August 17, 2018

Summer Constellations

Written by Alisha Sevigny
KCP Loft, an imprint of Kids Can Press
978-1-5253-0043-1
264 pp.
Ages 14+
May 2018
When you wish upon a star, you're a few million years too late. That star is dead, just like your dreams. (pg. 24)
Seventeen-year-old Julia Ducharme lives with her mom and nine-year-old brother Caleb at the campground they own and run. Even with all the work she does there, from carpentry to plumbing and sales at the Sugar Shack, Julia loves the Charming Pines Campground. But the past year has put an emotional and financial strain on the family after Caleb was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome from which he is just now recovering his strength and the use of his legs. No wonder Julia is looking forward to the return of Dan Schaeffer, her love interest from the previous summer. But when Dan and his parents arrive in their new and massive RV, he has a gorgeous girlfriend named Taylor in tow. Worse yet, Mom reveals that, because of expenses incurred over the past year, she is looking to get the campground appraised for possible sale to developer Mr. Constantine and his son Nick.

It doesn't take Julie long to fall for Nick, a former musician who is teaching Caleb to play guitar and helping them fix up their grandfather's old cabin in the woods. In fact, Nick is even trying to find a way to help Julia's family fundraise for the campground. Still Julia and Caleb feel that time is running out for the Pines and wonder if they can find a hidden treasure Gramps alluded to in his old journal. But will they find the means to save the campground before Julia falls completely in love with the young man whose intentions may not be as clear as he indicates?

There's still time for a summer YA romance and Summer Constellations will fit the bill nicely by taking you to the Charming Pines Campground for some swimming, star-gazing and new love. It's sweet summer fare perfect for the beach or camping or lounging in the heat with a cool drink. Just as she gave us in her YA novel Kissing Frogs (Fierce Ink Press, 2014), Alisha Sevigny knows the right balance of highs and lows to keep the story going and a happy ending worthy of the journey. Without drama that requires the reader to suspend disbelief, Alisha Sevigny gives us a light, but not lightweight, novel for teens reflecting their typical worries about relationships, home and the future but reassures that there will always be pinpricks of light that light up the darkness.

August 15, 2018

Stego-cumulus

Written by Hilary Leung
Illustrated by Niall Eccles
North Winds Press /Scholastic Canada
978-1-4431-5753-7
32 pp.
Ages 3-8
April 2018

Panda and Parrot are unlikely friends. Parrot is definitely left-brain dominant, happiest with books, logic and puzzle solving.  His part of their domed home is neat and orderly, everything in its place. Panda is not like Parrot.  He is the creative of the two, loving music and art and play. His area is chaotic and colourful and lively. 
From Stego-cumulus by Hilary Leung, illus. by Niall Eccles
Like many friends who get along, Parrot and Panda occasionally clash when their personalities need different things. Heading to the top of their favourite hill to lay on their blankets–Parrot on a neat black-and-white checkerboard, and Panda on his colourful random bubble one–for an afternoon of cloud-watching and daydreaming.
From Stego-cumulus by Hilary Leung, illus. by Niall Eccles
But while Panda sees a giant dandelion, Parrot sees the cirrostratus cloud. Panda sees Pegasus, but Parrot declares it a stratocumulus. For each cloud formation in which Panda imagines something extraordinary, Parrot sees the scientific and the factual. He tells Panda what the cloud is, not what it looks like. When the rain hits, courtesy of the nimbostratus cloud, the two frustrated friends part, disappointed by the other's lack of imagination or acceptance of science. 
From Stego-cumulus by Hilary Leung, illus. by Niall Eccles
However, Parrot and Panda are friends and are soon missing each other. With a little compromise to the other's leanings, the two find a way to support and be supported, ending with a declaration by both of seeing a Stego-cumulus.

