February 26, 2021

Second Story Press Indigenous Writing Contest

Publisher Second Story Press is holding its third annual contest for unpublished works for young people by Indigenous (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) writers who are citizens or permanent residents of Canada.
Previous winners include:
Jodie Callaghan for The Train

Michael Hutchinson for The Mighty Muskrats Mystery series
Here are most of the details you'll need to submit a manuscript:

• A previously unpublished, original manuscript of fiction or non-fiction which cannot be under consideration for publication by another publisher.        
• Submission must be written for young readers ages 5 to 18.          
• The jury will be particularly looking for stories with an urban setting. (Not looking for stories that rhyme or stories with anthropomorphized animals.)
• Send the complete manuscript but, if submitting a picture book manuscript, illustrations need not be provided.
• Submissions must be in English, or provide an English translation.
• Writers must be Canadian Citizens or Permanent Residents, 18 years of age or older and living in Canada. (Unfortunately, due to contest regulations, residents of Quebec are excluded.)
• Submitted digitally (email or Google form) or postmarked by May 14, 2021.
(Deadline was previously April 16 before it was extended.)
• Winner will be announced on  June 24, 2021.

How to submit?
• Copy of manuscript by post with entry form (link here) to 
Second Story Press
20 Maud Street, Suite 401
Toronto, ON, M5V 2M5
Attn: Indigenous Writing Contest
• By email to contest@secondstorypress.ca with entry form (link here)
• By Google form (link here)

• A publishing contract from Second Story Press
By jury of Jodie Callaghan, Nancy Cooper and Margie Wolfe

Details about this year's contest are posted at www.secondstorypress.ca/indigenous-contest
Good luck!

February 24, 2021

Nothing But Life

Written by Brent van Staalduinen
304 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2021

Fifteen-year-old Wendell (Dills) Sims's story in Nothing But Life begins with his juvenile sentencing after attacking a classmate, Patrick (Pat) Schultz, with box cutters. But this isn't the real start of his story because it's his backstory, about what happened before he and his mother moved back to Hamilton from Windsor, that overwhelms his present.

Now tracked with an ankle monitor by his probation officer Sean, Dills begins his community service picking up garbage at Churchill Park and environs. Under the casual direction of the park manager Gal, a scarred man who smells of pot, Dills toils away in the heat, trying to keep his head down and avoid trouble, even when his bully Pat comes around to provoke him. But Dills constantly hears his stepdad Jesse's voice in his head, remembering the advice he often shared, especially from his time in the military, to help Dills understand and make good choices.
"Own your own shit, kid," Jesse says. "One, no one can shoulder it for you. Two, it feels good to be responsible." (pg. 167)
Now, though, Jesse is also beckoning him to visit him. "I'm here. Come see me." Over and over again, Dills hears Jesse begging him to visit him in the hospital where he lies in a vegetative state, neither dead nor living. But Dills is torn between his love for the only father he has ever known and the horrors of a shooting at his school for which Jesse was responsible. Troubled by his confusion of feelings and tethered by his probation, with neither the money nor the physical means to get to Windsor, Dills is stymied. When he becomes acquainted through Gal with Mia Al-Ansour, a classmate and competitive wrestler, things take a different turn, and Dills make a decision to make the impossible possible, albeit with much deception, some hacking, and a lot of support from Mia, Gal and his Aunt Viv.

Though Nothing But Life is based on how Dills has coped in the aftermath of a school shooting by his stepdad, it's not about a school shooting. In fact, Hamilton author Brent van Staalduinen provides very few details of what actually happened at Wendell's school. What's more, though Dills finds a way to visit Jesse in Windsor, it's less about reconnecting and more about finding closure so that there is nothing but life ahead for Dills. Still, by writing with much seriousness, Brent van Staalduinen makes the reader realize that a story about a young man reclaiming his life rather than living it as the legacy of his stepdad's military PTSD or his own trauma associated with the shooting is sombre and requires thoughtfulness and compassion. The dying happened and that would never change. But Dills finds a way to ultimately end things with Jesse so that he might go beyond the kid whose stepfather perpetrated a school shooting and become the kid who is taking responsibility for his actions, and, even better, being open to friendships and more. It's nothing but life and, as Jesse would say, "Clear as mud."

