June 30, 2016

May I suggest...? Five ways to help me help you promote your youngCanLit

While I am loathe to share my reviews as opinions -I firmly agree with Paulo Coelho who said, “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion”-my mandate for CanLit for LittleCanadians has always been to promote great Canadian literature for children and young adults.  To that end, may I suggest a few ways that authors, illustrators, publishers and publicists can help me to help you?

First let me thank those generous authors, illustrators, publicists and publishers who are so kind to provide me with copies of their books for review, as well as include me in blog tours and allow me to interview our contemporary youngCanLit A-listers.  Without these donations, I could not afford to review as many books as I do on CanLit for LittleCanadians.

That said, please limit the books you send for review to those written for young people.  Just because there is a young person in the book does not mean that it is a book appropriate for or of interest to younger readers.  Imagine expecting Timothy Findley’s The Piano Man’s Daughter (HarperCollins, 1995) or Heather O’Neill’s Lullaby for Little Criminals (HarperCollins, 2006) to be reviewed as youngCanLit? Not going to happen.  And just because a younger reader is able to read the book doesn’t mean it’s youngCanLit.   If your catalogue is publicizing a book as adult fiction, it’s not a juvenile or teen read, regardless of the age of the protagonist.  Save yourself the review copy and the disappointment, and save me my reading time and the communication explaining why I’m not reviewing the book.

If I do review your book, there are several ways to ensure that review gets read by more and more people.  While I may not get the million hits of a kitten playing with a bird on YouTube, CanLit for LittleCanadians does very well as a book blog.  It is linked through multiple school boards and universities with teacher education programs, English and creative writing programs and library studies, as well as the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and other blogs.  But it could always do better. Add a link to CanLit for LittleCanadians (www.canlitforlittlecanadians.blogspot.caon your website with a quote from the review or add me to your blog roll or become a subscriber.  Doesn’t hurt, always helps.

Post a comment on the review.  Thank you to author Monica Kulling, commentator extraordinaire, who always lets me know what she thinks of my reviews of her own books and those of others.  Judging by the numbers on Google Analytics, this always brings in more readers.  And don’t be dissuaded by my need to moderate the comments.  I do this to avoid horrific amounts of spam, both commercial and irrelevant.

Support CanLit for LittleCanadians on social media.  Each time I post on my blog, I will tweet several times about the book or the review or the event, ensuring the relevant parties (author, illustrator, publisher) know.  Your retweets and likes bring in more and more followers and links and you know that in the end that means sales, the all-important bottom line.  Whether I’m using the hashtags for youngCanLit or for teachers or teacher-librarians, those tweets are getting read.  And don’t be shy about retweeting multiple times or multiple tweets about the same book.  What catches one reader on Twitter may not be the same as for another.  They all count.  Toot your own horn, or at least join the band as I’m tooting away.  I adore publicist Winston Stilwell at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, the king of retweeting and replying to my tweets for F & W books and Red Deer Press, Inhabit Media and Fifth House Publishers and Whitecap Books, because I know he makes an effort to get my tweets and reviews out there.  And all those publishers who bring attention to my reviews through your Facebook pages, thank you.

Please don’t take it personally if I don’t review your book or don’t do it in a timely fashion.  Sometimes life takes precedence over blog and I get backlogged in reviews and can’t catch up.  And sometimes the book just doesn’t grab me and I’d rather not review it than write a rant of an opinion piece.  I alone write posts for CanLit for LittleCanadians, except for rare student reviewers, and do the best I can under constraints of time, health and motivation.  I do what I can.  With the plethora of outstanding Canadian authors and illustrators out there ready to have their works promoted and applauded, it’s a daunting task.

And while I’m asking for help, if you know of any one who is looking for someone to speak to teacher candidates or schools about youngCanLit or wants to hire a writer who peddles herself as an aficionado of Canadian children’s books or can think of a way for me to segue this blog into a salaried career, please leave a comment below.  Always happy to hear from my readers and writers.

Read youngCanLit!

June 29, 2016

Teen Bash: Author Event with E.K. Johnston, Morgan Rhodes and Teresa Toten

A Teen Bash extraordinaire!

Authors, books, trivia, prizes and more!


Thursday, June 30, 2016

7-8 p.m.


Sherway Gardens
Toronto, ON

Join award-winning young adult authors

E. K. Johnston

Morgan Rhodes


Teresa Toten

for book fun and signings!