While it's always wonderful to see Hilary Leung's illustrations (he did a bang up job on David Bruins' Ninja Cowboy Bear series), I am so impressed by the depth of his storytelling and to be introduced to a new illustrator, Niall Eccles of Prince Edward County, Ontario. The story is perfect for young readers who have noticed they are different from their peers or siblings and think that it means any of them are lesser for their differences. They just haven't learned that differences make our world better, fuller and richer.  By making his characters, a panda and a parrot, so different to begin with, Hilary Leung establishes the idea that differences can be what you look like, where you come from, what you like and how you think. Niall Eccles's pen and watercolour art brings those differences to the page with joyful colour, texture and line. The details in Parrot and Panda's home and their yards is striking, and parents and teachers will need to allow more time to get past those pages as young readers look for all the differences. (Teachers and parents can also share Parrot and Panda's cloud notes at the end of the book for a little humourous learning–Panda amends Parrot's scientific notes–as well as download two colouring pages from Scholastic Canada at http://www.scholastic.ca/books/view/stego-cumulus.)
Colouring pages from Scholastic Canada at http://www.scholastic.ca/books/view/stego-cumulus
The words and pictures are clear: differences do not make one better than another or negate the possibility of friendship. Parrot and Panda are equals all the way, just different, and Stego-cumulus shares that positive message about acceptance of those differences with the reward of friendship and learning.

August 13, 2018

Immortal Reign: Falling Kingdoms, Book 6

Written by Morgan Rhodes
Razorbill
978-1-595-14824-7
391 pp.
Ages 13+
February 2018

I have avoided reading Morgan Rhodes's conclusion to her Falling Kingdoms series ever since I got my autographed copy at the beginning of February. I knew it would be stellar–it was– but, after five books, I wasn't ready to say good-bye to Magnus and Cleo, Jonas and Lucia, Nic and Felix and the rest that live in Mytica and elsewhere and carry Morgan Rhodes's story through every power struggle, magical conflict and romantic interlude. But, the time has come when I have to honour this final book, Book 6 in the series, and share with you the tempest that is Immortal Reign.

When last we visited the worlds of Falling Kingdoms, much deception resulted in the Kindred gods taking over the bodies of mortals to allow them reign: the fire god, Kyan, took over Nic's body; the earth Kindred took over Olivia's; the air Kindred went to Taran; and the water goddess took Cleo as her vessel. Because the ritual was interrupted, Cleo and Taran still have control over their bodies though Kyan is determined to remedy that by coercing Lucia to perform the ritual. But with the recent birth of her daughter, Lyssa, during which Lucia lost most of her magic, the sorceress is determined to do what's right for her daughter, including imprisoning Kyan back in his amber orb and reuniting with her father King Gaius and her brother Magnus. But all is more complicated as Magnus fights for his life after being buried alive, the king is assassinated and Lyssa is kidnapped.

Meanwhile, the Kraeshian empress Amara is set for her Ascension but, as much as she wants to rule, she is realizing that much of what she desires has been directed by her manipulative grandmother Neela. Still Amara has perpetrated far too many atrocities, against her family and others, for anyone to be her true ally so to whom can she turn? She intends to make things right, or somewhat right, but she has a lot of relationships to mend.
"I regret very few decisions I've made these last months, but I deeply regret how I've treated you. I've been horrible to you."
     Ashur gaped at her. "Horrible? You stabbed me in the heart." (pg. 57)
The dialogue is so clever, often draped in mirth, especially the banter involving Magnus, Jonas and Felix. Still the situation with the Kindreds is dire and, while Cleo and Taran fight off the powerful Kindreds attempting to take over their bodies fully, and Magnus, after freeing himself with some powerful dark magic, does all he can to keep Cleo safe, Lucia tries to regain her magic by stripping Jonas of his so that she might continue to fight for her daughter.

