January 29, 2018

The Way Downtown: Adventures in Public Transit

Written by Inna Gertsberg
Illustrated by Mike Lowery
Kids Can Press
44 pp.
Ages 4-8

I've waited too long to review this gem of a non-fiction book that can be used to teach transportation, mapping, communities and so much more.  With the stories and art blending together into a fascinating depiction of travel on water and land within the city of Zoom, The Way Downtown includes everyone and their need to get around safely and efficiently.
From The Way Downtown: Adventures in Public Transit
by Inna Gertsberg 
illus. by Mike Lowery
(image from mikelowery.com)
Dr. Brodie is our first traveller, making her way from her island home by ferry and then cycling to the museum where she works.  In addition to learning about ferries and water transport, the reader learns about cycling and bike sharing.  Young Robbie is visiting his Aunt Raisa and he travels with her by bus and subway, all the while taking photographs of the urban wildlife.  Agent Theodore Rybka is on a mission to deliver an important package.  He takes multiple train and subway rides to remain incognito and confuse would-be followers of the spy. The busking Zanies family are heading to Great Park, like all our travellers, to perform.  Though public transit aficionados, using monthly transit passes, they lose Zach along the way and learn the efficiency of relocating separated parties. Finally, Boris, the guide dog, takes his visually impaired partner Guy via sidewalk and light rail train to meet their friend Leslie.
From The Way Downtown: Adventures in Public Transit 
by Inna Gertsberg
illus. by Mike Lowery

These are but 5 stories out of a billion taking place because of public transit in the city of Zoom but they give a snapshot of how different people live their lives and get around, whether visiting, working, or playing.  Readers will learn about all manner of public transit: how to use it, what to expect, paying for it, etiquette, and more.  From Lost & Founds, to repairs that take place, as well as guide dogs, The Way Downtown is an informative and entertaining read about getting around in the city. It's a fun look at the everyday concept of travel by public transit (none of the stories have travellers in cars) to see the benefits and intricacies of urban movement from place to place. Though I might see Toronto, my hometown and the residence of author Inna Gertsberg, in the city of Zoom, I suspect that Zoom could be any and every city with multiple public transit provisions, a great park and other urban features likes hospitals, a zoo, museum and observatory.
From The Way Downtown: Adventures in Public Transit
by Inna Gertsberg 
illus. by Mike Lowery 
(image from mikelowery.com)
Mike Lowery, who illustrated Maureen Fergus's award-winning The Day My Mom Came to Kindergarten (Kids Can Press, 2013) and Andrew Larsen's A Squiggly Story (Kids Can Press, 2016), gets in the busyness and complexity of an urban centre like Zoom which keeps all its people moving via many modes of public transit.  There's lots to notice and details to pick out and Mike Lowery makes The Way Downtown an urban Where's Waldo? of movement and stories being lived.  The organization of the book which resembles a graphic novel with information embedded in maps, graphic organizers and more is both inviting and comprehensive, as well as engaging.
From The Way Downtown: Adventures in Public Transit
by Inna Gertsberg 
illus. by Mike Lowery
Take a worthwhile foray into public transit, whether in a classroom with young students learning about transportation and communities (the glossary provided is worthwhile) or with your own children before a trip or to see themselves in and about their own neighbourhoods, by getting on board The Way Downtown: Adventures in Public Transit.

January 26, 2018

Blood on the Beach

Written by Sarah N. Harvey and Robin Stevenson
Orca Book Publishers
259 pp.
Ages 13+

