August 24, 2020

Sara and the Search For Normal: Guest review

This review was written by teacher Elizabeth Cook.

Written by Wesley King
Simon & Schuster/ Paula Wiseman Books
272 pp.
Ages 8-12
June 2020

Is it bad to admit that I pick books based on their covers and titles?  Well, sometimes I do. I loved Wesley King’s Laura Monster Crusher, but didn’t even notice that he was the author when I saw the title Sara and the Search For Normal.  The title just drew me in. After all, what is normal?  I know that, while on a European trip with my parents, we were deemed "that crazy family" when we continued to sit on a patio enjoying our schnitzel in a downpour. Even though I had deemed our lives to be pretty normal, others, including friends, recognized our eccentricities. When I spotted Sara and the Search for Normal, I couldn’t wait to see how Sara’s search for "normal" would go.

Seventh-grader Sara hates the labels of the four disorders which have been tacked on her: bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, mild schizophrenia, and depression. But she really only wants one title and that's normal. Her school days are spent in an isolated classroom with her one-on-one teacher Mrs. Hugger, and she only speaks to a handful of people including her parents, teacher, and therapist. It's not surprising that she studies other students for normalcy on the rare occasions she is allowed to go to the cafeteria with Mrs. Hugger. Then Sara keeps a secret list of what "normal" kids do so that it might help her on her own journey to normal.

Though she is hesitant, Sara begins to attend group therapy for kids her age with similar issues. There she meets the very different Erin, who speaks a mile a minute, and loves ice cream and Ryan Gosling movies. Erin has trichotillomania (hair pulling disorder) and dubs Sara her new bestie within seconds of meeting her. These two mismatched friends navigate therapy, adolescence, and friendship together all while trying to manage their own family problems.

I really enjoyed living the novel through Sara’s perspective. It can be hard for neurotypical people to fully understand the struggles of those with various mental disorders. While most readers might not be able to fully empathize with all that Sara goes through on a daily basis with her many diagnoses, everyone will be able to feel her emotions. There's her first crush, the ups and downs in friendships, trying to fit in at school, and dealing with family members, and Wesley King does a fabulous job of balancing Sara’s search for "normal" with the joys and anguish that come with being a teenager.

Upon finishing the novel, I read the "Author Notes" at the back of the book and realized this book is a companion novel to Wesley King’s popular book OCDaniel (2016).  If you have read that multi-award-winning book, you will have already been introduced to Sara.  Because her character was so well-received by the readers who wanted to know more about her, Wesley King has given us Sara and the Search for Normal.  Regardless, this book can easily be read as a stand-alone novel and enjoyed without knowing the story of OCDaniel, though if you're like me and have not read OCDaniel, it's sure to be on your To Be Read list too.  As such, I look forward to reading the beginnings of Sara’s story in OCDaniel.

~ Reviewer Elizabeth Cook is a teacher in the Halton District School Board. She is an avid reader and fan of Canadian literature. 

August 21, 2020

Mr. Beagle Goes to Rabbittown

Written and illustrated by Lori Doody
Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides
44 pp.
Ages 3-6
July 2020

This new picture book from Newfoundland's Lori Doody is a true allegory about a multicultural society, emphasizing the precarious balance of acceptance of self and community, of staying true to oneself while trying to fit in.

From Mr. Beagle Goes to Rabbittown by Lori Doody
In Rabbittown, a town alive with colour, all the bunnies know each other.  Then Mr. Beagle comes to town and opens up his convenience store. Because the bunnies–this is Rabbittown–"didn't know what to think of him," Mr. Beagle's business is slow. At the same time, mittens begin to go missing. Having a "good nose for sniffing out trouble," Mr. Beagle goes on the hunt for the lost mittens.
From Mr. Beagle Goes to Rabbittown by Lori Doody
He prowls the streets and businesses and eventually detects an odd scent in Rabbittown, finding one "fishy" bunny.  When this rabbit is revealed to be a cat who'd just wanted to fit in to the neighbourhood and was borrowing mittens for his kittens who kept losing their own, the community comes together to embrace the new arrivals and any others who decide to make Rabbittown their home. 