Trial by Fire: A Riley Donovan Mystery

by Norah McClintock
Orca Book Publishers
231 pp.
Ages 12+
April 2016

Everybody’s hiding something, big or little.  Everybody tells lies, even if they’re little white ones.  Everybody is a potential suspect until they’re eliminated from the list.  Every smile might be hiding black thoughts and even black actions. (pg. 154)
Teen Riley Donovan has already had a complicated life.  Her mother died when Riley was a baby and her father, who travels extensively as a medical docor with an international charity, left her in the care of her sixties rocker grandfather Jimmy Donovan with whom she toured for years.  Upon his death, Riley has moved in with her mother’s sister Ginny, a police detective, with whom she has just relocated to a small town.

Their moving boxes haven’t even been broken down before Riley discovers the barn of their neighbour, Mr. Goran, on fire and the man trapped within.  In critical condition, Mr. Goran is unable to say what happened, though small-town gossip suggests he set the fire himself for the insurance money.  Riley cannot believe that the kind gentleman from Kurdistan who welcomed them so warmly and spoke so lovingly of his farm would be capable of such fraud or destruction.  Though warned by her Aunt Ginny against poking her nose into police business, Riley discovers a small-town community steeped in bitterness and discrimination against Mr. Goran and knows that their neighbour was the victim, not the instigator.  And Riley sets out to prove it.

Though Norah McClintock's better-known mystery series for young people include her Robyn Hunter Mysteries, Chloe and Levesque Mysteries and Mike and Riel series, Riley Donovan is hardly a newcomer to Norah McClintock's repertoire of crime fiction.  This series which includes at least six titles previously published in Australia is now being published in Canada by Orca Book Publishers and Trial by Fire is essentially our introduction to this young sleuth and fortunately there is a follow-up title, From Above, due out in October. (Earlier English titles published by International Masters Publishers include Breaking In, Picking Up the Scent, Framed, The Secret of Golden Acres, Schooled and Web of Lies.)

While not as gritty as some of Norah McClintock’s other mysteries, Trial by Fire is as packed with the plot twists and turns of any of her award-winning crime fiction.  Moreover, setting it in a small-town, rife with familial connections and intolerant attitudes, adds further tension to this first-rate mystery.  As for Riley, she’s a character whose life adventures I hope we’ll continue to share.  Her past has shaped her into a conscientious and compassionate young woman who sees beyond the surface and endeavours to make things right.  What better grounds to establish a teen solver of mysteries?

June 27, 2016

How Things Came To Be: Inuit Stories of Creation

by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley
Illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh and Patricia Ann Lewis-MacDougall
Inhabit Media
80 pp.
Ages 5-11

It may be the end of Aborginal Heritage Month (June) and the end of the school year, but How Things Came To Be: Inuit Stories of Creation will need to be on any booklist that focuses on the Inuit culture or myths and legends.  The unstoppable team of Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, whose collaborations include Lesson for the Wolf (Inhabit Media, 2015) and Tuniit: Mysterious Folk of the Arctic (Inhabit Media, 2015) and who won the 2015 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature, share nine classic creation stories based on the Inuit’s love and respect of the Land, the Sea and the Sky.

In their comprehensive introduction, Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley familiarize young readers with the Inuit concepts of Nuna (the Land) and Sila (Grand Sky or Big Everything), as well as ideas of life and breath, riddles and dreams, and beginnings and endings. It’s a perfect opening for the stories When Things Came to Be; The Land’s Babies; The Battle of Day and Night; How the Caribou Came to Be; How the Sun and Moon Arose; Feathers and Ice; The Deep Mother; The Storm Orphans; and The One Who is Tied.
In the beginning, will was all that drove creation. What is will, but the dream of someone who is awake? (pg. 13)
When Things Came to Be is an all-inclusive beginning of the origins of the earth, flowers, humans and dogs, light and dark, and more, until forgetfulness about people's origins led to the diminishment of their Strength.  But the stories that follow are a record of “a few deeds of those times.  The tantrums.  The strangeness. The foolishness.  And the wonder.” (pg. 18)

The Land’s Babies tells of the time when babies were born of the Land and women had only to search for them, nearby for girls and farther out for baby boys. As such, the Land was everyone’s ancestor.  Light and darkness born out of conflict between the Fox and the Raven is the focus of The Battle of Day and Night.  While the emphases of the origin stories How Caribou Came to Be and How the Sun and Moon Arose are obvious, Feather and Ice is less so, though still deeply rooted in explaining how an infuriated shaman wields her ulu (a crescent-shaped knife) to create icebergs and waterfowl from the Sea in which her husband flees from her.
From How Things Came To Be: Inuit Stories of Creation 
by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, 
illus. by Emily Fiegenschuh and Patricia Ann Lewis-MacDougall

Cruelty and weakness are the themes of the final stories in this collection.  Frightening elements of a spirit enslaving a young woman and of her father sacrificing her to the Sea permeate The Deep Mother, an origin story of the first seals and walruses and other ocean mammals, as well as the  torrential wrath the Sea can display.  The Storm Orphans spotlights two children whose suffering at the hands of the people of the Weak Sky transform them into Thunder and Lightning. Finally, in The One Who is Tied, the murder of a selfish giant and his wife, and the cruelty towards their orphaned baby creates the spirit Silaup Inua, the furious storm winds.