When eight “at-risk” teens accompany three adult counsellors to a remote island off the BC coast to participate in the week-long INTRO (=In Nature to Renew Ourselves) program, they probably never imagined graver risks than those they had already endured.  But,  when one of the teens goes missing, and everyone starts pointing fingers and suspicions grow between island-mates, Blood on the Beach becomes a YA Survivor x Lord of the Flies story.
Today is a good day to bury bad habits, attitudes and relationships so you can give birth to a new you. (pg. 45)
It seems that those in authority–parents and the court system–believe that the four girls and four boys sent to INTRO need to “change” their ways.  There’s Alice, the daughter of a cop, who was tagged for underage drinking; a depressed Tara who seems fearful of life; the flirtatious Mandy whose risky behaviour has lead her to theft; the misleading Imogen whose vice is drugs; B & E proficient Jason; Caleb who assaulted his mother’s abusive partner; weed-dealer Chad; and Nick whose parents want him to not be gay.  Under the care of former cop Warren and his psychologist wife Claire, as well as newbie counsellor Rahim, the kids are brought together to discuss their feelings, do chores like cooking and cleaning, and clearing of brush for a trail. But when Tara disappears the second day on the island and the radio is damaged, most of the kids want answers and actively pursue them.  Everyone is on edge, but especially Alice who unearths clues to Caleb’s possible involvement and Caleb who realizes Alice and Imogen are treating him with distrust.  The situation is all the more tenuous because of Warren and Claire’s reluctance to contact authorities and get assistance.

Through the alternate voices of Alice and Caleb, the story of Tara’s disappearance and the program’s participants coming together to solve the mystery is revealed.  But Blood on the Beach moves from mystery to thriller when a death occurs and suspicions are ramped up.  Everyone is looking over their shoulders for the culprit, not knowing enough about anyone to feel safe.    

From reviews of Sarah N. Harvey and Robin Stevenson’s most recent books (Spirit Level and The World Without Us, respectively), we know that the two BC writers can pack a lot of plot punch and strong characterizations into their YA novels.  Together, they are powerful.  They have created a wild assortment of characters and exposed them to  a more tenuous situation than those from which they came.  I suspect the community that thought INTRO was a good idea might want to rethink the benefits of a program that doesn’t adhere to the bioethical maxim of “do no harm.”  Scarier still is the belief that the adults would know what they’re doing when it’s actually the kids who show the maturity and conscience to fully resolve the mystery and mitigate the threat.

Like the little paper boats the teens construct with messages of their pasts to release to the sea, these teens leave behind their pasts and demonstrate courage and resourcefulness to secure their present and even look forward to positive futures. 

January 23, 2018

Book or Bell?

Written by Chris Barton
Illustrated by Ashley Spires
40 pp.
Ages 4-8

What reader does not know the agony of having their reading interrupted?

Henry is one such child.  Picking up a book about a bike at his school library, Henry is captivated, taking the book outside for recess, annoyed by the bell that calls them outside and then in. At lunch, when the bell rings again, Henry stays at his desk and continues to read.  This seems to concern his teacher and the principal and even the children in the cafeteria whose actions are disrupted by Henry's absence.  The visiting mayor recommends a louder bell which the school implements the next day.  While everyone is disturbed by the new bell, Henry stays put and continues reading. (What is this book?!) Consequences to his classmates repeat in art class.
From Book or Bell? 
by Chris Barton 
illus. by Ashley Spires
Mayor Wise (yes, that is his name) seeks the governor's suggestion which is a louder bell ("...the percussion-bomb bell was replaced by an avalanche-inducing contraption flown in from the Alps.") Still Henry continues to read, amidst the shambles of a classroom in which birds flit around the boy and letters are propelled from the page.  Yet again, class goes awry and the senator recommends, you guessed it, something even louder.  It's not until a simpler solution that feeds Henry's interest is undertaken, courtesy of Henry's teacher, that everyone can enjoy the day to its fullest.

American author Chris Barton's story is clearly a satire of those in authority suggesting outrageous schemes that are ineffective.  From Mayor Wise to Governor Bright and Senator Brilliant, the cast of administrators is wholly inept.  It is only Ms. Sabio (Spanish for "wise") who truly has the answer, though her reach is discreet.  Still it is Canadian Ashley Spires's illustrations that charm Book or Bell? from parody to entertainment.  Her children are diverse and inclusive, imbibing the story with tolerance and acceptance amidst the idiotic ideas of those in power.  The chaos of classrooms run amok and clothes launched from the vibrations of loud bells are hysterical.  Ashley Spires never disregards the importance of details: the principal's hairy legs, a bird in a shoe, training wheels flung from a bike, and the frazzled hair of all, including the principal's combover, in reaction to the piercing bell.
From Book or Bell? 
by Chris Barton 
illus. by Ashley Spires
No school should ever make a child choose between book or bell but, if there's ever a concern, Book or Bell? makes it clear that looking to those in authority is not necessarily a wise idea.  Looking inward is much more productive and effective.

