November 30, 2018

Mary Poppins

Based on the novel by P. L. Travers
Adapted by Amy Novesky
Illustrated by Geneviève Godbout
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
32 pp.
Ages 5-8
October 2018

With the upcoming release of the movie Mary Poppins Returns, there will be much renewed interest in P. L. Travers's character who was introduced in her 1934 novel, Mary Poppins. Fortunately, a new picture book adaptation with a Canadian illustrator, Geneviève Godbout, will be a perfect introduction for young children to this magical nanny and her story.
From Mary Poppins illustrated by Geneviève Godbout
American Amy Novesky's adaptation of the original story is lovely yet condensed, as is necessary when taking a detailed work such as a novel and filtering it down to the text of a picture book. Still Amy Novesky ensures that the important details of the house at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane, the East Wind bringing a hat-clad woman with parrot-headed umbrella and magically voluminous carpetbag, and the household of the Banks children–Jane, Michael and the twins–and their parents remain, as do key events and dialogue. There's Mary Poppins sliding up the banister; the floating Uncle Albert; Mrs. Corry and daughters Annie and Fannie adorning the night sky with stars; and a nighttime visit to the zoo, as well as Mary's familiar declarations of "Spit-spot to bed" and "I'll stay till the wind changes."
From Mary Poppins illustrated by Geneviève Godbout
But it's Geneviève Godbout's artwork that breathes life into Mary Poppins. The lovely young woman exudes grace and control, though always tempered with affection, charm and fairness. Geneviève Godbout makes Mary both attracting and disciplined, the perfect combination for caregiver, whether parent or nanny. From her easy topknot to her billowing black skirt and plain hose and shoes, she is the picture of efficiency. But her face, with rosy cheeks and bright eyes and delicate nose, Mary Poppins is beautiful and proper. Geneviève Godbout even gets her posture correct: strong but not overpowering, competent, and determined. It's such a shame that we all had to save "Au revoir!"

"Strike me pink," as Mary Poppins might say when pleased, because this new illustrated adaptation of her story flies above the rest and will charm all children, adults and animals and adorn the world with starry wonder.
From Mary Poppins illustrated by Geneviève Godbout

November 29, 2018

Too Young to Escape: Book launch (Brantford, ON)


author of children's picture books, middle-grade and YA novels and non-fiction

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch


Van Ho

her co-author and subject of this 
new middle-grade non-fiction book

for the launch of

Too Young to Escape: A Vietnamese Girl Waits to be Reunited with Her Family
Written by Van Ho with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Pajama Press
152 pp.
Ages 8-12
November 2018


Saturday, December 1, 2018

2:30 - 4:00 p.m.


Brantford Public Library
173 Colborne Street
Brantford, ON

here on CanLit for LittleCanadians

November 28, 2018

Seasons Before the War

Written by Bernice Morgan
Illustrated by Brita Granström
Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides, Inc.
44 pp.
Ages 7+
October 2018

Though the war mentioned in the title refers to World War II, it seems only appropriate to review Seasons Before the War in the same month as the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, when peace was declared and life would no longer revolve around war. Newfoundlander Bernice Morgan's first children's book, Seasons Before the War, speaks of that different time, a time between wars, when children of St. John's, Newfoundland lived lives full of play, family and community. It was a distant time and disparate from today but also distinct because of its Newfoundland setting. This is Bernice Morgan's story from that time.
From Seasons Before the War by Bernice Morgan, illus. by Brita Granström
Seasons Before the War reads like a bundle of warm but forthright reminiscences. Starting with Spring, Bernice Morgan speaks of the freedom to play in the many open spaces shared with children from various neighbourhoods. There were games, pretend tea parties, skipping and the freedom to venture out, though family made sure that children overheard stories about those who'd gone farther than permitted and "were never seen again." (pg. 9) Mealtimes were times to reinforce those cautionary tales but also to teach manners and the need for frugality.
From Seasons Before the War by Bernice Morgan, illus. by Brita Granström
In Summer, little Bernice–clearly identifiable from her glasses–and her big brother Charlie and other playmates would venture out on the streets filled with water pumps, horses, and farmers selling their produce and local merchants like the grocer, drug store, meat market and bulls-eye shop (candy shop). There was a blacksmith and  dressmaker or two and workshops, including her own father's carpentry shop, where the children could watch men at work. But it was the dump, source of the occasional great find, that entertained them most.
It was not as scavengers we went to the dump but as spectators, as people might go to a movie or concert. The place was not fenced, but surrounded by a kind of berm where we could sit for hours watching horse and box carts being backed up to the edge, appraising how each ashman would slowly manoeuver his animal into place, drop the back gate, and tip his load into the inferno of glowing ash. (pg. 23)
And when there was a fire at the dump, a weekly occurrence, and the firemen came with their firetruck, the entertainment surged.