There is so much more to tell about Immortal Reign but  trying to condense a review of the book into a few sentences is near impossible. Morgan Rhodes's story telling is bigger than the worlds she has created in Falling Kingdoms. Her tale weaves in and out, backwards and forwards and sometimes sideways, and still creates a tightly-knit story of struggles, love and redemption.
We don't change. We are who we are throughout our lives. We can try other paths, other roads, but it never works. (pg. 294)
Immortal Timotheus believes these words as he says them but Immortal Reign shows us that change is possible for all.  From Book 1 to Book 6, all the characters have changed, becoming more sympathetic, less silly, less violent or self-righteous, more accepting of others and their mistakes, and open to possibilities they would never have accepted previously as viable or desirable.  I have grown to love each and every one of them as they've descended and ascended and transcended into the bountiful characters for whom readers have cheered and booed. (Check out some of the astounding fandom drawings of the characters that readers have shared on the Falling Kingdoms wiki, Tumblr, Pinterest and numerous blogs. These readers love these characters as much as I do.)

Morgan Rhodes could not have written a better ending to her six-part series. It's satisfying with unexpected elements and a frisson of the predictable (hurray for Magnus and Cleo finally getting together). She lead us through widespread rebellions and strife between nations, as well as personal triumphs and tragedies. And we followed. And we would do so again.  With Morgan Rhodes at the writing helm, it's a pleasure to accompany her on the voyage.

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

If you haven't read the whole series, do check out my reviews of Books 1 through 5 for a taste of what you've missed and the order to follow to get caught up. You'll definitely want to do so.
  1. Falling Kingdoms (2012)
  2. Rebel Spring (2013)
  3. Gathering Darkness (2014)
  4. Frozen Tides (2015) 
  5. Crystal Storm (2016)

August 09, 2018

My Teacher's Not Here!

Written by Lana Button
Illustrated by Christine Battuz
Kids Can Press
978-1-77138-356-1
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
April 2018 

For our youngest students, school can be a daunting daily ritual only made bearable by an awesome teacher who greets you, helps you throughout the day and always knows what you need. But if that teacher is away, what happens to your day? In easy rhyme that young children will love, Lana Button tells the story of Kitty whose day goes from shaky to manageable, even fun, when her wonderful teacher Miss Seabrooke is absent and replaced, for the day, by the substitute teacher Mr. Omar. 
From My Teacher's Not Here! by Lana Button, illus. by Christine Battuz
The first thing our story's narrator notices when she arrives via school bus is the absence of her teacher on the playground. She's sure they must all go home but is shocked to realize that things will proceed as normal but without Miss Seabrooke.
Call back those buses!
Close school for today!
Wait! Why's the BELL ringing?
Do we start ANYWAY?!
But Miss Seabrooke, like all good teachers, is still thinking about her students though she is ill. She leaves them a message about Mr. Omar (teachers: get this note copied to use in your classrooms)...
From My Teacher's Not Here! by Lana Button, illus. by Christine Battuz
...and plans for fun activities which Mr. Omar follows to the best of his abilities. Still, he needs a little help from the students who know their routines best, especially Kitty who observes Miss Seabrooke's directive to help him out because she's counting on them.  Soon enough...
The school bus is here!
I made it! I'm done!
I survived the WHOLE day.
(I even had FUN.)
Even with that little worry that Miss Seabrooke might not return the next day, Kitty and her peers have managed to endure the day, be helpful to their teachers and classmates, and even find that Mr. Omar's differences-he is a tall, deep-voiced giraffe-add a new flavour to their school day.

Most of us don't like change to our routines and it can be even more distressing for our youngest who thrive on routines. They gain comfort from them, making them feel safe and in control in a world that can be very big and baffling. Miss Seabrooke and Mr. Omar know how important it is to follow routines for the children to be their best selves. By giving voice to what a child might be thinking and experiencing when a teacher is absent, Lana Button is demonstrating that a successful teaching day begins with detailed lessons and instructions and a substitute teacher who follows them while gaining important information directly from their students. Lana Button, who works in early childhood education, recognizes this, and the capacity of children to adapt to new circumstances, sharing this through her upbeat rhyming with vocabulary that is perfect for our youngest students. Even though Kitty's distress, as conveyed in the title and her initial reactions to an absent teacher, is evident, Lana Button writes in a cheeriness to the situation, which Christine Battuz encourages with her illustrations.
From My Teacher's Not Here! by Lana Button, illus. by Christine Battuz
Christine Battuz, whose artwork enhanced Wade's Wiggly Antlers (2017), creates a diverse class of cat, pig, koala, bunny, fox, hedgehog and more, taught by a hen and then a giraffe. Every animal, and hence every child and teacher, are represented by her wonderful collection of characters. The colours are bright without being primary, making My Teacher's Not Here! a great read for kindergarten as well as Grades 1 and 2.