January 19, 2018

The Snake Mistake Mystery: The Great Mistake Mysteries, Book 3

Written by Sylvia McNicoll
Dundurn Press
224 pp.
Ages 9-12
January 2018
But my mind tries to sort through all the details that float through my thoughts: a missing snake, an empty ring box, spray-painted cars, a stolen phone and laptop, a stolen Mr. Universe medal.  What do they have in common? Not Noble Dog Walking. Can't just be Noble Dog Walking. (pg. 89)
As in The Best Mistake Mystery, the first book in Sylvia McNicoll's Great Mistakes Mysteries, there are plenty of mistakes to be made and a new collection of mysteries to be revealed and solved.  And Stephen Noble and best friend Renée Kobai who walk dogs for his father's dog walking company are on it.  If they could just keep Noble Dog Walking from being blamed for all the mishaps, some criminal, happening in their Brant Hills neighbourhood, then Dad wouldn't lose all his clients and he wouldn't have to give up and take on telemarketing from home.  That's a lot of what ifs but Stephen and Renée are an astute pair of twelve-year-olds who take note of much in their neighbourhood: suspicious vehicles, coincidences, human and animal behaviour. If anyone can solve all the mysteries within The Snake Mistake Mystery, they can.

When a powerful storm hits, Stephen is instructed by his flight attendant mom to check on King, the pet of a new neighbour.  But with a power outage, Stephen and Renée are delayed and by the time they access the house via a hidden key, they find the ball python gone. When the kids return to Stephen's, they learn Mrs. Irwin, the owner of five Yorkies, has accused Noble Dog Walking of leaving her door unlocked and allowing the theft of a Mr. Universe gold medal while Mr. Mason, a former client, claims his cell phone and laptop disappeared because they still had a key to his house. Knowing none of these crimes have anything to do with them, Stephen is determined to find the culprit, hoping to solve the mystery, plus a few more, while he and Renée determine how to locate and capture a missing snake.

At every turn around the neighbourhood, there is something else either going amiss or being revealed.  With a motley band of neighbours–their techie friend Reuven; Renée's brother Attila and his girlfriend Star, both taggers; artists Mr. Kowalski and Mrs. Irwin; Principal Watier and her love interest Mr. Sawyer; skateboarders Serge Watier and Red; Mr. Mason; the Bennetts; Mr. Ron and his mother; the wacky Janet Lacey of the Burlington Animal Shelter; neighbourhood patrol Mr. Rupert–there are plenty of suspects for the crimes and just as many red herrings.  Add to that an assortment of canine friends, including leads Ping, a Jack Russell, and Pong, a greyhound, and The Snake Mistake Mystery is a whodunit with a colourful cast and entertaining riddles. Fortunately, like the multiple leads of a professional dog walker, the plot lines may get twisted but there is much satisfaction when all are straightened out.

While Sylvia McNicoll writes superb young adult fiction (e.g., Crush. Candy. Corpse., 2012; Dying to Go Viral, 2013; Best Friends Through Eternity, 2015), with strong characters and intriguing plots, her middle-grade fiction is outstanding, giving readers fun adventures, compelling mysteries and real characters.  She knows what will get readers interested and she delivers.  And did I mention the bounty of animals that round out the cast of The Snake Mistake Mystery?  Of course there are the dogs of the Noble Dog Walking, both current and former clients, but there are lots of cats up for adoption, mice as bait and pets, and a ball python.  In fact, while Sylvia McNicoll makes reference to snakes in the news, it is her attribution of Stephen and Renée having read Snake in My Toilet that is wonderful and deeply personal. I can't think of a nicer way to honour her dear friend and author Gisela Tobien Sherman who passed away unexpectedly last year.  She'd probably be chuffed to know her snake found a place with that of Sylvia McNicoll's in an adventure in which middle-graders succeed where adults mess up.
The Great Mistake Mysteries


There's a short video that was uploaded just days ago to celebrate the release of The Snake Mistake Mystery.  It features a reading by author Sylvia McNicoll and her own Mortie, the model for the book's Ping. Do check it out (as well as Sylvia McNicoll's cool Jack Russell pin)!
Uploaded on January 14, 2018 by Sylvia McNicoll to YouTube.