In Fall, it was time for school and, for Bernice beginning kindergarten, the excitement of new shoes and a school uniform, her first book bag, exercise book and pencils. But school becomes a disappointment for Bernice who is shocked to find "that I was not the smartest or the prettiest child in the world" (pg. 26) and that her glasses and inability to tell left from right set her apart from her classmates. Fortunately, a gift of an extraordinary pencil box from her Aunt Sophie helped ease some of that discomfort.

And then Winter came, and venturing outside of the home was no longer the norm.
Inside the house we children did a lot of watching: watching our father mend footwear, fix furniture, or melt molten lead to solder a pot; watching the women bake, make jam, paper walls, knit, or pin patterns onto beautiful cloth to make dresses, pajamas, and even coats. Unlike scrubbing floors or washing clothes, there were interesting jobs that a youngster could help with. Holding skeins of wool, stirring batter, licking spoons clean, passing tacks, holding down flimsy patterns, carefully cutting the edge off wallpaper, even picking up scraps of leather or cloth, made a child feel important. (pg. 31)
But Christmas brought new excitement and fears, as Toylands in the local stores were opened (toys were not regularly displayed) and children worried whether they'd been good enough through the year. But it was a glorious evening when the whole family traipsed down to view the displays in the windows and point and smile and enjoy a treat of chips.
From Seasons Before the War by Bernice Morgan, illus. by Brita Granström
Oh, it was a different time. It was a time when it was unusual for a woman like Aunt Sophie to have her own money. When those who moved from Cape Breton to Newfoundland were considered immigrants. When play could be arranging glass marbles in the holes of the sewing machine's foot pedal. When words like bulls eye (for candy) and sooking (being a crybaby) were part of the vernacular.

Bernice Morgan's story unfolds like the seasons: inevitable, expected and full of promise. It's refreshing and invigorating to see the rosy-cheeked children playing and living without reliance on electronic devices. Bernice Morgan's words breathe life into these memories, true or modified as memories may be, with affection and with a lyricism found only in great storytellers. With Swedish-born artist Brita Granström's paintings, detailed in people and landscape, award-winning novelist Bernice Morgan's nostalgic anecdotes are given second breath and transport readers, young and old alike, to a time and place that has disappeared and remains forgotten until shared as in Seasons Before the War.
For good and for ill much of that long ago world was about to vanish: the children's chants, the horses, the small workshops and unpaved streets, the seamen with their songs, the open fields, our guileless assumption of safety–all of that would soon disappear from our world. (pg. 40)

November 27, 2018

It's Time for Bed

Written by Ceporah Mearns and Jeremy Debicki
Illustrated by Tim Mack
Inhabit Media
28 pp.
Ages 3-5
September 2018

You know the mayhem of getting little ones to sleep? Try managing it when your little one wants to play with all the animals of her Arctic landscape.

Little Siasi is told and asked repeatedly,
It's time for bed. The sun has set.
Siasi, have you ... ?
And she is asked about brushing her teeth, putting on her PJs, putting away her toys, picking a good night story, climbing into bed and closing her eyes. But Siasi's responses are always the same. She doesn't want to. Instead she wants to dance with the polar bear, or run with the caribou, fly with the geese, howl with the wolves, hop with the rabbits, and swim with the fish. But when she says she's done it all, she's definitely ready for bed.
From It's Time for Bed by Ceporah Mearns and Jeremy Debicki, illus. by Tim Mack
It's Time for Bed is based on parents Ceporah Mearns and Jeremy Debicki's own Siasi who would make excuse after excuse to put off her bedtime. Her refusal will be familiar to all caregivers of very young children but it's her unique reasons that will make It's Time for Bed a favourite new bedtime story to read. Children will love her reasons and delight in making up new ones of their own to continue her story for themselves. Even better, It's Time for Bed opens the world of the Arctic to those who have never lived there and reinforces the experiences of those children who have and do.
From It's Time for Bed by Ceporah Mearns and Jeremy Debicki, illus. by Tim Mack
Astutely, Tim Mack, who also illustrated Aviaq Johnson's What's My Superpower? (Inhabit Media, 2017), never makes Siasi's requests seem ridiculous or farfetched. All the animals with whom she wishes to play, even the fish beneath her bed, seem adapted to her bedroom. Moreover, Tim Mack has made Siasi determined, perhaps not to go to bed quite yet, but also boisterous and brash, wide-eyed and imaginative, and no one would want a child to be otherwise. And when she finally closes her eyes, angelic in her quiet, Tim Mack makes sure to include her Arctic animal friends in the shadows to watch over her.
From It's Time for Bed by Ceporah Mearns and Jeremy Debicki, illus. by Tim Mack
Fortunately, for Siasi's guardians and all parents who might read the story, Siasi does eventually follow through on all her bedtime routines, as little children must learn to do, when they know It's Time for Bed.