As teachers start preparing for the upcoming school year, they should ensure that a copy of My Teacher's Not Here! is purchased and sitting on their desk in anticipation of that inevitable day when they will be absent and a substitute teacher needs a gentle reminder for students that they and the day are going to be okay.

August 08, 2018

The Fish and the Cat

Written and illustrated by Marianne Dubuc
Princeton Architectural Press
978-1-61689-505-1
92 pp.
Ages 3-7
April 2018

In a lovely floral-wallpapered room, a fish in a fish bowl is visited by a curious cat who proceeds, much to the fish's distress, to attempt to capture it.

From The Fish and the Cat by Marianne Dubuc
Amidst the swirling water produced by the cat's pawing, the fish is propelled into the air and flies out through the window. The cat gives chase as the fish, flying now, goes from rooftop through a house, among a forest of trees with red birds, in which the fish is camouflaged and into a starry sky.  Still, the cat pursues.
From The Fish and the Cat by Marianne Dubuc
Onto the moon, the cat touches down, temporarily losing sight of the fish but witnessing the grandeur of the night sky before catching a ride on a falling star to continue his pursuit.
From The Fish and the Cat by Marianne Dubuc
Through a dark cave and a town, the fish leads the cat to the sea where the fish promptly finds home and the cat, though willing to check out the water, gives up his quest and partakes in a glowing sunset.

The Fish and the Cat is Marianne Dubuc's most recent wordless picture book. Her intense message without words or with very little text has garnered her many awards for works such as In Front of My House (Kids Can Press, 2010), The Lion and the Bird (Enchanted Lion Books, 2014) and The Bus Ride (Kids Can Press, 2015) and she does the same in this book, a new edition of the previously published La mer (La Pastèque, 2007) and The Sea (Officina Libraria, 2012).
While I've given away more of the story than I intended, I've actually told very little, only the meaning I have taken from the story.  Because each reader will find a different story within, The Fish and the Cat is much more than I've described here. It's the wonder and the interpretation of the illustrations that makes wordless books so rich. With Marianne Dubuc illustrating the book, the expansiveness of the story is even greater. Using only black and white with red reserved for the fish and the birds among which it hides, there is an inherent simplicity that actually lends a boldness to the story.  It's saying, "This is it. Take what you will from it." Well, from it, I take a message of chasing a dream, whether to reach the sea or to capture a fish, and finding what you need, though not always what you desire.

August 07, 2018

Fire Song

Written by Adam Garnet Jones
Annick Press
978-1-55451-977-4
232 pp.
Ages 14+
March 2018

Maybe the game is rigged and the only way to win is by giving up. (pg. 115)

So much about Shane's life hurts that it's hard to find the faith he needs to help endure it.  It should be full of hope and promise. He's finishing his final year of school and anticipating a move to Toronto for post-secondary. He's smart, given the nickname of "College".  He has a pretty girlfriend, Tara, who adores him. But much is a facade because underneath it all, Shane is a mess of grief, confusion and guilt.

