January 31, 2012

Ninja Cowboy Bear

Still doing rock-paper-scissors?  Need a bit more kinesthetic activity? Want to support Canadian authors and illustrators?  Then, have I got a series for you.

Two young men, David Bruins and Hilary Leung, have come together to produce Ninja Cowboy Bear, a series of books based on the unlikely friendship of these three characters.  Ninja, Cowboy and Bear love spending time together - swinging, cycling, baking, kite-flying - regardless of their very strong differences.  The stories revolve around the three friends and how they work through their differences in personalities and abilities in order to stay friends.

Illustrator Hilary Leung's charming characters are recognizable even to very young children, who will enjoy the detailed but unencumbered drawings of their activities.  Teachers and parents will love the lessons about accepting differences but the kids will love the playful interactions of the friends and learning how to play the new version of an old decision-making strategy.

To date, three books in the series have been published:

The Legend of Ninja Cowboy Bear
by David Bruins and illustrated by Hilary Leung
Kids Can Press, 2009

Ninja Cowboy Bear Presents The Way of the Ninja
by David Bruins and illustrated by Hilary Leung
 Kids Can Press, 2010

Ninja Cowboy Bear Presents The Call of the Cowboy
by David Bruins and illustrated by Hilary Leung
 Kids Can Press, 2011

Of course, one of the best things about the series is the game Ninja Cowboy Bear.

To play the game:
1. Use Hilary Leung's illustration here to learn the 3 moves of the characters. Ninja looks ready to attack, one leg bent and raised.  Cowboy pulls two guns out, ready for a shoot-out. Bear holds both arms up to look big and scary.

2. Stand with your back to your partner and decide which character's pose you will use.

3. When ready, take 3 steps away from each other, counting to three.  Turn around on "3".

4. See who wins.
 (Both of the above game diagrams are provided as downloads at the Ninja Cowboy Bear website of David Bruins and Hilary Leung.)

I would recommend checking out their amazing Ninja Cowboy Bear website for information about the books and the game, as well as accessing colouring sheets, crafts, T-shirts, and contact for the author and illustrator.

I'm looking forward to the inevitable fourth book in the series.  Roar of the Bear? Hibernating with Bear? Your guess is probably better than mine.

January 30, 2012


by Tish Cohen
HarperTrophy Canada
251 pp.
Ages 12-15

Although the title and the front cover are fairly explicit about the book's general plot, specific elements and Tish Cohen's skill at effectively providing her teen characters with convincing voices take Switch from just another Freaky Friday (Mary Rodgers, 1972) wannabe to an unnerving tale corroborating the "be-careful-what-you-wish-for" truism.

The two teen girls involved in the Switch are Andrea Birch and Joules Adams who attend the same high school in Orange County, California.  Except for a passing acquaintance with each other, the girls' lives don't really cross until the day Andrea is forced by Joules to help rescue her when she's been fooling around with a boy other than her boyfriend, Will.  The simple physical switch of changing shirts and seats in Andrea's mother's new car gets Andrea into a lot of trouble, including from her mom whose focus is the foster kids who are staying with them.  Currently, between 14-year-old Brayden (who is always annoying her), two twelve-year-old girls (who always take stuff from her room), a set of adorable infant twins, and another young girl, Michaela, whose parents were critically injured in a hit-and-run, Andrea is feeling neglected.  As such, Joules' unbelievable life as a rock star's daughter is especially alluring to Andrea.  When overwhelmed by her Mom's perceived lack of interest and high expectations coupled with her long-time crush on Will, Andrea offhandedly wishes (while wearing a pair of funky dishwashing gloves from an African psychic) that she had Joules' life and, ta-da, she does.

Andrea as Joules isn't keen on Joules' wardrobe and body, but learns pretty quickly how cool it is to have Will as a boyfriend (even if he had been planning to break-up) and that rocker Nigel Adams adores his daughter, sometimes making poor choices to win her love.  Joules as Andrea, on the other hand, spends much of her time chagrined by the innumerable chores expected of her, furious with Andrea for getting closer to Will, and making choices to discredit real Andrea.  Several subplots, including one regarding Michaela's parents' hit-and-run, continue to fuel Andrea's determination to return to her old self, while saving her own reputation, enjoying Will's affections, and enlightening Joules about Nigel.

As the narrator, Andrea shares the girls' experiences as she perceives them, reacting and responding as a responsible young woman looking towards her future might.  She even berates herself for being too selfish not to see her parents as those who help make things right for children.  However, I felt that Andrea didn't give herself enough credit, often focusing on how exceptional her mom, Lise, is, without recognizing her own caring, compassion and sense of responsibility. But, I don't think Andrea realizes that abuse can take many forms, not just those in evidence in the homes from which some foster children come.  In reading Switch, I was cognizant of the emotional abuse that Andrea suffers from her mother's emphasis on the needs of her foster children above those of Andrea.  She uses guilt regularly to ensure Andrea's compliance: with sharing her room, with persevering taunts, with accepting her mother's inattention.  Andrea would have every right to shout, "It isn't fair."  I wonder how well Lise would have fared if the switch had been between mother and daughter.  I suspect that she'd be far less successful as Andrea than Andrea would be as her mom, and perhaps she'd be a little more sympathetic to the heavy responsibilities and lack of teen life faced by her daughter.  (Hey, wait.  Isn't that the switch in Freaky Friday or even in Vice Versa (Anstey, 1882), its precursor?)

