cat has a working knowledge of wolves, a pack of which seems to be stalking the kids.  (Alas, wolves are the least of their beastly worries.) Finally, Cat is fairly astute about reading people (except Clive) and interpreting circumstances, although regrettably she cannot control everything.

As the kids attempt to keep themselves from being killed and still ensure their rescue, the Otherworld flirts with them, always at the periphery: in Lea's mirror, in the bog, in the howling of the wolves, in the medicine circle of stones, at a deserted cabin,  beyond a loft's door.  But, they could not foresee their contact with the Otherworld being their salvation as well as the destruction of the world they know.  But that must wait for Book 6.

DeMeulemeester's supernatural series may be perfect for the tween set but there are still many young teens who will continue to follow Cat et al. just to see how things turn out.  Anticipation has no age limits. 

Check out www.grimhill.com for more details about the books and the author.

October 09, 2011

My Beating Teenage Heart

by C. K. Kelly Martin
Random House
288 pp.
Young Adult

From an unknown perspective, Ashlyn Baptiste discovers herself watching 16-year-old Breckon Cody; it's either that or escape to a darkness where her senses don't perceive anything.  In fact, it is only through Breckon that Ashlyn pieces together her own name and memories, though what has brought her to this body-less status she has no comprehension, just as she has none regarding her role in Breckon's sphere.

Between alternating chapters of Ashlyn's and Breckon's voices, the death of Breckon's eight-year-old sister, Skylar, is revealed.  As his parents, girl friend, Jules, and friends, Ty and Big Red, wander into his consciousness, Breckon struggles to sleep, to feel, to play his appropriate roles.  Meanwhile Ashlyn is discovering her memories, some recent others deep-rooted, perceiving them in terms of Breckon and his experiences.  Without realizing it, he provides her with the basis for her memories and ultimately an appreciation of her obligation to him.

C. K. Kelly Martin's easily finds the voices of our teen protagonists, never too heavy handed.  Their responses to their circumstances are authentic, at times clear but sometimes confusing.  What teen doesn't know those personal conflicts?  Although almost 16 herself, Ashlyn plays the more naive teen to Breckon's more "experienced" persona (being sexually-active), a necessary juxtaposition to reveal how they need each other.

October 07, 2011

Caramba and Henry

by Marie-Louise Gay
Groundwood Books
40 pp.
Ages 4+

Ay, Caramba!  What is a cat to do?  Having endured the humiliation of being the only cat unable to fly (Caramba, 2005), Caramba now has to deal with his little, tiresome, annoying brother, Henry.  Henry screams.  Henry throws.  Henry squishes.  Henry collides.  Now Henry is learning to fly, and Caramba is charged with his care.  How can Caramba help Henry when he himself can't fly?

Just as Caramba found his unique ability in Marie-Louise Gay's first Caramba book, he finds both the will and the means, with his friend Portia's help, to encourage his little brother to soar.

Gay's characteristic watercolour and pencil illustrations, familiar to readers of her Stella and Sam series, provide the gentle and radiant strokes that launch Caramba's new relationship with his younger brother.

October 05, 2011

TD Canadian Children's Literature Awards 2011

Last night, the Canadian Children's Book Centre and TD Bank Group presented the 2011 TD CANADIAN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE AWARDS at The Carlu in Toronto.  A spectacular reception preceded the awards ceremony at which five awards were presented.

Hosted by CBC Radio One personality, Garvia Bailey, the program began with an address by Deputy Chair of the TD Bank Group, Frank McKenna, former Premier of New Brunswick and Canadian Ambassador to the United States. Sheila Barry, President of the Board of the Canadian Children's Book Centre, followed, announcing the selection for this year's TD Grade One Book Giveway: Gifts by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrated by Barbara Reid

Selections for this year's awards were:

This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

by Kenneth Oppel
HarperCollins Canada
298 pp.
Ages 12+

With Mary Shelley's early 19th century tome as the basis for Kenneth Oppel's This Dark Endeavour, young readers can look forward to a complex fantasy with compelling characters who blur our perceptions of good and evil.

In this first book of an inevitable series, sixteen-year-old Victor Frankenstein, true to Shelley’s character, enjoys the privileged life of a son of one of Geneva’s magistrates. When his twin brother Konrad falls deathly ill, Victor is relentless in his pursuing an alchemical cure, inspired by the discovery of a Dark Library (Biblioteka Obscura), concealed by an ancestor beneath Chateau Frankenstein.  This ancestor, Wilhelm Frankenstein, practiced witchcraft and alchemy, rituals condemned by the Church and deemed illegal by the state, and, although prohibited by his father from engaging in these activities, Victor enlists the help of their cousin, Elizabeth, and close friend, Henry Clerval, to solicit the expertise of a censured apothecary/alchemist, Julius Polidori.  Polidori, a broken man, living with his pet lynx, Krake, translates a recipe for the Elixir of Life, sending the young people out for its unique ingredients.

October 03, 2011

Promote Canadian!

My first presentation of the Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year for Children Award in 2009 ended with this very purple slide.  Its purpose was to acknowledge the contributions of so many to the wealth of exceptional literature for Canadian children and young adult readers.  They are so fortunate!  But who knows this?  The authors and illustrators who create their works?  The publishers?  The librarians, both public and school, who purchase them? Yes, yes and yes.  But it's not enough.

As a voracious reader of children's literature, for my own pleasure as well as for award selection committees, I know that it's not always the best books to which young people are drawn - it's the ones with the most media coverage, or the movie tie-in, or the controversy, or the gimmick.  We know that writing and publishing are no longer the singular tasks of putting thoughts to words and words to paper.  Usually the more money put behind a text and author, the more likely it is to succeed.