June 28, 2021

Think Big!

Written by Robert Munsch
Illustrated by Dave Whamond
Scholastic Canada
32 pp.
Ages 3-8
June 2021
For every child who feels hard done by with respect to the space they've been allotted in the family home, Think Big! gives them a quirky solution that thinks outside the box–definitely outside the walls–to acquire that little bit extra of everything.
From Think Big! by Robert Munsch, illus. by Dave Whamond
Jamaal has had it. He's the oldest child in the family–he has two younger brothers and a baby sister–and he has smallest room. He pleads his case to his parents but is told the universal parental response by both.
"Now, Jamaal," said his father, "that's the way it is." (pg. 6)
Jamaal stews on it all day. He fumes, he paces, he plays basketball with his dog, and he ponders. Finally at bedtime, he gets an idea that keeps him up implementing the changes he wants.
From Think Big! by Robert Munsch, illus. by Dave Whamond
With his father's tools, including a jack and a ladder, Jamaal moves walls and the ceiling. He installs a hot tub, a bunk bed, an enormous stereo system and a mega TV.
From Think Big! by Robert Munsch, illus. by Dave Whamond
But the next morning, the real chaos begins when his parents and baby sister awaken in a room the size of a closet, his brother hits his head on the ceiling when he sits up in bed and his other brother's feet are hanging out his window. While Jamaal sips on a juice box as he luxuriates in the hot tub with his dog, his family goes a little crazy. That is, until his dad recognizes the quality of Jamaal's work and asks him to do the same for their rooms.

Robert Munsch and Dave Whamond are becoming quite the duo of picture book collaboration, teaming up for zaniness of the ordinary-gone-extraordinary. With so many working and going to school from home in the past year plus, Jamaal's drive to improve his space may not be ordinary. What is extraordinary are the measures he takes and the enthusiasm with which he engineers his dream room. And Robert Munsch and Dave Whamond take us into that craziness of spirit and endeavour as Jamaal creates the room of his dreams.
From Think Big! by Robert Munsch, illus. by Dave Whamond
Robert Munsch may be all about the silliness, but it's all good fun. There's no arrogance or privilege. Jamaal is just frustrated and decides that he would find a solution for himself, albeit a wacky one. After all, when asked to do the same for his family, he has no problems creating a whimsical home, including a matching one for his dog, that will put the rest of the cookie-cutter homes in his neighbourhood to shame.

With the silliness inherent in Robert Munsch's stories, Dave Whamond gives Think Big! the illustrations that are just as fun and over-the-top as the premise of a kid making his space truly his own. Of course, we know Jamaal can't really move walls but children don't know about load-bearing walls or structural integrity. They know what they'd like in a room and Robert Munsch gives them that–space, TV, bunk beds, and stereo–but Dave Whamond makes it playful and quirky with his pen and ink and watercolour artwork. From the toys in Jamaal's room to the family's pajamas and the dog's antics, using the TV remote, soaking in the tub and dancing, Dave Whamond will leave readers smiling and wishing they could do the same. 

To all the children who wish they could have something more in their room, whether it be space or furniture or fun, Robert Munsch and Dave Whamond's story will encourage them to dream and draw and make–perhaps only with paper, popsicle sticks or blocks–but to always think big. Apparently, if you can think it, you can build it.