Still, Tish Cohen capably gets into the heads of two very different young women with very different lives whose needs are not very different at all.  Any switch would certainly be a worthwhile opportunity for most of us, especially with a person we admire.  There's a reason there are so many sayings, about walking a mile in my shoes, the grass being greener on the other side and not reading a book by its cover, that suggest how ignorant we are about the lives of others.  Luckily (or not), Andrea and Joules had a remarkable learning opportunity and both were able to benefit from it. Guess Andrea should have listened to her mom when she was told, "Your life looks pretty good from where I'm standing" (pg. 25).  Do I sense a sequel?

January 26, 2012

First Descent

Written by Pam Withers
Tundra Books
262 pp.
Ages 12+

In kayaking, making a First Descent refers to being the first to successfully get down a wild river.  It would be a milestone for any kayaker, but for seventeen-year-old Rex Scruggs it also means completing the first descent on Colombia's Furioso River, which his Gramps did not complete sixty years earlier. 

Studying his Gramps' journal from that expedition, Rex learns much about the river and the people, but also of his grandfather's prejudicial views, especially to the indigenous Colombians, the indígenas.   It's hard to imagine how important this first descent would be to Rex, considering how crotchety and miserable his grandfather is, especially since Rex and his mom moved from Montana to Alberta prior to his grandmother's death.  It's even harder to believe that Gramps agrees to provide the remaining funds needed for Rex's expedition.  With the proviso that Rex be accompanied by two experienced expeditionists (Henrique and Tiago) and that he attempt to make contact with the Calambás family (who had helped his Gramps), Rex is on his way.

A parallel story of Myriam Calambás, a seventeen-year-old indígena, illustrates the hardships of her Colombian community brutalized both by the paramilitary soldiers who were established to fight the guerillas and the guerillas who have turned from supporting the poor to besieging their communities.  Although the Colombian army has gained the advantage over both corrupt forces in much of the country, they have no control over the more remote areas of the indígenas peoples such as where Myriam's family lives on the Furioso River.  Just as Myriam's grandmother, Abuela, had encountered Rex's Gramps sixty years earlier, Myriam and Rex will have their paths cross, bringing confusion, compassion and ultimately enlightenment to both their lives and the lives they touch. 

Few young adult novels could be identified as adventures nowadays but First Descent is certainly one.  Rex's kayaking expedition is the obvious adventure, one he undertakes to prove something to himself as well as to his irascible grandfather.  Pam Withers' experience with extreme sports (see her website for her bio and book list) serves the reader well, evocatively depicting Rex's need for the adrenaline rush, mixed with his confidence, sometimes arrogance, but tempered with expertise.  I checked out some unrelated videos showing kayakers on first descents in Colombia which were harrowing and impossible to imagine surviving; capably, Pam Withers' text takes the reader along for just such a ride.

However, Myriam and members of her community also experience adventures but on a daily basis, whether it be getting to market to sell their wares or going to the river to wash clothes.  Each activity is a hazardous undertaking, as they anticipate encounters with deranged soldiers, land mines, and even chemicals broadcast from planes to kill the coca plant but also harming the people and their food sources.  Any such affront could precipitate injury or murder, theft or devastation, kidnapping or recruitment, or a complete massacre.  Pam Withers' acknowledgements recognize the vulnerability of indigenous people throughout the world and her commitment to contributing a portion of earnings from this book to organizations that work for these groups. Just as Rex ultimately recognizes the incongruity of undertaking a first descent expedition while the indigenous people of the area fight for survival, I was comforted to know that my purchase and enjoyment of this book may provide some assistance for the indígenas or similar groups, courtesy of Pam Withers.

January 25, 2012

2012 Notable Children's Books

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division within the American Library Association announced its 2012 Notable Children's Books on January 22, 2012 at the ALA's Midwinter Meeting in Dallas.  For the committee, the term "notable" is used to refer to a book that is...
...worthy of note or notice, important, distinguished, outstanding.  As applied to children's books, notable should be thought to include books of especially commendable quality, books that exhibit venturesome creativity, and books of fiction, information, poetry and pictures for all age levels (birth through age 14) that reflect and encourage children's interests in exemplary ways.
Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/notalists/ncb on January 25, 2012
 The final (but uncorrected) list, posted at the ALSC website, is lengthy and the reader can peruse it at his/her leisure.  However, I would like to note those Canadian books that made the list, bolding the Canadian author or illustrator or publisher. Congratulations to all of you for creating outstanding literature for our children.

