July 29, 2012

I'll Be Home Soon

by Luanne Armstrong
Ronsdale Press
200 pp.
Ages 10+
Available September, 2012

Gritty girls have become the new heroes of popular fiction and movies, ready to take on any foe, physically, strategically or emotionally.  Though their challenges may be contrived in the lines of speculative fiction filled with vampires, game-makers, werewolves, and other contenders, these protagonists compel the readers to cheer for them, regardless of the horrific circumstances, countless deaths and violent outcomes.  But, these heroes have nothing on thirteen-year-old Regan of Luanne Armstrong's I'll Be Home Soon.

Regan's less-than-comfortable life has become even grittier since the disappearance of her mother, Joanie Anderson, who goes out on an evening job to make a few extra dollars and does not return.  For the first few weeks, Regan uses the money her mother left for food and continues going to school and even her kung fu classes, though unable to pay.  But things get more desperate when she's scrounging for food out of garbage bins, when there's no money for laundry and when she spends most of her time watching for her mom, staying under the radar of her teachers, the local street youth worker and the police.  While she finds solace in the discipline of kung fu at the dojo and the caring of the kung fu master, Sifu, Regan's sole friend is Mike, a sixteen-year-old homeless busker, who encourages her to go to the police, still keeping her updated on anything that he hears on the street.

Though Mike seems a casual acquaintance, someone who Regan seeks out when she needs help, he becomes instrumental in helping track her mother, as well as keep Regan safe.  After visiting Clayton, the man whose poker party Regan's mom worked, Regan unwisely checks out the player, George Miller, with whom her mother has apparently gone off.  But, George Miller is less than gracious, alleging that Regan's mom stole money from him, and tries to grab Regan, even sending men to pursue her.   After brief stays at the tent city of Ramona and other homeless people, at a group home, and at the home of a grandmother she hadn't seen for years,  Regan is being threatened by George and his goons to reveal where her mother, who has apparently stolen millions, is hiding.

While there is no evidence of a romance between Regan and Mike, they seem to be forging a strong bond founded in their mutual admiration for the resilience and caring each demonstrates.  He shares his squat, sleeping bag and family history with her, even putting himself in danger, although he claims, "I'm good at staying uninvolved" (pg. 98) because becoming part of a "we" causes hurt.  Thankfully, Mike's repeated efforts to discover more about Regan's mother, plus the attentions of Sifu, Reg McDermid, a researcher on street youth, and a female cop, help resolve the mystery of Regan's mom's disappearance and reestablish Regan's and her mom's lives, even improving upon them.

Regan is not a character, because Luanne Armstrong has not written I'll Be Home Soon as a piece of fiction; it reads like a retelling of a few months in a young girl's life.  Regan is a young girl who, by nature of unprecedented circumstances, must make some hard choices that test her fortitude and survival skills, including knowing who to trust and not to trust.  Luanne Armstrong does an incredible job of leading the reader from subplot to subplot, looking for resolution, never setting up simple answers, whether it be the rescue of Regan's mom or a perfect happy ending for Mike and Regan.  For example, Luanne Armstrong could have wrapped up I'll Be Home Soon with all the homeless becoming homed, bad guys caught and jailed, and every less-than-sympathetic person redeeming themselves.  She does not.  What she does do is far more satisfying, demonstrating that coming home may be everyone's aspiration but where that home is or the nature of that home is not always so easily defined or even recognized.

July 26, 2012

When I Was Small series

On April 4, 2012, I reviewed Sara O'Leary's delightful picture book When I Was Small, illustrated by Julie Morstad, published by Simply Read Books (2011).

Today, I learned that When I Was Small is just the newest of three books by Sara O'Leary and Julie Morstad which are all based on young Henry and his curiosity.  The three books are:

When I Was Small
Written by Sara O'Leary
Illustrated by Julie Morstad
Simply Read Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-8

Where You Came From
Written by Sara O'Leary
Illustrated by Julie Morstad
Simply Read Books
32 pp.
Ages 3-8

When You Were Small
Written by Sara O'Leary
Illustrated by Julie Morstad
Simply Read Books
32 pp.
Ages 2-6

I will need to check out the first two books in this lovely series, but you can do that here, courtesy of the book trailer uploaded by Simply Read Books on May 18, 2012, recently showcased on a School Library Journal blog here.

Published on May 18, 2012 by to YouTube

July 25, 2012

Hummingbird Heart

by Robin Stevenson
Orca Book Publishers
ebook: 978-1-554693917
278 pp.
Ages 13-16
April, 2012

Reviewed from ebook

Fiction for younger readers seems to have found a favourite character in the selfish mother or at least mothers who, realizing that they can't have it all, choose in favour of themselves, not their children. Such is Dylan Jarvis' mom, although her mom still has the audacity to tell her that she's doing what's best for Dylan.

