January 31, 2015

One Hungry Heron

by Carolyn Beck
Illustrated by Karen Patkau
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
32 pp.
Ages 3+
October 2014

If you're fortunate to have a cottage near water or access to a marshy area or pond, One Hungry Heron should accompany you and your littlest ones on your next trek there in off-winter seasons.  Carolyn Beck's newest book, expertly illustrated by Karen Patkau who excels at capturing the natural world in digitally-created collages, helps guide the eyes of children who are learning their numbers to see the heron, catfish, dragonflies, beavers, water walkers, snakes, frogs, snails, ducks and turtles and their interactions across the pond.

Carolyn Beck uses rhyming text to count each animal, from the solitary heron amongst the cattails to the ten tiny turtles on a log, as well as using evocative descriptors and action words to lend texture to each animal's double-spread.
Nine paddly ducks
dabble in the reeds.
They flap and quack
and snack on weeds.
(pg. 20)
Although One Hungry Heron is a counting book, for numbers 1 through 10, there's a complete turnaround when the rain comes, and zero is introduced, with the assortment of animals amalgamated in a final image.

Coupled with the distinct textures and subtle colours within the vegetation, water and substrates of Karen Patkau's collages, One Hungry Heron is a fluid visual and auditory composition linking outdoor scenes familiar to many Canadians with basic counting by one's, forwards and back. 

January 29, 2015

Caravaggio: Signed in Blood

Written by Mark David Smith
Tradewind Books
152 pp.
Ages 11-15

Before seeing the cover, the title Caravaggio Signed in Blood caused me great trepidation, as I anticipated a gory historical novel filled with violence and conflict.  But, though it has some violence and conflict, Caravaggio Signed in Blood is much more. Essentially a fictionalized account of the events which led to the 17th century artist's removal from Rome and the circumstances by which he signs but one canvas amongst his rich collection of artwork, Caravaggio Signed in Blood embeds a story of injustice within the context of Italy's social structure during the first half of the 1600s.

Surprisingly, Caravaggio is not even the main character of the book.  Beppo, a fifteen-year-old boy indentured to the merchant Constantino Sparta, is the book's central character.  Beppo knows Constantino is a bit of a crook, reselling refurbished wine barrels, as well as smuggling illegal editions of popular books, even stealing some himself.  When the powerful Tomassoni brothers, Ranuccio and Giovan, learn of this scheming, they demand Constantino give them a percentage. But Constantino refuses and is murdered by Ranuccio, leaving Beppo accused of the murder.  And then, when Ranuccio threatens Caravaggio who insults him, the artist and expert swordsman defends himself and accidentally kills the arrogant Tomassoni.  Now, Beppo and Caravaggio are on the run together.

With Beppo insisting on serving Caravaggio, the two attempt to evade the vengeful Giovan Tomassoni, moving from Roma to safer locations, and hopeful of Caravaggio continuing to follow his artistic vocation.  Add a love interest, sword-fighting lessons, knights, squires and some Barbary pirates, and the plot conclusion of Caravaggio Signed in Blood is hardly predictable.

Though Tradewind Books is not often on my radar, it should be, having published numerous youngCanLit authors and illustrators whose work I respect, including Beverley Brenna, Sheree Fitch, Kari-Lynn Winters, Rachna Gilmore, Alyxandra Harvey, and James Heneghan, to name just a few.  So I'm pleased that author Mark David Smith reached out for my feedback on Caravaggio Signed in Blood.  There are few books of historical fiction pre-18th century, with most focused on the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, and fewer yet that can capture the appropriate mood and comportment respectably.  Caravaggio Signed in Blood provides a convincing story about a specific period of Caravaggio's life but enhances that tale by incorporating the swashbuckling and romantic adventure of an indentured teen boy.  Though not a long read, Caravaggio Signed in Blood will definitely grab readers and carry them along on the run with the two passionate Italians as they navigate the treacherous power hierarchy of the time.