February 22, 2021

13 Moons 13 Reads: GoodMinds video podcast series


Over the next thirteen months, GoodMinds, a First Nations family owned business, located on the Six Nations of the Grand River, will present a series of video podcasts of interviews with Indigenous authors and illustrators. Using the creation story of 13 Moons on Turtle's Back as the basis, GoodMinds has scheduled different guests for each of the 13 moons. Young readers, their teachers and parents, and everyone is invited to subscribe to the GoodMinds channel and enjoy these video podcasts. As an added bonus, GoodMinds is offering free downloads of the pdfs of 13 Moons on Turtle's Back Lunar (Cut-Outs) Calendar and Info Book to accompany the cultural teaching of 13 Moons on Turtle's Back.

🌒 🌒 🌒 🌒 🌒 🌒 🌒

Here is the schedule of guests by date and moon:

February 27, 2021            EAGLE MOON
Author/illustrator Jay Odjick (Algonquin) and host David Bouchard

March 28, 2021                GOOSE MOON 
Authors Katherena Vermette (Métis) and Nicola Campbell (Nłeʔkepmx, Syilx and Métis)
April 27, 2021                   FROG MOON                 
Author/Illustrator Lisa Boivin (Dene) and Poet Circle with authors Joseph Dandurand (Xalatsep), Rebecca Thomas (Mi’kmaw) and Rosanna Deerchild (Cree)

May 26, 2021                    BUDDING MOON
Authors Tanya Talaga (Ojibwe) and David A. Robertson (Cree)

June 24, 2021                    BLOSSOM MOON
Author Wilfred Buck (Cree) and Author/Illustrator Sara Davidson and Robert Davidson (Haida)

July 24, 2021                     BERRY MOON
Authors Lee Maracle (Cree) and Cindy Blackstock (Gitxsan)

August 22, 2021                HARVEST MOON
Authors Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibwe) and Sean Lyons (Algonquin)

September 20, 2021          FALL MOON
Authors Waubgeshig Rice (Ojibwe) and Brett Huson (Gitxsan)

October 20, 2021              MIGRATING MOON
Authors Jesse Thistle (Metis/Cree) and Dr. Betty Lynxleg (Ojibwe)
November 19, 2021          FROST MOON
Authors Wab Kinew (Saulteaux) and KC Adams (Ojibwe- Cree)

December 19, 2021           FROZEN MOON
Author Michael Hutchinson (Cree)

January 17, 2022               SPIRIT MOON
Author Nancy Cooper (Ojibwe)
Do check out GoodMinds for its impressive collection of books by Indigenous authors and illustrators at its website at https://www.goodminds.com

February 19, 2021

The Project

Written by Courtney Summers
Wednesday Books (St. Martin's Press)
352 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2021
In 2011, when Lo is just 13 years of age, she is critically injured in a car crash that kills her parents. Her 19-year-old sister Bea is called to the hospital and, in the chapel, begs for a miracle and Lev Warren appears. The miracle happens for Lo but Bea disappears from her life, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt Patty.

Six years later, Lo knows Bea has joined Lev Warren's The Unity Project, an organization whose mission is to do good works to atone for all sins and bring salvation. After an earlier exposé investigating The Project as a cult, Lev has tried to keep The Project out of the media, focusing on their community work and annual public sermon. But, now working for SOV magazine, Lo is drawn to look into the organization again. While she has tried numerous times to reconnect with Bea, she is always kept away by Casey Byers, The Project's spokesperson and Lev's right hand. But Lo's interest is piqued by the death of a young man, Jeremy Lewis, whose father Arthur had been trying to save his son from The Unity Project. When Lo sees Bea in the photos Arthur's private investigator took of Jeremy, coupled with numerous voiceless calls she receives, Lo is determined to find Bea and learn more about The Project.

Alternating between the past and the present, primarily over seven years, Lo and Bea's stories unfold with Bea looking to prove herself worthy of a miracle she believes Lev performed and Lo looking for her sister. Their stories are eerily parallel, especially under the charismatic Lev who has become father, friend, therapist and even saviour to members of The Project. Both sisters are bereft because of their losses of family but each feels compelled to action because of The Project. But, it would seem, The Project has other things in mind.