Completing the collection, Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley append the stories with a discussion About Endings, and provide a Glossary of Inuktitut Terms, both useful in framing and for clarification.  But the ultimate finishing touch to How Things Came To Be is the artwork by illustrators Emily Fiegenschuh and Patricia Ann Lewis-MacDougall who meld the serene Arctic worlds of land and sea with both realistic and supernatural elements and model the Big Everything so vividly. How Things Came To Be is a complete package of story-telling and art for giving voice to classic Inuit creation stories and meaningful discussions of beginnings and endings.

June 22, 2016

Beware That Girl

by Teresa Toten
Delacorte Press
336 pp.
Ages 14+
May 2016

Kate and Olivia.  Two eighteen-year-old seniors at a private school known as Waverly in New York City.  It’s hard to tell which girl is “that girl” mentioned in the title Beware That Girl.  Kate, the brilliant, manipulative liar who plans out every step she takes to ensure she gets the “big life she wants” or Olivia, rich and beautiful but emotionally fragile “just messed up enough” (pg. 4) for Kate to befriend.  The two secretive girls are “Two unlikely peas in a pod” (pg. 47) in more ways than one.

Kate O’Brian, a high-achieving Waverly scholar, is determined to get to Yale regardless of her current status as a basement boarder and employee at Chen’s Chinese Market and Apothecary.  Also working mornings at the school office, Kate searches for her ticket out of her miserable situation and targets Olivia Sumner whose record indicates missed school due to psychological issues.  The two girls become acquainted and, when charmed by the new director of fundraising, the charismatic Mark Redkin, to start a Student Advancement Committee, Kate gets Olivia, as well as classmates Serena, Morgan and Claire on board.  Soon Olivia has asked Kate to move in to the penthouse she shares with her globe-trotting lawyer father and their housekeeper Anka.
Becoming friends was a kind of courtship.  A ritual of presenting your best self to the other.  Each knew not to push too much, too fast.  In their conversations, the girls reached for all their similarities willfully ignoring the differences.” (pg. 38)
It’s the differences and secrets that still separate the girls, neither being completely honest about their pasts and fears and desires.  They each have an agenda for their friendship, which becomes all the more complicated when Olivia becomes involved in an intimate relationship with Mark Redkin.  Recognizing him as a “player of biblical proportions” (pg. 120), Kate sees Redkin as more than a threat to their friendship, realizing that “Redkin was going for power, information and amusement.  What a trifecta.” (pg. 155)

Beware That Girl is a suspense-laden, surprise-ending story that provides a glimpse of a friendship based on the instability of secrets and schemes.  And even though there are moments of affability and benevolence–usually involving the irascible Mrs. Chen, the girls’ shared mutt Bruce, and the thoughtful Johnny who is crushing on Kate–Teresa Toten’s intimate portrayal of a friendship initiated in manipulation will disquiet the reader.  From the onset of the book, a scene in which one girl sits at the hospital bed of another while the police wait to question them, Beware That Girl is dominated by uncertainty and foreboding.  Teresa Toten may tease the reader with storylines that intimate which character should be heeded but you’ll never know for certain.  That is, until her crushing ending that reveals the strength of Teresa Toten’s plotting, story-telling and characterizations.  Don’t be alarmed if you have to reread the final four-page chapter–I did–just to assure yourself that this masterful writer has truly reconciled all those secrets and agendas in a bombshell of an ending.  She does and it is.

June 17, 2016

My Two Grandmothers

by Diane Carmel Léger
Illustrated by Jean-Luc Trudel
Nimbus Publishing
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
April 2016

How fortunate these children are to have two grandmothers! Two grandmothers who are incredibly different-one Acadian, the other Scottish–and living in villages separated by the world's second-longest covered bridge.  Two grandmothers who are also so similar, connected by that same bridge and bonded by their love for their grandchildren.