January 27, 2015

Modo: Ember's End

by Arthur Slade
Illustrated by Christopher Steininger
88 pp.
Ages 12+

If you ever get to be part of an indiegogo or kickstarter campaign that aims to publish a book by authors or illustrators with whom you are familiar, do it.  It's a worthwhile endeavour that allows you to become part of an inner circle of benefactors, and provides you with great perks! OK, don't do it just for the perks; do it because it's a good thing to do (though the perks are great too!)

I was fortunate to get on board with Arthur Slade's graphic novel project that reintroduces characters from his ever-popular The Hunchback Assignments series:
Modo, the titular hunchback who can transform his deformed face at will, and his companion Octavia (Tavia) Milkweed are British agents who worked under Mr. Socrates to bring the Clockwork Guild to justice.  Last seen in 1874, the two have reappeared in 1885 Nevada, inquiring about jobs in the wild west town of Ember's End. Fortuitously (or maybe not) the town needs two deputies and Modo and Tavia accept, though their relentless squabbling suggests their different styles may clash.  This is especially evident after they are attacked by a ninja-like swordsman who demands they leave town and the "magnificent device" for him to possess, and they meet Miss Annette Ember, the daughter of the town's founder, inventor Ebenezer Ember.

Tucked away in her monstrous mansion, Miss Ember has had a deck of cards and a key stolen from her, with only a ninja star (shuriken) left behind, thus linking the theft to the swordsman Modo and Tavia encountered earlier.  In a dust storm of attacks by outlaws Ogden Bull, ninja Katashi and grass-chewing hick Slayne, Modo and Tavia must fulfill their deputy duties, help Miss Ember, and solve the mystery of the "magnificent device", while endearingly bickering with one another. 
[Tavia:] Now that's a rather curious name for a pub.
[Modo:] Yes. Very Curious. Philósophos is Greek for 'Lover of Wisdom.' You may feel out of place inside.
[Tavia:] Hmmph. Always showing off your fancy education.  How predictably boring. (pg. 6)
By embedding Modo and Tavia's adventure in graphica, Arthur Slade has opened up new opportunities to showcase the two at their best, and not so best, allowing the reader to see more into the characters and their relationship than always evident in text alone.  While this can be a positive aspect of the graphic novel format (all the more positive for Christopher Steininger's sharply detailed images), it can also restrict the text from delving deeper into their relationship, so magnificently embedded in affection and respect.  The addition of detailed illustrations often necessitates shorter and simpler text to prevent it from saying more than can be depicted graphically.  Perhaps it is because I was a fan of Modo and Tavia before they became graphic elements that I prefer the richer text of The Hunchback Assignments' novels.  But I know many readers who don't know the two steampunk agents and will only latch onto the series after reading Modo: Ember's End.  This book accommodates those readers' need for illustrations to support the text, even to help comprehension, with a more linear plot and minimal subplotting.

Modo: Ember's End has given The Hunchback Assignments a final (?) "Yippee!" by sharing Arthur Slade and Christopher Steininger's vision of two much-loved characters and providing another action-packed steampunk mystery that has them thwarting, with much aplomb, New World villains. Yeehaw!

January 25, 2015

The Case of the Missing Moonstone: The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, No. 1

by Jordan Stratford
Art by Kelly Murphy
Alfred A. Knopf
216 pp.
Ages 9-13
January, 2015

Devastated with the loss, to marriage, of the only governess she has ever known, eleven-year-old Ada Byron finds comfort in numbers and the wicker basket of her hot air balloon tethered to the house in Marylebone Road, London.  Except for the silent butler, Mr. Franklin, and two house maids, Ada is virtually alone.  Her father, Lord Byron, was killed years earlier and her mother, Baroness Wentworth, bitter with her husband's infidelity and life choices, is often absent.  But all changes for Ada when her new tutor, Mr. Percy Snagsby, and fellow student, Mary Godwin, 14, arrive.