November 26, 2018

The Garden

Written by Meghan Ferrari
Red Deer Press
109 pp.
Ages 12+
October 2018
Often, he imagines his heart as a stereo, and his pain a volume knob that his memories control. The volume varies, depending on the day, the time, and the trigger. When the trigger is swift and unexpected, it feels as though the bass has been cranked, and a pain that almost blinds him reverberates throughout his entire body. (pg. 26)
While we might assume, incorrectly, that the path from war-torn Syria through refugee camp and immigration to Canada would be in a positive direction, that journey is rife with trauma, loss and changes that may shadow any positives and create stresses in the new experiences. Such is fifteen-year-old Elias's story, told in alternating chapters of pre- and post-immigration to Canada.

Elias lives with his little brother Moussa and his parents, one a doctor and the other a translator, in Syria. He goes to school, plays football and enjoys spending time with his little brother who loves to draw with his crayons. Then the civil war begins and schools are closed because of missile attacks, food is in short supply and humanitarian donations are being targeted. But Elias is most vigilant about keeping little Moussa and himself safe from rebels seeking to capture children for training and arming for war. In a hole dug in their mother's garden, beneath a piece of plywood, the two boys hide, with Elias making up games, like hide and seek or a role play of a jasmine seed planted in hope of growing, to avoid sharing the circumstances of their situation with his very young brother. The garden becomes a refuge for the boys as it has always been for their mother.

Alternating with Elias's reminiscences of life in Syria are his experiences as a new immigrant, wishful of returning to his homeland to help rebuild it while he is being bullied by boys who know nothing of his struggles. Though he is reluctant to make friends, soon two classmates, Sullivan, a small boy often victimized by bullies, and Liling, a girl whose own family sought asylum in Canada, come to support him without needing to know his back story.

But Elias is struggling with guilt, for choices he made and makes, and for circumstances he deems unfair after he and his family seek shelter in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Coupled with the trauma of things no young person should experience, Elias agonizes over how to look forward when it might mean forgetting those he left behind.

The Garden may be Meghan Ferrari's first book but she draws on her expertise in Social Justice Education to tell a convincing tale about one teen's experiences in the Syrian War, in a Lebanese refugee camp and as a new immigrant to Canada. Elias's disquieting realities, living in fear, with memories of the past and with his prospects for the future, are palpable, drenched in grief and trauma.
The people here might have fled the war, but they weren't free. They were imprisoned in this camp while they anxiously awaited verdicts on asylum claims, news of private sponsorships, or the end of the war. As with most prisons, there was solitary confinement. In this one, it existed in the mind–each inmate trapped in memories of loved ones: either dead, or left behind, or gone ahead on the harrowing journey across the Mediterranean Sea. (pg. 90)
Fortunately for Elias, a garden was and is his salvation, taking his story from one of war and loss, and culture shock and bullying, to the beginnings of healing, and Meghan Ferrari makes sure to let us observe Elias on his odyssey.

November 22, 2018

Meet the Latkes

Written and illustrated by Alan Silberberg
Viking Books for Young Readers
36 pp.
Ages 3-6
October 2018

If it's American Thanksgiving, then you know that the holiday season, creeping upon us ever earlier, is here.  So, just in time for this year's Hanukkah, which starts on December 2, is Alan Silberberg's picture book Meet the Latkes about a family of fried potato pancakes who are ready to celebrate, dreidel and menorah in hand.

There's Mama and Papa, daughter Lucy and her dog, Applesauce, older son Lex, and Grandpa. 
They're just like you and me. Except they're potato pancakes!
As Lucy and Applesauce start to get excited for the first night of Hanukkah, grumpy Grandpa corrects Lucy's pronunciation of the celebration. She says Hanukkah. He says Chanukah. The ever wise Applesauce informs them both that since the holiday's name is Hebrew, it is said and spelled different ways in English. Lesson #1.

As the family, minus the sullen teen Lex, cooks and sings and decorates the house, their celebrations begin and Grandpa takes Lucy, his little latke, onto his lap to tell her about the miracle of Chanukah. His story may be a little different from those typically told. Grandpa's story starts with Mega-Bees "who buzzed and stung and fought to keep our people safe" and the bravest bee was Judah Mega-Bee who helped fight the alien potatoes from Planet Chhhhh. Applesauce, drawing from his font of knowledge, attempts to correct Grandpa Latke with every outlandish detail of his Chanukah story. He tries to set Grandpa, and avid listener Lucy, straight but his endeavours to mention the Maccabees and Judah Maccabee and king Antiochus are totally disregarded.
"Feh!" says Grandpa. "Whose story is this?"
In Grandpa's story, Judah and the Mega-Bees are trapped by "those evil tater tyrants" from Planet Chhhhh with only enough honey for one day. They construct a gigantic wooden dreidel, hiding inside, until they burst forth and "sliced and whipped and mashed those tater tyrants into tatters." And with some egg, onion and flour, Judah creates potato latkes.
From Meet the Latkes by Alan Silberberg
But with Applesauce telling the true story of Hanukkah, which Grandpa eventually acknowledges as a far better miracle, yet another miracle happens. (Parents of teens will understand.)
From Meet the Latkes by Alan Silberberg
Meet the Latkes may be a silly story of a potato latke family sharing the story of Hanukkah but it's actually very informative. By having Grandpa tell his story, as an alternative to Applesauce's correct version, as well as including an appendix with glossary about the true story of Chanukah, Alan Silberberg gives us many a laugh while teaching about this holiday. But forget for a moment the educational value of Meet the Latkes and instead think about the achievement Alan Silberberg has made by writing and illustrating a story in which potato pancakes are the stars. His characters have clear voices of senior drollness, youthful naïveté, canine frustration, teen moodiness and more. And they're potato latkes! It all comes through their words, eyes and smiles (or lack thereof) and Alan Silberberg's cartoons, filled with action and exclamations, bubble comments and commentaries, and colour and wacky shapes.