From My Two Grandmothers
by Diane Carmel Léger, illus. by Jean-Luc Trudel
On one side of the Rockland bridge lives Mémére Hermance whose grandchildren call Grandmother Sun or Mémére Bee who lives her life with vitality and joie de vivre. She is a "very chic Acadian lady."  Nannie Henrietta, their Grandmother Moon or Nannie Hen, is a "calm and modest Scottish lady." What they offer their grandchildren in the way of treats, experiences and life lessons are very different but equally fulfilling.  Whether they get bonbons or toffee, or go to the beach or listen to a blethering brook, celebrate Réveillon or Christmas with Scottish cookies, the children, called petits escrables and wee lumbers, are loved, scolded, taught, protected, and entertained by their two grandmothers.

My Two Grandmothers is a captivating story of differences and similarities in a loving and lovely Canadian context, though Canadian and non-Canadian readers will both benefit from the glossary of French and Scottish vocabulary. (A listing of how to say "grandmother" and "grandfather" in over 20 languages is also included.)  A made-for-TV movie would have undoubtedly played up the differences between the two grandmothers making it into a competition but Diane Carmel Léger's My Two Grandmothers demonstrates how much the two older women are adored by the children who appreciate their distinct personalities as adding richness to their lives.  Illustrator Jean-Luc Trudel offers up flavourful portraits of both women, and their grandchildren, without stereotyping either.  By choosing to differentiate them both in their forms and the colours that surround them, Jean-Luc Trudel has created two contrasting but similarly soft and strong women.  As a child who grew up without grandmothers around, I would have been delighted to have had a Nannie and Mémére in my life.  For me and for those who are fortunate to have grandmothers in their lives, My Two Grandmothers will delight. And for those whose children are fortunate enough to have a French or Acadian grandmother, you might consider acquiring Mémère et Nannie, the French edition and co-publication by Bouton d'or Acadie.

From My Two Grandmothers
by Diane Carmel Léger, illus. by Jean-Luc Trudel

June 15, 2016

Those That Cause Fear

by Neil Christopher
Illustrated by Germaine Arnaktauyok
Inhabit Media
40 pp.
Ages 7-10
June 2016

Those That Cause Fear is another magical collaboration between Nunavut author Neil Christopher and Inuit artist and illustrator Germaine Arnaktauyok whose recent picture book Way Back Then (Inhabit Media, 2015) also focused on the traditional stories of the Inuit.  Here, though, instead of focusing on stories from the past, Neil Christopher highlights twenty frightening creatures of Inuit mythology, evocatively induced by Germaine Arnaktauyok’s soft yet dark manifestations.

In his introduction, Neil Christopher makes clear that this book is about all manner of Arctic monsters, both extant and extinct, whose stories he has gleaned from hunters and elders, and journals of explorers.  If the book conjures terror and dread, as the stories were intended to warn of dangers, then Those That Cause Fear has accomplished its purpose. And heaven help those travellers who lose their way in the Arctic and are visited upon by one of these entities.

 Each two-page spread features an illustration and details of one type of creature, which include the amautalik, dog children, the palraijuq, earth children, Iqallijuq, the giant fish, Inukpasugjuk, Inukpasarjujuk, the battling giants, the sleeping giants, amarujjuat, akla Inua, kajjait, Mahahaa, Nuliajuk, the qallupilluk, Aasivak, taliillajuut, the Tuniit and nanurluk.  (In addition to this comprehensive listing of hidden Arctic dangers, Neil Christopher provides an Inuktitut pronunciation guide.)

Many are massive creatures, giants like the parka-wearing amautalik who steal away those who are lost, or Inukpasugjuk who could step over mountains, or Inukpasarjujuk who fished for bowhead whales as if they were but little fish.  Some are animals like amarujjuat which are magical and powerful wolves; or akla Inua, a grizzly bear in human form, or nanurluk, a giant polar bear as large as an iceberg.  Some live in the sea, others inhabit rivers and ponds, while there are those who seclude themselves on remote islands.  Except for the a few fear-inspiring but innocuous creatures, such as the taliillajuut and the Tunnit, the intentions of many  are cruel and mischievous, hence their moniker of Those That Cause Fear.  They lure, trap, steal, and kill if threatened, embarrassed, hungry or challenged, and they should be feared.

Neil Christopher’s details of these twenty creatures are given substance with Germaine Arnaktauyok’s bold artwork in its earthy tones of browns, greys and taupes, and cold water blues.  Like Those That Cause Fear, the books is brash and stark and mandates caution, an important lesson of most myths.
Aasivak from Those That Cause Fear
by Neil Christopher, illus. by Germaine Arnaktauyok

June 14, 2016

Susanna Moodie: Roughing It in the Bush

by Patrick Crowe and Carol Shields
Illustrated by Selena Goulding
Introduction by Margaret Atwood
Adapted by Willow Dawson
Second Story Press
152 pp.
Ages 13-18
April 2016

