October 31, 2016

Bera the One-Headed Troll

by Eric Orchard
First Second / Roaring Brook Press
128 pp.
Ages 7-14 
August 2016

With today being Halloween and Bera the One-Headed Troll being filled with pumpkins and trolls and witches, it seems only fitting to review this graphic novel today.  Written and illustrated by Eric Orchard, the illustrator of the recently reviewed If I Were a Zombie (Kate Inglis, Nimbus, 2016) –am I sensing a monstrous theme here?–Bera the One-Headed Troll is atmospherically perfect for a fun but teensy bit scary read.

Bera, who lives on an isolated island with her owl companion Winslowe, is the official pumpkin gardener of the Troll King. (There’s the pumpkin connection for Halloween,  and, except for the cover and an occasional candle burning yellow, it’s the colour scheme of all the book’s graphics.)  When Bera rescues a human baby from three evil mermaids (they are not of the lean and lovely variety), she takes upon herself the task of returning the baby to its humans.  But that is contrary to the wishes of the malevolent Cloote, former  head witch of the Troll King, who wishes to use the baby to return to the good graces of the Troll King.
From Bera the One-Headed Troll 
by Eric Orchard
Bera who feels unprepared for dealing with the baby decides to seek a hero from her books, specifically choosing Wulf the Dragon Masher.  On their journey, Bera and the baby, with Winslowe scouting from above, encounter the mermaids again, as well as the Guardian, a sea monster as big as an island, and a bunch of hedgehog wizards.  Thankfully this last group whose mandate it is to protect the creatures of the wood already know firsthand of Cloote’s destruction and offer to steer Bera to Wulf’s tower.  Wulf, a troll of epic proportions and light-spirit (“Hey, is that a baby?”, “Well, look at that” and “Imagine that!”; pg. 52), has not been on an adventure in a very long time and, though willing of spirit, he succumbs to his epic sleepiness.

So Bera goes in search of another hero, finding both Duke Otig, the two-headed troll hero of the troll-giant war, and then the three-headed Nanna the Great.  But the reader will soon realize that heroes are not just those who undertake adventures and engage in battles.  Heroes are also those who make extraordinary sacrifices to do ordinary things, making their own quests in the spirit of goodwill, not glory.
From Bera the One-Headed Troll 
by Eric Orchard
Bera the One-Headed Troll is a offbeat graphic novel filled with trolls (one-, two- and three-headed varieties), goblins, witches, and rats (Vince is particularly helpful) and positive messages about offering assistance to those in need.  With only her want to do the right thing, Bera takes herself out of her comfortable pumpkin patch island and discovers new strengths and instincts, while making some new friends and good karma in the process.  I thought Bera the One-Headed Troll was going to be a dark, dark tale for a Halloween night, and its graphics would’ve supported that notion.  Eric Orchard’s trolls and witches and other creatures could be seen as darkly unnerving, as are the settings of straggly trees and murky swamps and stone edifices.  But Bera the One-Headed Troll is neither dark nor frightening.  It is a positive message wrapped in a dark cloak festooned with pumpkins.  Read it for Halloween but take its guidance beyond the day.

October 28, 2016

Mouse Vacation

by Philip Roy
Illustrated by Andrea Torrey Balsara
Ronsdale Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
October 2016

Compromise is tough enough between humans.  Imagine trying to compromise with an adorable mouse who has great imagination and wanderlust but no sense of distance or costs.  Happy the Pocket Mouse has decided the solution to a case of the boredom blues is for him and his human, John, to go some where.

For John, though, going somewhere usually means someplace close to home, like the store or the park.  But Happy has other ideas, and he has lots of them.  So, John recommends that they each make a list of places they’d like to go.  John is thinking the woods and the river, but Happy’s thinking the Taj Mahal and New Zealand.

Finally John introduces the idea of compromise, a meeting in the middle, which Happy jumps on, proposing meeting in Egypt, or Paris or even New York City, all of which John nixes based on cost.  John’s suggestion about an overnight bus ride to the nearest city to see the Tall Ships finally grabs Happy’s attention, especially John’s description of them as “ghosts from the past” (pg. 23).  Still, finally settling down for the night, the excited little mouse checks with John about one potential stop on the way home!
From Mouse Vacation 
by Philip Roy, illus. by Andrea Torrey Balsara
I’ve reviewed every Happy the Pocket Mouse story that Philip Roy and Andrea Torrey Balsara have created: Mouse Tales (Ronsdale, 2014); Jellybean Mouse (Ronsdale, 2014); and Mouse Pet (Ronsdale, 2015).  The foundation of each picture book is the endearing relationship between John and Happy.  John is like the laid-back best friend/dad who radiates subtle wisdom and empathy while Happy is this adorable, adorable innocent whose heart is filled with love and mind brims with imagination.  (I love the sweetness of his response to John’s suggestions: “That’s okay, John, we’ll just go somewhere else”; pg. 5) By having John and Happy working out what it means to take a vacation and finding a way to compromise, Philip Roy has again produced a charming life lesson in a story book.  And Andrea Torrey Balsara flawlessly brings the story to visual completion, ensuring John looks like the man who is wise and caring and Happy is effusive with sweetness and virtue.  But, this time, Philip Roy’s story allows Andrea Torrey Balsara to create wild backgrounds for Happy: on a cow at the Taj Mahal, roasting a marshmallow over a candle while camping, riding a camel in Egypt, or sporting an “I ❤︎ NY” T-shirt.  Still, the magic is in the collaboration, between the text and illustration and between John and Happy.  That's what makes the story, and Philip Roy and Andrea Torrey Balsara have done it again, blending the two into a story of adventure for the mind, the heart and the soul.