While Ada is disinclined to accept her new educational situation, calling Mr. Snagsby "Peebs" and imaging a cannon from which to shoot him, Mary is very appreciative of it, thrilled with being tutored alongside the titled and wealthier Ada at her much grander home.  With time and the benefit of Mary's compassion and social competencies, the two girls become friends, complementing each other beautifully.  In fact, reading about criminals in the newspaper, the two decide to become a secret constabulary, the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency.  Still trying to work within the social confines experienced by women at the time, the girls take on the case of Miss Rebecca Verdigris, whose maid falsely confesses to stealing her Acorn of Ankara pendant, a birthday gift from Rebecca's late uncle. With Ada's quirky brain and logic and Mary's benevolence and civility, the partners attempt to exonerate the maid, Rosie Sparrow.

Although based on historical figures, Ada and Mary are truly unique young ladies, befitting those of different social standings and family situations.  Ada has learned to be self-reliant, appreciative of her books and numbers i.e., that upon which she can depend. Mary, more mature and attentive to those around her, is fully aware of society's expectations and allowances, and acts as the voice of reason in their friendship and the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency.  Take this sample dialogue between the two girls.
"Because," Mary said guiltily, "sometimes you need to be careful about what you say and when you say it."
"That's silly.  There are just things to know, and people should know them and that's that."
(pg. 127)
Luckily, Jordan Stratford plays up their differences, similarly depicted in Kelly Murphy's quaint drawings, and demonstrates the innate humour of their attitudes.
"How are we to find Rosie in here?"
Ada pointed to the right. "This way."
"How do you know?" asked Mary.
"I don't.  I'm just guessing. But if I'm wrong, the other way will still be there."
(pg. 111)
Though Jordan Stratford takes some liberties with historical timelines–making Ada eleven and Mary fourteen years of age–he stays true to the essence of the two girls and their interests and personalities.  Ada who will become better known as Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), mathematician, writer and essentially the world's first computer programmer, is the beautiful mind of The Case of the Missing Moonstone.  Mary Godwin, daughter of writer Mary Wollstonecraft, will marry poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818).  Similarly, Jordan Stratford uses the known friendship between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, as well as Ada Lovelace's relationship with Charles Babbage, for additional historically-accurate subplotting.

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency is a welcome series for middle-grade readers, providing an offbeat historical perspective to solving mystery.  I look forward to further cases, including The Case of the Girl in Gray, No. 2 in the series, scheduled for release August, 2015.

January 22, 2015


by Lisa Harrington
Dancing Cat Books
240 pp.
Ages 13+
September 2014

On the day Lyssa Thomson, 18, buries her mother, she's on a bus, leaving her drunken, step-father Vince–who used to lock her in her room–in River John and heading to Halifax to move in with her boyfriend, Kyle, hopeful of starting at Dalhousie in the new year.  Finding Kyle with another girl, Lyssa wanders in the rain until she finds some shelter at a coffee shop where an employee, university student Liam Stewart, helps her contact Vince's son–Lyssa's step-brother–Aidan with whom she'd always been close before he left without telling her two years earlier.

Though still hurt about Aidan's departure, Lyssa accepts his offer to stay at his house, which is near campus and the coffee shop where she gets a part-time job.  Aidan is still not forthcoming about anything though she learns through his girlfriend, Marla, that he manages a bar and they'd met in a psych ward when Marla had attempted suicide. Not knowing that Marla and Lyssa had already met, Aidan continues to tell his step-sister half-truths about Vince accusing him of trying to kill him and having him sent to Halifax for a psych evaluation.  

But, Lyssa is starting to see discrepancies in what Aidan says and does, and turns to Liam for some advice and perspective.  Liam, a pre-med student, does all he can to help Lyssa out, though his own relationship with his girlfriend, Lynnie, is becoming complicated.  Everything must seem complicated to Lyssa: her much-adored step-brother is thinking about returning home and wants her to go too; the boy she's crushing on seems into her but still has a girlfriend; Kyle is coming around asking for a second chance; and Vince is looking to track Lyssa down. But Lyssa has a good head on her shoulders and, with her helpfulness and work ethic, she establishes a good support system at work, something she's going to need if she is to endure (survive?) some harrowing situations.