As Margaret Atwood so expressively writes in her introduction to this graphic novel of pioneer Susanna Moodie’s story,
This graphic version does justice to the many facets of her tale. It will introduce a new generation of readers to a figure who remains both iconic and – despite the attention lavished upon her over the past forty-five years – mysterious. (pg. x)
As the youngest of six Strickland sisters, Susanna, born 1803, had a auspicious heritage as part of a family renowed for their literary achievements though the lack of a dowry compelled her to pursue her ambitions voraciously, much to her sisters’ dismay.  While campaigning against slavery, Susanna makes the acquaintance of Captain Moodie and becomes the first of her siblings to marry.  In 1832, she and her husband and their first child, along with one servant, Hannah, set out for the new world, Canada.
Marrying for love, not money, carried the ominous sentence of emigration, but I had devised a plan.  This exile would be made less terrible, knowing that all four of us would make a new home together across the sea, in Canada – the new landmark for the rich in hope and poor in purse. (pg. 10)
From their stay of quarantine at Grosse Isle, Quebec, Susanna begins to see the natural beauty of the country, though she is chagrined at the “shameless antics of newly arrived Europeans” (pg. 17), giving her first of honest impressions. And though the promise of a new home is tarnished by the hardships they must endure and to which they bear witness, like racial and religious prejudice, and Yankee squatters, Susanna is still charmed by much in the new land, from the lakes and forests she puts to paint in her art, to the new friendships she makes.  Still , when her sister Catherine  arrives with her new husband, Thomas Parr Traill, she admits that “I think that we’ve made a grievous error in coming to this country.” (pg. 41)

But Susanna is all the more exasperated when, after several more years of hard labour and hunger, she learns that her sister has written a book called The Backwoods of Canada: Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, making “this wretched wilderness into a fool’s paradise.” (pg. 69) Still, it isn’t until the war breaks out in 1837 and her husband John must join the militia that Susanna again takes ink to paper to earn much needed funds.  And all her experiences, simple joys and horrific discoveries, life-threatening illnesses and heart-breaking tragedies, became the writing that is her iconic Roughing It in the Bush, published in 1852, after the Moodies had left the bush for a posting in Belleville.

As authors Patrick Crowe, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood and Willow  Dawson can attest, Susanna Moodie’s writing has both been lauded and lambasted, for its raw honesty about the hardships of pioneers to settle in the new world. By sharing the details of her life, both before the book's publication and afterward, with realistic graphics by Selena Goulding that tell more of the story than the words might allow for a youthful audience, Susanna Moodie: Roughing It in the Bush is a brilliant story of fortitude and resolution that exposes the scars and charms of a life lived and a country born.
Page 64 from Susanna Moodie: Roughing It in the Bush 
by Patrick Crowe and Carol Shields, 
Adapted by Willow Dawson, 
Illustrated by Selena Goulding

June 13, 2016

Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts

by Esta Spalding
Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Tundra Books (Penguin Random House)
224 pp.
Ages 8-12
May 2016

Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts because they’re here now and I’m sure they’re going to be around for a while (I’m already anticipating a follow-up book), even if they don’t have anyone really looking out for them.   The four Fitzgerald-Trout children-Kim, 11; Kimo, 11; Pippa, 8; and Toby, 5–are an odd assortment of children conceived through different combinations of fathers and mothers which include the wealthy and greedy Maya (mother to Kim and Pippa), the vain singer Tina (Kimo and Toby’s mother), the missing-at-sea Johnny Trout (father of Kimo) and mammalian research scientist Dr. Fitzgerald (father of Kim, Pippa and Toby).
They had different mothers and different fathers.  But they knew that didn’t matter.  They were a family because if you aren’t a family, you don’t live together in the same little car.  They knew they were brothers and sisters, even if when they made a new friend at school they had to take out a stick and draw in the dirt to explain just how they were related. (pg. 31)
And they all live in a small green car, which has gotten too small for them all to sleep in comfortably at night.  Kim, who wishes she lived in a house like the Perfects in her favourite book (a two-books-in-one The Perfects and The Awfuls),  keeps their little family on track with her to-do lists (which often includes "Find a House"), ensuring they go to school, do their laundry at Mr. Knuckles’ laundromat, and purchase food essentials and ice for their cooler from the loose coins Maya would give them or the money Tina dropped off for them.

When Maya is arrested for defrauding her investment clients, Kim almost finds them a home in Maya’s empty mansion, until it is seized to help repay investors.  Also thwarted is Kim's plan for them to hide away in the staged bedrooms of the massive furniture store MARRA.  It’s not until Kim decides that the Perfects whose lives are just too ideal are not the best of role models and that the Awfuls, who have endured and survived a variety of challenges, might be able to help guide them, that the Fitzgerald-Trouts find a home, far off the beaten path.

Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts may read like a handbook of how NOT to parent your children but it’s a celebration of family, unconventional as it may be, and the drive to find a home and meet challenges with creativity and perseverance.  Esta Spalding has produced a set of widely-different characters who don’t always get along but at heart are everything to each other.  They are strong and weak, and childish and mature, and selfless and inconsiderate, and they are children who have adventures and suffer all manner of adversity and stick together. Middle-grade readers and proficient early readers will enjoy the journey on which Esta Spalding’s story takes them, all the more beguiling for its tropical island setting, its diverse and over-the-top characters and the ruts and potholes along the way.  And, though the illlustrations are rarely a subtantial component of any novel, Sydney Smith’s black-and-white line drawings help give substance to the Fitzgerald-Trouts and their story.  Look out for Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts on reading lists everywhere very soon.

Kim from Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts 
by Esta Spalding, illus. by Sydney Smith

June 09, 2016


by Natasha Deen
Great Plains Teen Fiction
232 pp.
Ages 13+
May 2016

Someone was pounding at the front door at 10:30 p.m., and common sense said not to answer.  Then again, I see the dead, live with a ghost, and was dating a supernatural being who transported souls.  Common sense may have been in my neighbourhood, but it wasn’t on any street I lived. (pg. 7)
Natasha Deen grabs readers and thrusts them into Gatekeeper with this opening, not unlike her opener to its prequel Guardian (Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2014),  in which 17-year-old Maggie reveals her knack for seeing the dead and helps solve the murder of Serge Popov with whom she now has become a guardian to help the dead transition into the next world.  Along with supernatural boyfriend Craig, a ferrier of the dead, and her best friend Nell, as well as her caring father Hank and his girlfriend, Sheriff Nancy, who all know of her gift, Maggie has found herself at the centre of more than one mystery in their small town of Dead Falls.  And Gatekeeper places her in the role of sleuth and ghost-communicator once again.

That knocking at the door is the wealthy Mrs. Pierson, frantic over the disappearance of her and Dr. Paul Pierson’s six-year-old daughter, Rori, and looking for Sheriff Nancy.  Maggie, Serge and Craig with Rori’s babysistter Nell go to help in the search and help locate the little girl on the brink of death.  But after Serge uses his energy to get her heart beating, he and Maggie meet the newly-dead ghost of Kent Meagher, former all-around amazing Dead Falls student and current med student at the University of Alberta who is oblivious and confused about his death.  And this is the murder mystery at the heart of Gatekeeper.

But Gatekeeper is more than a whodunit because no one knows Kent is dead, not the least of which are his separated parents whose antagonistic relationship destroyed the family and left them financially ruined.  Kent’s concern for his mother is overwhelming and brings back a lot of memories for Serge about his own family dynamics, his mother and his death, but demonstrates the newly-developed empathy that makes Serge such a key and now likeable character.  By way of some careful research and snooping, Serge and Maggie discover that a lot of people are keeping secrets, including Kent, and that Kent’s determination to be a doctor may be at the heart of a series of mysteries, including his own death and rampant vandalism in Dead Falls.  And, of course, there’s the dead people that add a suprisingly humourous and horrifying combination of subplots to Natasha Deen’s story.  (Be prepared for a nasty legion of souls called The Family who cannot find peace and is looking for additional souls to ingest.)

Gatekeeper, like its predecessor, is completely an edge-of-your-seat read, though I found that I looked forward to the witty dialogue as much as the paranormal elements which Natasha Deen flawlessly embeds in her plot.  I’ve always thought Norah McClintock was the queen of YA crime fiction but I think Natasha Deen has developed into a princess of YA paranormal murder mysteries.  With her multifaceted plotlines and great, great characters who are neither perfect nor surreal (though they may be otherworldly), Natasha Deen has become one of my go-to YACanLit authors for spooky whodunits with a smidgen of romance.  Consider them the young adult equivalent of Scooby-Doo: fun sleuthing with the ever-helpful Maggie and Serge and the gang. Gatekeeper is one more mystery solved, and I look forward to more.

June 08, 2016

Pinny in Summer

by Joanne Schwartz
Illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
May 2016

Pinny in Summer is as delicate as a summer breeze and as subtle as sun-bleached driftwood, yet mighty in its four-chaptered summer day adventures.