Notables for Younger Children
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen  Published by Candlewick Press

Notables for Middle Readers
Migrant by Maxine Trottier and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault  Published by Groundwood Books

No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis  Published by Groundwood Books  

Notables for Older Readers
Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks  Published by Farrar Straus Giroux (from Groundwood Books) 

Sita's Ramayana by Samhita Arni and illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar   Published by Groundwood Books

Stones for My Father by Trilby Kent  Published by Tundra Books

January 24, 2012

Girls with Grit series

Groundwood Books (of House of Anansi)  has always published amazingly strong literature for young people and are now marketing some of those titles under the distinction of  Girls with Grit

The books in this series are exemplary stories depicting the courage and tenacity of girls and young women who endure and even overcome challenges that include poverty, homelessness, abuse, war, leprosy and conflicts of all manner.  Whether used in the classroom to teach character education (these young women have lots of character) or as poignant, thought-provoking reads about others' lives, the Girls with Grit books should be read and read with thoughtfulness.

Corroborating their excellence, the authors and books in the series include finalists and winners of the Governor General's Literary Award, the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award, the Jane Addams Children's Book Award, the Canada Council Children's Literature Award, the Vicky Metcalf Award, the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Award and many more. 

Based on books listed at the House of Anansi site and the video embedded below, the following books (listed here alphabetically by author's last name) are tagged as Girls with Grit:

  • Girl from Mars by Tamara Bach and translated by Shelley Tanaka
  • Between Sisters by Adwoa Badoe
  • True Confessions of a Heartless Girl by Martha Brooks
  • Two Moons in August by Martha Brooks
  • The Shepherd's Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter
  • Broken Memory by Elisabeth Combres 
  • earthgirl by Jennifer Cowan
  • Mary Ann Alice by Brian Doyle
  • Looking for X by Deborah Ellis
  • No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis
  • No Safe Place by Deborah Ellis
  • The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
  • Parvana's Journey by Deborah Ellis
  • Mud City by Deborah Ellis
  • Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen by Glen Huser
  • Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan
  • Home is Beyond the Mountains by Celia Barker Lottridge
  • The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter
  • I'll Be Watching by Pamela Porter
  • The Saver by Edeet Ravel
  • Snow Apples by Mary Razzell
  • Wheels for Walking by Sandra Richmond
  • Skim by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
  • What Gloria Wants by Sarah Withrow 
(Any errors in exclusion from and inclusion in the list are completely my own, and will be amended as needed. HK)

I have to tell you that the reason I chose to post about the Girls with Grit series now was because yesterday I happened to come across a wonderful video of teens offering their takes on several books in the series.  I recalled my own emotional responses to several of the books and realized that, although published years earlier, these books should be read and revisited regularly, just to remind us of our own humanity.  Enjoy the books and the video, courtesy of Groundwood Books and House of Anansi.

Uploaded to YouTube by on Oct 20, 2011

January 23, 2012

American Library Association 2012 Awards

Each year, the American Library Association (ALA)  honours books for young people with several long-established awards:  the Newberry Medal, the Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King Awards.  But these distinctions are only three of the awards presented annually at the ALA's midwinter meeting.  Although the American Library Association is based in the U.S., it occasionally selects titles by Canadian authors and illustrators, hence its inclusion here.


Paul Yee for his book Money Boy (Groundwood Books, 2011) which was selected as one of four Honor Books for the Stonewall Book Award -Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award



Jon Klassen, the Canadian-born author/illustrator of I Want My Hat Back (Candlewick Press, 2011) whose book was selected as one of three Honor Books for the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award 

The full roster of ALA awards include:
  • John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature
  • Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children
  • Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults
  • Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award recognizing an African American author of outstanding books for children and young adults
  • Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award recognizing an African American illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults
  • Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement
  • Schneider Family Book Award for books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience
  • Alex Awards for the 10 best adult books that appeal to teen audiences
  • Andrew Carnegie Medal for excellence in children's video
  • Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults
  • May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award recognizing an author, critic, librarian, historian or teacher of children's literature
  • Mildred L. Batchelder Award for an outstanding children's book translated from a foreign language and subsequently published in the United States
  • Odyssey Award for best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults, available in English in the United States
  • Pura Belpré (Illustrator) Award honoring a Latino illustrator whose children's books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience
  • Pura Belpré (Author) Award honoring a Latino writer whose children's books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience
  • Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award for most distinguished informational book for children
  • Stonewall Book Award -Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award given annually to English-language children’s and young adult books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience
  • Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for the most distinguished beginning reader book
  • William C. Morris Award for a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens
  • YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults, ages 12 – 18
ALA Press Release January 23, 2012   

January 21, 2012

Betsy Wickwire's Dirty Secret

Written by Vicki Grant
HarperTrophy Canada
324 pp.
Ages 12-16

Everyone has secrets.  Sometimes we know they're secrets and try to keep them hidden, in closets and in diaries.  Sometimes we don't even know we have secrets, because they're in our repressed memories or not fully realized yet.  Betsy Wickwire, seventeen, has had a betrayal kept secret from her and, upon its revelation, she hides herself away in her Halifax home.  But, to really hide herself away, she needs money.  Everything comes together one day when: 1) she learns of the need for cleaning ladies, who are paid relatively well; 2) she goes to an obscure cafe to avoid people she knows; and 3) meets a former classmate, Meghan, now called Dolores, a green-haired, audacious girl who loves the idea of setting up a cleaning business.  With indifference, Becky goes along with headstrong Dolores' enterprise, Lapins de Poussière (Dust Bunnies) Cleaning Service, and finds herself getting more out of the job than just the money.