In Hummingbird Heart, sixteen-year-old Dylan may know how self-centered her mom, Amanda, is; after all, Mom doesn't seem to worry about constantly getting new tattoos or smoking pot or making out with her newest boyfriend at home.  In fact, Dylan wishes her mother was more predictable and acted more like a responsible grown-up.  But while Dylan may acknowledge how messed up her family is (there's Mom who got pregnant when she was 16 after a one-night stand, and Karma, her "sister", the eleven-year-old daughter of Amanda's deceased friend, Sheri) but she considers herself weird and boring, more like "Diluted Kool-Aid, maybe. Or skim milk" (pg. 35) compared to her champagne-like best friend, Toni.  Even though Toni's parents have divorced, Dylan looks upon Toni as having a more normal family, since she knows both her parents.  Dylan, who knows nothing of her father, struggles for a connection to him by having her mom send a birthday photograph of them to him each year.  Even though he has never replied, Dylan considers going to see him when Mark calls and wants to have dinner with them.

Meanwhile, Dylan is encouraged by Toni to be a bit more sociable and interested in guys; by crushing on new boy, Jax, Dylan feels a bit more normal like Toni, who has a boyfriend, Finn.  Perhaps because she knows so little about him and feels like a different (more normal?) person around him, Dylan takes Jax in as a confidante, sharing with him the news of her father and her feelings about her mother.  While she does question Jax's interest in her, Dylan enjoys the almost out-of-body experience of being with him, especially knowing that he isn't thinking only of himself, as Toni and her mother and even Karma are.

And there's her father, Mark Wheatcroft, a successful lawyer, with a wife and four-year-old daughter, Casey.  Learning Mark's daughter has leukemia and he'd like Dylan to agree to a blood test to check for a bone marrow match, Dylan feels even more humiliated and numbed by the self-centeredness of everyone around her.  This just adds to her already-heightened concern of impending environmental doom, a planet destined for destruction from selfish humans.

Revelations by her mother, Mark, Toni, and Jax have Dylan confused about what she needs to do, especially when some stories are true, others are untruths to make things better, and some are harmful lies.  Even the hummingbird tattoo on her mother's wrist becomes something different and more, when Dylan learns that Mark has an identical one on his wrist.

Much of Hummingbird Heart revolves around the theme of self-awareness, and knowing who you are and what you want and what you will do to get it.  Sadly, Dylan's insightful thoughts like,  "It was strange, the way an ordinary day could suddenly seem so beautiful and so fragile it made you ache" (pg. 14-15) are not considered valid by her until she begins to see the weaknesses of those around her.  Even the courage that Mark showed in breaking off with Amanda is wrapped in selfishness: "I can't be around you and still have room to be who I want to be." (pg. 251) Somehow, by making the characters less vulnerable to guilt and pleas from others, Robin Stevenson takes Hummingbird Heart from just a mirror of a young girl's attempt to understand others as well as herself to a piece of artwork, extensive and colourful, deep and enduring, of choices, wonderful or humiliating, like a tattoo, hummingbird or otherwise.

July 24, 2012

Wicked Sweet

by Mar'ce Merrell
Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan imprint)
330 pp.
Ages 14-18

It would be fun to pun my way through this review for Wicked Sweet but I don't want to give the impression that the story is too saccharine.  Really.  There is much sweetness in it, courtesy of several characters, some amazing baking, and a plot that wraps up very nicely, but I would never consider it saccharine, sugary sweet or diabetic overload.  Wicked Sweet is an irresistible story of one summer and two friends, Jillian and Chantal, who are finding their way through the minefield that first boyfriends can be, while trying to keep their friendship and self-esteems intact.

It's the summer before their final high school year and the summer starts like any other:  at the lake, planning for their summer project.  Two very dedicated students, Jillian and Chantal know their priorities: friendship and grades.  But behind the friendship is the support each needs to deal with the difficulties in their lives:  Chantal, who suffers from anxiety attacks, has a stringent mother who aims for perfection, while Jillian endures the whims of her self-centered mother who spends more time with boyfriends than she does with her other six children (the Hat Trick, the Double Minor and baby Ollie), always leaving their care to Jillian. 

This summer, though, Jillian is showing an interest in boys, specifically the very hot, wealthy and together Parker, who has just broken up with his long-time girlfriend, Annelise.  And, if Parker brings his best friend, Will, then the four of them can hang out together, even think about doing their summer project with the boys.  Unfortunately, Chantal overhears Will and Parker talking about their "man challenge" which Will wins because he forces a kiss on Chantal (we won't mention that she vomits during the kiss).  Determined to get revenge, Chantal plans on humiliating Will using her new found baking skills, courtesy of Nigella Lawson's cooking channel, to suggest a secret admirer is leaving him very tasty treats and love notes, thus raising his expectations (easily, because of his arrogance) before she takes him down a notch or two.  Chantal even gets Annelise to play a part in this ruse.

Meanwhile, the summer project of a hockey camp for little kids at the lake has Jillian and Parker keeping very busy, but not busy enough to keep Parker from falling hard for her and Jillian from questioning the unrealistic demands her mother places on her and wondering how she can save herself.

Even following her recipe for revenge, Chantal's plot gets amended several times because she: 1) is spotted delivering the cakes; 2) has to hide her baking from her mother; 3) notices Parker is a good guy; 4) anonymously garners more and more attention for the Cake Princess; 5) recognizes who she does have a crush on; and 6) recognizes that everyone's roles are changing.  Although I was having difficulties keeping track of the plan and rationale for each change, I suspect it has more to do with my advanced age, far from the teens in Wicked Sweet.  Spontaneous changes in plans, whether well thought out or not, are not unusual in the lives of teens.  Except the old Chantal who liked schedules and order and pre-planning, the teens amended their plans as needed, usually just dealing with the repercussions of their choices as they manifest themselves.