Take your children or students to Meet the Latkes for a Hanukkah, or Chanukah, like no other.

November 21, 2018

Team Steve

Written and illustrated by Kelly Collier
Kids Can Press
40 pp.
Ages 4-8
September 2018

Let's face it: Steve the Horse, introduced in Kelly Collier's A Horse Named Steve (Kids Can Press, 2017), is a bit of a narcissist. It's all about him. In his first book, he wanted to be seen as exceptional among the animals, oblivious to the strengths of others, seeing them as ordinary. Now, in Team Steve, Steve is looking forward to winning yet another race-a-thon, knowing how extraordinary he is as a runner.
From Team Steve by Kelly Collier
But the rules of the race have changed and Steve is put on a relay team with Duck, Turtle and Snail. Steve is perplexed as to how they are to win when "A duck waddles, a turtle walks and a snail ... is a snail!"  Even as each of his teammates suggests that he could coach them, sharing his expertise, he ignores their suggestions until he comes up with the same idea they've been proposing. Problem is that Steve is all about Steve, so his coaching is not about his teammates but about himself. Among his pearls of coaching wisdom, he advises Turtle to lift his hooves (?), Snail to eat three bowls of oats a day and Duck to stretch its neck.
From Team Steve by Kelly Collier
On the day of the race-a-thon, it's Turtle, Snail and Duck who surpass all expectations and pass their race competitors, while it is Steve who loses the race for them. Too busy congratulating himself on coaching his team to a victory, he delays in running his stretch of the race and the other teams tie to win.  Still it's his teammates that help him overcome his embarrassment before Steve is back applauding himself for helping the other teams win.
From Team Steve by Kelly Collier
Oh, Steve. He is such a self-centred horse, always focusing on his own needs and wants and how he is perceived by others. He is totally unconcerned with others except as they relate to him.  Kids will laugh themselves silly at the foolishness of Steve's need for attention and glory knowing that he is the centre of his own distress.  If Team Steve teaches anything it's that teamwork requires cooperation and listening to others, but it's a lesson Steve still needs to learn. Fortunately, Kelly Collier has created some great characters, including Bob the raccoon who organizes the race and the teams, to help Steve see beyond himself. Her characters, so suggestive in their expressions and body language, demonstrate their own frustration with the equine, as well as their curiosity and pleasure. Moreover, Kelly Collier does this with a very limited palette of beiges with black and white.

Steve may not be the most collaborative but his intent, like his emotional support for his teammates, is honest. Perhaps that's why, even when he messes up, like we all do, they forgive him and help him find acceptance of the situation. And with friends to help, everyone, even Steve, is a winner.

November 20, 2018

The Origin of Day and Night

Written by Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt
Illustrated by Lenny Lishchenko
Inhabit Media
36 pp.
Ages 4-8
September 2018

In these days of daylight savings, the story of The Origin of Day and Night feels all the more relevant. For those of us in southern Ontario, complaining about how early it gets dark seems like an annual event–though, of course, this would be accentuated in the north–but what of animals who prefer only daylight or only nighttime for their activities?
At the very beginning of time, there was no light on earth. Darkness surrounded everything. Only nocturnal animals, those who could see in the dark, could easily hunt for food. (pg. 2)
From The Origin of Day and Night by Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt, illus. by Lenny Lishchenko
Tiri, the Arctic fox, was one of those nocturnal creatures, hunting those and from those that slept. When Tiri celebrated the darkness by calling out, "Taaq, taaq, taaq! Darkness, darkness, darkness!" the darkness remained because things that were spoken aloud could become real.
From The Origin of Day and Night by Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt, illus. by Lenny Lishchenko
But Ukaliq, the Arctic hare, who could not see in the dark, wondered what would happen if she called out, "Ubluq, ubluq, ubluq! Day, day, day!" And there was light in the world.  Tiri was not pleased. In a dance of light and day, the two animals call forth their preferred illumination so they might hunt or nap, finally agreeing on giving each other sufficient time to find food before the other changed the light in the sky.
And so, Tiri and Ukaliq used the power of their words to bring the sun up into the sky and then to make it set. Taaq brought darkness and ubluq brought day. (pg. 28)
Nunavut author Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt continues to share her Inuit history and culture through her storytelling just as she did in The Legend of Lightning and Thunder (Inhabit Media, 2013) which was shortlisted for the Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year for Children. Likewise, she wraps the origin story in The Origin of Day and Night in a mesmerizing story of conflict and resolution between Arctic animals.  But, by bringing to light the natural history of the Arctic, specifically the feeding and behaviour of the Arctic fox and Arctic hare, as well as the activities of the humans who hunt and store their meat to keep it safe from those such as the fox, Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt encourages learning of different cultures and environments, honouring the traditional Inuit belief embedded in The Origin of Day and Night beyond the tale itself.