Joanne Schwartz has eloquently written Pinny in Summer as an early reader, with lengthier texts all the better for exploring Pinny’s motivations and actions.  In Pinny, the first chapter, Pinny makes looking for a wishing rock into an exploration for all the senses, feeling the warmth, enjoying the natural world’s colours and shapes, and listening to the squawking birds.  In Cloud Watching, Pinny is on her way home when she encounters friends Annie and Lou who invite her to go blueberry picking. Before they reach Blueberry Hill, they partake in some imaginative cloud watching, fortunately as the  skies open up and the rains fall just after their berry-picking.

Curling up at home to read a book and dry off, Pinny is visited by a large seagull in the chapter titled The Seagull.  Communicating with her by delicate head movements, the seagull engages the little girl in the most subtle of tête-à-têtes.  Finally, in the culminating chapter Pinny Has a Party, all the wonderful elements of Pinny’s summer day are brought together.  Having made her blueberry cake for her friends and deposited it on the picnic table outside, her seagull returns to indulge in the sweet treat, leaving a little gift as a thank-you. But Pinny sees these circumstances as just a beginning for another ideal summer day.
From Pinny in Summer by Joanne Schwartz, 
illus. by Isabelle Malenfant
Joanne Schwartz, who co-wrote Grandmother Ptarmigan (Inhabit Media, 2013) with Qaunaq Mikkigak, gets the promise of summer spot-on with text that reflects Pinny’s wide-eyed wholesomeness and wonder at everything she experiences. Isabelle Malenfant’s illustrations echo those sentiments exactly.  Isabelle Malenfant, who illustrated the highly-acclaimed Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (by Christine Baldacchino, Groundwood Books, 2014), has a breeziness to her artwork: the colours are gauzy, as if bleached by the sun or seen through a fluttering sheer curtain, and her lines and shapes are as ephemeral as shimmering waves.  Pinny is Summer is a book of summer for every and any summer.

June 07, 2016

Spare Dog Parts

by Alison Hughes
Illustrated by Ashley Spires
Orca Book Publishers
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
January 2016

Spare Dog Parts is for every dog lover who knows that the perfect mutt may be a motley amalgam of odd and sods that others may pooh-pooh but she is the best of everything.

In this fun story, a lab coat-clad young girl seems to create her perfect pooch out of a miscellany of body, legs, paws, tail and facial features.  What could be a frightening prospect of manufacturing a living creature is instead a light-hearted look at how a little girl visualizes the conception of her loving and much-loved pet.
There were no more matching sets of legs left, so my dog got a spare brown leg, a black one, a white one with black spots, and one that couldn't make up its mind if it was white or not. (pg. 11)
From Spare Dog Parts by Alison Hughes, illus. by Ashley Spires
This dog may look a bit like a Frankenstein of a mutt, but she has a sweet disposition and “knows all the important things.  Like where the sunbeam falls. And the sound of food. And when someone needs her.” (pg. 21-25)

The message behind Alison Hughes’ whimsical story is one of acceptance and appreciation and one that true pet-lovers already know.
When my dog was made, they used leftover parts,
But somehow, when they fit them together
          like a big
             dog puzzle...
                ...they made a perfect dog.
(pg. 28-31)
Teaming Alison Hughes’ story up with the artwork of Ashley Spires, creator of award-winning characters such as Binky and Larf and Small Saul, is inspired.  Ashley Spires knows about creating love from bits and pieces and about that which makes a pet so lovable.  I’m sure that this little girl is not unlike Ashley Spires herself, trying things out, analyzing the best combination and finally coming up with perfection.

Spare Dog Parts emulates its message that it’s not the parts that are important but the whole, and the whole is full and finished and flawless.

June 06, 2016

Spirit Level

by Sarah N. Harvey
Orca Book Publishers
233 pp.
Ages 12-16
February 2016

Spirit Level has nothing to do with spirits of the ethereal kind but it has everything to do with spirit of the attitude, strength and will variety. And with all the issues Spirit Level confronts–family, homelessness, donor conception and transgender youth–it is a young adult novel with a lot of guts.

Harriet a.k.a. Harry is seventeen, and the daughter of Della, a college sociologist, and honorary granddaughter of Verna, the widow who runs Verna’s Salon and took Della in and off the street when she was Harry’s age.   Now the three are essentially family and they continue to give back to their community.  Verna, with Della and Harry’s help, offers shampoos and hair styling for her “Sunday ladies”, an assortment of homeless and poor women who could not afford the treatment. Della is doing research on homeless girls, giving them voice about their circumstances. And Harry is working three summers jobs: dog walking, working at the salon, and transcribing her mom’s interviews with the girls who live on the street or couch surf.