Jillian is quite right when she claims that, "Who you are is all about what you want to believe." (pg. 302) Jillian, Chantal, Parker and Will are learning about themselves independent of their families who have thus far determined what kind of people they will be: a surrogate care-giver, the perfect daughter, the successful businessman, or a second-rate guy jealous of those who have more than he has.  While Mar'ce Merrell's plot in Wicked Sweet is delicious (sorry, it was irresistible), flavoured (oops, another pun!) with subplots, like Chantal's baking that becomes a sensory experience, it's her characters that had me craving more of Wicked Sweet.  By giving each chapter the different voices of the characters, Mar'ce Merrell allows the reader to get inside of Jillian's head as she tries to manage her mother and not embarrass herself and eventually recognize that she is worthy of more than she has been given, just as Parker begins to recognize that he does have a life plan and it's not being the successful, golfing business man, like his father and brothers, with a socialite wife.  Without knowing the nature of Parker's family, Jillian provides him with the opportunity to explore his own pursuits, vocational and romantic.

Don't let the cover fool you into thinking that Wicked Sweet is a piece of fluff, as it is not. (Sometimes cakes and pretty colours are erroneously taken as suggestive of a book of lesser quality.)  Wicked Sweet is a heartfelt and substantial look at growing up and deciding who you want to be when you don't even know who you are.

And, if you're still not convinced you need to read Wicked Sweet (how could you not be?), envision "light yellow vanilla love sweetened by delicate pink air kisses" and "white meringue frosting decorated with thin-piped daisy petals" and "chocolate cake with a vanilla buttercream spotted with chocolate circles." Yum.

July 23, 2012

Lesley Livingston's Wondrous Strange series

Wondrous Strange
Written by Lesley Livingston
327 pp.
Ages 12+

Written by Lesley Livingston
312 pp.
Ages 12+

Reviewed from audiobook
Harper Audio
ASIN: B00309TZ04
Narrated by Lesley Livingston
6 hours, 58 minutes

Written by Lesley Livingston
361 pp.
Ages 12+

Reviewed from audiobook
Harper Audio
ASIN: B004G81VZ0
Narrated by Lesley Livingston
8 hours, 39 minutes

Lesley Livingston burst onto the YA literary scene in 2008 with her first novel, Wondrous Strange, which quickly won the accolades of readers and juries, winning the 2009 Canadian Library Association's Young Adult Book of the Year Award. Set in New York City, the Wondrous Strange series is an urban fantasy with the contemporary mortal world crossing paths with the hidden Faerie worlds, often as a consequence of the popular vices of revenge, greed and power.

Kelley Winslow is a young actor enjoying her first foray into professional theatre, performing in the Avalon Players' production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream. But, a chance and memorable meeting with the attractive Sonny Flannery, a Janus Guard, defender of the infrequently-opened gates between the Otherworld and the mortal realm, and Kelley's rescue of a horse from the lake in Central Park bring the Faerie world from the fiction of Kelley's script into her reality.

While Kelley attempts to explain and rid herself of the horse that magically re-appears in the apartment she shares with the beautiful Tyff, Sonny discovers evidence of a kelpie (magic-infused horse that drowns its victims) and ultimately the secret of Kelley's heritage. Through skirmishes with all manner of mortal and Otherworldly creatures, Sonny must convince Kelley of the reality and dangers of the Faerie Realm and keep her safe, while preventing the re-awakening of the deadly Wild Hunt.

In the second book, Darklight, the two young people, so desperately in love, are now forced to live in two different worlds: Sonny, still under orders from King Auberon, must destroy any remnants of the Wild Hunt in the Otherworld, while Kelley continues to perform with the Avalon Players, this time in Romeo and Juliet. After another Janus Guard, the Fennrys Wolf, tries to save Kelley from another attack in Central Park, they tumble into the Otherworld. But Kelley and Sonny's reunion is short-lived after Bob, the boucca, requests that Kelley visit the ailing Auberon and she refuses. Sonny, dealing with the jealous images Queen Mabh has shown him of Kelley with Fennrys, cannot comprehend Kelley's refusal, and seeks out Auberon himself. Happily, Kelley and Sonny are able to re-establish their love when they work together to thwart the leprechauns and the Green Magick, while attempting to save Auberon.

Sadly, Tempestuous begins with Sonny overhearing Kelley telling Tyff that she does not love him. Knowing that Faeries cannot lie, and not knowing Kelley's intentions (to keep him safe), Sonny disappears among the Lost Fae. But the murderous actions of rogue Janus Guards bring Sonny out of seclusion to fight, as does Kelley, those who would trade loyalty for power. As Shakespeare's The Tempest, the Avalon Players' current production, seems recreated in their lives, Sonny and Kelley do all they can to save each other and those for whom they care, mortal and Fae alike.