Mental illness can be debilitating but imagine if you are teen who has never been privy to discussions about a family member's illness.  While being unaware of triggers or symptoms, you may also feel that others are being unfair to that family member when labeling him as insane or crazy or irrational. Lyssa shows incredible fortitude in the face of extraordinary circumstances like her mother's death and boyfriend's unfaithfulness.  But, with Aidan being the only one she still considers family, she is reluctant to castigate him for his reactions, until she accepts that his thinking is twisting his perceptions, the truth and their lives.  Lisa Harrington brings the issue of mental illness out of the closet and into the danger zone, where secretive discussions and ignorance are preventing effective treatment and establishment of a supportive family.  By not speaking about it, everything goes from bad to worse.  And Lisa Harrington's writing is oppressive with the tension of Lyssa's tenuous relationship with Aidan. If Twisted is anything beyond a young adult story of finding love and support under difficult circumstances, it's a cautionary tale of the dangers of refusing to talk about mental illness and shaming those dealing with it.

January 19, 2015

Gertrude at the Beach

by Starr Dobson
Art by Dayle Dodwell
Nimbus Publishing
32 pp.
Ages 4+
October, 2014

When Gertrude Allawishes, the goat, joined young Starr's family in My Goat Gertrude (Nimbus, 2011), she began an illustrious career of chaotic entertainment for the family and also for young readers.  Now Gertrude returns for a second literary adventure in Gertrude at the Beach, with Starr Dobson, the author and the little girl whose family adopted Gertrude, sharing Gertrude's exploits when the family goes to their summer cottage.

With Gertrude's exuberance, it's no wonder that Mom is apprehensive about having the goat roaming freely around their cottage by the water.  While Chips, the dog, is called trusty, Gertrude is deemed mischievous, and Starr and her two sisters are expected to keep track of Gertrude's activities.  Both animals love to race around, though Chips sticks to playing fetch while the goat gets stuck under an old rowboat and chews up a dried jellyfish.  But when Gertrude goes missing and is found swimming farther and farther out towards a boat and needs to be rescued, the family realizes that Gertrude isn't just getting into trouble.  She's trying to tell them something.

Having never lived with a goat, I can't imagine the turmoil a goat can cause.  Sounds like Gertrude ate just about anything and put herself in some compromising circumstances. But, as Starr Dobson demonstrates in Gertrude at the Beach, Gertrude's shenanigans are not always selfish pursuits, though they are often interpreted as such.  Her haedine heart is as full as her joie de vivre but the tone of the story does not capture the affection the family must have for her.  On the other hand, while Dayle Dodwell's illustrations have the feel of traditional picture book realism, her use of colour and perspective do much to warm the story to the summer days of the past when playing in the sand with family, human and pets, was relaxed and carefree.  Surprises, whether through discovery or calamity, were few but only helped to accentuate the freedom and ease of the season. Gertrude at the Beach reflects a singular calamity on one summer day that ends on a happy note, though I wish the depth of Gertrude's positive impact on the family, whether through words or actions, might have been characterized better.

January 17, 2015

The Almost Truth

by Eileen Cook
Simon Pulse
248 pp.
Ages 14+

Sadie has big plans.  Now that she's finished high school, she's determined to leave her trailer park life on Bowton Island and head to Berkley to study architecture.  Although she's most upset about leaving her best friend, the very hot Brendan, she's been saving her money–often from small cons she pulls, as learned from her father who is currently in jail–and finally has enough.  That is, until her mother, a hotel maid who is always pinching pennies, guiltlessly tells Sadie that she took it for Dad's lawyer.  (Nice parents, eh?)

A poster of a three-year-old child, Ava McKenna, who went missing 15 years earlier gives Sadie an idea for a con that would help her get the money she needs for school.  The wealthy McKenna family who is offering $250,000 for information about Ava's disappearance from the island is slated to attend a big fundraising event for their McKenna's Children's Foundation and Sadie, with Brendan's help and information she gleans from hotel staff, devises a way to get close to the family.