Everyone should be prepared for an unnerving read in The Project. By balancing family and everyday living with the extremes of manipulation and doctrine, it's Courtney Summers at her best. Like her award-winning Sadie (2018), The Project is chilling in its possibilities because this could be someone's reality. A tragic accident, absolute faith in an irresistible leader, family estrangement, a compelling mission and the need for connection could all be elements of any of our lives and with her storytelling Courtney Summers will disquiet readers with the possibilities.

While her plotting is always sophisticated and involved, never leading the reader to a predictable ending, it's Courtney Summers's atmospheric writing that is most captivating. There's a perennial sense of foreboding, even with the most mundane of circumstances, like grabbing a cab or working in an office. Courtney Summers never lets the reader relax and maybe we shouldn't because bad things happen, even if dressed up as good.
Lo, the writer, tells Lev that...
If you tell a story–something real, something true–you get to be alive in other people. (pg. 251)

Thankfully Courtney Summers is alive and well by virtue of The Project and all her other stories. She tells the truth, even if it's unsettling.

February 17, 2021

Stand Like a Cedar

Written by Nicola I. Campbell
Illustrated by Carrielynn Victor
HighWater Press
40 pp.
Ages 6-9
February 2021 
Let's take a walk, a canoe ride and more with these children of the Pacific Northwest as they honour their ancestors and show respect for the land and its living things. With occasional words in Halq’emeylem and Nłeʔkepmxcín (an extensive glossary is provided), two languages of the Coastal and Interior Salish, Nicola I. Campbell invites us all to join them to understand the importance of sustainability and gratitude as they experience life through the seasons.
From Stand Like a Cedar by Nicola I. Campbell, illus. by Carrielynn Victor
Stand Like a Cedar begins in the spring with a canoe ride in the rain, accompanied by ísweł (the loon).  Spring is also the time to forage for shoots and roots with the child's Yéye (grandmother) but summer arrives, warming the earth (tmíxw) and bringing out a snake (sméyxł) to sun. With late summer comes berry picking in alpine areas, fishing and hiking with the telling of stories.
We listened as our elders shared a song about our ancestors
when they traveled by horse and wagon,
and before that by travois and on moccasin-covered foot,
in search of traditional foods to nourish our families.
From Stand Like a Cedar by Nicola I. Campbell, illus. by Carrielynn Victor
Autumn brings hunting, handled delicately and solemnly.
Grandfather smíyc (deer) visited us. His summer coat was turning greyish-brown.
He shared a story about his descendants and family.
He explained that death is part of our life cycle.
He said to honour our tears as though they were stars in the sky.
He reminded us to take care of the land.
Winter arrives and the bears go into hibernation and the raven and eagle dance in the sky. With each endeavour, the children and their caregivers show gratitude: for the land, for the animals, for their ancestors, for all life.
From Stand Like a Cedar by Nicola I. Campbell, illus. by Carrielynn Victor
Nicola I. Campbell., a Nłeʔkepmx, Syilx, and Métis author whose book Shin-chi's Canoe won the 2009 TD Canadian Children’s literature award and the 2008 Governor General's Award for Illustration, imbues her words with the gravitas of life in the natural world of the Pacific Northwest. There is a sense of dignity and solemnity in seasonal activities of berry picking and fishing, canoeing and hiking, with a recognition of the history of those who came before and those who tell the stories and teach. Her words are transportive to place and times both past and present.
Five kinds of salmon came to visit us.
They shared a story of when our great river was clean.
We could walk on the backs of a million spawning salmon.
Our nets were always full and our children never hungry.
But it's Nicola I. Campbell's final words that are most soulful, filled with gratitude and tribute.
We are Indigenous.
We love to run, paddle our canoes, dance, and play.
When we need to remember our promises,
we stand like cedar trees
hands raised to the sky.
Stó:lō artist Carrielynn Victor may illustrate Nicola I. Campbell's words, as an illustrator is directed to do, but her sense of place and atmosphere add more story. Read between the lines to see the joy of a child running up a trail, or a blueberry-covered face or a boy proud of his catch. There's the cool rain as the group canoes, the overcast skies and brilliant sunrises, and–look closely–the spirits of deer long gone but always honoured. Carrielynn Victor's art which is primarily digitally created gives us more, enlightening and celebrating too.
From Stand Like a Cedar by Nicola I. Campbell, illus. by Carrielynn Victor
Stand Like a Cedar is a strong song of peoples and place. It's emotive and instructive and begs us all to be attentive to how we interact with the land and its life. Gratitude should be the default, not the afterthought.