Though I've tried to give very little away regarding the plots of each book (not wanting to allude to culminating events that are key in the subsequent books), I can tell you that each book in the Wondrous Strange series has Lesley Livingston's signature wit, honest relationships, and sophisticated plotting, all embedded in the Old English folklore and the Bard's comedies and tragedies. For a special treat, listen to an audiobook of at least one volume of this series, as nothing can compare to author-actor Lesley Livingston reading her own work. Not only can she manipulate her voice to create very distinct characters, from young modern-day Kelley, to strong and loyal Sonny (with his disarming romantic side), mischievous Bob, regal Auberon, and self-absorbed Tyff, her sense of timing in the delivery of the clever repartee is impeccable. And the narrative, whether read or heard, is rife with the magick of a wordsmith who is able to forge rich tales that are emotionally engaging (whether to cheer for Kelley and Sonny's growing love, or despise the manipulations of the Faerie kings and queens) and edge-of-your-seat riveting (with chase scenes, deadly altercations, various assaults, and surprise revelations). The series may be called Wondrous Strange but it is more akin to Uniquely Wonderful.

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I've put all the book trailers, uploaded by harperteen to YouTube, for the Wondrous Strange series on one page HERE for readers' perusal.

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The following three videos (Lesley Livingston - On the Fly I, II and III), while not book trailers, offer a glimpse into Lesley Livingston's choices for her setting, characters and plot in the Wondrous Strange series.
Uploaded by on Jan 26, 2009 to YouTube

Uploaded by on Jan 26, 2009 to YouTube

Uploaded by on Jan 26, 2009 to YouTube

July 19, 2012

Piggy Bunny

by Rachel Vail
Illustrated by Jeremy Tankard
Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan Imprint)
Distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books
32 pp.
Ages 5-8

Liam is a well-loved piglet in a family of pigs who all know exactly what they are: pigs.  But, Liam aspires to be the Easter Bunny.  He practises hopping, eating salad and delivering Easter eggs, and he seems to be improving.

But, as much as his siblings and parents tell him that he's perfect and has all the attributes of a great pig, Liam can't see himself as anything but a springtime hare.  Luckily, his grandparents have the imagination and internet skills to help him manifest the Easter Bunny within.

Canadian illustrator Jeremy Tankard's characters are so distinct that, even when they are the basis for a picture book by an American author, Rachel Vail, and published in the U.S. (thankfully distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books), they define the book.

Children will recognize Piggy Bunny as a a close relation to the assorted animals in Grumpy Bird (Scholastic, 2007) and Boo Hoo Bird (Scholastic, 2009), such as Raccoon, Bird, and Beaver  displayed above.  Piggy Bunny comes from a patent line of strongly outlined creatures, heavily inked to delineate their simple forms, just as with Liam and the cat below.
The story is straightforward, the illustrations seemingly effortless, and the bold colours alluring in their use in the pages' designs.  The coupling of text that champions individuality with artwork that is itself unique will help little ones accept the concept of being oneself and enjoying the esteem that comes with it.

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On the CanLit for LittleCanadians Book Trailers, I've posted MacmillanChildrens upload to YouTube of Jeremy Tankard illustrating Piggy Bunny.  Check it out here.

July 17, 2012

Sean Cassidy, kidsCanLit author and illustrator

On the afternoon of June 19, 2012, I had the pleasure of visiting illustrator and author, Sean Cassidy, and his wife, Sylvia, at their lovely home north of Toronto, for discussions about the process by which illustrations become picture books.  Sean Cassidy, having illustrated a number of Blue Spruce nominees for the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading, attended an industry event during the Festival of Trees and generously offered to show me how the illustrating process works.

Sean Cassidy is an award-winning author and illustrator,  member of CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers) and the Writers' Union of Canada (WUC), and winner of the Ruth Schwartz Award, is best known for his illustrations, particularly his animals, in picture books such as:

Written and illustrated by Sean Cassidy
Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Hanna Bear's Christmas
Written by Monica Devine
Illustrated by Sean Cassidy
Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Wake Up, Henry Rooster!
Written by Margriet Ruurs
Illustrated by Sean Cassidy
Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Written and illustrated by Sean Cassidy
Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Good To Be Small
Written and illustrated by Sean Cassidy
Fitzhenry & Whiteside

The Chicken Cat
Written by Stephanie Simpson McLellan
Illustrated by Sean Cassidy
Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Depending on whether Sean writes the story as well as illustrating the book, the procedure of getting the book ready for publication will differ.  The process is far easier, Sean notes, when the illustrator is also the author, as he/she will generally know what images are needed from the onset.

Once he knows the basics of a story (perhaps even before the text is received), Sean will begin sketching.  He carries a sketch book with him everywhere, and, if possible, uses one sketchbook per picture book. Judging by their natural surroundings, it would not be unusual for Sean to sketch of particular tree and some rocks, or a bird at the feeder, or some running water, as images that could find their way into a book.  This page from Sean's sketchbook (above left) shows some of his initial drawings and thoughts about Russell and Spike in Kazaak!

If the illustrator is contracted to illustrate the text for a particular book, as Sean was for Wake Up, Henry Rooster! written by Margriet Ruurs, he will receive the text already edited and typed up, chunked into different pages (right).  Sean notes that if the illustrator has a good relationship with the publisher, he/she may be able to have some input into the pagination if it is felt that it might work better with a particular graphic.

The publisher and the book designer will decide on the size and shape of the book, as well as the number of pages.  The number of pages is determined by the printing and binding process, so often for picture books the page count will be 32 pages i.e., a multiple of 16.  This is because the book is printed onto large sheets of paper with 8 pages per side and, with both sides printed, there would be 16 pages from a single sheet (above right).  When the pages are printed and folded, these sections or bundles of 16 pages (called signatures) are easily visible at the spine side of the text block.