June 24, 2021

The Momentous Expiration of Tremmy Sinclair

Written by Michael F. Stewart
The Publishing House
259 pp.
Ages 13+
June 2021
 I can do anything at all, but now there's not time. How do you live a lifetime in four months? (pg. 4)
Tremendous Sinclair, talented and privileged son of wealthy parents, has been dealing with brain cancer over the summer before his senior year, keeping his diagnosis, treatments and prognosis from his best friend Jenkins and everyone at Amborough Private School. His parents, desperate to give him anything, including a miracle, are taking him on a first-class trip around the world. That is, until Tremmy decides that what he really wants is to return to school, and live out what little time he has being the head boy, a drone war general, captain of the swim team and his best self. Unfortunately, Tremmy soon realizes that...
Nothing can be truly fantastic anymore. Now fantastic is coated in a prickly sweat of impending doom. (pg. 42)
Still he returns to school. What he had hoped would be a stellar few months of accomplishments and camaraderie soon becomes something different. His symptoms slowly begin to affect his daily life, though he tries to cover it up. But when his medical circumstances are leaked to all, the school's administration does whatever it can to get him out, not wanting a student's death at school on their hands. And his friends? Audra wants to run a social experiment and record photographs of his dying. Girlfriends Jodie and Mona come out of the woodwork and make him think about his relationships. Margot, scholarship student and head girl prefect, supports him and makes him consider how he needs to fight. As for Jenkins? He may be pompous, privileged, self-absorbed, and perhaps criminal–Tremmy has to get him out of at least one bad situation–but Tremmy may need him because his attempts to procure medical or parental assistance in dying is not happening.

With each day, and those days are counted down in chapter headings that record "days to demise," Tremmy tries to enlighten his classmates about death and dying, knowing it will help him as much as them. 
Silence is when I am most alone. That's when the shadows of death's in the room. (pg. 235)
But how do you convince anyone to listen when you're stripped of your achievements, squirreled away in an unused room, growing weaker and less able, and your best friend is either not talking to you or doing things you're starting to see as questionable? Tremmy has more than one fight on his hands, and whether he wins any of them may not be up to him.

Michael F. Stewart’s latest young adult novel–earlier ones include Heart Sister, Counting Wolves and Assured Destruction–may ask readers to think about what a good death is but more importantly it reminds us that it only comes with living a life that is of value. And that value does not comes from wealth or bountiful experiences, both of which Tremmy has available to him.  It’s value that comes from meaning.
 ...it's at the point of discomfort where life gets important. (pg. 149)
From the onset of The Momentous Expiration of Tremmy Sinclair, it's clear that Tremmy's circle of friends and family are highly advantaged, wealthy beyond imagination. 24K gold-trimmed double-screened cell phones with firefly companion drones. Caviar served in the cafeteria. Selling of transcripts of one teacher's lectures for $10,000. These kids and their families have gobs of money. But it won't save Tremmy from death or others from poor decisions and bad behaviour. Michael F. Stewart may take us into their world but he doesn't leave us there. We're like the drones the kids fight with, watching Tremmy and his classmates, the school's administration and his parents, and others who flit into their lives. We see the calamities and the injustices, the insights and the fears. And we see the resolution, for Tremmy, at least. Surprisingly, that resolution brings both tears and cheers. Tremmy couldn't change the life he'd lived prior to his diagnosis but he sure added value to it with his death. In that way, Tremendous Sinclair's expiration is truly momentous, as is Michael F. Stewart's telling of it.

June 23, 2021

GoodMinds giveaway of We Dream Medicine Dreams

Graphic provided by GoodMinds

June is National Indigenous History Month so it's a fabulous time to immerse yourself in Indigenous literature.  To that end, GoodMinds, the First Nations family owned and operated business on the Six Nations of the Grand River, is holding a giveaway with CanLit for LittleCanadians to get a copy of We Dream Medicine Dreams into the hands of two lucky readers.

We Dream Medicine Dreams
Written and illustrated by Lisa Boivin
HighWater Press
48 pp.
Ages 5-10
April 2021
Written and illustrated by Lisa Boivin, a member of the Deninu K’ue First Nation, We Dream Medicine Dreams is a powerful story about a young girl recalling the teachings of her grandfather about animal dreams, lessons she knows she must heed as her grandfather lays dying in a hospital. 
This book, along with others written by Indigenous creators, has been featured as part of GoodMinds' video podcast series, 13 Moons 13 Reads, which runs from February 2021 to January 2022. If you haven't checked it out, now's the time to do so.