Because of the nature of the story, Lenny Lishchenko's illustrations are far different from those in Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt's first picture book. Ukrainian-born Toronto artist Lenny Lishchenko plays up the dark vs. light conflict and balance with powerful images, always focusing on the animals and their need for light or dark. By juxtaposing the two, at play as the animals call forth the sky light they require, her illustrations are playful yet resolute and always revealing of their Arctic home.
From The Origin of Day and Night by Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt, illus. by Lenny Lishchenko
A simple story told with mighty text and illustrations, The Origin of Day and Night enlightens about beginnings, people and place.

November 19, 2018

The Divided Earth: The Nameless City, Book 3

Written and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks
Color by Jordie Bellaire
First Second
269 pp.
Ages 8-13
September 2018

The Nameless City, Book 1 in Faith Erin Hicks's graphic novel series, introduced young readers to the Nameless City, a metropolis of Ancient China conquered repeatedly and changing names with each new occupation. Currently the Dao people, under the rule of the General of All Blades, are in power. Young Dao Kaidu arrives to take his warrior training at the palace and meets a roof-jumper Rat who lives at the Stone Heart monastery after her parents are killed. Learning of the divided nature of the people of the Nameless City–the conquered and the conquerors–Kai and Rat try to help make things right, especially after the General of All Blades is assassinated by his own son, Erzi, and a struggle begins to possess an ancient text in The Stone Heart, Book 2 of the series. The conclusion of that struggle for the power over the city and of that text is the story of The Divided Earth.
From The Divided Earth by Faith Erin Hicks
The ancient manual which harbours the secret of Napatha, the sacred fire which was used by the Northern People to tunnel through the mountain to create the Nameless City, is now in Erzi's possession. He has had the document translated and has his right-hand person, the formidable Mura, begin preparation of the formula. Meanwhile, outside the city, Kaidu's father, Andren, and monk Joah are attempting to enlist the help of the Yisun people, those who ruled the city before the Dao took it. With their help, Andren and his wife Kata, hope to compel the current General of All Blades to form an alliance amongst all peoples in a council of nations, a premise his father had supported before his murder. Kai and Rat are also at work, but within the city, determined to retrieve the book that Erzi stole from the Stone Heart monastery.
From The Divided Earth by Faith Erin Hicks
The Divided Earth is resolved via a series of altercations, including one in which Erzi surprises the Yisun army with weapons enhanced with Napatha, extraordinary chase scenes and some tricky negotiations, leaving the fates of the city and the ancient text settled fittingly.
From The Divided Earth by Faith Erin Hicks
I know The Divided Earth and all books in The Nameless City series are fiction but the history embedded within make it compelling text for teaching everything from ancient civilizations and the development of gunpowder to the nature of conquest and class structure and struggles. That's very impressive for a graphic novel. But that's me wearing my teacher hat. Young readers won't care about that.  They'll be too enthralled with Faith Erin Hicks's illustrations, coloured by Jordie Bellaire, that take them to an expansive city in a formidable mountain landscape where battles are for survival and land occupation, for power and for control, are the order of the day.

Though Faith Erin Hicks's The Divided Earth is a fast read, even as a graphic novel, its life lessons are long-lasting, impressing children with the need to get along and find room for all. There may be knife fights and arrows flying, all with the intention of subduing the enemy, but the message that we all deserve a place in the world is clear.
Please, stop the cycle of war and invasion. We can all live here side by side. (pg. 228)
No one needs to be nameless. We all belong.

November 16, 2018

The Almost Epic Squad: Mucus Mayhem

Written by Kevin Sylvester
Illustrated by Britt Wilson
Scholastic Canada
187 pp.
Ages 8-13
September 2018 

In a hospital nursery in Dimly, Manitoba thirteen years earlier, a storm overloads the emergency lighting system and four babies are showered with the glowing dust from the reidium bulbs (the once famous Dimly Bulbs).  Four babies, four characters, four books.  This is Baby Flem's story. 

Baby Flem is actually Jessica Flem, an extraordinary gamer of Gang of Greats who is bizarrely afflicted with allergies. The thirteen-year-old, whose nose had been affected in the accident, must use copious tissues as well as her puffer, to relieve her congestion. Turning 13, Jessica is prepared for her annual checkup and bizarre questioning by Dr. Fassbinder, now of the Insitut de l'ennui, and another superfluous visit from her "babysitter" Garvia Greep who gifts her with a diary in which to chronicle her "changes."
Her voice sounded sickly sweet like a snake trying to do a Taylor Swift imitation. (pg. 25)
Dr. Fassbinder's questions about magic and flying and other weird stuff may seem outrageous but not as crazy as the small green gummy-like man who appears amidst her used tissues to sweep them up. Dr. Fassbinder doesn't seem too flummoxed by the green janitor who grows as Jess uses more tissues but disappears when finished, though her only friend, Cliff Snuffington, is fascinated by her "snot golem." (Of course, he's the guy who collects her used tissues, calling them "ori-gummy creations" and gathers them in plastic sandwich bags for his collection.)