There is no father in Harry’s life because her birth was by donor sperm.  After reading an article about a man who fathered 500 children, Harry decides she will finally check out the Donor Sibling Registry to learn about any siblings she might have. Within days she hears from and meets the exuberant Lucy, a fifteen-year-old dancer who also lives in Seattle and introduces Harry to two other half-sibs, Adam in Portland and Ben in Australia.  Lucy is ecstatic to make this connection, and even more so when another sister, Meredith, 18, who relocated to Seattle from Missoula with her best friend Alex, contacts them, hopeful of getting them on side to search for the donor himself.  Lucy, the consummate oversharer and all-in-girl is quite taken with Meredith, though Harry, the level-headed one, is reluctant to pursue this avenue and even more so to trust Meredith.  However, she does become involved with Meredith’s BFF Alex, displeasing Meredith.

As the siblings and friends and family meet and interact, the possibility of meeting the donor who helped conceive the three teens (and their far-away brothers) looms.  But, with the sensible Harry hesitant to agree to it and Alex pursuing Harry–though because he likes her or to get her on Meredith’s side is the question–Harry feels the need to do her Harriet the Spy routine and go in search of some answers, learning far more than she expected about Meredith, Alex and even herself.

There’s a lot going on in Spirit Level and I’ve barely touched on the homeless girls whose stories provide a different wallpaper from the family situations of Harry, Lucy and Meredith.  Their stories are integral to the book and to Harry specifically who begins to see her “problems” and family differently, taking wisdom from their challenges and attitudes, and ultimately she is able to make good for herself and at least one other homeless teen while continuing to evolve her own family circle.  

As I’ve mentioned, Sarah N. Harvey embeds a lot in Spirit Level, from homeless youth to mental health and donor conception and transgendering, but the message is still clear:  when life becomes uncertain and even chaotic, it is what it is and you begin as you mean to go on, go on as you began (two of Verna’s multitude of sayings).

June 03, 2016


by Caroline Pignat
Razorbill Canada
320 pp.
Ages 12+
May 2016
Reviewed from advance reader’s copy

A whole lot can happen in one hour.  Ask those who tell Shooter’s story: Alice, Isabelle, Hogan, Noah, and Xander.  From the initial school lockdown at St. Francis Xavier High School which brings the five students barricaded together in a boys’ washroom to its dramatic, life-altering climax as the clock reads down to 00:00:00, Shooter is an unforgettable, heart-stopping story of heroes, written, read and made.
"This is real life. Not everything has a story."
Alice smiles. "But every person does."

I guess she’s right.  We all have one–even if it’s one we’d rather forget. (pg. 86)
There’s Hogan King, a hulking senior notorious for what he did to his older brother and who feels he is deservingly beyond redemption.  There’s Alice, another senior, who is an incredible writer–accepted to UBC’s prestigious Creative Writing Program–who prefers her position of invisibility which allows her to read life and care for her older autistic brother Noah. Uber-popular, egocentric and high-achieving Student Council President and go-to person for everything St. F-X, Isabelle Parks has her own issues, revealed in text messages with BFF Bri who is locked down in the office. And finally, there is the socially awkward Xander Watt, shooter of film images, who writes about himself as,
I think too much sometimes,
blurt the wrong things often, and
feel confused, always.”
(pg. 48)
How these seeemingly incongruent characters come together, and together they do come, in a complex plot of action, angst, and deliverance makes Shooter the extraordinary story that it is.  And story-telling, or rather writing, is a key foundation for Shooter.  With several of the students classmates in Writer’s Craft, it’s not surprising that elements of writing–plot, hero’s journey, characters’ fatal flaws, resolution–become part of the story. (Caroline Pignat is herself a high-school teacher of Writer’s Craft.  Lucky students.)

I can’t possibly reveal the itricacies of the story and the role of each character in its resolution.  But suffice it to say, Caroline Pignat’s brilliant writing immerses the reader in the terror of a school in genuine lockdown and the anxiety of relating to those whose differences make you uncomfortable.  Beyond the drama, and there is much, Shooter is a story of empowerment, taken and accepted and relinquished, and a formidable tale told by one of Canada’s greatest writers.

June 02, 2016

Good Pirate: Book launch (Toronto's Centre Island)

Arr!  It's only 4 days away!


Good Pirate
(Reviewed here)

Kari-Lynn Winters 

and the scurvy crew 
Pirate Life Toronto

on their 45-foot pirate ship 
setting sail from Toronto's Centre Island 


Sunday, June 5th, 2016

12:30-2:15 p.m.

for the fanciest of book launches and pirate ship adventures! 

There will be: 
a book reading and signing
a performance

all aboard a 45-ft pirate ship!

Just be sure to RSVP (rossstreetagency@gmail.com) 

for your place to help launch 

Good Pirate
by Kari-Lynn Winters
Illustrated by Dean Griffiths
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 5-8
May 2016