January 17, 2018

Sukaq and the Raven

by Roy Goose and Kerry McCluskey
Artwork by Soyeon Kim
Inhabit Media
36 pp.
Ages 5-7
October 2017

Little Sukaq who lives in Apex, Nunavut is sweet and fast and loves hearing stories from his anaana as he drifts off to sleep.  His favourite story is an Inuit tale of the raven creating the universe.
From Sukaq and the Raven 
by Roy Goose and Kerry McCluskey 
illus. by Soyeon Kim
In the best of storytelling traditions, his anaana (mother) tells him that she'd "heard from a friend of mine, who heard it from his grandmother, who also heard it from someone else. This story is very, very old." (pg. 7)  As she tells him of the biggest raven that ever existed, Sukaq closes his eyes and imagines himself on the back of the raven, flying through the night sky.  As the raven glides through the cold sky, snow gathering on his wings, he flings a giant snowball off and creates a place upon which he can rest. And so Earth is made.
From Sukaq and the Raven 
by Roy Goose and Kerry McCluskey
 illus. by Soyeon Kim
Then the raven, seeking light, pecks at the ground whereupon a plant begins to grow. From this plant, the raven grabs something bright and tosses it into the air for warmth and light.  When that sun sets, the raven wants light in the dark so he pecks at the ground again and from a new emerging plant derives a shiny object which, when flung into the sky, becomes the moon.

Finally, the raven seeks a partner. Pecking at the ground one last time, he reveals a new plant emerging with a woman inside. But before he can be a true partner, he must transform from raven to man in blue parka, expertly depicted by artist Soyeon Kim.

Inuit storyteller Roy Goose shared this story with writer Kerry McCluskey when she researched her first book Tulugaq: An Oral History of Ravens (Inhabit Media, 2013) and now the story has new wings to share with others beyond the Arctic. By telling an origin story with a little boy dreaming of accompanying the giant raven as it creates the universe brings the story from legend to something more personal and even bigger.  But it's Soyeon Kim's dioramic illustrations that propel Sukaq and the Raven into even greater depths of storytelling.  Though the art may appear to be collages, Soyeon Kim actually crafts three-dimensional dioramas of scenes for the picture books she illustrates.  You can appreciate the true complexity of her dioramas on her website www.kimsoyeonart.com.  From Sukaq's home landscape of northern lights, colourful houses and flying ravens to the cold of a dark sky and the emerging plants that bring forth elements of the universe, Soyeon Kim breathes life into the story, taking it from just text to a full-bodied story as might have been heard from Roy Goose himself.
From Sukaq and the Raven 
by Roy Goose and Kerry McCluskey 
illus. by Soyeon Kim

January 12, 2018

Elisapee and Her Baby Seagull

Written by Nancy Mike
Illustrated by Charlene Chua
Inhabit Media
40 pp.
Ages 4-7
November 2017

When her father Livee brings home a baby seagull, seven-year-old Elisapee adopts it, calling it Naujaaraq or Nau for short.  She adores the little bird, caring for it as a mother would: making a soft bed for it and gathering sculpins and other food to feed it.  As Nau grows and begins to accompany Elisapee outdoors, they realizes they must encourage Nau to learn to fly.  After a few attempts, Nau takes to the air and even joins other seagulls, returning nightly.  Giving Nau a pink ribbon for her foot, Elisapee is delighted to be able to pick out Nau amongst the other gulls. And then a few days pass and Nau never returns.  Learning about loss is a hard lesson for Elisapee but one she accepts, rich in memories and understanding for the wildlife of the Arctic.
From Elisapee and Her Baby Seagull 
by Nancy Mike 
illus. by Charlene Chua
Only in the Arctic, a world of sculpins and krill, tundra and brilliant northern lights, could the story of Elisapee and Her Baby Seagull be as real as it is.  Most children will have brought home a found animal or injured bird to tend at home until time to let it go but Elisapee with the help of her little brother Jimi extends her care for Nau beyond the norm.  She gathers food along the shore, she draws pictures of the seagull, and she doesn't squirrel it away in her house to ensure it never leaves her, as some children may be want to do.  Elisapee is a mother in spirit and action, knowing the time would come for her little one to leave the nest, and, though it saddens her, she accepts it as a part of life.