From Mouse Vacation 
by Philip Roy, illus. by Andrea Torrey Balsara

October 26, 2016

The Story of Canada (new updated edition)

by Janet Lunn and Christopher Moore
Illustrated by Alan Daniel
Scholastic Canada
344 pp.
Ages 9+
September 2016

The Story of Canada was an important book when first published in 1992 by Lester Publishing and Key Porter Books.  It’s still an important book but even more so now with an additional twenty-five or so years of Canadian history to make the story of Canada more complete.  Students and teachers of history and Canadians, new and indigenous, will appreciate the completeness of this newest edition as a true compendium of Canada’s history.

The Story of Canada takes a journey through eleven chapters and an epilogue, with obligatory index, photo credits, and acknowledgements, as well as chronology. The table of contents, now neatly organized onto a single page, lists the following chapters:

  1. A Hundred Centuries
  2. Strangers on the Coast
  3. Habitants and Voyageurs
  4. The Colonists
  5. The Great Northwest
  6. Mountains and Oceans
  7. Confederation Days
  8. Sunny Ways
  9. Stormy Times 
  10. The Flying Years 
  11. New Millennium
  12. Epilogue: Northern Voyagers

Photo of spread from The Story of Canada 
by Janet Lunn and Christopher Moore,
illus. by Alan Daniel

Thought the initial note To the Reader from The Authors at the beginning of the book is not included, The Story of Canada is essentially the same, as would be expected, except for amendments to the formerly-last chapter, The Flying Years, and the addition of an eleventh chapter, New Millennium.  Discussions of First Peoples, the Vikings, New France, exploration, Confederation, the gold rush, immigration, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the 1950s-1970s are essentially unchanged.  But now there are greater discussions about the free trade agreement and what it meant for Canada’s economy and the controversy that was the Meech Lake Accord, as well as conflicts in the global village.  The New Millennium chapter delves more into technological achievements and more milestones for Canada such as Chris Hadfield’s command of the International Space Station, the growing diversity of our populations, and the appropriately-increasing role of women in government and culture.  Sadly this chapter also examines life in the aftermath of September 11, 2000 and the growing reach of terrorism, as  well as the Great Recession, the refugee crisis, environmental disasters and the need for Truth and Reconciliation for our indigenous people.  Though this chapter is hardly one of a contented country, it is not unlike our history in general:  busy with conflict, evolution and achievement, not all of which we should be proud.  But, as is said, it is what it is.  Finally, the epilogue, titled Northern Voyagers, goes beyond the adventures and legendary songs of the Northwest Passage, now emphasizing the discovery of Franklin’s Erebus, ending with the prophetic words of Journey of Nishiyuu leader David Kawapit:
This land, the earth, the rivers, the winds, the mountains, the clouds and all of the creation, we are the true keepers and will continue to do so until time on earth is over. (pg. 313)
As more time passes, The Story of Canada will become the keeper of more and more of our history (the chronology appending the book now extends beyond 1992 to 2016, including Blue Jays’ victories, the establishment of Nunavut, the SARS epidemic and the Vancouver Olympics).  As with the telling of any history, there will be those that disagree with the emphases or perspectives of the authors but I believe that Janet Lunn and Christopher Moore have prepared a fair and comprehensive and up-to-date history of Canada in The Story of Canada, giving voice to all peoples, all centuries, all blemishes and glories, in an effort to recount and enlighten.  Enhanced by numerous photographs and Alan Daniel’s illustrations, includng many double-spread, for which he did exhaustive research at various archives and art collections, The Story of Canada has learned from its own history to become more inclusive and truly more Canadian, reaching beyond what we have been and into the future of what we are to become.

October 25, 2016

I Am Not a Number

by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Illustrated by Gillian Newland
Second Story Press
32 pp.
Ages 7+
September 2016
Reviewed from advance reading copy

Stories like I Am Not a Number should always be told.  They should always be told loudly and emphatically and with purpose, to tell of a wrongdoing that was perpetrated against First Nations families like the Couchie family of Nipissing First Nation.  Tales of children stolen from their homes, under the direction of government, to attend and live at residential schools.  Narratives of holding onto self when everything was done to annihilate that sense.  This is the account of author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ granny, Irene Couchie Dupuis.

In 1928, Irene was living with her father, Chief Ernest Couchie, and her mother and two brothers, George and Ephraim, on Nipissing Reserve Number 10 when the Indian agent of the day demanded the children be surrendered to him to deliver to St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School.  Though her parents protest–her mother especially vehement that eight-year-old Irene needed to be with her family–the children are essentially taken by force.