February 15, 2021

Firefly: Virtual Book Launch

Join author
 Philippa Dowding
Photo by Andrea Gutsche

for the launch 
of her newest middle grade novel

Written by Philippa Dowding
200 pp.
Ages 9-12
February 2021

Tuesday, March 2, 2021
6-7 p.m. (EST)
via Zoom
Register for this free online event
 I'm pleased to announce 
that I will be interviewing Philippa Dowding about Firefly 
so please come and check out the launch

• • •
This event is sponsored by 
publisher DCB/Cormorant Books
Another Story Bookshop
Thunder Thighs Costumes
 (***There's a chance to win a few costume rental!!!***) 

• • • • • • • 
For a taste of Firefly, do check out Philippa Dowding's book trailer and reading of an excerpt from the book for a taste of what the book launch will offer.
Firefly Book Trailer
Uploaded to YouTube by Philippa Dowding on October 7, 2020.
Philippa Dowding Reads from FIREFLY, about a carrot costume ...
Uploaded to YouTube by Philippa Dowding on February 10, 2021.

February 12, 2021

The Nut That Fell from the Tree

Written by Sangeeta Bhadra
Illustrated by France Cormier
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
September 2020

For a repeating pattern book with a lesson in the interrelationships of living things and an oak tree's life cycle, The Nut That Fell from the Tree has it all with a round of fun too!

From The Nut That Fell from the Tree by Sangeeta Bhadra, illus. by France Cormier

It all starts with a tree house in an oak tree where Jill plays. From the oak tree falls an acorn that is stolen by a rat. Next the nut is taken by a blue jay, a goose, a raccoon, a doe with her fawn, a bear and a skunk before it falls into the water and is retrieved by a beaver before being buried in the ground by a squirrel to germinate and grow.
From The Nut That Fell from the Tree by Sangeeta Bhadra, illus. by France Cormier

Years later that little acorn has grown into a mighty oak that holds the house where Jack plays in the yard of the elderly Jill who still dons her red cape for play.
From The Nut That Fell from the Tree by Sangeeta Bhadra, illus. by France Cormier

Kids love a repeating pattern book like The Nut That Fell from the Tree (that reads very much like The House That Jack Built) because even if they can't read, they can anticipate the repeating lines, like...
This is the doe with her fawn (peek-a-boo)
that surprised the raccoon (a sneak through and through)
that tricked the goose with a bird's-eye view
that ruffled the jay with feathers of blue
that swooped in on the rat looking out from a shoe
that stole the nut
that fell from the oak
that holds the house where Jill plays.
They'll be sitting on the edges of their seats knowing that something different will happen on each new page but never knowing what until it happens. Sangeeta Bhadra gets the rhythm right, with some rhyming too, and carries messages of the richness of an ecosystem of land and water and living things with the wonder of a nut growing into a tree.
This is the squirrel
that buried the nut
that lay on the hill
that shone in the light
that came from the sun.
In fact, Sangeeta Bhadra changes the pattern from the acorn being passed around to the nut beginning its own cycle, life cycle that is, so effortlessly that it flows right back to the beginning, with an inter-generational link to make it come full circle.

That flow is carried by the artwork of France Cormier who has illustrated many children's books, including many French-language picture books. Though I have never had the pleasure of reviewing one of her books, I hope this review changes that and gets young readers looking for her artwork. Here her digitally rendered art has the playful feel that is needed to carry the patterns of Sangeeta Bhadra's words, pulling the text forward and around with her snappy scenes of plants and animals interacting in vibrant panoramas.
From The Nut That Fell from the Tree by Sangeeta Bhadra, illus. by France Cormier
What is The Nut That Fell from the Tree?
It's the book
that will be purchased by the adult
that will be enjoyed by the child 
that will be shared with a friend
that will be read aloud
that will teach STEM with charm
that melds rhythm with art
that comes full circle to
The Nut That Fell from the Tree.