For The Giveaway:
What to do:  For your chance to win a copy of this lovely book (there are two copies available to Canadian residents), tell us the title of an Indigenous book you've read and found meaningful.  You can tell us:
  •  1) in the comments below (n.b. if you're not logged into your account, give me a first name and first letter of last name to help me find you e.g., Lisa B.) or 
  •  2) on Twitter tagging @HelenKubiw with #GoodMindsGiveaway

Time: From now until June 25, 2021 at 5 PM EST.

Selection: A random draw of participants will be made and the winners contacted via reply below (if you posted here) or by DM on Twitter to get the mailing address.

 • • • • • • • • • • • • •

This is a wonderful opportunity to extend your classroom or school library or home library to include more Indigenous literature but also to share in a meaningful and beautiful picture book.  

Good luck to all!

June 22, 2021

Tough Like Mum: Q & A with author Lana Button

Yesterday I reviewed Tough Like Mum, written by Lana Button and illustrated by Carmen Mok.
Written by Lana Button
Illustrated by Carmen Mok
Tundra Books
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
April 2021
Today I have the pleasure of presenting 
this question and answer interview 
with author Lana Button.
Author Lana Button

HK:  When I started reading Tough Like Mum, I wasn't sure if the issue tackled by the book was poverty or depression. Then I realized that what was most important was resilience which can be the antidote to both. As the author, what came first for you in writing the story: the issue or the response?
LB:  I am sensitive to these issues on a personal level, on a professional level as an early childhood educator, and on a creative level as an author for young audiences. I wanted to write a picture book story that would bring these issues to light; knowing and experiencing that there are children among the picture book audience who live with the challenges Kim and her mum face. It is important and powerful for children to read, in stories, that they are not alone in their experience. 

I also felt that a picture book tackling the issues of poverty and mental health could be used as a tool for building understanding and developing empathy, for those who have not had these life experiences. I was interested in telling a story that would provide a safe and age-appropriate place to start important conversations.

Finding the response–figuring out how to tell a hard-hitting story, while respecting the age and sensitivity of my young audience–was where I was tripped up, and where this story idea was stalled for a long time. I waited for the story to come to me. Then I heard two comments. One by a teacher. “Some of my students can’t complete their homework because their power gets shut off and it’s too dark.” Another was a response to the cost of an upcoming field trip. “It’s only $6.00. I mean, what’s $6.00?” All I could think from that was, “We can’t assume to know what $6.00 might mean to a family, what life is like in their home.” And BOOM! this very resilient little girl, waking up with her thumb in her mouth, popped into my head and her story became very clear to me.

HK:  Poverty is a tough topic to cover in a picture book, especially one for young children, though this is sadly the experience for many. How did you manage to stay realistic about the issue, for children to be able to see themselves, and still be compassionate without revealing vulnerabilities and sensitivities that some would prefer hidden? 
LB:  It is a tough topic, for sure. And I wanted to give a voice to Kim’s reality, while ensuring my young audience wasn’t overwhelmed. And so, I entrusted Kim as my storyteller. This resilient little girl is not easily shaken, and she conveys her experience in a matter-of-fact way, as children often do. She tells it simply, which allows a young audience to interpret the story at its baseline. I then relied heavily on the illustration to fill in the details of Kim and her mum’s reality. The nuances of the illustration allow an audience, when they are ready to take it in, to dig deeper into the story.

HK:  Tough Like Mum ensures that, first and foremost, we see the strengths of those dealing with poverty and hard times, not any weaknesses. Your title says it all. Is there a mum or a child for whom you wrote this book?
LB:  I wrote Tough Like Mum with the hope that there will be an audience who feels connected to this story on a personal level. I wrote it for anyone who is struggling or has struggled with financial burdens, and for those experiencing the weight of depression in their home.  In particular–the child who needs to feel seen, who needs to feel championed to try one more time, to reach out and ask for help–this book is for them.