The children are going with me to the residential school.  They are wards of the government, now.  They belong to us. (pg. 2)

With final goodbyes, her mother telling them to “Never forget home or our ways.  Never forget your mother and father.  Never forget who you are.” (pg. 7), the three children are taken away and separated, boys from girls.  Still Irene tries to stay strong, even after she’s told that she will be known as 759, telling herself “I am not a number.  I am Irene Couchie, daughter of Ernest and Mary Ann Couchie.  I will never forget who I am.” (pg. 8).  And through the horrible showering to “scrub all the brown off” (pg. 9) and the cutting of her long hair–normally only cut when a loved one was lost– and burning of her hands as punishment for speaking her own language, Irene heeds her mother’s words to never forget who she is.
From I Am Not a Number 
by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, 
illus. by Gillian Newland

After a full year of biting her tongue and dreaming of home, to and from which all letters were banned, Irene and her brothers are sent home for the summer.  As happy as she is to feel the love of her family again, to eat well and speak her own language, Irene is troubled by images of her time at school and her impending return in the fall.  But Irene’s father has other plans for his children and none of them include that horrible place.

Jenny Kay Dupuis does her granny Irene and her heritage honour by telling this story.  It’s a difficult one for all families involved in the residential school debacle, even for generations afterwards but one that Jenny Kay Dupuis tells, in collaboration with award-winning historical fiction and non-fiction writer Kathy Kacer, to inform and clarify for young readers.  It’s a shocking tragedy from our history but one from which we can only hope all learn valuable lessons.  I Am Not a Number is illustrated compassionately by Gillian Newland, who also illustrated Kathy Kacer’s The Magician of Auschwitz (Second Story Press, 2014) and A Boy Asked the Wind (Barbara Nickel, Red Deer Press, 2015). In the realistic style of Alex Colville and using the sombre tones of greys, blacks and browns for the residential school and a similar palette with splashes of gold and green away from that setting, Gillian Newland evokes the appropriate sentiment the book.  I Am Not a Number may be illustrated and classified as juvenile non-fiction but the extensive text and the account within is a mature one, yet one that can be told and taught and learned with empathy and as tribute.
From I Am Not a Number 
by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, 
illus. by Gillian Newland

October 24, 2016

Tank and Fizz: The Case of the Battling Bots

by Liam O’Donnell
Illustrated by Mike Deas
Orca Book Publishers
163 pp.
Ages 8-11

We all know cheaters, those vile people who manipulate circumstances in their favour, regardless of others.  At the simplest, they are kids who cheat on tests or lie to cover up some misdemeanour.  At worst, they are adults who perpetrate crimes for their own purposes.  It is so satisfying when a cheater gets caught because that’s what they deserve and it’s a small step in making the world a safer and better place for all.  It’s not surprising, thus, that when Tank and Fizz, our intrepid detectives from The Case of the Slime Stampede (Orca, 2015)  are asked by the school Troll Patrol to prove that wealthy and reprehensible classmate Rizzo Rawlins is cheating in the local battle bot competition, that the two monsters are eager to take on the case. If only all cheaters could be caught by Tank and Fizz.
All year, I had watched Rizzo cheat in class.  Math test, science quizzes, coloring contests.  You name it, Rizzo Rawlins cheated.  He bribed the school math whizzes for test answers.  His goons sabotaged classmates’ experiments.  He hired professional artists to do his cut-and-past craft projects. Rizzo Rawlins had to win at everything, every time, any way he could.  I had seen the trail of broken dreams in my schoolmates’ tears.  When I’d seen the sad faces of the Troll Patrol,  I knew Rizzo’s cheating had to stop.  And I was the goblin to make it happen. (pg. 21-22)
But, as is usually the case, everyone knows about the cheating but proving it is far more difficult.  Even with Tank’s code sniffer–her invention to sniff out codes originating from beyond the school–that proves Rizzo’s bot, the Rawlins Reaper, should be disqualified, Principal Weaver refuses to believe Rizzo is anything but a model student, probably because Rizzo’s father makes huge financial donations to the school.  When the two detectives follow Rizzo to the almost complete new stadium, Slurp Stadium, they witness his acquisition of a new illegal part for his bot and his interactions, by screen, with a masked hacker called the Codex.  But the search for evidence of Rizzo’s cheating becomes linked to a situation in which the Codex threatens Mayor Grimlock to suffer unforeseen consequences if the new stadium is ever opened.  The goblin and troll duo undertake surveillance, alongside magic-spinning friend, Aleetha, a lava elf, and discover a conspiracy involving Sanzin Balazar, the wealthy entrepreneur behind SlugCo and the new stadium, a banished demon of goblin legends, and a threat to Slick City of monstrous proportions.  But can they stop the chaos before everything is lost?

Liam O’Donnell has a fun way with words, and more so in his creation of the world in which Tank and Fizz live.
You know that feeling you get when you try to stop a demon from being summoned but accidentally help summon it?  It definitely takes the shine off your scales. (pg. 136)
There are double grubnug-fudge smoothies, glowshroom groves, spicy lizard dogs and choco-slug cookies, and mothers who scratch the scales behind your ears. (Aw.)  And Tank’s inventions, like her spybot and springers, are the contraptions of kids’ dreams. Mike Deas’ graphic novel-type illustrations suggest he got as much amusement as the author in creating the assortment of monsters that populate Slick City and the Tank and Fizz books in general. (Books 3, The Case of the Missing Mage is set for release April 2017.)