Fire Song begins the day of the memorial for Shane's younger sister Destiny who took her own life six weeks earlier. His mother Jackie is despondent, unwilling to leave Destiny's room, even with the constant ministrations of elder Evie. Fortunately, his Anishinaabe reserve community, the only home he's every known, is tight and supportive.
His heart beats under this ground and the roots of the trees spread through his lungs. (pg. 14)
But Shane has secrets and burdens that are disturbing his potentially bright future. He has just learned that his funding for school isn't available from his reserve because he is registered with his father's reserve, though his father is long passed and Shane never lived there. School wants a hefty deposit but Jackie hasn't worked since Destiny's death. Moreover, the roof on their house is disintegrating and, though the materials are in at the store to repair it, his family does not have the money for both the roof and his schooling. But Shane's most emotional struggle comes with balancing his growing sexual relationship with David, Evie's grandson, and his public romantic involvement with Tara, a teen eager to find a new life away from an abusive father and a private writer of introspective prose and poetry.
How can it be
That the smell of home and
the smell of lonely are the same? (pg. 70) 
As Shane tries to keep a roof over their heads and prompt his mother into action, hide his relationship with David while craving it desperately, make some money in a community with few opportunities, and grieve the loss of his sister, his life continues to fray and threaten his future. It's all about choices and not one of them is easy.

Adam Garnet Jones tells Shane's painful story in such expressive prose and poetry, the latter courtesy of Tara's writing, that the reader is carried on a wave from anguish to heartbreak to misery. Shane's story is a tragedy on so many levels: family, school, community, love. But, in each of those circumstances, there are still slivers of buoyancy: a mother who loves him but has abandoned him in her grief; acceptance to school in Toronto, though the money is not at hand; a community of friends who support Shane but would not accept his being a two-spirited person; and a boy and a girl who love him but confound his life's plan.  Adam Garnet Jones may not pretty up Shane's story but he does bring a fitting conclusion to it. I won't tell you if the roof gets fixed or if Shane goes to school in Toronto or if he chooses David or Tara, but I can tell you that things get worse before they get better but better they do. With acceptance of his choices and the life he needs, Shane survives another day to love and be loved.

•••••••••••••••••••••

Fire Song is based on a film by the same name, written and directed by Adam Garnet Jones and produced by Fire Song Films Inc. and Big Soul Productions Inc. I encourage readers to check out the trailer for Fire Song which premiered at TIFF in 2015.

Retrieved from YouTube at https://youtu.be/1HyRNI9kKkA on August 6, 2018. 
Uploaded by TIFF Trailers on August 13, 2015.

August 02, 2018

Raw Talent

Written by Jocelyn Shipley
Orca Book Publishers
978-1-4598-1834-7
138 pp.
Ages 11-14
August 2018

Everyone wants to help out Sunflower Farm, the family farm of Stonehill High students Vanessa and Heath. Since the death of their father, their mother has been struggling to keep the farm running and the school community is coming together for Farmshine, a performance and market fundraiser.  Raw Talent's narrator, Paisley who is Heath's Grade 9 classmate, intends to volunteer with her best friend Jasmeer but what Paisley really wants to do is perform. Her ambition is to be a singer-songwriter and she has no problem posting videos of herself performing but her stage fright is discouraging her from signing up to sing at Farmshine.  With a mother who is an accomplished flutist with the symphony and a university music teacher, Paisley is just not sure she can cut it on stage.

With celebrated singer-actor Maxine Gaston staying at Jasmeer's parents' B & B while her local home is being renovated and she is performing at the Stratford Festival, Jasmeer arranges for her to coach Paisley to help get over her performance anxiety.  Maxine Gaston is a great help but Paisley, who has much to overcome because of a disastrous audition at age 10 with the award-winning Sweetland Singers, is being harassed online, by phone and in person by Cadence, the self-important girlfriend of Heath and soloist with the Sweetland Singers.  Can Paisley get beyond her insecurities about her lower singing voice and Cadence's nastiness to stand up in front of an audience and do what she loves?