Having submitted any notes he makes about illustrations and discussed the illustrations that might accompany each page of text with the book designer (who decides the size and shape of the book, as well as its layout), the illustrator will go to work, matching the best illustration concept with the text on each page. Then the hard work comes in: the artwork.

Sitting down as a group, which could include the publisher, book designer, author and illustrator, they will decide which illustrations they like or recommend changing, and the book designer scans the images to produced a full-size rough with black-and white sketches and the paginated text. 

At this point, Sean will use a light box to copy his sketches onto drafting velum.  When approved, the velum illustrations are copied onto good quality watercolour paper.  Sean has devised a method of taping down the paper on a wooden board to prevent the paper from getting wrinkled, and losing detail in the printing process. 

Early in his career, Sean exclusively used coloured pencils.  However, knowing that the colours of pencils could lose their vibrancy and get a bloom (which can be polished up), Sean began using acrylic paints which tend to be more forgiving than pencil.  If he makes a mistake with acrylics, Sean will simply paint over it.  He has chosen not to use watercolour as Sean has noted that colours begin to wash out, almost look muddy, after three runs in the printer. After all that work, it would certainly be worthwhile to ensure the integrity of the illustrations.

In order to ensure accuracy of the colours between illustrations, Sean records all paints used to create a colour for a specific use, such as recorded for Bear in Kazaak!

With all the illustrations transferred to the good art paper and painted with acrylics, Sean will cover each with tissue paper, and send them off to the publisher for multiple scans (with four colour separation) to ensure that the scan colours match the artwork colours.

If approved, sixteen pages will be printed on a single page and outsourced for printing, cutting and assemblage.  Before the book goes into production, copies are sent to the publisher for a last chance to ensure the book looks as it should.

The first run, usually 2500 copies, will be completed in about 3 months, taking anywhere from 18 - 24 months to get through the whole process.  And then...


The book is done, ready to be promoted, launched and released.


I encourage readers to check out Sean Cassidy's website which provides full details of his books, and opportunities for school and library visits.  It's a fascinating look at a Canadian author/illustrator and a great opportunity for young readers to learn about the craft and process of illustrating.  It's highly recommended!

July 16, 2012

Island of Doom: The Hunchback Assignments IV

by Arthur Slade
264 pp.
Ages 12+
July 17, 2012

In a November 30, 2011 post, I briefly reviewed all three books in Arthur Slade's phenomenal The Hunchback Assignments series from HarperCollins, having read them before I had even started this blog.  One of the few steampunk series for younger readers by Canadian authors, The Hunchback Assignments has been honoured with a variety of regional, national and international nominations and awards, including the Saskatchewan Young Adult Book Award (2010), the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award (2010 and 2011), YALSA Best Books for Young Adults (2011), and France's Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire (2011).  And, now, with Arthur Slade's final volume in the series, set for release tomorrow, it behooves me to revisit the earlier books in the series before tempting you with its newest and final offering.

Modo, the hunchback of the title, is a deformed young man who as a babe was abandoned and travelled with a circus show before being rescued by the mysterious Mr. Socrates.  Learning of the boy's ability to transform his appearance, Mr. Socrates has Modo trained in the physical and intellectual arts to act as an agent for the Permanent Association and thwart the nefarious schemes of the Clockwork Guild.

In the first book, the Clockwork Guild, directed by the mysterious Guild Master, has the mechanical-armed Miss Hakkandottir recruiting Dr. Hyde to build a machine powered by the anger of children.  During his assignment, Modo meets another young agent of Mr. Socrates, Octavia (Tavia) Milkweed, in whom he becomes interested.

In the second book, The Dark Deeps, Modo and Tavia's investigation has them playing married and looking underwater for the activities of the Clockwork Guild.  A beautiful French agent, Colette Brunet, sent on a similar mission, cooperates with Modo, and the two develop a fondness for one another.

In Queensland, Australia, Modo, Tavia, Mr. Socrates and others head for The Empire of Ruins to attempt to discover the nature of the God Face, an ancient temple harbouring treasure and the power to drive people mad, before the Clockwork Guild gets its mechanical hands on it.

With each book, Modo has endeavoured to complete his assignments effectively but, as he matures, he begins to question his relationship with Mr. Socrates and others.  The adventure in The Empire of Ruins has left Modo with many questions, especially after he is relegated to virtual house arrest in their new safe house in Montreal, as punishment for ignoring Mr. Socrates' orders to deliver the native people (who had accepted Modo's facial deformities as beautiful) to their battle deaths.  Moreover, while Tavia is tutored and trained daily, Modo considers Tavia's reaction to him when he showed her his true face.  While Tavia did not look away (as Colette Brunet had in The Dark Deeps), it had been difficult for her to meet his eyes, especially as he knows she is looking for a handsome prince.

Thinking about his relationships with Mr. Socrates and Tavia has Modo eager to pursue a missive from Colette Brunet indicating that she has found his French parents who are in danger.  Colette has discovered that members of the Clockwork Guild, specifically Lime, a thin, metal-toothed character, and Typhon, an obedient monster of a man with greenish-hued skin and numerous stitches, have been looking into Modo's heritage as well; in fact, Lime and Typhon kidnap Modo's mother and remove her by Miss Hakkandottir's airship to a secluded island.