Then the really weird stuff starts happening. You're probably wondering how things could get any weirder.  Well, Jess's notes begin disappearing from her diary; she discovers a dossier about her situation; her parents disappear; an old blimp manned by Garvia Greep starts pursuing them; a talking lab mouse named Algernon comes to their aid; and Jess tries to control her mucus-transforming power. And all the while she is participating in a Game of Greats tournament, aiming to reach Grand Master.

Transforming mucus into creatures to do your bidding, whether cleaning or fighting bad guys, may not exactly be a superpower all would aspire to have but it's completely appropriate for a young teen of the The Almost Epic Squad. (We'll have to wait for Books 2, 3, and 4 by Ted Staunton, Lesley Livingston and Richard Scrimger, to learn about the almost epic superpowers of the remaining thirteen-year-olds. See below for details.) Mucus Mayhem is an elevated Captain Underpants for the middle grade set. The humour is slightly gross but always clever, with a splash of the supernatural and filled with the action of chases, mad science and nefarious plots. The irreverence of Kevin Sylvester's premise will freak out and amuse readers to no end. And his punning and crackerjack writing will have everyone giggling with its tongue-in-cheek sauciness.
My head was swimming. But then my nose completely jammed and I began my tissue tango–nose, tissue, garbage basket. Or, more accurately, floor. Nose. Tissue. Floor. Repeat. Cha-cha-cha. (pg. 25)
Illustrator and cartoonist Britt Wilson's black-and-white cartoons pepper the story and will grab a few more readers who love artwork to help move the story, though Mucus Mayhem is already a zippy read of laughs and ickiness.
From The Almost Epic Squad: Mucus Mayhem by Kevin Sylvester, illus. by Britt Wilson
Fortunately, with additional titles in the series slotted for January (What Blows Up by Ted Staunton), May (Super Sketchy by Lesley Livingston) and September (Irresistible by Richard Scrimger) of 2019, it looks like The Almost Epic Squad will be tickling funny bones for a while.
Covers of The Almost Epic Squad books (covers not finalized for Super Sketchy and Irresistible)

November 14, 2018

Giraffe and Bird Together Again

Written and illustrated by Rebecca Bender
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
November 2018

Friends don't always see eye to eye, or nose to beak. But, sometimes it's because of these  differences that the friendship is made even more special. Little ones who know Rebecca Bender's other books in this collection, namely Giraffe and Bird (DCB, 2010), Don't Laugh at Giraffe (Pajama Press, 2012) and Giraffe Meets Bird (Pajama Press, 2015), already understand the basis for this extraordinary friendship. And, even with a plot that has Bird missing, you know Rebecca Bender won't disappoint her readers. She helps the two find their way back to each other.

From Giraffe and Bird Together Again by Rebecca Bender
Bird loves adventures, Giraffe does not. But when Bird is absent for awhile, Giraffe begins to worry that something has happened to Bird and decides to follow the feathers. Even when he gets tangled in vines when searching through a dark forest, Giraffe is compelled to go on. Even when Giraffe goes up a craggy mountain upon which he tumbles backwards and needs the help of a couple of mountain goats, he is determined to find his friend. From his high vantage point, Giraffe glimpses a shiny sign and "a small and beaky someone next to it." Finding Bird stunned from a collision with the sign, both are happy to be reunited. Unfortunately, Giraffe fails to notice the quicksand nearby. Now it's Bird turn to help out. By distracting his friend and enlisting the help of others, Giraffe makes it home safely.

Everyone loves Giraffe and Bird. The two animals are so different yet so understanding and accepting of those differences. Giraffe stretches beyond his comfort zone to help his little friend, and Bird recognizes when Giraffe may be in need of help. Even in the end, the two find a compromise to help them continue to be friends and honour those differences. 