From Tank and Fizz: The Case of the Battling Bots 
by Liam O'Donnell, illus. by Mikes Deas
Since the book’s dedication is “To goblin detectives and troll tinkerers everywehere”, it seems only right to review The Case of the Battling Bots in October, the month of goblins, trolls, witches, elves and more. Moreover, the book was just nominated for the 2017 Silver Birch Express award, so it’s review at this time is only fitting.  But the outrageous antics of Tank and Fizz, all in good fun and with the best of intentions, will always entertain, regardless of the time of year, as long as early and middle-grade readers enjoy a bit of fun with their creepy and a bit, but not too much, of the graphic-novel  format to dress up a strongly-plotted story.

October 21, 2016

King Baby

by Kate Beaton
Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic
40 pp.
Ages 4-8
September 2016

Though some parents might not find it humourous the way the baby in King Baby has his parents running to and fro to make his life perfect–perhaps they'll see it as castigating their own efforts–children and others will laugh at the uproarious manipulation by a swaddled egg of a baby to get everything, and I mean everything, that he desires, now and forever.  Yep, as the book says, "It is good to be king."

From King Baby by Kate Beaton

From King Baby’s birth, after which he is presented to his many admirers bearing gifts and admiration, the baby is generous with his smiles and laughs and kisses, his wiggles, gurgles and coos.  But then he begins to demand: food, burping, changing, bouncing, being carried.  It’s endless.  For King Baby, life is grand.  For King Baby’s parents, life is exhausting.  He sees them as subjects, fools even, though their ineptitude finally gets him up and toddling.  His future is even more glorious now with all that he can accomplish, though not always to everyone’s delight. (The cat looks a little dismayed.)  But King Baby has to grow up, and becoming a big boy, he learns that they’ll be going through the whole process again, this time with Queen Baby.

It’s obvious that Kate Beaton, known as Auntie Katie to the Malcolm to whom she dedicates the book, knows that of which she writes and illustrates.  A new baby is a wondrous joy but an exhausting one.  Kate Beaton’s quirky illustrations, especially of King Baby as a rotund creature swaddled in a blanket and topped with a golden crown, are too funny, and lend a comical air to a bizarrely normal yet wacky situation i.e., the joy and adoration of a new baby.  I don’t know if Kate Beaton meant to give King Baby that evil glint in his eye but he seems to know what he’s doing i.e., making everyone jump to satisfy his every whim.  Without the means to communicate with clarity, King Baby has them running around doing everything to appease him.  Ah, it’s good to be king!
From King Baby by Kate Beaton

Share this hilarious book with any new parents you know.  If they’re not too tired, they’ll certainly see the humour in their situation.  And if they’re just too tired, share it with the aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers and godmothers and everyone else who appreciate the cuteness that is a new baby but recognize the long haul of parenting still to come.  Hail the royal entourage!

October 20, 2016

The Wolf-Birds

by Willow Dawson
Owlkids Books
40 pp.
Ages 5-8

Sometimes I receive review copies of books that get office-bushwhacked on their way to reviews on CanLit for LittleCanadians.  Sometimes I get back to them, and sometimes I don’t.  And then sometimes because of award nominations I feel compelled to finally get that review out.  Such is the case with Willow Dawson’s The Wolf-Birds, recently nominated for the 2016 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, the 2016 Information Book Award and the 2017 Blue Spruce Award.  Mea culpa for not reviewing The Wolf-Birds sooner.

The Wolf-Birds is a story of survival in the natural world and it’s not an easy one.  But when life is governed by the weather and food availability, how can it be anything but perilous?  Two hungry ravens endure the cold of winter, scavenging for food wherever possible.  When they hear four wolves in pursuit of a buffalo, they follow, expectant of some scraps.  Instead, one of the wolves is killed and the three remaining wolves continue their own search for food, alerted by the ravens to a starving and injured deer.  

From The Wolf-Birds by Willow Dawson

In the wild winter wood…

…one animal’s life helps many others live.  

From strongest to smallest,

everyone feasts in turn, filling
bellies and beaks. (pg. 24-27)
The interdependent relationship between the ravens and wolves is recognized by the common use of the term “wolf-birds” for ravens, acknowledging the unique connection between the two creatures.  As Willow Dawson’s story reveals, ravens are prepared to steal food killed by wolves as well as lead them by call and display to potential prey, while wolves pay attention to where ravens congregate and willingly clean up that which the birds do not eat.  It’s a unique interdependence and one that affords greater discussion in science classrooms, discussions aptly supported by the book’s references and information guide available at the Owlkids website here.

But, The Wolf-Birds is an illustrated children’s book and one whose artwork must be recognized as fundamental in the telling of its story.  The text is spare and that is because the illustrations, acrylic paint on board, propel the story through the cycles of food and life. Eerily reminiscent of the sleek animals of cave dwellings, Willow Dawson’s fauna are simple, outlined creatures, unadorned but easily identifiable, coloured in muted earth tones of feathers and fur, alongside cool snow and winter skies, with occasional brightness of rose or green.
From The Wolf-Birds by Willow Dawson
There is a story to tell here of life in the wild and a mutualistic relationship of which many readers are unaware.  The Wolf-Birds, beautifully depicted by Willow Dawson's artwork, is a story that must be told and appreciated for its lessons and its message about working together and survival, teachings that go far beyond the natural environment portrayed within.