While still tormented daily by the loss of her boyfriend and best friend and trying to work out how to deal with it, Becky is discovering a new life for herself, with Dolores and Murdoch, a client's son who Becky met in an intimate bathroom tussle.  She also discovers that the prevalence of secrets amongst their clients (e.g., the need for anti-depressants, hidden alcohol, marital affairs, trashy reading, etc.) make it easier for her to clean their homes.  But the realization that everyone has secrets, even Dolores, ultimately helps Betsy to understand herself, which makes her capable of being a better friend.

Vicki Grant has always successfully merged humour while looking at human behaviour.   In Betsy Wickwire's Dirty Secret, the focus is on how secrets make us human but can impede understanding.  From Lapins de Poussière's pink, fluffy branding, to Dolores' clever repartée with Betsy, Murdoch and their elderly client, Frank, to the shopping trips to Giant Tiger and Value Village,  Grant makes Betsy's new circumstances seem fuller, almost larger than life or, at least, larger than her former life as a popular girl.  The old Betsy, though perhaps considered better dressed, more popular and in with the in-crowd, was an insubstantial version of her true self, and it was fulfilling to share in the transformation with her.

If you're interested in enjoying more of Vicki Grant's wit and well-plotted stories, my recommendations would include these titles:
  • The Puppet Wrangler (Orca, 2004)
  • Quid Pro Quo (Orca, 2005) Winner of Arthur Ellis Award for Best Juvenile Crime Novel
  • Pigboy (Orca, 2006)
  • Not Suitable for Family Viewing (HarperTrophy Canada, 2009) Winner of the 2011 Red Maple Fiction Award

January 19, 2012

Wellington's Rainy Day

Written by Carolyn Beck  
Illustrated by Brooke Kerrigan
Orca Book Publishers
32 pp.
Ages 4-7

Wellington is a hound who enjoys a good life with Master Horace.  And even though Master Horace seems to be having an exceptionally deep and long nap today, Wellington is clever enough to arrange for his needs to be met.  His bowl may be empty but he knows where there's always a deep porcelain bowl filled with water.  As for his food, Wellington can smell a delicious meatloaf on the table.  Though a short hound, he finds creative ways to reach this food, and to eat "every last gorgeous, every last worgeous, every last squorgeous bit." He even cleans up, though more to hide the evidence than for housekeeping purposes.

But, Honey, the marmalade cat (with a mouse as a sidekick), has been watching Wellington and, like any younger sibling, would delight in Wellington's downfall.  But, as every child who has every tattled knows, "telling" doesn't always work out the way one anticipates. 

Carolyn Beck must love animals and dogs especially, with three of her five picture books based on canine critters: The Waiting Dog (Kids Can Press, 2003), Dog Breath (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2011) and now Wellington's Rainy Day (Orca, 2011).  The rhyme and rhythm of Carolyn Beck's text support the sweeping nature of Wellington's day, enhancing the mundane (e.g., trash in a garbage can) to extraordinary (e.g., "The garbage was a poem").  Brooke Kerrigan's pencil and watercolour drawings are light but evocative of the important aspects of Wellington's life with Master Horace and Honey.  Although Master Horace's face is never evident, the important parts, like his legs (for walking) and finger (for pointing) and voice (for snores and calling), are definite.  The details in Kerrigan's illustrations add charm and whimsy, and children will delight in looking for small details including the little mouse.

After reading Wellington's Rainy Day, it would seem that Sir Winston Churchill was correct when he declared that, "Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us."  And for that reason, the book's ending seems a justifiable and fair one.  (By the way, the end of Churchill's quotation, "Pigs treat us as equals", offered his explanation for liking animals of the porcine variety.)

January 18, 2012

Family Literacy Day: January 27, 2012

Family Literacy Day was established in Canada in 1999 to promote the importance of reading and literacy for all family members.  ABC Canada initiated this national day of celebration with the production of a made-for-TV movie, "Penny's Odyssey", a story about a young girl who hides her illiteracy from her family. 

Now renamed, ABC Life Literacy Canada, this non-profit organization promotes literacy through a variety of programs and activities including Family Literacy Day and Good Reads®
where great Canadian authors (for adults and youth) publish short books for adults to help improve their learning skills. A quick glance shows works by celebrated Canadian authors Deborah Ellis, Maureen Jennings and Frances Itani.

This year's Family Literacy Day will be celebrated in a wide variety of venues and ways, including:
Join in the celebration of reading and writing on Family Literacy Day!