From Mr. Beagle Goes to Rabbittown by Lori Doody
Rabbittown, with its Hare Salon, Hop's barbershop and Hoppington Post, reflects a community that, on its surface, appears to be segregated but is not. They may be different species in a town settled by rabbits but it becomes evident that all belong and are welcomed.
And now Rabbittown was a neighbourhood where 
any bunny, dog, cat, mouse, squirrel or fox
could find new friends 
and warm mittens.
As she did in her earlier books Capelin Weather (2017), The Puffin Problem (2017), Mallard, Mallard, Moose (2018), and Paint the Town Pink (2019), author and illustrator Lori Doody paints an important message in a charming story. Older readers will understand the complexity of a story about diversity and inclusivity, though our youngest readers may only see a tale about rabbits and a dog and some cats, and be captivated by the colours of Lori Doody's artwork. But, with re-readings of the story, and looking back, as I did, to see whether they can spot the wannabe rabbit from the onset, they will be excited to realize the clues were there all along and will endeavour to fill in more of the story for themselves. As welcoming as her illustrations of bold colours and folksy shapes, Lori Doody's story invites the reader into a community where everyone and anyone can reside and be accepted.

August 19, 2020

Please Don't Change My Diaper!

Written by Sarabeth Holden
Illustrated by Emma Pedersen
Inhabit Media
28 pp.
Ages 0-4
June 2020 

As adults, we know why babies must have their diapers changed and why children should bathe. We know about cleanliness and hygiene and good health. But babies don't have any understanding of this. So, it's not surprising that when a mom swoops in for a diaper change, this little guy is screaming in his mind, "Please Don't Change My Diaper!"

From Please Don't Change My Diaper! by Sarabeth Holden, illus. by Emma Pedersen

In a charming rhyming voice, a toddler is excited at the prospect of heading outside to play in the snow with his puppy. Sure he smells something malodorous but,
I think I know...but let's just go!
Don't worry about where it's coming from.
Oh no, what's that you say, Mum?
And when his mother, only seen from his perspective as a pair of legs in slippers, socks and leggings, brings out the diaper, decorated in pale aqua with teddy bears, it's as if his whole world has collapsed. 

From Please Don't Change My Diaper! by Sarabeth Holden, illus. by Emma Pedersen
The toddler is tormented by the vision of a multitude of diapers. He's begging for her not to do this, and imaging telling his friends how much he cares for them, as if he would never see them again.
I will miss my fluffy puppy.
I will miss the sparkly snow.
To my best friends, near and far,
I love you, you must know!
From Please Don't Change My Diaper! by Sarabeth Holden, illus. by Emma Pedersen
With face grimacing with irritation and perhaps even fear, the little boy's diaper is changed.  Of course he survives the trauma and, in fact, is gratified by the "fresh, delightful feeling" while still recognizing that the world remains as it had. (That is, until another inevitable change is required.)

From Please Don't Change My Diaper! by Sarabeth Holden, illus. by Emma Pedersen
While Sarabeth Holden can only imagine what this little one is thinking, she ensures an authenticity with the innocence of his perspective, the mindfulness of the moment i.e., play over diaper change, and the singularity of his needs and wants. She makes him sweet and emotive while also timid and fearful, giving him a candid voice that rhymes with wonder and simple acceptance of his circumstances.  Emma Pedersen, whose artwork was reviewed in Queenie Quail Can't Keep Up (Jane Whittingham, 2019), emulates that simplicity of wonder in a child's life. His big eyes and cherubic arms anticipate both goodness and caring, even if he doesn't really want that diaper change. His worries, completely reflective of a very young child's point of view, are ephemeral in nature, regularly supplanted by new opportunities for a hug, for a cuddle with a puppy, for play. By the end of the book, the child has forgotten his discontent with a diaper change and accepts his life as one of comfort and affection.

I know this picture book is about a toddler who doesn't want his diaper changed, and so would be an appropriate book to help the very young accept their own diaper routines as normal, but Please Don't Change My Diaper! is also a reassuring take on circumstances that might cause some anxiety. The trepidation is real but perhaps recognizing the transient nature of some worries can be enough to put them aside like a dirty diaper, never to soil a perfectly good day.