October 19, 2016

Tagged Out: Book event (Toronto)

The Toronto Blue Jays may have played their last game of the season today


if you baseball,
live in or around Toronto
want to support youth baseball

Then come out to the book event featuring 
author Joyce Grant's

new middle grade sports novel

Tagged Out
(Sports Stories series)
by Joyce Grant
123 pp.
Ages 12-14

on Sunday, October 23, 2016

at 12 noon

at Christie Pits
(corner of Christie St. and Bloor St.)
Toronto, ON

On the Lorimer website, the book is described as follows:

The inner-city Toronto Blues baseball team is having a lousy year. Shortstop Nash and the Blues can't seem to win. They especially hate losing to their archrivals, the rich kids of the Parkhill Pirates. When all-star player Jock joins the team, it looks like the Blues might be able to turn the season around. The only problem? When the Pirates find out that Jock is gay, they ambush Nash and Jock, and Nash has to decide if he wants to stand by his teammate.

Get a signed copy of Tagged Out for $10
participate in the  Toronto Playgrounds Baseball
Derby for Distance

You can help fundraise 
for new equipment for 
the Toronto Playgrounds kids' baseball program
by participating in 
the batting competition 
at pitching machines of different speeds 
for different ages
There will be prizes, a raffle, refreshments, book sales and fun!

October 18, 2016

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk

by Jan Thornhill
Groundwood Books
44 pp.
Ages 8-11
October 2016

The story of the Great Auk, a bird of unique anatomy and behaviour, is truly a tragic one, and Jan Thornhill takes great care to ensure the details of that tragedy are thorough, though never explicit, and the basis for some ecological contemplation.

The Great Auk, which inhabited areas of the North Atlantic including Iceland, Greenland, Scandinavia and Newfoundland, was a part of the history of Stone Age humans, the Vikings, the Inuit and the Beothuk, and then that of the Europeans who arrived on North American shores.  The bird was a magnificent bird in size and structure, a lethal fisher spending 10 months of the year in the water.  But, its downfall–or at least a couple factors contributing to it–was advanced by the bird’s inability to fly and its clumsiness on the land upon which their eggs were laid.  Though they laid their eggs in highly-inaccessible areas in order to afford them some protection, humans found ways to reach them and exploit them.

Though the various cultures came to kill the birds for meat, some respectfully ensured that the rest of the animal was not wasted, instead used for clothing, oil, tools, and weapons.  But once the Europeans arrived in North America, the slaughter of the Great Auk went beyond just meeting their needs to survive.  The disappearance of the Great Auk from Funk Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, may have been the canary in the mine shaft but it just encouraged the continued exploration for and exploitation of Great Auks and their eggs for museum and private collections.

From The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk
by Jan Thornhill

Yet in this historical and natural history story, Jan Thornhill who excels at comprehensive but accessible non-fiction for middle-grade readers (e.g., I Found a Dead Bird, Maple Tree Press, 2006; This is My Planet: The Kids’ Guide to Global Warming, Maple Tree Press, 2007; Who Wants Pizza?: The kids’ guide to the history, science and culture of food, Maple Tree Press, 2010) the story of the Great Auk is told with insight and hindsight.  The bird’s own nature limited its ability to adapt and escape humans as predators but the role of humans in the Great Auk’s extinction is sadly obvious.  Still Jan Thornhill, whose illustrations of the bird in various natural situations and a few unnatural ones depict the Great Auk’s former glory and reality, makes a point to note the bird’s extinction in allowing other species, such as the Puffin, to flourish where it once could not.  Sometimes, though not always, there is a silvery lining to a story of extinction.

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk will be a useful text for talking history, birds, ecology, human interference and so much more–the addenda are very informative–and for opening discussions to help young people address their own role in the natural world and ensuring that world's endurance without our manipulation of it into a sorry state of irreversible destruction.

October 17, 2016

If I Were a Zombie

by Kate Inglis
Illustrated by Eric Orchard
Nimbus Publishing
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
April 2016

With Halloween almost upon us and young children (OK, adults too) thinking about costumes, consider reading If I Were a Zombie to jump start those creative juices and delight young readers with the back-and-forth poems of two friends, Evan and Poppy,  imagining life as monsters and other-worldly creatures.

The list of creatures that Kate Inglis includes is extensive: zombie, fairy, robot, giant, vampire, witch, ninja, ghost, alien, superhero, sea monster, goblin, skeleton, mermaid, and even adult. There’s something a little scary and a lot funny about all of them. Each double-spread has a full-page illustration and a multi-stanza rhyming poem about the entity each child envisions for themselves.

If I were a zombie
I’d package my drool
Put it in Mason jars
Sell it at school. 