January 17, 2012

I AM CANADA series

Scholastic Canada introduced the series I AM CANADA in 2010 for readers of ages 9-12.  The following compelling invitation (from www.scholastic.ca/iamcanada/videos) suggests why young readers have chosen to follow this series:

The following titles have been published in the series:

Prisoner of Dieppe: World War II, 
Alistair Morrison, Occupied France, 1942 
by Hugh Brewster

Blood and Iron: Building the Railway, 
Lee Heen-gwong, British Columbia, 1882 
by Paul Yee

Shot at Dawn: World War I, 
Allan McBride, France, 1917 
by John Wilson

Deadly Voyage: RMS Titanic,
Jamie Laidlaw, April 14, 1912  
by Hugh Brewster

Behind Enemy Lines: World War II, 
Sam Frederiksen, Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1944 
by Carol Matas
Feb, 2012

Additional information about the series, including relevant videos, discussion guides and activities can be found at the I AM CANADA website

N.B. I plan to review Deadly Voyage: RMS Titanic (Hugh Brewster, 2011) and the Dear Canada book, That Fatal Night: The Titanic Diary of Dorothy Wilton (Sarah Ellis, 2011) in April, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

Behind Enemy Lines : World War II, Sam Frederiksen, Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1944

by Carol Matas
Scholastic Canada
196 pp.
Ages 9-12

Scholastic Canada's new historical fiction series for boys, I am Canada, is a brilliant twin to their Dear Canada series, whose female protagonist and diary entry emphases are often tiresome for boys interested in historical fiction. Behind Enemy Lines: World War II is the fifth book in this series, due out in February.

Sam Frederiksen is an eighteen-year-old Canadian airman/gunner when his plane is shot down over Nazi-occupied France in 1944.  He and the injured navigator, Bill, are rescued by a French boy of the French Resistance who takes them to safety.  Sam joins other Allies, including James Thompson, a Brit, and Ben Webber, an American, at a local Resistance fighter's farm to help sabotage the infrastructure the Nazis use (e.g., railroads, etc.). When the farmer's daughter's fiancé is arrested, she betrays her parents and the Allies, hoping to secure his release. Luckily, the farmer anticipates the Germans' strategy and moves the Allied airmen to safety, though his own farm is burned to the ground.

Sam often thinks about his Danish family back in Winnipeg, believing in the generosity of people such as his father, the doctor, and finds it hard to believe the rumours of Hitler's assault on the Jewish people and the treachery of others in supporting their actions.  Sam is safely taken to Paris, where he meets up with Max, a Jewish member of his downed air crew,  but they are betrayed and handed over to the Germans, along with other French Resistance fighters and Allies.  Sam begins to really see the true circumstances of the occupation, especially after they are sent to Buchenwald, the concentration camp.  There Sam is witness to the emaciated prisoners in their blue and white striped pyjamas, and the cruel SS officers with dogs, and the vile smells coming from ever-burning chimneys, but Sam still holds some hope that they will be treated as POWs according to the Geneva Convention, just as POWs in Canada were being treated.

Sam's naiveté is not borne of ignorance but rather hope and honour.  He is relentless in adhering to the protocol that he only share his name, rank and service number, and in following the directions of the Allied officers they choose to lead them. When the prisoners in his cattle car are taken off and marched away at gunpoint, after an escape attempt, they are sure of their execution, but still do not cower or show shame, as they recognized the honour in following their orders to escape from the enemy.  By availing himself of the help of so many strangers and of the information they share with him, Sam gains both in wisdom and heart, during a time when many were abandoning both.

Surprisingly, there is a factual basis for this story, and Carol Matas, always a thorough researcher of history, provides extensive notes about it.  (An NFB documentary from 1994, titled The Lucky Ones: Allied Airmen and Buchenwald by Michael Allder also tells the story.) Matas provides additional notes related to the role of Canadians in WWII air operations, the work of the French Resistance fighters and the Holocaust, as well as images, of airmen and concentration camp prisoners.

January 16, 2012

Unraveling Isobel

by Eileen Cook
Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
290 pp.
Ages 14-18

No seventeen-year-old likes being yanked away from her friends at the beginning of her graduating year. That's pretty tough on Isobel, but she also has to deal with her mother's new husband, Richard (who Isobel insists on calling Dick) and her new gorgeous stepbrother, Nathaniel, who is still getting over the deaths of his mother and younger sister less than a year ago and seems less than welcoming. Plus, she has to move to an "estate" on a small island where the community's predominant gossip is related to her new family and home.  Isobel definitely finds it hard to keep herself together and even hold her tongue sometimes.  But, with her birth father having given up his career to become an artist (her own passion, though stifled by her mom) and suffering from schizophrenia (which is known to have a genetic component), Isobel starts worrying that the unraveling means she's going crazy.

She'd like to turn to someone, so she tries calling her best friend, Anita, but she seems pretty busy with new friends. Her mother is too gaga over her wealthy, new husband to do anything except chastise Isobel for not appreciating their new life.  Although her step-brother, Nathaniel, tries to be available to her, he is just a little too attractive for comfort.  At school, though, Isobel is taken under the wing of popular alpha-girl, Nicole, and her entourage of cheerleaders, and starts to feel like she's settling in a bit (even if Nicole insists she join the cheer leading squad).  Of course, there are the drawings that Isobel doesn't recall sketching,  and the recurring visions of a young girl, and things in her room being rearranged.