August 17, 2020

Nikki Tesla and the Traitors of the Lost Spark (Elements of Genius #3): Guest review

 This review was written by teacher Elizabeth Cook.

Written by Jess Keating
Illustrated by Lissy Marlin
288 pp.
Ages 8-12
July 2020

If I told you this book was about an elite team of individuals who travelled the world to defeat evil, you might imagine a team of expertly-trained adults with many weapons at their disposal. You would be wrong. This book is about a group of seven kids from the Genius Academy.  All seven students had been sent to the Genius Academy because of their unbridled talents and who, along with Nikki’s pet ferret Pickles, take on secret missions to save the world from relentless villains.

The protagonist and newest recruit is Nikki Tesla, a fabulous inventor with a scientific brain. She joined the other six academy students a year earlier after she blew up her bedroom with her death ray invention and chose the Genius Academy over prison.  The rest of the team includes: Bert Einstein, a visionary; Adam “Mo” Mozart, a musical prodigy; Mary Shelley who is the literary mind of the group; Charlie Darwin, a biologist specializing in animals; Grace O’Malley, the group's leader and a real people person; and Leo da Vinci, the multi-talented polymath and Nikki’s crush. 
From Nikki Tesla and the Traitors of the Lost Spark by Jess Keating, illus. by Lissy Marlin
At the beginning of this third book in the series, Nikki is enjoying her well-deserved vacation in Costa Rica. She has had a busy and adventure-filled first year at the Genius Academy: travelling the world, flying planes, and fighting evil masterminds. However, her break is short-lived with the arrival of her Genius Academy friends who whisk her off on their next mission: to stop a nasty virus (nicknamed SPARK) from being released and causing devastating consequences to mankind. (Pretty apropos, don’t you think?) Nikki and her Genius Academy friends travel to England to track down V, the villain responsible for SPARK. Nikki and the Genius Academy students must save the world from the SPARK virus while evading the diligent MI6 secret agents who think they are the culprits who have blown up the Tower of London...all in a day’s work for these child prodigies!

What I love about the Elements of Genius series is that, outside of being quirky geniuses, the characters are so relatable. Every time Nikki acts on impulse or regrets what she just said, I can feel the red starting to rise in my own cheeks. She has flaws and is very real, still developing as a character which readers will have witnessed through the three books in the series. We learned a lot about her past in the earlier books, Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray (2019) and Nikki Tesla and the Fellowship of the Bling (2020) but this book allows us to get to know a bit more about some of the other Genius Academy students. We also get to meet another child genius, Arthur Conan Doyle, a master of deduction, who doesn’t attend the Academy despite being offered a spot many years ago. Learning more about these characters helps us better understand their motivations and behaviour. It is also interesting to see how the introduction of a new child genius works, or doesn’t work, with an established team who are trying to save the world. 

I am a big fan of Jess Keating’s work. In addition to the Elements of Genius series, she writes excellent nonfiction books about weird animals, inspiring picture books about women in science, YA novels, and graphic novels too. Each of her books is a fun and informative read. Despite my best attempts at internet sleuthing, I can’t determine if a fourth Elements of Genius is already in the works or not, though I sincerely hope it is. These Genius Academy students are excellent role models for our middle grade readers. Each student has their own unique talents in various fields of study. When they work together, they are able to overcome enormous hurdles and just happen to save the world in the process. With its promotion of STEM, problem solving with peers, and self-acceptance, this series has it all.

~ Reviewer Elizabeth Cook is a teacher in the Halton District School Board. She is an avid reader and fan of Canadian literature. 

August 07, 2020

The Girl with the Cat

Written by Beverley Brenna
Illustrated by Brooke Kerrigan
Red Deer Press
32 pp.
Ages 5-10
April 2020