I’d mumble and stumble to sniff out some lunch
Chase Ben and Lucy…
(Think they’d be juicy?)
And sweet little Tilly?
“Quit runnin’, silly!
All I want’s a good nibble and munch.
(pg. 3)

So begins Evan’s speculative verse about being a zombie, and the two children’s remaining proposals are just as evocative.  There are discussions of the robot’s price tag and robospeak (AFFIRMATIVE for yes, NEGATIVE for no, And DOES-NOT-COMPUTE for “I ain’t gonna go.”; pg. 7); the ninja’s "collection of secrets and dark-of-night prizes" (pp. 15); a pirate ghost who knows of Oak Island and eluding the Mounties; an alien called Zeekoid the Freakoid ready to take over New Brunswick; and a photo-bombing sea monster that has ...

...stingers for fingers
Seaweed for hair
Flip-floppy gills
And a bum that’s bare.” (pg. 23)

From If I Were a Zombie 
by Kate Inglis, illus. by Eric Orchard
But most wonderful of all is the cool dad who declares that,

I’d stay up past midnight
And my kids would too
We’d eat pretzels with pop
That turned our tongues blue.
(pg. 31)

Eric Orchard, who illustrated The Terrible, Horrible, Smelly Pirate (Nimbus, 2008), easily gets down and dirty in his imaginings of these weird and wacky characters.  The illustrations are as bold as their colours and more fun than scary, sure to entertain young readers with their quirky whimsy.

From If I Were a Zombie
by Kate Inglis, illus. by Eric Orchard
If I Were a Zombie pairs Kate Inglis’s imaginative rhymes with Eric Orchard’s fanciful but goofy creatures in such a way that life as an other-worldly creature seems almost cool, even if it requires eating nachos with brain dip.

October 16, 2016

2017 Forest of Reading® nominees announced

We've all waited for the day that the Ontario Library Association announced the nominees for the 2017 Forest of Reading® programs. Now extending beyond Ontario, even more readers are enjoying new Canadian literature as part of the Forest of Reading® programs.

These readers' choice award programs invite teachers and librarians (school and public), as well as parents of home-schoolers, to sign up for these programs through the Ontario Library Association. Once you've registered for the programs and purchase the books, young readers will be on their way to voting for their favourites in April.

With over one hundred nominated titles, I have presented the nominees in multiple posts. See the lists below for nominees for the different programs.

October 14, 2016

Icarus Down

by James Bow
Scholastic Canada
374 pp.
Ages 12+
September 2016

Icarus Down may be science fiction but it is truly a cautionary tale of environmental destruction, colonization, genocide and cultural discrimination.  Their world, or rather planet, may be foreign to our 2016 one, but it’s what happened on Old Mother Earth that resulted in this new world.

After the Extinction Wars which took place following the Great Warming, the Icarus, a colonizing spacecraft, travelled 25,000 light years into the darkness, spending 72 years looking for a new planet to inhabit.  They called the planet upon which they crashed and settled Icarus Down, a web-like world of thirteen cities tethered by cables to anchors in cliffs far above the fog forest and the ticktock monsters below.

Simon Daub, who begins the telling of Icarus Down, is on his maiden flight as an ornithopter pilot with his older brother Isaac, a senior pilot and all-around golden boy.  Shortly after Isaac reveals to Simon that he believes their mother was murdered, not as a result of jumping to her death, something goes awry with the battery and Isaac, attempting to repair it, is burned to death by the powerful sun.  Simon manages to parachute out but he is badly burned and scarred.  Nathaniel Tal, chief of security for their city of Iapyx and older brother of Mayor Matthew Tal, questions Simon about the “accident” and Grounders, those supporting the move of the colonies into the foggy land below.  His questions make Simon begin to wonder whether Isaac and perhaps his mother had been Grounders themselves.

When lights start flickering, and steam-pipes burst, and message canisters travelling by pneumatic tubes are misdirected, the troubles are attributed to  Grounders terrorism.  Simon, having met with Grounders via Isaac’s betrothed Rachel, suspects the sabotage is being used to discredit their movement and he begins to investigate.  Suspecting Nathaniel Tal of the sabotage, Simon gets in a little too deep and, after witnessing the actions that would result in the inevitable destruction of their city, Simon and Rachel jump into the oblivion beyond Iapyx, hopeful of safety, fearful of death.

Our second narrator in Icarus Down is a human girl known as Small, Fierce-Hearted One to her people, which sounded like Ek-Taak-Tock-Taak in their language.  When she goes in pursuit of revenge on the invaders who destroyed her people and now reside in the air, she is witness to the literal fall of Iapyx, and discovers Simon, injured but alive.
I did not know what I had expected after travelling nine dozen sleeps to one of the invaders’ giant metal hives, but surely not to have it fall and almost crush me.  one of my dreams of revenge were so large. (pg. 163)
Simon, or Silly Strange Boy as she thinks of him, and Ek-Taak-Tock-Taak whom Simon eventually calls Eliza, must find a way to communicate and trust each other in order to survive and attain that which each seeks: justice or revenge.