HK:  I think that whatever hardships we all go through–physical, emotional, financial–asking for help is one of the hardest things to do and Tough Like Mum demonstrates that it happens for both adults and children. Why do you think it’s so hard to do so?
LB:  When we ask for help, we expose our vulnerability. That’s a scary place to be. Yes, it might be a path to help. But it might also be a path to rejection, to judgment and gossip, and to more pain. And if we’ve tried reaching out and then experienced hurt or rejection, it can be so much harder to take that chance again. 

And sometimes it might seem that the only thing we have control over is our reputation.
But it is my hope that a young reader might be inspired by Kim’s strength. That in times where they might need help, they will reach out to ‘the helpers’ in their community; the friends, the neighbours, the teachers.

In Tough Like Mum, Jen has done a great job teaching her daughter to be resilient. But ultimately it is Kim who leads her mum to realize that she is tough enough to accept help

HK:  The austerity of Carmen Mok's artwork reflects Kim and her mother's circumstances well. How much input did you have in ensuring the tone of the illustrations worked with your story?
LB:  I wrote the story with quite a few art notes. And I had a great conversation with Tara Walker at Tundra Books, who had the same visual interpretation of the story that I had. Samantha Swenson and I worked closely on the edits and she patiently indulged me as I gave her pages of back story for what seemed like every scene. I felt ‘heard’ and I felt like we were all on the same page when it came to the tone of the story. And so, when it was placed in the very talented hands of the incredible Carmen Mok it was time for me to step away and let Carmen and Sam do their magic. This distance is an essential part of the process, so that the illustrator can bring to life their interpretation, of what then becomes our story. And the result was a wonderful collaboration of words and art that told the story I was hoping to tell.

HK:  If there is one thing that you’d like young readers to see or learn from this story, what would it be?
LB:  I would love for a young reader to see hope at the end of a difficult day. I would love for each reader to see themselves as strong and resilient, and tough enough to ask for help (and keep asking for help) when they need it.

 • • • • • • •

Thanks to author Lana Button for talking to me about Tough Like Mum. This interview has given me loads to think about with respect to writing, and books that children need to read, of which Tough Like Mum is surely one.

Thanks also to Samantha Devotta, Associate Publicist at Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers, for reaching out and helping arrange this interview, and providing images to accompany both the review and this Q & A.

June 21, 2021

Tough Like Mum

Written by Lana Button
Illustrated by Carmen Mok
Tundra Books
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
April 2021

Though her mum might not always feel very tough or that she is able to manage, Kim tries to emulate her, never admitting she needs help or acknowledging anything she might perceive as weakness. But can anyone really be tough all the time?
From Tough Like Mum by Lana Button, illus. by Carmen Mok

From Carmen Mok's gouache and coloured pencil illustrations, it is evident that Kim and her mother are financially strapped. They share a bed, their socks are unmatched, their clothes and furniture are patched, and the food in the house is minimal. It's no wonder that Kim awakens soothing herself with her thumb in her mouth. But Kim is a tough cookie, tough like her mum, and she gets herself ready for school, making her own breakfast and lunch, and even planning for dinner–"Tomato, you are my favorite soup. Sit right here and wait for me"–because her mom hasn't gotten out of bed this morning. But Kim has a form for school that is due that day, a form for a field trip that costs $6.00. How is she going to get Mum to sign it when she's still sleeping, attempting to shut out the world–"Don't start on me, Kim!"–and get the money she knows they don't have?

On that cold winter day, Kim gets herself off to school, though some parents question her about being without a hat. Kim just tells them she doesn't need it, and the parents call her tough like her mom Jen. Kim won't let anyone see that she's cold. Because she's learned not to ask for help. And at lunchtime when David makes fun of her sandwich, she stays tough, never letting them see how sad and mad she is on the inside. But there's still the problem of the school trip. 