Bird will wander a little less...
if Giraffe will explore a little more.
From Giraffe and Bird Together Again by Rebecca Bender
One of the best elements of Giraffe and Bird Together Again is the artwork. Rebecca Bender's use of colour to place the reader in the forest, on the mountain and looking out over the plain is extraordinary. It's warm and rich in tone and evocative of a setting many of us in Canada will never experience. But, of course, it's her characters that draw the reader back every time. Generally using only body language and eyes, Rebecca Bender lets the reader see what Giraffe and Bird are thinking and feeling. Frustration, joy, distress and relief are all there in those few elements. It's impossible not to fall in love with Giraffe and Bird. Moreover with details like Bird hiding under a traditional Canadian work sock or Giraffe in knee pads and helmet or the weird assortment of detritus lodged in the quicksand, kids will seek and find and laugh.
From Giraffe and Bird Together Again by Rebecca Bender
Rebecca Bender's Giraffe and Bird was recently honoured as the selection for the 2018 TD Grade 1 Book Giveaway. That means every child in Grade 1 in Canada should have received their own copy of that special first book (unless their school board sadly opted out of the program). The enduring affection between these two unlikely friends continues to endear them to young children, perhaps seeing something of themselves in Giraffe or Bird. Whether sensitive to teasing, or homebody or adventurer, there is something of everyone in these two characters, and we're so glad that Giraffe and Bird are together again.
From Giraffe and Bird Together Again by Rebecca Bender

November 12, 2018

Tout le monde à bord!

Written by Rhéa Dufresne
Illustrated by Marion Arbona
Monsieur Ed
32 pp.
Ages 4+
April 2018

Prepare for an explosion for the senses amidst the busyness of the animals as they leave the city for vacations. Tout le monde à bord! has all the hallmarks for a holiday read for little ones with the bustling activity of locating creatures and solving shadow mysteries to keep them engrossed for the duration of travel.

A wild assortment of animals, including a zebra, penguin, giraffe, fish, and aardvark, gloriously rich in colour and shape, gather at the train station to board the train. It's mayhem as they search for their companions and squeeze aboard ready to set out.
From Tout le monde à bord! by Rhéa Dufresne, illus. by Marion Arbona
Parents will recognize the cries of the animals as they wonder if they've forgotten anything, as they urge others to hurry, as they complain that it's going to be crowded, and then the need to wait for that ever late traveller.

Even as the train winds and weaves its way through forests and hills to the sandy desert into the snowy mountains, jungle, sea and marsh, different shadows of creatures appear.  Young ones might think they can identify each animal behind the clouds of dust or hot chocolate steam or whale blowhole stream, but they'll probably be wrong every time. (The shadow creatures in the illustration below certainly look like birds with webbed feet and beaks, but don't be fooled.)
From Tout le monde à bord! by Rhéa Dufresne, illus. by Marion Arbona
And as they travel, the hilarity of their dialogue and outbursts reveal family squabbles, worries, joys, and more. From the penguin chastizing her mate-Je t'avais dit qu'on aurait mieux faut d'aller chez ma mère au Pôle Nord ("I told you it would be better to go to my mother's at the North Pole")–to the vendor selling plankton ice cream at the sea, Tout le monde à bord! is rich in dialogue and commentary. And with Marion Arbona's wonderfully stylized creatures and the assortment of travel spots, Tout le monde à bord is a trip for the visual senses and geographical sensibilities.

Rhéa Dufresne and Marion Arbona are both stars in the Quebec children's literature world. Having collaborated on award-winning titles like Arachnéa (Éditions de l'Isatis, 2012) and La nuit (Éditions de l'Isatis, 2015), as well as on books separately, they are well-known amongst French-language youngCanLit creators and to young readers. But, even though Tout le monde à bord! is a French-language picture book, the simplicity of the story and the bounty of its illustrations make it accessible to both French speakers andthose learning the language. (Teachers, it would also be a superb book for developing visual literacy and using the artwork to help translate the text.)

Whether a holiday in the summer or a winter vacation, take a trip with this motley crew of animals on their vacances. There's lots to experience throughout their journey and your reading of Tout le monde à bord!

November 08, 2018

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children

Written by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Julianna Swaney
Tundra Books
32 pp.
Ages 5-8
October 2018

Sara Josephine Baker (1873-1945) had always been an unconventional person. She didn't hold by conventions that only boys played ball and climbed trees and became doctors. Fortunately, the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary had been established in 1868 and accepted her as a student of medicine. But, after setting up a practice with a fellow female physician, Florence Laighton, in 1898 and providing excellent care to her patients, Dr. Jo realized she did not have enough patients to stay in business and instead she became a health inspector for the city of New York.

Working in the neighbourhood of Hell's Kitchen, Dr. Jo was saddened to see so many immigrant families living in harsh conditions and subject to terrible illnesses and health issues, especially the children. She helped establish courses for midwives, nurse visits for new mothers, milk stations, and antiseptic beeswax containers for silver nitrate drops used on newborns. She even designed infant wear that was less restrictive and could regulate temperature–preventing heatstroke from typical swaddling–in babies. Her efforts on behalf of the children helped reduce New York City's infant mortality rate to levels not seen in other major American cities.
From Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children by Monica Kulling, illus. by Julianna Swaney
Monica Kulling always tells a good story in her illustrated biographies. (Check out all the books in her Great Ideas series including Clean Sweep! Frank Zamboni's Ice Machine and Zap! Nikola Tesla Takes Charge) She knows the right balance of information and text to educate and enlighten. Although she provides a brief page "More about Dr. Jo" with a few more details, Monica Kulling never makes the information read like an encyclopedic notation about the doctor's accomplishments. Instead, it focuses on Dr. Jo's motivations and achievements in terms of service to others, specifically children. Young readers will know about pediatricians, hopefully through their own health care, but will be surprised to learn that Dr. Jo was the first. Moreover, they will learn about a time and place when health was not a given, and the most vulnerable, children such as themselves, needed someone to advocate for them and care enough to help. Personally I appreciated hearing about a woman who broke down barriers in the medical field while managing to do extraordinary things.
From Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children by Monica Kulling, illus. by Julianna Swaney
Monica Kulling's stories come to life with exceptional illustrators like American artist Julianna Swaney who balance the real with the fictionalized. Images depicting the conditions of Hell's Kitchen would have been tragic yet Julianna Swaney shows the reality with a subtle touch of colour and shape. It is honest without being scary, and bright without being saccharine.