This is but a slice of James Bow’s complicated story of conflict and colonization and conspiracy.  Though an unfathomable world of tethered cities and planetary travel and lizard-like creatures, the worlds of Icarus Down are reflective of the atrocities perpetrated here on earth in the name of exploration and colonization with the usurping of land and culture for our own purposes.  The truth is out there in Icarus Down but, like with all conspiracies, it is hidden away from those who might demand change.
If I didn’t do something, this would stay a lie.” (pg. 272)
Icarus Down is about the clash of cultures, invader and indigen, so seemingly different in dress, manner and language at first encounter but who find a way to work together and appreciate their commonalities.  By creating a cosmological allegory of settlement and occupation, with a thrilling adventure of intrigue and treachery, carried out by good guys and bad guys and a few playing both sides, James Bow has made Icarus Down a turbulent bit of travel into an unsettled future, perhaps a little too much like some historical disgraces from which we’ve yet to learn.

October 13, 2016

The Wish Tree

by Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Chris Turnham
Chronicle Books
40 pp.
Ages 3-5
September 2016

Kids make wishes on shooting stars, on birthday candles, on wish bones and even eyelashes but little Charles is convinced he’s going to find a wish tree, regardless of what his older brother and sister say.  So, dressed warmly for the winter cold and accompanied by his supportive Boggan (a toboggan), Charles sets out in search of this amazing tree.

The two friends make their way through snow-covered fields, up and down hills,  across ice and into a forest, with Boggan singing “Whishhhhh” along the way.  In their search they help a squirrel get his collection of hazelnuts home, transport a load of birch wood for a beaver, assist a fox in getting her berries to her burrow, carry carrots for some hares and apples for a deer, twigs for birds and more.  Not surprising that time passes quickly and little Charles and Boggan become tired, moving ever more slowly until the boy lays down upon the toboggan.  What happens as Charles sleeps is the miracle that comes of helping others and the discovery of the wish tree is but a fraction of the wonder that comes about that evening for Charles and Boggan.

From The Wish Tree 
by Kyo Maclear, illus. by Chris Turnham
Charles’s search for a wish tree seems more a quest for the hope of opportunity.  Though he and Boggan may become tired in their pursuit of that grail, it’s clear that only by making the wishes of others come true that they are able to realize their dream of locating the wish tree.  Charles does leave a wish on the wish tree (little ones can create their own wish tree upon which they post wishes using a downloadable activity from Chronicle Books at http://www.chroniclebooks.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Make-a-Wish-Tree-Activity-Kit.pdf) and, though the reader never sees what he has written, the illustrations indicate a fulfilled little boy making his way home at the end of the night.

From The Wish Tree 
by Kyo Maclear, illus. by Chris Turnham
Kyo Maclear’s story is very simple: a quest for a wish tree.  But she ties up that quest with doing for others, promoting generosity of spirit and effort as the means for personal fulfillment.  It’s a big message in a simple story but an important one for all dreamers and wishers to recognize.  That simplicity is emulated in American Chris Turnham’s illustrations, demonstrating that empowerment does not just come to the bold and brash but the quiet and determined as well.  I’m glad that Charles found his wish tree as he did; any other way would have been too contrived and unsatisfying.  And Kyo Maclear does not do contrived or unsatisfying.  As with her earlier books, including my very favourite Virginia Wolf (Kids Can Press, 2012), Kyo Maclear fulfills readers' own wishes by eloquently wrapping up big concepts in sweet stories that always charm us with their worthwhile life lessons.

October 12, 2016

Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me: Interview with author Philippa Dowding

Yesterday, I reviewed Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me here on CanLit for LittleCanadians.  

Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me
(The Night Flyer's Handbook, Book 2)
by Philippa Dowding
200 pp.
Ages 8-12
October 2016

Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing author Philippa Dowding 
about Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me,  
the sequel to The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden (reviewed here)

Author Philippa Dowding

HK:  As in The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden, flying is the big thing that Gwendolyn and Everton have in common, both being Night Flyers.  Did the idea of your characters being able to fly come from your own dreams (after all, Dr. Parks suggests that may be the source) or some other basis?

PD: I did have amazingly clear dreams of flight as a child. They were so vivid and real, that I would wake up truly astonished that I didn’t actually fly around the neighbourhood in my sleep. There was a certain feeling of loss too, realizing it was just a dream. So perhaps creating a world where people actually can fly, was partly wish-fulfillment!

I’ve also always been fascinated with magic realism in literature. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (where main characters fly with abandon), and studied the literary form in graduate school at about the same time. Something about magic existing alongside the everyday, without anyone explaining it or questioning it, really captured my imagination.

As a middle-grade writer, the metaphor of flight also seemed such a perfect way to explore change, life and death, adolescence on the cusp of adulthood: who are we, who are we to become, how does our community, our history, our family, shape who we will be? If we’re a teenager with infinite possibilities ahead of us, we can become anything. In my magic realism world, the lucky ones can choose to become Night Flyers.

HK:  Even though Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me is a light fantasy for middle grade readers, it does tackle some pretty difficult issues such as grief and anger management as well as child abuse.  How did you reconcile keeping the tone of the story light while looking into these issues?

PD:  All of us at some point face loss or grief, and some may also struggle with depression, isolation, abuse or know someone who does. A writer can’t shy away from that, not if she wants to be honest in her writing. I try to acknowledge that, try to explore what those issues might feel like, to bring some recognition or even clarity perhaps, without offering any simple answers, because there aren’t any.  When I write for kids, I try to explore the tough issues as an ally.