While working to insinuate herself close to Chase Parker, the young man in charge of organizing the charity event, Sadie finds herself at a crossroads with Brendan and navigating her own family obstacles, including her mother who has difficulties with the truth.
For years I thought I was going crazy, since I didn't remember all these things, but then I realized she just made them up.  Cut out any parts of her life she didn't like and squished in a new and better memory to fill the gap. (pg. 59)
The mystery of what happened to little Ava becomes wrapped up in Sadie's desire to know herself better, though she's running from Brendan and can't trust her parents to think about anyone but themselves.

Though the reader might be chagrined by some too-obvious coincidences, the story of Ava McKenna's disappearance is a true mystery that is not solved until the very end, so don't be so sure that you've got the whole truth at any time before then.  Often the truth is tailored for those receiving it and can be interpreted far too many ways.  The Almost Truth makes it clear that sometimes the truth is hidden by a strong desire to make that truth a reality, rather than as a result of omission or outright lies.  But when untruths are piled upon untruths by different parties, it is vey difficult to discern the truth under the burden of imagined realities.  

Having previously reviewed Eileen Cook's Unraveling Isobel (Simon Pulse, 2012), I knew I could expect a well-crafted plot that involved some mystery, romance and teen angst, but I was impressed by the depth of the plotting in The Almost Truth.  While I wondered why Sadie could not see how much Brendan cared for her–I suspect that this is not unusual among teens–and I was convinced that the solution to Ava's disappearance was obvious, I soon realized that there was much more to the story.  And that's because Eileen Cook has established characters who choose to see circumstances that work best with their own interpretations and that become their reality.  They're not living lies, at least they don't all know they are, but they're working with the reality they see.  It can be confusing and sometimes you want to shake one of them and yell, "Don't you see it?" but it wouldn't do any good.  The Almost Truth demonstrates that sometimes the almost truth is the only truth there is, until one person pulls out a single truth that allows the burden of imagined realities to collapse.

January 16, 2015

Winter's Coming: A Story of Seasonal Change

by Jan Thornhill
Illustrated by Josée Bisaillon
32 pp.
Ages 5-8
October, 2014

Sure, reviewing a book called Winter's Coming before winter would have been more logical–hence Owlkids' October release for the book–but isn't it just as great to read a book about the changes that come with winter while in the throes of that season's cold and snow?  (Apparently I thought so.)

Lily, a young snowshoe hare, is surprised by the changes she sees in her surroundings, which she'd always enjoyed as green.  Now there are colour changes in the trees and massive flocks of birds heading south because Winter's coming.  If they have to escape, she wonders whether she should be evading this danger as well.  Luckily the squirrel who is preparing a cache of food tells her she won't need to do the same, and Lily is relieved to know that, "Whatever Winter was, at least it wasn't interested in her food." (pg. 9) Also inquiring of the chickadee, mosquito, tree frog, caterpillar, snapping turtle and black bear, Lily still finds Winter a mysterious entity.  
Would it be as tall as the trees and have humongous, smelly feet?  Or would it be stretched out like a weasel, with a hundred pointed teeth?  Would it have a bald head like a turkey vulture?  Or would it have hair so long that it swished along the ground?  Would it make noise like thunder? Or would it fly on silent wings like an owl?  Lily had no idea, but she was convinced that Winter would be big and powerful. (pg. 20)
It's not until she watches Winter arrive and the black bear points out Lily's own change for winter that Lily understands what all the animals have being sharing with her.

Winter's Coming is as charming a book as it is educational, explaining animal adaptations to the coming of our coldest season as seen by a young snowshoe hare who doesn't know what to expect having never experienced winter.  Lily is inquisitive, but never precocious (thank you, Jan Thornhill!), always taking in what she sees and hears and tries to make connections with what she knows already.  She's on guard for potential threats, as a wise hare will be, but insightful and thinking beyond Winter as a predator.  Her thinking is probably similar to that of a child for whom a new concept, whether it be math or behavioural or whatever, is just out of reach of understanding.