Learning about great people through illustrated biographies is always a winner for children. There's history being told but at a level relevant to them. I'm especially delighted that Monica Kulling has shared one about a female physician who never let societal conventions hold her back and was able to achieve much good by not doing so. It's an important lesson for all of us.

A free educator's guide for Dr. Jo is available from Tundra Books at

November 06, 2018

How to Catch a Bear Who Loves to Read: Book launch (Toronto)

Join author Andrew Katz 

for the Toronto launch of his picture book

How to Catch a Bear Who Loves to Read
Written by Andrew Katz and Juliana Léveillé-Trudel 
Illustrated by Joseph Sherman
CrackBoom! Books 
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
November 2018


Sunday, November 11, 2018

2 p.m.


Queen Books
914 Queen Street East
Toronto, ON 

There will be:
 • a reading of the book by Andrew Katz 
(with music provided by singer-songwriter Peter Katz) 
• book signing by author Andrew Katz and
illustrator Joseph Sherman

The event is detailed as follows:
Queen Books invites you to join a spunky girl, her forest animal friends, and a book-loving bear for a reading by Montreal author Andrew Katz of his new picture book How to Catch a Bear Who Loves to Read (ages 4-7), co-written with Juliana Léveillé-Trudel. Special musical guest, JUNO-nominated and Canadian Screen Award-nominated singer-songwriter Peter Katz, will be lending his guitar to the storytelling, and Gemini Award-winning illustrator Joseph Sherman will be there as well for a book-signing following the reading.

Bear- and book-lovers of all ages are welcome!

Details here.

November 01, 2018

Out of the Blue

Written and illustrated by Wallace Edwards
Scholastic Canada
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
August 2018

The message of Wallace Edwards's newest picture book, a story deceptively simple but unusually rich in context and imagery, is all about differences and finding commonalities to evoke compassion. Out of the Blue may be aimed at ages 3 to 7 but it's a directive that should be picked up by all of society.

Ernest is a rhino (Wallace Edwards does illustrate great rhinos, as well as elephants, zebras, lions, cats, mice, etc.) who gets his kite stuck in a tree.  While he contemplates a solution to his problem, he gets a fleeting glimpse of an aerial object (really it's a UFO) and hears a loud noise in the sky. Worrying that someone might need his help, Ernest embarks on a trek, with the help of a large egret, across the plain and then alone up a treacherous mountain. When he discovers the space ship and bumps into a green amorphous alien, both he and the creature are terrified of the monster each sees in the other.
From Out of the Blue by Wallace Edwards
When they both venture out to eye the other, they attempt to communicate. But, as with all whose languages are different, Ernest and the creature endeavour to find commonalities, whether in the shape or colour or emotion of their communiques.
From Out of the Blue by Wallace Edwards
Displaying their dialogue bubbles as puzzle pieces that struggle to find the means to fit, Ernest and the creature finally discover that they may each be familiar with different things but they both love. And what the alien needs help with is his transport which has lodged in the ground. Ernest is happy to help his new friend who, in turn, offers his support, courtesy of some extraordinarily malleable appendages, before waving goodbye.
And there were no more monsters, only friends.
Because Out of the Blue is about communication and perception, Wallace Edwards was astute to have little text in the story.  The reader is given the opportunity to interpret the story and the dialogue between the two creatures, familiar and not, while still recognizing their fears, troubles, and helpfulness. Moreover, extra activities from Scholastic include What Would You Say? and Take Turns Telling the Story offering children the opportunity to create their own discussions between Ernest and the alien.
Scholastic Canada's extra activities for Out of the Blue by Wallace Edwards
Wallace Edwards's stories always have a surreal quality to them, particularly in the art that brings the familiar, like rhinos and trees and mountains, into the realm of the fantastic. Yet Ernest, who is very earnest in his endeavours to help and communicate with the other-worldly creature, is very real and down-to-earth in his efforts and his feelings. Fortunately, he sees beyond the monster he assumes the unfamiliar being is and instead finds a friend. 

Out of the Blue shares a positive message that fits into our troubled times of suspiciousness and antagonism. Too many see the differences as strife when it would seem that we're more alike than we often know. Thank you Wallace Edwards for reminding us of this.