Mr. Socrates calls Modo and Tavia back to Montreal and they all travel westward by train to a top-secret facility located within a naval base at Esquimalt.  Here Mr. Socrates unveils to them the 7th Dragoons Regiment of overgrown boys (saved from Dr. Hyde's machine of angry children) on steam-powered legs, with armoured bodies, and standing twelve feet tall! And, once Mr. Socrates' agent Footman learns the location of the Guild's island and Dr. Hyde's work is in resurrecting the dead and recreating them into indestructible monsters, like Typhon, they're on their way to save Modo's mother and stop the Clockwork Guild once more.

Though Arthur Slade expects readers to say good-bye to Modo in this last of The Hunchback Assignments books, he hasn't taken the easy way out with a finale in which all loose ends are tied up, all mysteries solved.  If you're expecting stars and balloons and pats on Modo's hunchback for a job well-done, you will be disappointed.  However, if you expect nothing less than another tension-filled adventure, with mechanical and surreal inventions, evil-minded characters, and some soul-searching by Modo and Tavia, then you will completely enthralled with Island of Doom.

As in our world, there's always some evil bent on abusing the vulnerable and keeping good people from their just rewards.  In Island of Doom, the evil is embedded in Arthur Slade's fantastic characters for whom he has crafted such defining natures: the heinous Lime and Miss Hakkandottir whose metallic body parts illuminate their heartless natures;  Dr. Hyde, the brilliant scientist who creates violence from metal and death; and the Guild Master, whose bespectacled unimpressive morph hides his destructive nature and drive for power above all else.  And yet, those characters with whom readers continue to empathize, specifically Modo and Tavia, with their bleak beginnings, always questioning their motives and abilities, will enjoy the opportunities to continue to become even better versions of themselves.  In a steampunk world, Arthur Slade has created the recognizable within the unimaginable, a fantastic feat in itself.   That said, I am ever naively hopeful that, with the ending that Arthur Slade has constructed here, we may revisit Modo, perhaps far beyond the deeps, ruins and doom of his life's mission thus far.

Eden Mills Writers' Festival, Ontario: September 16, 2012

 Summer and early fall are great times to visit writers' festivals, literary events and celebrations of books.  In the community in which I live, the hamlet of Eden Mills in Ontario, the annual writers' festival has already slated its 2012 authors, entertainment and special events, including the advance launch of CBC's Jian Ghomeshi's memoir, 1982 on September 15.

As always, an impressive selection of Canadian authors have been invited to present at the Writers' Festival, including the following children's and YA authors (with reminders about some of their books):

Children’s Authors

Helaine Becker

Jill Bryant
Lizann Flatt

Susan Glickman
Susan Hughes

Monica Kulling

Ted Staunton

Young Adult Authors

Karen Bass

Pat Bourke

Evan Munday

Allan Stratton

Mariko Tamaki
Teresa Toten

Janet Wilson
Julie Wilson

Details about this year's festival (including admission, schedule, contests, etc.) can be found at the Eden Mills Writers' Festival website.

July 10, 2012


by Norah McClintock
Orca Book Publishers
223 pp.
Ages 12-15

Reviewed from ebook

There's usually no single truth because every story varies with the perspective.  So too with crimes.  And in Norah McClintock's Guilty, two young people, Finn and Lila, see two crimes from two different perspectives.  The first crime, ten years earlier, had Lila's father, Louis Ouimette, accepting a guilty plea for the murder of Finn's mother.  Now, only three days after Louis Ouimette's release from prison, Finn's step-mom Tracie is shot, and Finn's dad shoots Louis in self-defense.

While Lila tries to deal with the loss of her father and the logistics of being alone and returning to live with her aunt in Boston, she tries to reconcile her confusion about the events that took her father's life.  Her dad had always told her that he hadn't killed Mrs. Newsome but the stolen goods had been found in his apartment, so he took a plea to get out of prison faster to be with his daughter.  But what was he doing at the Newsome's when he'd vowed to be turning everything around for her?

Meanwhile, Finn is helping his father cope with the loss of his second wife (even if Finn couldn't stand her): going to the police station, helping with funeral arrangements, tiding up Tracie's wardrobe.  But Finn can't help but be reminded of his mother's murder.  He'd only been seven but finding her body when he and his dad had returned from an evening out at his dad's club had been traumatic.

When Lila goes to the police station to enlist the help of Detective Sanders, she meets Finn who shares with her his rage at the man who killed his mother and how his dad had killed that man, unaware that he is speaking about Lila's father.  That meeting is but the first that bring Lila and Finn together as she pursues information from the police files, from a prison tutor and from old work mates at Mr. Newsome's club, as well as discretely from Finn, who begins to reconsider what he knows about both crimes. 