Based on a true story, The Girl with the Cat recounts a fortuitous visit to an art gallery that leads to an act of activism and the permanent installation of a bronze sculpture in Saskatoon.
From The Girl with the Cat by Beverley Brenna, illus. by Brooke Kerrigan
When a young girl and her older brother go exploring one Saturday shortly after the family's move from Toronto to Saskatoon, they discover an art gallery of epic proportions. Within the walls, the girl discovers a plethora of art which cannot be touched; that is, until she finds a bronze sculpture of a girl in a rocking chair with a cat on her lap. Without a sign about touching, lonely Caroline touches the chair and sees it rock. She pats the cat, and takes in the details of the artwork, from the girl's bare feet and shorts to the ripples of the cat's fur. Everything reminds Caroline of the home and cat she left behind and of playing with her friends. She makes a connection and returns to talk to the girl and her cat, identified as Nina and Sammy, time and time again.
From The Girl with the Cat by Beverley Brenna, illus. by Brooke Kerrigan
I sit beside them and the Gallery breathes softly around us. In the stillness I start to really see the paintings. This room is full of summer. There are trees for treehouses and beaches for swimming. I bet Nina likes this place. Maybe that's one of her secrets. I tell her my secrets in return.
But when Caroline learns that the sculpture is being returned to Ottawa where the artist lives, Caroline is devastated.
It feels as if there's a hole in the roof and all the light is leaking out.
Nine-year-old Caroline gathers up the little bit of money she and her brother have and delivers it with a letter to the director. Though he suggests there's nothing he can do, the next morning her letter graces the front page of the newspaper, and a month later Caroline is pleased to hear that the "Girl With Cat" would not be moved.

From The Girl with the Cat by Beverley Brenna, illus. by Brooke Kerrigan
According to the notes at the conclusion of The Girl with the Cat, Caroline Markham was the little girl who wrote the letter that saved this sculpture at the Mendel Art Gallery in 1966. That sculpture, by the artist Arthur Price of his own daughter and her cat, remains in Saskatoon though it has been relocated with the gallery's collection to the city's new art museum. But this child's small act of activism, championing a piece of art with which she made a connection and helped her become accustomed to her new home, reminds us that small deeds can enact important changes. Beverley Brenna, who has penned everything from picture books and early readers (I reviewed Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life last year) to middle grade, YA and short stories, is very astute about getting into the heads of children and giving voice to that which matters to them. This story may be about taking action but at its most heartfelt it's about the anguish a child feels about her family's move and her need for reassurance and a friend. She finds both in a bronze sculpture that also leads her to real friends. Not surprising she returns the favour.
From The Girl with the Cat by Beverley Brenna, illus. by Brooke Kerrigan
With Brooke Kerrigan's illustrations created with the softest of media like pencil crayon and watercolours, The Girl with the Cat is both muted and dramatic. Brooke Kerrigan makes the gallery itself impressively monolithic and the art it houses striking, which is how a child would perceive them to be. Her distinctive art styling has both a grace and a magic that consistently draw me in to the story. (Read my reviews of The Christmas Wind, The Little Boy Who Lived Down the Drain, and Fishermen Through & Through for a sampling of some of my favourites by Brooke Kerrigan.)

I'm glad Arthur Price created his sculpture and that it was there to comfort Caroline in 1966 and that she was able to help safeguard its presence in Saskatoon, but I am most thankful that Beverley Brenna and Brooke Kerrigan were able to share this story about how a small act can lead to transformation.

August 05, 2020

David Jumps In

Written by Alan Woo
Illustrated by Katty Maurey
Kids Can Press
24 pp.
Ages 4-7
March 2020 

Sometimes a leap of faith is necessary to pursue that which is uncomfortable or seemingly impossible. With a string of elastic bands and that leap of faith, David jumps in to a new school and makes new friends with whom to play in this new picture book from Maggie's Chopsticks author Alan Woo

From David Jumps In by Alan Woo, illus. by Katty Maurey

Many children know the discomfort of starting at a new school or joining an activity in which friendships have already been established. David, the little boy in the red T-shirt with his mom in the blue skirt in the bottom right of the above illustration, undoubtedly feels small and insignificant. He knows no one at this school.  When recess comes, everyone gravitates to their favourite activities, whether in groups, or pairs, or by themselves. He tries to approach a couple of kids playing video-games or reading books, but they are in their own worlds and don't even hear him.

From David Jumps In by Alan Woo, illus. by Katty Maurey

Though David is starting to get nervous that maybe no one would play with him, he finds some classmates playing hopscotch, a game like elastic skip which requires balance, jumping and chanting, so,with blushing cheeks, he approaches them. 
"Hey," he said shyly. "I'm David.
Do you want to play elastic skip?"
They ask how the game goes and he demonstrates. And with that a new world of play is created.