This is Nancy Mike's first picture book and it is based on a childhood experience in Nunavut.  Her devotion to Nau and delight in her is palpable, raising the story from one about removing an animal from its habitat, as might be the case here in southern Ontario, to one of fostering a little one until it is ready to leave the nest and be with its own kind.  Charlene Chua, who illustrated previously-reviewed Akilak's Adventure (2016) and Fishing with Grandma (2016), brings that wide-eyed wonder and adoration to life in her artwork.  She also embeds the story in an Arctic environment and Inuit culture, making it all the more authentic.  

The beautiful spirit that Elisapee remembers as Nau is there in the story too.  It is the spirit of childhood and home, all the more memorable for being shared with the feathered and non-feathered.
From Elisapee and Her Baby Seagull 
by Nancy Mike 
illus. by Charlene Chua

January 11, 2018

The Defiant: Book launch (Toronto, ON)

It's almost here!

The sequel to
The Valiant
 Written by Lesley Livingston
372 pp.
Ages 13+
February 2017

is launching next month!

Book 2 in Lesley Livingston's historical fantasy
 about a female gladiator 

The Defiant
Written by Lesley Livingston
384 pp.
Ages 13+
Out January 23, 2018



Thursday, February 8, 2018


7:00 pm 


Dominion Pub and Kitchen
500 Queen Street East
Toronto, ON

This event is open to all ages. 

There will be:
live music
light refreshments
books on sale courtesy of Bakka-Phoenix Books.

The promotional synopsis on HarperCollins Canada's website tells this of The Defiant's story:

Fallon was warned.

Now she is about to pay the price for winning the love of the Roman people as Caesar’s victorious gladiatrix.

Fallon thought she’d won her freedom, but choosing to stay comes at a cost. She and her warrior sisters are thrust into a vicious conflict with a rival gladiator academy. In the middle of the night, the Ludus Achillea falls under siege and only Fallon and a lucky few are able to flee.

Together, they embark on a mission to take back the home Fallon has fought so hard for, and to free their fellow gladiatrices. But dark conspiracies and vicious power struggles confront Fallon at every turn, threatening not just her honor and her love for Roman soldier Cai, but the very heart of the ancient Roman empire.

On the journey that will define her future, the only people who might possibly help the girl known as Victrix and her sisters are a tribe of long-forgotten mythic Amazon warriors.

The only trouble is, they might just kill her first.

January 10, 2018

Don't Tell the Enemy

Written by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Scholastic Canada
184 pp.
Ages 10-14
January 2018

The Soviets have oppressed the Ukrainian homeland of twelve-year-old Krystia Fediuk for centuries but their occupation since 1939 has been a reign of terror for the Ukrainians, Poles and Jews in the town of Viteretz with appropriation of homes, imposed hunger, deportation to slave camps and execution.  With the Germans marching into Ukraine in 1941 and the Soviets fleeing, there are initial hopes and even proclamations of Ukrainian independence.  But the good spirits that come with the egress of their oppressors and the bestowing of food, as well as the opening of the church, are soon suspended as the Nazis begin to show their true objectives.

Krystia, her younger sister Maria and their mother Kateryna live amongst a diverse neighbourhood of Jewish, Ukrainian and Polish families of both modest and wealthier means and a Catholic church with resident priest, surrounded by farms.  Some residents are already gone, whether deported to Siberian slave camps, executed by trigger-happy Soviets or in hiding from the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, like Krystia's Uncle Ivan.  Regardless of atrocities, life must go on, and that includes taking their cow Krasa to pasture daily, tending to the garden, feeding the chickens and fetching water, always keeping their heads down to avoid suffering the wrath of the Soviets.  But when the Germans roll in, their community begins to change in different ways.  In addition to the Nazis, refugees from Germany as well as Volksdeutsche–ethnic Germans from Slav countries–begin to flood the area and force the displacement of residents.  Then the summons from Commandant Hermann begin, first naming a hundred Jewish men and declaring them to be murderers of those imprisoned by Soviets. The community is stunned when the men are shot and amassed in a single grave. 