Guilty is a perfect example of why Norah McClintock is the queen of Canadian YA crime fiction, having won the Arthur Ellis Award for crime fiction at least five times.  In Guilty, the reader knows that there are major gaps in the police reports about the crimes from the onset, with Finn claiming to be a witness when the reader can tell the limits of his observations.  And with Lila delving into the details of both crimes, using only the resources most people could access (e.g., internet, library, newspapers, interviews, etc.), her pursuit is reasonable albeit determined.  She is not just looking for the answer to, "Who-dun-it?" but also to "Why?" and "How?," making the mystery far more complicated to unravel.  Guilty is great plot-driven crime novel that doesn't sacrifice its fine characters for want of a better story.  With both Finn and Lila coming at the crimes from different perspectives, converging at a dramatic life-threatening climax, Norah McClintock keeps the story fast-paced and intriguing, hopeful for justice (the coveted aim for most readers of crime fiction) and even peace of mind through resolution.

July 08, 2012

Before We Go

by Amy Bright
Red Deer Press
222 pp.
Ages 12+

Before We Go anywhere, we usually make preparations, whether we're going on vacation, to school, to work, to face a challenge or to our deaths. Some preparations are judicious (e.g., making a will, packing a suitcase) while others may be frivolous (e.g., getting a pedicure).  Many are logistical such as booking airplane tickets or purchasing a backpack.  The emotional, heartfelt preparations are perhaps the most difficult to effect Before We Go.

While her elderly grandmother lays dying at Victoria General Hospital, Emily Henderson, 17, does not want to leave her side.  But, when visiting hours end on that New Year's Eve, Emily is especially reluctant to go home to the house she has shared with her grandparents since she was a baby, anticipating the loneliness of having no one:  she has no father, her grandfather is dead, her grandmother dying, and her mother seemingly too busy with her life in Vancouver as a journalist.  It's not surprising that Emily, uncharacteristically for her, accepts an offer from Alex, a young man she meets in the hospital elevator, to join him and his teen sister, Lucy, for the evening.

The three young people become fast friends, driving around and eating junk food, going to a carnival, popping into Emily's house, and finally going to a party.  While they ignore texts and calls from Lucy and Alex's parents and from Emily's mother,  they talk and share.  Emily talks about her mother and her grandparents and being alone, and Alex and Lucy, amazingly close for siblings, chat about their taxidermist father, their mom, and their own relationship.  The revelation that Alex has cancer explains his presence at the hospital and his parents' desperation for his return there but he has a plan that he has devised with Lucy's help and Alex is determined to deliver on it, regardless...

Any book that has dying and death as its fulcrum could become a tough read but Amy Bright keeps the grief at bay with her believable teen characters whose hope, without exuberance, buoys them.  Emily, Alex and Lucy are all looking ahead and finding their fears and responding to those fears, even if frequently questioning their responses.  Emily worries about life without any family.  Alex worries about Lucy after he's gone.  Lucy worries about Alex and what little time he has left.  The plot could seem as contrived as Alex's plan, but Amy Bright brings the three characters together in such a natural way that every event seems to take place fortuitously (not coincidentally), appropriate for the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one.  

Though I had expected a cliché ending (perhaps finding a genetic match for bone marrow transplant), I was relieved by its absence, though also disappointed.  The disappointment was not in Amy Bright's writing or Before We Go's plot: it was a personal need for a happy ending with all loose ends tied in appropriate bows (even if not the colourful, flashy decoration on gifts).  Still, reminded of Robert Burns' poetic assertion that,
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
From To a Mouse on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough (Robert Burns, 1785)
Alex's plan does not end in nothing but grief and pain.   Joy may not be the outcome but with acceptance (as suggested in the hospital's proffered literature on grief) comes comfort and sometimes that's the best that can be expected.

July 06, 2012

Cape Town

by Brenda Hammond
Great Plains Teen Fiction
326 pp.
Ages 14+

In 1989, Cape Town, South Africa is a place of life-changing dreams.  For Renee Pretorius, just 17, this big city, so different from her home on a sheep farm, holds the dream of becoming a ballerina with her attendance at the ballet school of the University of Cape Town (UCT).  But, for many of the millions of residents of Cape Town, their dream is for an end to apartheid, the laws enacted by the National Party (of the minority, Dutch-descendant Afrikaners) fifty years earlier, which had racially segregated the Blacks and Coloureds (a term for the mixed race of African, English and Malaysian) from the Whites. 

To keep her safe from the "dangerous left-wing students with their Marxist ideas" (pg. 12), Renee's family has found her residency at the Huis Marta hostel for Afrikaans meisies, White girls of Afrikaner heritage.  But, even ensconced at Huis Marta, Renee makes the acquaintance of several young people whose lives and backgrounds expose her to different perspectives of life in Cape Town.

A fellow hosteller Nicolette (Nic) Dupreez, a medical student, may be Afrikaner but she does not follow the strict expectations of Afrikaans meisies, regularly breaking rules at the hostel and enjoying a more contemporary lifestyle of jeans, dating and non-White interactions.  Whenever Renee is unfamiliar with the nuances of life in Cape Town, she often finds Nic to be a valuable, albeit less inhibited, resource and caring ally.

Dion October, a second year dance student and Coloured, is one of the first students at UCT to make Renee feel welcome, although her strict upbringing and fears of the Immorality Act cause her some trepidation about interacting with him and his family.  Though Dion and his family continue to suffer the consequences of apartheid (e.g., relocation, violence, restrictions), Dion is essentially apolitical, providing Renee with the perspective of the oppressed majority but without pressing her to abandon her family's politics.