Complemented by Josée Bisaillon's collage illustrations that emulate the bits and pieces of the natural world as it changes in response to the coming season, Jan Thornhill's newest nature book (she has an astounding repertoire of award-winning non-fiction) will be enjoyed just as easily as a story as much as an information book.  Winter's Coming will be an worthy addition to any library, personal, school or public.

January 13, 2015

The Gospel Truth

by Caroline Pignat
Red Deer Press
328 pp.
Ages 12+
October, 2014

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
                             ~Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson would not have written this poem yet but her words would still ring true for an enslaved young woman named Phoebe on a Virginian tobacco plantation in 1858. Phoebe is attuned to listen to the birds for their messages of hope and freedom, while keeping her own song quiet, having stopped speaking since her mother Ruthie was sold by Master Arnold Duncan ten years earlier.  And though she doesn't speak, Phoebe is chosen to accompany Doctor Ross Bergman, a guest at the plantation, and Miss Tessa, the marriageable daughter of Master Duncan, when he visits the plantation from Canada to study the birds of Virginia.

Taken under the wing of Bea, the housekeeper, and given to Miss Tessa as her personal maid, Phoebe understands well enough what is expected of her but also what she needs to do for herself, including learning to read so that she may find her Momma.
Cause a slave can't have words.
Or hope. 
But I do. 
I got both,
buried deep in the hollow part of me. (pg. 36)
However, not everyone feels as Phoebe does, including Shad, the young slave who has feelings for her. Though the younger brother of a powerful slave who has runaway three times, Shad is still convinced the best recourse is obedience to Master Duncan, and it is this attitude that threatens everything for Phoebe.

Told in free verse and in six voices (Phoebe, Master, Miss Tessa, Doctor Bergman, Bea, and Shad), The Gospel Truth tells more than just of the life of slaves on a tobacco plantation in the mid-19th century.  It speaks of a change coming, of those who see it and those who don't, and those who risked so much to be part of that change–love, security, family, life–sometimes even without choice.  Every voice that speaks from Caroline Pignat's pen is clear and resounds with every word spoken or not.  

The power of Caroline Pignat's words would compel me to cite so much of her text. She has the gift for novel in verse, not simply writing prose in verse form.  Just as a good novelist doesn't tell everything, allowing the reader to interpret, surmise and read into the text, a great writer of novel in verse tells even more in fewer words.  Pamela Porter, Martine Leavitt and now Caroline Pignat.  As for the story, think The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill in free verse for younger readers and with more soul.  A perfect bundle of story, voice and form–that's The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat.

January 09, 2015

Something Wiki

by Suzanne Sutherland
160 pp.
Ages 9-12
For release January 3, 2015

While the title Something Wiki may suggest that there's something wicked, there really isn't, unless, of course, you count going through puberty and all that it entails: skin breaking out, body image issues, first crushes, changing friendships, parent issues, etc.  Okay, so puberty is pretty wicked.  But the "wiki" in the title refers to twelve-year-old (almost 13!) Jo Waller's use of Wikipedia as a diary, allowing her to share her feelings by amending entries that relate to her situation.  She adds her personal touch to entries about acne, ambush, hairdresser, and friendship, among the many that kick off each new chapter in Something Wiki, always knowing that her edits will satisfyingly disappear almost as soon as she finishes them.

Too bad the problems of growing up can't disappear as easily as revised wiki entries because there's a lot going on for Jo, and much of it she cannot control.  Because Jo sees herself as a short, chunky, geeky girl with glasses and zits, she tends to compare herself to others, specifically her friends:  pretty, best friend Stacey, musical Trisha and the smart, ginger-haired Chloe.  But she's starting to feel out of sync with them, especially when she learns Stacey has lied to her in order to hang out with Chloe alone.  Those she used to rely on for support seem to be turning on her.  Add to that the domestic chaos brought about by the return home of her 24-year-old brother Zim with his girlfriend Jenevieve who is pregnant, and Jo's parents refusal to include their youngest in their home situation.  And then there's cutie Declan Walsh who intensifies the pandemonium.