Raw Talent is a feel-good hi-lo novel for older middle graders and young teens. While written at an easier reading level, Raw Talent's story, part of the Orca Limelights series based in the performance arts, will resonant with young teens aspiring to new endeavours but unsure of their abilities. Jocelyn Shipley makes sure that the reader realizes that having a dream is futile if you don't set goals to achieve it.  It's up to Paisley to decide what she can and cannot do. Not her mother, not Cadence, not the director of the Sweetland Singers. Just her. She might have been devastated when she didn't get into the Sweetland Singers but she found a way to continue singing and performing albeit in the privacy of her room while still sharing it publicly. Then, with Maxine's coaching, she has the opportunity to take steps forward. Though not easy, especially with self-doubt and bullying that erodes her confidence, Paisley steps up. Jocelyn Shipley doesn't just hand Paisley the opportunity, though.  She makes sure the girl works for what she wants. Maxine Gaston is encouraging but she is not effusive and she makes it clear that, if Paisley isn't willing to put herself out there, she's not going to bother coaching her. That could be an "ouch" moment, but it's not because it's a challenge that Paisley accepts. Similarly, the bullying that Paisley experiences via Cadence is nasty but impactful and still she finds the means eventually to toss it off with a "Whatever". 

Whether Jocelyn Shipley intended, she's affirming Nietzsche's belief that "That which does not kill, makes us stronger".  Paisley's performance anxiety and Cadence's bullying can't stop her and, in fact, they give her the opportunity to be more than she could have imagined for herself.

August 01, 2018

Fifteen Point Nine

Written by Holly Dobbie
DCB
978-1-77086-523-5
240 pp.
Ages 13+
June 2018

The bullying that fifteen-year-old Agatha Murphy and others endure at the hands of “Those Girls” and the “Idiot Boys” who follow them around is physical, degrading and unconscionable.  They only see that Susan is overweight, that Carson is very small, that Travis is highly intelligent, and that Nicole has sweat issues. But it’s Aggie’s countless issues that are at the heart of Fifteen Point Nine. Aggie’s mother Jane is a paranoid alcoholic who scavenges and hoards and is oblivious to her daughter’s needs for food, clean clothes, and even a functional washroom. The bullies may ridicule Aggie for being dirty and smelling, as well as rummaging for food, but they and everyone else, including the school, doesn’t know about her mother and Aggie’s need to self-harm to relieve her anxiety and despair. Aggie may lighten that despair with barbed monikers including “The Torture Chamber” for school and “The Dump” for home, by ranking potential moments on her Official Romantic Scale, and by imagining outrageous scenarios that would whisk her away, but Aggie knows her situation is becoming intolerable.
I’m going to try to be more of a human being and less of a rodent, although it’s obviously something that I’m not very good at. (pg. 14)
In an attempt to take some control, Aggie decides to use an old camcorder to document the bullying in all its visual and audio horror. Unexpectedly, Susan becomes an ally in Aggie’s video endeavour, as do Carson, Travis and Nicole. These teens, deemed misfits by their cruel peers, become the Warriors Video Club and resolve to expose the bullies.

While Aggie continues to suffer at the hands of her horrid mother and the bullies, there are unexpected glimmers of something better, including  kindness from a school janitor and several moms, some Johnny Cash-infused wisdom from Jane’s newest suitor,
"Pain ain’t no good thing. Aint’t nobody out there gonna hand you a prize for storin’ shit in your heart.” (pg. 185)
and, most importantly, notes from an anonymous boy who wants her to attend the Winter Solstice Carnival dance. But, when a classmate commits suicide, Aggie’s perspective on survival and taking charge is put to the test.

Fifteen Point Nine may be Holly Dobbie’s debut novel but her teaching experiences with teens have served her well in telling the story convincingly. For those living through bullying, parental neglect, suicide of a peer and dejection, the authenticity of Fifteen Point Nine will hit hard, particularly in its harshness and near hopelessness. Still, Holly Dobbie makes it clear that, for those who do suffer at the hands of others, every day of survival is a victory and making it past fifteen point nine (just less than sixteen years of age) is a triumph.


(A version of this review was originally written for and published in Quill & Quire, as noted in the citation below.)

Kubiw, H. (2018, September). [Review of the book Fifteen Point Nine, by Holly Dobbie]. Quill & Quire, 84 (7): 37.