February 10, 2021

Germ Theory for Babies (Baby University)

Written by Chris Ferrie, Neal Goldstein and Joanna Suder
24 pp.
Ages 4-8
February 2021 

The series may be called Baby University and the books' titles always state that they're "for babies" but there is nothing infantile about the topics addressed in Chris Ferrie's books or the approach taken to do so.

From Germ Theory for Babies by Chris Ferrie, Neal Goldstein and Joanna Suder
In Germ Theory for Babies which was written with epidemiologist Neal Goldstein and public health attorney Joanna Suder, Chris Ferrie explains how people get sick, starting with the original theory of miasmas causing illness before closer examination of the sick person, ultimately with microscopy, revealed tiny creatures at work. Differentiating between those that can be useful like lactobacillus and those that can make us sick i.e., germs, the authors discuss how germs can be spread, especially important to know during a pandemic. (Actually everything in this book is important to know during a pandemic!)

From Germ Theory for Babies by Chris Ferrie, Neal Goldstein and Joanna Suder

Making sure to speak to young readers, the authors emphasize that germs can live anywhere, including home, school and the environment and can live for different amounts of time, depending on the type. While hitting all the salient information about germs, Chris Ferrie, Neal Goldstein and Joanna Suder give us capsule drawings of a variety of bacteria, viruses and mould including coronavirus, ebolavirus, staphylococcus, streptococcus, rhinovirus, norovirus and aspergillus.
From Germ Theory for Babies by Chris Ferrie, Neal Goldstein and Joanna Suder     

Most relevant for little ones is how to prevent the spread, including not touching one's mouth, nose or eyes, washing hands properly, covering your mouth and even wearing a mask, and staying home when feeling unwell.
From Germ Theory for Babies by Chris Ferrie, Neal Goldstein and Joanna Suder

Germ Theory for Babies is a great primer about germs, how they spread and how to prevent that spread. The text is written at a very easy reading level, with the whole book probably comprising of fewer than two hundred words and most of those being only one or two syllables. The illustrations which appear to be digitally rendered are clean and distinct, appropriate for a concept book, and use white space to effectively focus the reader's attention. Still, zoom bubbles are utilized to provide magnified details of the germs and, while simple, they are accurate and demonstrate the variety of forms that germs can take. (Ebolavirus is a particularly unusual shape.)
Don't be put off by the "for Babies" component of the title. These are lessons far beyond those for babies, even if in board book format, but the idea of teaching big concepts in a format perfect for the very young is the whole idea behind Baby University which advances its books as "Simple explanations of complex ideas for your future genius." Germ Theory for Babies should be available to all young children, whether they can read for themselves or not, to understand what we're going through right now with the COVID-19 pandemic and for illnesses from cold viruses, mould and more. But Germ Theory for Babies does more than just enlighten; it also empowers. It prepares children to take precautions and it helps them understand that they can fight back. In other words, it has lessons for everyone.

• • • • • •

Baby University includes over thirty titles by Canadian-born physicist and mathematician Chris Ferrie, including Pandemics for Babies, Rocket Science for Babies, Climate Change for Babies and Robotics for Babies. I encourage teachers and parents interested in fostering scientific exploration with young children to check out the whole series as well as other Chris Ferrie titles, including Scientist, Scientist, Who Do You See? which I reviewed several years ago.

February 08, 2021


Written by Philippa Dowding
200 pp.
Ages 9-12
February 2021

While wearing a costume may give you an opportunity to be someone else, it also frees you from being the person everyone expects you to be. But when you're a child and don't know anything but the worst, who would you become? Something outrageous or something normal?

Living with a mother (whom she calls "Joanne-the-mother") who has addiction issues, thirteen-year-old Fifi has had to learn strategies to keep herself and her mother safe. Since she was very young, Fifi has had to deal with the trauma of negligent parenting, taking on what she could.