Suzanne Sutherland has made Something Wiki into Jo's coming-of-age story, demonstrating that everything in the life of a pubescent girl may seem twisted and knotted but, with time and some effort at disentanglement, a new order can arise.  The wickedness of losing friends, unfair accusations, bad haircuts, bad skin, and feeling discounted can be endured when their absurdity in the big picture is realized.  Suzanne Sutherland gives Jo the ability to see the ridiculousness in her life.
These days I just want to sleep. I'd be happy if I could sleep all day....
It won't work, though. I drool in my sleep. 
As if I needed to look any uglier. (pg. 127)
Yep, the regular fries of teen angst–bad enough for the skin–becomes poutine courtesy of Suzanne Sutherland: far richer and flavourful. 

January 06, 2015

New Members of the Order of Canada

On December 26, 2014, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, announced 95 new appointments to the Order of Canada.  The Order of Canada, one of our country’s highest civilian honours, was established in 1967, during Canada’s centennial year, to recognize outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. 

This year, two well-known contributors to youngCanLit  were honoured with appointments to the Order of Canada as Members of the Order of Canada, recognized as making outstanding contributions at the local or regional level or in a special field of activity. I have the pleasure of recognizing these newest Members of the Order of Canada, as designated by the post-nominal C.M., here with the accompanying citations :

Brenda Clark, C.M.
Port Hope, Ontario

For her contributions as an illustrator, notably as the artist behind Franklin the Turtle, and for her support of literacy.

Eric Robert Walters, C.M.
Mississauga, Ontario

For his contributions as an author of literature for children and young adults whose stories help young readers grapple with complex social issues.

Congratulations to Brenda Clark and Eric Walters on this outstanding recognition.

January 04, 2015

Butterflies Don't Lie

by B. R. Myers
Nimbus Publishing
288 pp.
Ages 12+
September 2014

A review of Butterflies Don't Lie may have been better posted in September when the book was first released and when summer was hardly the distant memory it is now in January. But perhaps this is a great time to think about summer jobs, sun and sand and summer-time romances, when we need to enjoy the lightness that comes with being sixteen and working at a restaurant on the water and crushing on a guy.  Think back, whether it's years or months, and enjoy the warmth, be it the sun on your skin or the butterflies in your belly, that comes with B. R. Myers' first novel, Butterflies Don't Lie.

Sixteen-year-old Kelsey has her whole summer at home in Mariner's Cove ahead of her, and she's got one goal:  to grab the attention and hopefully a kiss from Blaine Mulder, a gorgeous classmate on whom Kelsey has been crushing. Her best friend, Francine, who is going to be away all summer, has helped Kelsey devise a plan (spreadsheet and all) that includes bumping into Blaine as he teaches sailing at the yacht club near the restaurant, the Queen's Galley, where Kelsey will be bussing tables.  But the best laid plans...well, you know the way they can go awry.

First, she becomes more responsible for her little brother, Chet, whom she adores but requires special attention.  Mom and Dad are not acting like themselves, and Mom is decidedly cool towards Kelsey's need to be a regular teen.  And, most unexpected of all, one of the Stunders (summer residents at Mariner's Cove) is working at the Queen's Galley and always seems to catch Kelsey at her worst: almost getting Chet injured, ruining the flower beds, losing Chet, mixing up sugar and salt, and getting drunk.  And while she doesn't stray from her Blaine spreadsheet, Kelsey is certainly taken with Luke (sadly known as How-Hole through most of the book) and his beautiful blue eyes and the butterflies that swoop inside when he looks at her.