But it’s possible to touch on these issues and still maintain a lighter tone at the same time. For one thing, the immediacy of a first-person, present tense narrative is great, because there’s no lingering too long on the tough stuff. Humour helps too, even dark humour, and Gwendolyn is quite a funny kid. Also, adding a younger sibling (or two, in Gwen’s case), gets the character thinking about the world outside herself.

But this is also where the beauty of magic realism comes in: you can tackle the tough issues while still keeping magic and wonder in the world you’ve created.

HK: Having read "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L’Engle, a book introduced to Gwendolyn by Dr. Parks, I was struck by a number of similarities between it and your story.  There’s the issue of dark entities and helpful guardians; the role of younger siblings helping the main character see the positives in life; a missing father; and the strength of good to overcome evil.  What role did "A Wrinkle in Time" have in your writing of Everton Miles is Stranger than Me?

PD:  You caught my Easter egg! The family therapist in the story, Dr. Adam Parks, does offer "A Wrinkle in Time" to Gwendolyn, which she refuses because the flying centaur on the cover freaks her out: she’s already got enough flying mythical creatures in her life, thank you! He also offers Gwen "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" which she accepts.

I’m honoured at the comparison (and you’re the second person to make it), but the truth is kind of mundane. My old copy of "A Wrinkle in Time" has a fantastic illustration of a centaur flying through mountains on it, and I thought it would be fun to have Gwendolyn recoil from that image. She’s not quite ready to read a book about mythical creatures or children (without broomsticks) flying around.

Although the two books might make a great book comparison for someone, I put Madeleine L’Engle’s book into my story as a tip of the hat to a wonderful children’s fantasy classic, with a great cover.

HK:  Puberty is an awkward time, with self-awareness and first loves and friendships coming to the forefront, in addition to physical and emotional development. Learning you can fly can’t make that period of development any less challenging.  Everton Miles is Stranger than Me has an embedded message of reassurance that the coming of age, especially emotionally, can be precarious but survivable.  Is this a message that you planned to impart to middle grade readers or was it just fortuitous?

PD:  Very definitely! It’s part of the job as a middle-grade writer, I think, to offer a glimpse through the murk of puberty. You can’t solve everything as the writer, especially not if you want to be honest, but you can show a possible future where the murk thins a little. You can be the trusty friend with the lantern. Most of us do survive.

HK:  When I write, I try to get photos of my characters from magazines or online, just so that I have something to look at.  If you had to choose actors or people with whom readers would be familiar to be the models for Gwendolyn, Everton, Martin and Jez, who would they be?

PD:  This is a great question, and believe it or not, the hardest to answer! It was fun to think of matches for them, so here’s my answer…

Gwendolyn would be Canadian actor Ellen Page in “Juno”, for her strength and sense of humour.

Everton would be American Actor Tom Welling, as young Clark Kent from “Smallville.”  He’s handsome, gifted, kind, tough (and well, Superman), but he also behaves like a typical teenager.

Martin is American actor Josh Hutcherson, or Peeta Mellark from "The Hunger Games." He’s tough, loyal, good with a secret and eventually indispensable, a friend to the end.

Jez was the hardest to find a match for, but I finally came up with a combo: think actor Alexis Bledel as Lena in “Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants,” because of her sweetness. Or for a timeless BFF, perhaps lady-like but wise Charlotte Lucas, best friend to Elizabeth Bennett, in "Pride and Prejudice."

HK:  Mercy and forgiveness are two other concepts that sneak into Everton Miles is Stranger than Me but are really important ones in moving the story forward, especially for Gwendolyn.  How did you envision Gwendolyn coming to the realization that mercy and forgiveness are integral in making relationships work?

PD:  Another really great question, you’ve captured the essence of the book! Yes, forgiveness and mercy are constantly dancing together in the story, they weave their way into every relationship.

I wanted to explore the idea that forgiveness is not simple, nor is it a given, but a process. Does Gwendolyn forgive Martin for the Worst Kiss Ever? Yes. Does she forgive Mr. McGillies for “causing” her father’s death? Yes.  Does she forgive Abilith the Rogue for his obsession and abduction of her? No. But she does choose to be merciful toward him, a sign of her dawning maturity.

Tempered with time and experience, I think the forging of forgiveness and mercy, is what makes us into adults. And Everton Miles is Stranger than Me is after all, a story about growing up.

HK:  Without giving away a spoiler about an important revelation at the conclusion of Everton Miles is Stranger than Me, it’s obvious that there’s more story to tell for Gwendolyn and her friends and her family.  Do you have a next book planned out already (maybe even written) and what details (title, date of publication, story line, etc.) could you share with us?

PD:  I have been thinking about a possible storyline for Gwendolyn and her friends, which would involve moving out of the small town of Bass Creek, and possibly discovering other Night Flyers around the world. So the answer is, yes, I’ve been thinking about it and playing with possible storylines, and my publisher, Dundurn Press, would be happy to have another title in the series. But it’s just a shimmery, floaty idea at the moment!

Many thanks 
to author Philippa Dowding for taking the time from her writing to answer these few questions for CanLit for LittleCanadians
to publicist Jaclyn Hodsdon of Dundurn for facilitating this interview.