However, it is Andy Miller, a fifth year architecture student at UCT, who has the greatest impact on Renee.  After Andy helps Renee with some research at the library where he works, and she recalls seeing him at a protest in the streets, their paths continue to cross.  When they begin dating, fiercely attracted to each other, Renee begins to wonder whether their differences are insurmountable, as Andy is English (and there is much animosity between the English and the Afrikaners), actively political in the anti-apartheid movement, and critical of the injustices perpetrated by the Afrikaner National Party.

As Andy and Renee's relationship becomes more serious and intimate, Renee finds herself questioning her family's politics and her Calvinist upbringing, deceiving her brother Etienne who works with military intelligence, and becoming both stronger and more vulnerable with her new-found freedom and knowledge.  Andy's mother, a member of the Black Sash (a white women's resistance group) astutely recognizes that, "Freedom always comes at the price of sacrifice." (pg. 289)

While Brenda Hammond leads the reader through the escalating strife marking the end of apartheid, Cape Town's narrative is never heavy-handed or brutally-worded.  It's a reality that is incidental for some and pivotal for others, and occasionally dragged from the periphery to the forefront, as happens for Renee.  But this metamorphosis is so gradual and hesitant here (with the occasional regression) that Renee becomes the embodiment of an eye-opening, guided from blindness to sight.  By tying that eye-opening with Renee's and Andy's powerful love, Cape Town persuasively takes a monumental issue and packages it in a story of undeniable passion.

July 05, 2012

#CanLitChoices: "The Castle in the Attic" alternatives

The Castle in the Attic
by Elizabeth Winthrop
192 pp.
Ages 9-12
RL 5.9

The Castle in the Attic, winner of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award and the California Young Readers Medal, is a favourite novel used as a novel study relating to medieval times (Middle Ages) in the junior grades, usually Grades 4-6.  Written at a reading level of 5.9, The Castle in the Attic is a book of fantasy, in which young William uses a magic token to shrink his beloved housekeeper, Mrs. Phillips, to inhabit the wooden castle she herself has gifted him.  In order to undo this selfish deed, William also shrinks down and goes on a quest to battle evil.

Topics upon which teachers might focus lessons include the following:
  • courage
  • friendship
  • occupations in the Middle Ages
  • structures in the Middle Ages
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The following youngCanLit focuses on stories of the Middle Ages and would serve beautifully as updated and alternative novels to The Castle in the Attic.  Specifically, these youngCanLit selections cover the topics listed above for The Castle in the Attic and are appropriate for the grades at which medieval times are often studied in Canadian classrooms.

A Company of Fools
by Deborah Ellis
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
191 pp.
Ages 9-14
In 1336, at the Abbey of St. Luc, Henri, a studious choir boy, and Micah, a rebellious choir student, join forces to become the Company of Fools, a group that aims to cheer the people dealing with the deaths from the Black Plague.

An extensive Teacher Guide is available for download at the Fitzhenry & Whiteside website.

Crusades: Kids @ The Crossroads
by Laura Scandiffio
Illustrated by Tina Holdcroft
Annick Press
72 pp.
Ages 9-11
Follow the blog posts of a child from 1212 recreating the adventures, lifestyle and context from the time of the Crusades.

A Teacher Guide is available for free download at Ingram Library.

Garth and the Mermaid
by Barbara Claasen Smucker
135 pp.
Ages 8-12
When young Garth is hit by a car while trying to keep a classmate from injury, he awakens from unconsciousness as a young peasant on a medieval estate in East Anglia, familiar to him from the Middle Ages he was studying in school.

Jayden's Rescue
by Vladimir Tumanov
Scholastic Canada
123 pp.
Ages 8-12
The evil sorcerer-king is holding Queen Jayden captive in his castle and only Sam and Alex can save her.  This is the plot of the book that Alex is reading but he begins to understand that Jayden is real and actually does need his help. A series of math problems help propel the story, all in aid of Jayden's Rescue.

A few years ago, I collected all the math problems and solutions in Jayden's Rescue, adding some basic details about the plot, in a guide I've posted here at scrbd.

The Mystery of the Medieval Coin
by A. D. Fast
157 pp.
Ages 8-11

To Save a King (sequel to The Mystery of the Medieval Coin)
by A.D. Fast
157 pp.
Ages 8-11

Perplexed by the strange behaviour of their history teacher, Mr. LeClair, Lucas, Marvin, and Nicole follow him to an ancient cave and time-travel back to France in the Middle Ages.  With the medieval coin from The Mystery of the Medieval Coin, the three children return to 1450 France in To Save a King, again to outwit their teacher, but this time to save King Charles VII.

On a Medieval Day: Story Voyages around the World
by Rona Arato
Illustrated by Peter Ferguson
Maple Tree Press
96 pp.
Ages 10-12
Rona Arato does a superb job of recreating the Medieval Times through a series of fictitious accounts by young people who lived in Europe, Africa, the Far East and Vinland during these times.  Additional information supports each story.
A Teachers Guide is available through Owlkids Books here.

Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger
by Kevin Bolger
215 pp.
Ages 9+

After prankster Prince Harry convinces an aging knight, Sir Fartsalot, the lover of all turnip dishes, that the dreaded Booger is threatening the kingdom, his father sends him to accompany the knight on a quest for the Booger.  With a story rife with puns, humour and rich language, Prince Harry learns much about gallantry, chivalry and heroism.

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