Given time, Isobel probably would have worked things out for herself, but with Dick and her mom insisting that she see a therapist, and Nicole's gossip and machinations making life just a bit more difficult, and Nathaniel starting to share his feelings with her while continuing to be so good-looking, everything just works against her.  Luckily her humour and nerve help Isobel unravel appropriately while keeping her whole.  Her snarky comebacks to the comments of others continued to keep me laughing and cheering for her, pleased with her strength of character. When Nathaniel questions how she could possibly see with her heavy, dark make-up (crap, he calls it), she fires back with, "How do you see with your head shoved so far up your ass?" (pg. 14).  She doesn't hold back, not even with the profanities.

Isobel's fear, that she is losing her mind and is not "normal", is indicative of the stigma that her mother, and too often society, attach to issues of mental health.  She even acknowledges that it would have been easier to tell others that her dad had leprosy or was a terrorist than that he was mentally ill.  But, even though frightened, Isobel continues to evaluate her mental health quite rationally, for example, recognizing that she didn't really have crazy thoughts because, "I didn't think I was Napoleon, or that my bagel was an alien," (pg. 48), relieving her tension, as well as that of the reader who could feel witness to a breakdown.  She regularly assesses the unnerving criticisms from her mother and Dick ("I love how when you have a opinion different from your parent's it's an 'attitude'"; pg.95) or to creepy sounds ("...was a wind chime, some type of sea glass and shell thing.  Fantastic.  I had been attempting to communicate with a home accessory"; pg. 47).

Although I thought Nathaniel came around a little too quickly, especially while still dealing with his grief and his father's prompt remarriage, I relaxed when Isobel found an ally in him and one who appreciated things about her that she did not recognize herself.  Any way, when you have to solve a mystery, it's always nice to have a sidekick, especially one with whom you could fall in love.  (Remember: they're only step-siblings, as Isobel constantly reminds everyone. No reason to chastise them.  It's legal.)

January 15, 2012

The Arthur Ellis Awards

For readers of crime, mystery, espionage and all manner of criminal doings, both fictional and factual, the Arthur Ellis Awards for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing are the awards to check out for the newest and the best. (A bit of trivia: The awards are named for the pseudonym of the Official Executioner for the Dominion of Canada from 1913-1935, which explains the appearance of the award as seen to the right.)  Awarded annually by the Crime Writers of Canada since 1984, the Arthur Ellis Awards include the following categories:

For Published Works:
  • Best Crime Novel *
  • Best First Crime Novel *
  • Best Crime Book in French
  • Best Crime Nonfiction
  • Best Juvenile/Young Adult Crime Book
  • Best Crime Short Story
For Unpublished Work:
  • The Unhanged Arthur Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel *
*Awards for which prizes are provided

This year's shortlist of works from 2011 will be announced in April 2012, and the awards presented at the Arthur Ellis Awards Banquet in Toronto on Thursday, May 31, 2012.

So, if you're looking for a great mystery or thriller, until the 2012 short list is announced, the books nominated for the  2011 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Juvenile/Young Adult Crime Book will provide you with a strong selection.

Short List:
  • Borderline by Allan Stratton (HarperCollins Canada, 2010) 
  • Pluto's Ghost by Sheree Fitch (Doubleday Canada, 2010)
  • Victim Rights by Norah McClintock (Red Deer Press, 2010)
  • The Vinyl Princess by Yvonne Prinz (HarperCollins Canada, 2010)
  • The Worst Thing She Ever Did by Alice Kuipers (HarperCollins Canada, 2010)


The Worst Thing She Ever Did  
by Alice Kuipers
HarperCollins Canada, 2010

While the title suggests a mystery to which the reader is not privy,  sixteen-year-old Sophie knows what she did and what it has cost.  After her sister's death, Sophie is instructed by a therapist to share herself, particularly her grief, in a journal. 

For more information about the awards, go to the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Awards

January 14, 2012

Brief Interview with...me!

Please may I brag?

I was recently interviewed by Kay Weisman, a moderator (with Ellen Fu) for the blog of the Canadian Library Association's network, Canadian Libraries Are Serving Children (CLASC).  CLASC is an online hub where children's services librarians and staff may connect and share resources and ideas relating to books, programs, and all things related to children's literature. 

Kay and I had been fellow committee members for the Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year for Children Award (BOYCA) for several years, finally meeting at the CLA conference in Edmonton in 2010. (You have no idea how often librarians and teacher-librarians never meet, communicating so much online.) That was the year that Nancy Hartry's book Watching Jimmy (Tundra, 2009) won the Book of the Year for Children's Award.  

If you haven't had a chance to read this book, please do so, to see why it won BOYCA and was a finalist for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People (2010), the 2010 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award and the Golden Oak Award (2010).

The interview was originally posted on the CLASC blog at  https://claclasc.wordpress.com/2012/01/14/clasc-profile-helen-kubiw/.  However, since the Canadian Library Association disbanded in January 2016, the CLASC blog has been removed.

I have posted the interview below:

Helen Kubiw—a self-described Canadian, teacher, librarian, reader, reviewer, selection committee member, writers' festival volunteer, enthusiastic promoter of great literature—is a teacher librarian in Guelph, Ontario and creator of CANLIT FOR LITTLECANADIANS http://canlitforlittlecanadians.blogspot.com/, a delightful blog promoting Canadian literature for youth. We caught up with her recently during a rare quiet moment.

CLASC: Helen, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. First of all, what prompted you to start your new blog this fall and how do you find the time to post so often—and so thoughtfully?