I've been Joanne-the-mother's guiding light, flashing her toward safety since I was six. (pg. 96)

Still a child, Fifi took to living rough in the park across the street from the house where her mother lived, hanging out with Moss Cart and sharing his food and advice, and then finding some help at Jennie's, a women's center where she got clothes and food and counselling. And she begins to call herself Firefly. But when her mother gets taken into custody–something for which Firefly blames herself–and social services becomes involved, Firefly is taken to live with her Aunt Gayle, a woman who'd lost touch with them after Joanne-the-mother's constant changing of locations and phone numbers.
Aunt Gayle, who owns The Corseted Lady, one of Canada's oldest costume shops, gives Firefly the normalcy of food and baths, clean clothes and television, and Firefly is overwhelmed. Even with the ordinariness of attending school again and helping out at the shop, Firefly is still plagued by nightmares and memories of the trauma of her mother being drunk or high and living with the vulnerability of that situation.
But The Corseted Lady gives Firefly opportunities to be something else, from a medieval warrior to a fly boy or a monk from the 1500s, and to honour those whose clothes pepper the shop. (Some are created but others are refurbished clothes from auctions, etc.) Better yet, no one thinks she's weird. 

These clothes are memories, shadows of all the people who lived in them. (pg. 64)

But author Philippa Dowding isn't telling us Firefly's story as dress-up play, as a little girl pretending to be someone else. Though the shop and its costumes are fascinating, colourful and rich in history and entertainment, as are the employees and customers, Firefly is about a child who has had to become an adult, who has endured trauma and negligence, and had to find ways to cope. She found ways to care for her mother who may have once had a job and provided for her daughter, even gifting her with a magazine subscription–funny what you remember–but became someone else, Joanne-the-mother, who made empty promises and poor choices. Firefly had to find her own way to getting food and clothes and a safe place to sleep. And when given the opportunity to become someone else, whether through costumes or actions, she accepts that she needs to resolve her own memories if she is to have a life for herself. That includes sharing her truths with others.

I know Philippa Dowding is better known for her speculative fiction like Oculum, The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden and Everton Miles is Stranger than Me but I think her first foray into realistic fiction has demonstrated that she has important messages to share and she doesn't need to dress them up in the fantastical. Reality can be just as powerful and colourful, even if stitched with anguish.

February 04, 2021


Written and illustrated by Charlene Chua
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
It's amazing what a hug can accomplish. When this child's cat coughs up a disgusting hairball and looks a bit shaken, she offers the feline a hug which it agrees to with a simple, "Okay" and a generous "Thank you" mid-hug. When a dog watching requests a similar hug, the child agrees, with the cat proudly looking on.

From Hug? by Charlene Chua

After the initial cat hug, each double-spread, with only a few exceptions, has a creature asking for a hug, and then getting it, while a foot or nose or face or paw of another begins to enter the scene. Little ones will enjoy guessing what animal will be asking for a hug next. After the cat, there's the dog, a pair of ducks and duckling, a skunk, a bear, a porcupine, and a tiger. There's even a unicorn that comes along but it politely declines with "No, thanks. I'm good."

From Hug? by Charlene Chua

Though the child is reluctant to refuse any request for a hug, even from a stinky skunk or a prickly porcupine or a potentially dangerous tiger, each hug seems to leave her more bedraggled. But, when she is bombarded with a barrage of requests and demands from everything from a dragon, to a snake and even an alien, she screams "STOP!"

Fortunately, her cat knows what she might need, and a simple and familiar question gets her the hug she too needs to feel better.
From Hug? by Charlene Chua
Charlene Chua has illustrated many picture books, including several which I have reviewed here on CanLit for LittleCanadians (e.g., Going Up, The Pencil, and Fishing with Grandma), but this is the first which she has written and illustrated. However, it's evident from Hug? that this will only be the first of many because Charlene Chua charms with the simple importance of her words and her disarming artistic style, especially with characters' faces. That strength of message here is on gentle acts of kindness that come from recognizing another's distress or need for comfort. There's asking for consent to touch, even for a hug, and accepting any answer as valid for that individual. There's also the message that sometimes we all need to ask for help or at least to accept it if things are to get better. These are pretty compelling understandings for addressing mental health concerns and yet Charlene Chua keeps it light and sweet through both words and art. Using watercolours, watercolour ink, and coloured pencils, as well as Photoshop, Charlene Chua encircles her story with art that is bright in colour and shape. Even when the child has reached her limit and needs to address her own needs, the illustrations are cheery but still clamorous as would befit a child in crisis. 
I bet Charlene Chua knows about giving and getting hugs and I trust that all involved in those embraces, or perhaps just in the kindness of asking, recognize the compassion necessary to share oneself and will pay if forward with their own Hug?, book or affection.