The terror of the Nazis escalates with their acceptance of Aryan, German and Volksdeutsche as The Master Race and all others as subhuman, with particular targetting of the Jewish people, both in mass executions and then segregation into a Jewish Ghetto.  After her Auntie Iryna goes to live with the insurgents in their forest encampment, Krystia takes on the role of courier of photos and falsified documentation.  With food rationed to starvation levels, fines imposed for random acts and their Jewish friends in danger of imminent death, Krystia and her mother take increasing risks to survive and help their friends and family. 
...that the way to honor our family and friends was to be strong and to live and to tell their stories. (pg. 177)
Based on the true story of Kateryna Sikorska and her daughter Krystia Korpan, Don't Tell the Enemy reveals the often overlooked position of Ukraine during World War II when the terrorism historically imposed by the Soviets escalated to horrors which many believed would be appeased by the Germans.  But invasion is invasion and oppression is still that.  The shift from the Soviets persecuting all in their community to the brutality levelled by the Nazis against the Jewish people and those who might help them is especially tragic.  A simple life of family and work now becomes an exercise in survival and even more perilous with the pitting of groups of people.  No one should have to choose.  While some appear to do so easily and heartlessly, there are others like Krystia and her family who demonstrate incredible courage and resilience in the face of death and fear.  Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch in her author's notes mentions that she almost wrote this as a piece of non-fiction but chose to tell it as a fictionalized account to do the story justice.  She chose well and admirably tells a story that needs to be read to appreciate the circumstances of those living in western Ukraine during World War II when enemies were plentiful, dangers ubiquitous, survival precarious and a few good people could make all the difference.


Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch launches Don't Tell the Enemy next week in Brantford Ontario.  The author is a passionate speaker and sure to captivate attendees with her reading and sharing of writing this new book.  Details about the launch are provided here.

January 08, 2018

The Word Collector

Written and illustrated by Peter Hamilton Reynolds
Orchard Books (Scholastic)
40 pp.
Ages 4-8
January 2018

Kids love collecting things: shells, stones, coins, marbles, stuffies. Like most, collecting starts quite naturally, one here, another there, and soon the collection grows.  What they do with that collection is as variable as the items collected.  The lovely Jerome of The Word Collector takes a unique perspective on his collecting and one to which all collectors should aspire.

Jerome loves picking up words wherever he finds them: those he hears, words he sees and some he reads.  Why he is drawn to a word ranges from those that grab his attention because of their sounds or their meaning.  Regardless he amasses quite a collection of words which he needs to organize.  But while transporting a colossal stack of books and boxes of his organized words, he slips and they tumble into a chaotic mess.  But Jerome sees beauty in the unusual combinations of words which he translates into poetry and music and by expressing to others.
From The Word Collector 
by Peter Hamilton Reynolds
By recognizing the profound impact his words can have on how others think, feel and dream, Jerome expands on sharing his growing collection.
had no words 
to describe how happy 
that made him.
Squirrelling away a collection of treasures brings a certain joy but Peter H. Reynolds recognizes that a shared collection is a better collection.  No longer is the collection the realm of the individual but instead it becomes part of a community of aesthetes who appreciate the collection's elements in the myriad of ways.  The illustration of countless and diverse children grabbing words like "honor", "resilience", "hope" and "promise" supports Peter H. Reynolds' message of appreciation and creativity and empathy. Words are powerful and all the more for being shared in thoughtful texts like The Word Collector and illustrated with cheerful artwork of Jerome and others amongst the fluttering murmurations of words.

I'll leave the final words to author-illustrator Peter H. Reynolds whose own words inspire readers to more.
From endpapers for The Word Collector 
by Peter Hamilton Reynolds