Although I’ve always been a reader, it wasn’t until recently that I found that sharing my reading with others was equally fulfilling.  I’d be on a book buying trip at S&B Books or at a board-organized take-away show and I would find myself saying over and over again, “You’ve got to read this one” or “I think this is even better than Twilight and it’s Canadian” or “The newest Arthur Slade is out now.”  Through my participation on selection committees for the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading and on the Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children Award, as well as keeping up with reviews in Quill & Quire and CM: Canadian Review of Materials and other blogs, I was well aware of the wealth of Canadian literature for young people.  But many other readers, teacher-librarians, children, teens, and parents, were not, making them more vulnerable to the books that received the most hype: large displays at bookstores, movie tie-ins, TV spin-offs, advertising, and the plethora of reviews of such.  CANLIT FOR LITTLECANADIANS is my way of sharing my reading with others, in the hopes that they will do the same, and bring kidsCanlit the hype it truly deserves.

I have to admit that another reason that I started this blog is to pursue my interest in Canadian children’s literature but along a different avenue.  My recent experiences as a teacher-librarian have not been fulfilling.  I love being a teacher-librarian but most of my time is scheduled for teaching other subjects or providing planning time for teachers.  Feeling that my skills as a teacher-librarian are undervalued and consequently underused by administration, I’m using my blog to pursue other career choices.  So, if you know anyone who is looking for a promoter of great Canadian children’s lit who reads and reviews constantly, be sure to pass along my name.

CLASC: Your site has wonderful content—author and publisher Links, book trailers, and book awards for Canadian young people. Who you see as your web audience? Parents? Professionals? Kids? Have you ever used the site as a resource with your students?

I really hope that any reader of books for young people – teachers, teacher-librarians, parents, students, grandparents, publishers, authors, reviewers world-wide – would take the time to regularly peruse CANLIT FOR LITTLECANADIANS to direct their reading choices and become accustomed to always searching out Canadian titles first.  Becoming familiar with the authors and the publishers who are responsible for these wonderful books is key to recognizing their value and encouraging followers.  Of course, I have included a direct link on my school library website to CANLIT FOR LITTLECANADIANS.  If I can’t be there personally to tell them about the books, then I’ll let the blog speak for me.

CLASC: What forgotten gem or unsung story are you promoting this season?

I would have a hard time picking only one book that I believe fits that bill but three books published in 2011 that I think are still coming into their own are:
True Blue by Deborah Ellis from Pajama Press; The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan from Dancing Cat Books; and Little Jane Silver by Adira Rotstein from Dundurn.  I will also be promoting Making Bombs for Hitler from Marsha Skrypuch (Scholastic Canada) but that’s not scheduled for release until February, 2012.

January 11, 2012

Festival of Trees™ ticket sales

DON'T MISS OUT on Canada's largest literary event for young people!
With the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading®
programs currently running in Ontario schools, many students are already anticipating the culminating event, 
  Festival of Trees

The Festival of Trees which will be held over two days in May at Toronto's Harbourfront will host over 8000 young readers.  This wonderful opportunity celebrates our children's love of reading with numerous workshops with authors and illustrators; music performances; buskers; activity tents for crafts, etc.; games for prizes; educational displays; book purchases at S & B's festival tent; author signings; and, of course, the announcement of the winners.

The two days' awards are separated, as follows:
May 15, 2012 : Blue Spruce, Red Maple and White Pine
May16, 2012:  Silver Birch
As events are often sold out, early purchase of tickets is recommended.

For Registered Forest Members:
Tickets go on sale Friday, January 13, 2012 at 8:00 a.m. at Harbourfront Box Office or by phone at 416.973.4000 (press 1 )
For the Public:
Tickets will go on sale in February.

The Festival which was originally only held in Toronto will present inaugural events in Ottawa and Thunder Bay this year.


Ottawa's first Festival of Trees will be held on May 17, 2012 at Carleton University
One thousand tickets for the Silver Birch and Red Maple ceremonies are available for $10 directly from the Ontario Library Association


Similarly, Thunder Bay's first Festival of Trees will take place on May 18, 2012 at the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition.  One thousand tickets, available on a first-come-first-serve basis, are available directly from the Ontario Library Association
Further details about the Festival of Trees can be found at the OLA Festival web site 

Chance to Dance for You

by Gail Sidonie Sobat
Great Plains Teen Fiction
172 pp.
Ages 14+

Although Ian Trudeau has only outed himself to his family and best friend, Tilley, his dance skills, specifically ballet, make him a target of homophobic slurs, vandalism and violence in his very suburban high school.  Unfortunately, one of the worst offenders is Jess Campeau, a football and hockey athlete, on whom Ian has a crush.  Fortunately, Jess seems to have issues with his own sexuality, compelling him to take Ian aside on two different occasions and kiss him, while still denouncing being gay.