February 01, 2021

Kid Sterling

Written by Christine Welldon
Red Deer Press
432 pp.
Ages 10+
August 2020 

If Sterling Crawford had a soundtrack to his life, it would be ragtime and the blues. It would lift him up and mirror his lows, get him through the tough times and celebrate the highs. It would remind him of trains and rivers, work and family. And he would be known to the music world as Kid Sterling.

In the early 1900s, Sterling Crawford is just a ten-year-old boy living in New Orleans with his Momma and his seventeen-year-old brother Syl, shining shoes on Basin Street and dreaming of playing his horn for the King, Buddy Bolden.
...the notes from Buddy's cornet were cannonballs that shook Sterling's bones, the tone clear and pure, teasing and lusty, till he felt himself lifted up and away, a catfish on a hook. (pg. 19)
As much as Sterling wants to play music and learn how to write it, life is not as straightforward as he might wish. Even recognizing the threats and discriminatory limitations imposed on him by his black heritage, Sterling dreams of more, just as Syl does. But Syl who
has instructed Sterling to never reveal them to be brothers, whether to pass himself off as white or to simply protect Sterling, goes beyond playing drums to make a better life. He works for a local gangster, gambles, and involves himself in other nefarious activities, even stealing money that Sterling had been saving for a new horn. With a strained relationship, Sterling and Syl head to Plaquemine for a cousin's birthday celebration and a musical gig for Syl. But everything shatters when Syl is forced to protect them from assault by a white man. The two separate and only Sterling returns to New Orleans where he is eventually arrested for assault.

Being sent to Captain Jones's Colored Waifs Home for Boys, Sterling feels like it's the end of the road for him.
A distant bugle sounded the end of the day. He figured his whole life was just like that bugle–out of tune. All his young life, his mother had sung to him, called him in to supper, to chores, to his bedtime. As he waited for sleep, he conjured the sound of her rich voice, humming those bluesy tunes to wrap him in safety and love. But memories brought him no comfort. Tonight, he had only loneliness and sour notes to call him to slumber. (pg. 233)

Still, Sterling learns more about himself and about music, even how to "...make some harmony out of the sour" (pg. 287). And there is a lot of sourness that pervades Sterling's life. Bad things, like notes on the wind, keep finding their way to him. He makes the best choices he can given the circumstances. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. And sometimes it doesn't matter. In the end, it's still his story, and Christine Welldon tells it with authenticity and compassion.

Because Christine Welldon's background is as a non-fiction writer (e.g., Everyone Can Be a Changemaker, Reporter in Disguise, The Children of Africville, and Lifelines: The Lanier Phillips Story), you can be assured that Kid Sterling is a carefully and thoroughly researched book. Though Sterling himself is a fictionalized character, Buddy Bolden, Clarence Williams, Captain Jones and Armand Piron as well as others (Christine Welldon provides background on them at the conclusion of her book) were very real men who shaped Sterling's life and undoubtedly those of real individuals. But by embedding a fictionalized young African-American boy in a true representation of New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century, Christine Welldon can build her story on him and his world without limitation. She can tell of the horrific racial discrimination from Sterling and his peers' perspectives, seeing how justice was served up based on the colour of skin. She can weave in the music of the day and how it was played and learned and disseminated. She can reveal how fear could dry up the music for Sterling, and how fear for self, family and friends impacted living.
If his life were like a music book of stories, Sterling felt as strong as the spine that bound and divided it down the center. One part was finished, its pages full. The rest contained empty notation lines, waiting to be filled. (pg. 406)
If Kid Sterling was a piece of music, it would be a hymn of pain and promise, hope and struggle. But that hymn should portend better, for Sterling and others whose lives were never given full voice. Let that new song stay true now and forever.