It's pretty obvious that Kelsey and Luke are somehow going to get together, but neither is working that angle.  In fact, the multitude of magazine quizzes that Kelsey does regularly hint at nothing more than the outcome she wants for herself i.e., Blaine is the boyfriend for her.  Luke may be fairly private, and rumours of his sanity questioned, but he can see through Kelsey and the quizzes she cheats at, more insightful into her personality than she herself is.  What the reader will be waiting to learn is how the two will ever get together when Kelsey continues to be smitten with Blaine and things at home are so messed up.

While Butterflies Don't Lie may not be an emotionally shattering love story, it's as a first love, a summer love should be: light-hearted, playful, absurd, tenuous, and promising.  And B. R. Myers gets it all right.  Teens will enjoy second-guessing Kelsey's motivations, cheering her on, shouting at her to "Forget Blaine!" and encouraging her to be nice to Luke, while still wondering whether things can work out.  Again, even though B. R. Myers dangles several secrets as potential obstacles to Kelsey and Luke's romance,  the greatest complications are the teens' inability to be honest with themselves and second guessing the other's intentions.  Luckily, their mistakes aren't life- or relationship-threatening, only fodder for more humour.

Based on Butterflies Don't Lie, I think we can look forward to another youngCanLit author to follow here on CanLit for LittleCanadians; fortunately, B. R. Myers is set to release another young adult novel in 2015.


After posting this review of Butterflies Don't Lie, B.R. Myers shared that a sequel to the book would be coming out in the fall of 2015.  Just Jesse will be published by Nimbus Publishing and will focus on the best friend of Chloe, the popular girl at the Queen's Galley who befriends Kelsey.  Chloe shares with Kelsey that her friend, Jesse, is also away and she misses her, just as Kelsey misses Francine.  There is a suggestion that Jesse has had a hard time dealing with the passing of her father, but we never meet Jesse, only her mom–the caterer hired after Kelsey drives away the cake decorator–and grandmother. Check out B. R. Myers' blog at http://bethanymyers.blogspot.ca/p/busgirl-blues.html to learn about Just Jesse and her other books, already published and forthcoming.

January 02, 2015

The Old Ways

by Susan Margaret Chapman
Illustrated by John Mantha
Fifth House
32 pp.
Ages 5+
October, 2014

The clash of cultures between generations is seemingly inescapable but it must be especially overpowering for those of Aboriginal heritage.  For older members, the history and perhaps memories of the old ways being driven from them by heavy-handedness might compel them to relinquish those traditions or to hold on even tighter.  Although young Simon in The Old Ways may be oblivious to the history of his culture, his grandparents, Ananaksaq and Ataatga, undoubtedly are not, but their kindness and wisdom help them educate Simon in the most subtle of ways.

You see, Simon is a child drawn to the amenities of contemporary culture: computers, TV, video games and even pizza. But, living with his Ananaksaq and Ataatga, his life includes caribou stew, story-telling and offers to build igloos.  Simon may think, "Ataatga and the old ways again" but when a snowmobile trip to Igloolik to visit family takes a dangerous direction, the young boy realizes the value of the old ways in ensuring more than just their survival.

The cover of The Old Ways states that the story was inspired by a true story and perhaps that is why it is all the more poignant.  Preaching to children of the way things used to be done is worthless when young ones have no connection to those ways.  It's irrelevant if mom and dad walked to school or didn't use computers; their children only know about getting driven to school and being digitally connected to everything. But author Susan Margaret Chapman allows Simon to witness the benefits of the old ways and come to the realization of their worth for himself, rather than demanding his acceptance. His grandparents make him aware of their ways, sharing with him as needed, but they wisely allow him to come to them when he's ready to really learn about these ways. And John Mantha's illustrations make almost tangible the simplicity of a northern lifestyle, whether in the house or on the cold, blue tundra while exposing the contrast between old and new.

While The Old Ways is a lovely and valuable resource for teachers to introduce the concept of comparing cultures, over time and place, it is also a story of connecting between generations, recognizing that sharing is a demonstration of respect and should be appreciated as such.