When Ian agrees to keep Jess' secret in return for Jess discontinuing his insults of gays and girls, he also promises to be his friend and sounding board if Jess feels he needs to talk.  That courageous offer opens a door for Jess, allowing him to get closer to Ian, while still determined to keep their relationship completely hidden.  After a romantic evening during which Jess asks Ian to dance for him, Jess discretely attends a dress rehearsal for a spring show of Ian's.  But, Jess' military dad finds a copy of the programme, furious at its implications (i.e., Jess isn't a real man) and beats up his son, who finds refuge for the night with Ian and his mom.  Surprisingly, the next day begins Jess' avoidance of Ian and his public dating of a girl, Brittany, to temper his dad's anger and drunken violence.

Hurt, angry and lonely, Ian looks for ways to reconnect with Jess.  And, although Ian is gently persuaded to recognize that he is very fortunate to have unconditional support to be himself, not everyone feels able or willing to fight for their rights to be different.  But, this lesson is a painful one for him to learn and then accept.

While many may emphasize the gay relationship in Chance to Dance for You, I see it as a love story wrapped in prejudice.  Jess learns from his father and his jock peers that he shouldn't be attracted to Ian, but he is, hence his conflict.  Ian knows the battles he faces daily, even with undeniable caring and support, but he is convinced that love can conquer all.  Gail Sidonie Sobat's storyline, so authentic in its voice and details, emphasizes the boys' attempts to resolve these conflicts while staying true to themselves and remaining unbroken, if possible.  First loves always have a way of taking a little bit away from you while almost always helping you gain something: maturity, strength, humility, insight, friendship, or wisdom. 
Read the book jacket endorsements by Brian Francis (author of Fruit, ECW Press, 2004) and Glen Huser (author of Stitches, Groundwood, 2003), Canadian authors of books in which male protagonists must deal with their differences, for their succinct and touching expressions about Chance to Dance for You.  Then, read this very real and bittersweet story that juxtaposes love with prejudice, courage with fear, and sensitivity with harshness, all to enhance our understanding of what it means to be a man.


January 09, 2012


by R. J. Anderson
Carolrhoda Lab
303 pp.
Ages 14+

R. J. Anderson, author of Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter (HarperCollins Canada, 2009) and Wayfarer (HarperCollins Canada, 2010), continues her foray into speculative fiction, but this time immersed in the issue of youth mental health, a reality that could read like fiction.

Waking up in a hospital, Alison Jeffries learns quickly that she has been admitted to a psychiatric department after a psychotic episode that had her harming herself and assaulting  a police officer.  Upon her transfer to Pine Hills, a youth facility, she realizes that another Gr. 10 student from her school, Tori Beaugrand, disappeared on the same day of Alison's crisis, and that many believe that Alison had something to do with the girl's disappearance.  Of course, it also might be because Alison claimed that she'd made Tori disintegrate.

Because of her interactions with Constable Deckard (who returns several times to question her memory of the day's events), her therapy sessions with Dr. Minta (who seems to see every action of Alison's in terms of psychoses), visits from her family (or lack thereof), and a visit from her best friend, Melissa, Alison spends much of her weeks in Pine Hills recalling that day's events, particularly her memory of seeing Tori vanish before her eyes.  She believes that she might have always been "crazy", recollecting her mother's reaction to her sharing the colours and shapes and smells she associates with random items and feelings.

While she learns to interact with her Pine Hills' peers, who deal with anorexia, bipolar disorder, depression, paranoia, etc., her most significant relationship is established with the young Dr. Sebastian Faraday, a neuropsychologist from South Africa, whose unique violet eyes and startling beauty assure and calm her.  Faraday identifies Alison as a synesthete, one of only 4% of the population whose senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) are interconnected.  Convinced that Alison is not crazy and that she is not responsible for Tori's disappearance, Faraday becomes a strong emotional support for Alison, causing some awkwardness for flirtatious patient, Kirk, whose anger and jealousy are brought to the surface, resulting in a destructive fire, the removal of Faraday from Pine Hills, and permission for Alison to visit home.

But, that is hardly the end of the story.  A whole new set of circumstances bring Alison's relationship with Faraday and the "madness" of her experiences with Tori into play, demonstrating the speculative nature of Ultraviolet.  Telling you any more than that would destroy the systematic "aha" moments that bring this story to its unpredictable resolution.  Fortunately, the story has not concluded, since a sequel, tentatively titled Quicksilver, is slated for publication in 2013.

R. J. Anderson seems to whip up amazing plots that are rich in their interconnectedness and their complexity, here taking mental health issues and wrapping them in fantastical elements, playing down the fear and anxiety of mental illness while revealing much about it.  Her characters can be enigmas, not unlike most of us, who change their minds and alter their behaviour, sometimes without apparent rationale.  But, they ultimately reveal themselves as complex beings and begin to see and be seen beyond first impressions.  Creating empathetic characters in speculative fiction is a skill that R. J. Anderson has demonstrated repeatedly, recognizing that the richness of her characters can carry any bizarre plot she may be imaginative enough to create. 

 Uploaded by on Mar 30, 2011

The publisher, Carolrhoda Lab, is an imprint of Lerner Publishing, who has posted this very brief trailer for Ultraviolet.

Spoiler alert: If you'd like to see a Fan trailer for "Ultraviolet"that focuses on Alison and Faraday, check out this link BUT it does include a spoiler not revealed in this review.