From David Jumps In by Alan Woo, illus. by Katty Maurey

I'm so pleased to know that kids still play this game though when I was growing up it was called jumpsies. Still it's a great game that requires a minimum of equipment that can be stored in a pocket and played just about anywhere you have three kids (although we sometimes used chair legs if we were alone). Play will always bring children together and I applaud David and author Alan Woo for reminding everyone that making new friends, or at least playmates, may just require taking that first step in asking. Of course that first step may be the hardest, as it seemed to be for David, but the payoff–connecting and having fun with his peers–makes it all worthwhile.

Montreal illustrator Katty Maurey recreates the isolation that David feels at his new school, by making him just one more small child in a sea of children. She may make them all unique in their skin, hair, clothes, abilities and interests, ensuring a diversity that reflects all children, but they are many and David is just one. He doesn't want to stand out, as many children are loathe to do; he just wants to fit in and have play fun. With the very colourful but subtle illustrations, digitally rendered, Katty Maurey brings Alan Woo's David from the outskirts of his new life to a foothold for a game he loves and for his classmates.

From David Jumps In by Alan Woo, illus. by Katty Maurey

August 03, 2020

Trail of Crumbs

Written by Lisa J. Lawrence
Orca Book Publishers
247 pp.
Ages 13+

We all hope a trail of crumbs will lead us to safety and maybe even home, but both are sadly elusive for seventeen-year-old Greta in this young adult novel of trauma and abandonment.
After their mom died from breast cancer when Greta and her twin brother Ash were just eight, their dad Roger fell apart. He lost his truck driving job because of a DUI, had to sell the house and sent the kids to live with a relative. Though he remarried and got the kids back, the turmoil of their lives becomes one of emotional abuse with their stepmom Patty always yelling, complaining and blaming Greta and Ash for everything. After another altercation, Patty convinces Roger to abandon the kids and they sneak off in the night.
Seven years he'd made excuses for Patty's anger, tried to make them share the blame in her tornado of drama. They'd been kids–imperfect, noisy, messy. He'd played middle man between a wolf and two sheep, trying to justify why the wolf always tore at them. Trying to please that rabid wolf. (pg. 89-90)
Left alone in their cold basement apartment in Edmonton with limited money of their own, Greta and Ash consider their options. A plan to confront their father falls apart, though it does find them a new ally in a classmate and neighbour, Nate. They look for jobs. They approach their landlord, Elgin Doyle, an older man who lives in the upper part of the house, about deferring the rent but instead he offers to let them stay in a spare room he has in return for chores like shovelling snow.

Though initially uncomfortable with their new living situation, the normally-withdrawn Ash seems to come out of himself, cooking with Elgin and standing up for the older man to his hostile adult daughter Alice. But, while Greta grapples with their abandonment, she is also trying to clarify the traumatizing circumstances involving a sexual encounter with Dylan.
She could never make sense of those shards still rattling loose inside her. They dug in, but no matter how long she looked at them, they never formed a whole picture. A grotesque kaleidoscope. When she tried to sort through it, all the colors mixed together until it turned into swamp brown. (pg. 124)
Trail of Crumbs is a story of finding a way to survive the trauma of parental abandonment and of sexual assault. It's about finding family and friends in unlikely allies and trusting those who would support you no matter what. It's not an easy story to read because the trauma is so raw. Even when Greta and Ash try to logically deal with their abandonment, and Greta tries to sort out the events with Dylan, you know they're just struggling to endure, to get through it, to survive. There is a visceral fear about stopping to give in to the anguish and hopelessness. But Lisa J. Lawrence, who wowed critics with her debut novel, Rodent (Orca, 2016), writes with power and intrepidness, never letting us question whether Greta and Ash are real. They are, as are their problems. They've survived trauma after trauma and keep on going. They don't even know how brave they are. They are their own heroes.

That trail of crumbs may be elusive and often invisible, but I was consoled that Greta and Ash found sufficient to keep them bound as siblings with enough left over to lead them to a new support family.