She has tried to find a solution, submitting a few coins she'd found in her mom's pocket, hoping the teacher wouldn't notice. But Mrs. Jones does notice and suggests her mother check a certain box on the form. It may read "I can't pay" but Kim knows it really means "I need help" and that's a box her mum has never checked.

From Tough Like Mum by Lana Button, illus. by Carmen Mok
Accepting help is never easy, and it seems to be especially so for Jen and Kim.  But when Kim gets home from school, she finds a way to take care of her mother, sadly still in the clothes she slept in, with compassion, humour and courage. Asking and accepting help might not be easy but it can be worth it.
From Tough Like Mum by Lana Button, illus. by Carmen Mok

Though Lana Button's picture books, including Raj's Rule (For the Bathroom at School), What If Bunny's NOT a Bully, and Willow Finds a Way, are aimed at young children, they focus on some tough issues. There are worries that young children have that cloud their lives and can cause anxiety. Whether it's bullying or self-confidence, using the bathroom or an absent teacher, Lana Button understands that these are very big issues for children. But in Tough Like Mum, Lana Button demonstrates that the shame of poverty transcends age and manifests differently for young children and for their parents who try to provide their best. Kim wants to be tough about what money they don't have, or the food she eats, or the clothes she wears. She strives to be tough like her mum. But sometimes being tough means accepting that help is needed. Together Kim and her mum realize this.

Lana Button's honest story of a single mum and child living in poverty and struggling with the perceived disgrace of their circumstances is stark. There are moments of lightness, like when Kim is praised for her reading and then brings that joy to her mum with it, or when they snuggle together in bed. But it's a hard life for both and the illustrations by Carmen Mok reflect that sparseness of their lives. From a sparsely-furnished home, to the mismatched clothing and furniture, patched or damaged, theirs is an unadorned life, and the art depicts that. 
From Tough Like Mum by Lana Button, illus. by Carmen Mok

But Lana Button's message of having the courage to accept help is paramount. Asking for help is not weak, though many, including Kim, may feel that it is so, exposing their vulnerabilities. Perhaps Kim's mum has never checked that box before, managing to somehow scrape together needed funds or accepting that Kim would have to do without. But by acknowledging that they might need some help, they've taken a big step forward. That just proves how tough Kim and her mum truly are.
• • • • • • •

Check back tomorrow for my interview with author Lana Button about Tough Like Mum and her approach to writing this story.

June 16, 2021

The Good Fight

Written by Ted Staunton
Illustrated by Josh Rosen
Scholastic Canada
224 pp.
Ages 10-13
June 2021 

The 1930s were a difficult time. It was the Great Depression, Nazism was growing in Germany and elsewhere, and people were looking to blame others for their hardships. With antisemitism on the rise and prejudice against immigrants a perennial vocation for many, the city of Toronto was primed for a fiasco in the heat of the summer of 1933. It got one.
From The Good Fight by Ted Staunton, illus. by Josh Rosen
Sid Klein and his friend Plug Venditelli have been recruited by Tommy Ryan to be part of his whiz mob, a pickpocket gang. Tommy, who'd been taught by his uncle, would chose their mark and steal from him while Plug, as the stall man, distracted him, before Tommy passed the money on to Sid, the duke man. Though he was full of bravado about his Irish heritage, Tommy was actually Tadeusz Lepofsky and scoffed at Sid and Plug whose heritages–Jewish and Italian– might mark them on the streets of Toronto. Still, with the desperate times, the boys are willing to do what they could to provide extra coins for their families, including selling newspapers, running errands, collecting cockroaches, or stealing.
From The Good Fight by Ted Staunton, illus. by Josh Rosen
But when Sid pockets a swastika pin and learns more about efforts by the Swastika Club and local Nazi sympathizers to stop Jews from using the boardwalk on Balmy Beach, Sid is warned to watch himself. Still Christie Pits, a popular place to watch the city's ball teams play, including the championship games between the Harbord Playground and St. Peter's Church teams, is too inviting to avoid as a location to pick a pocket or two. When the trio of boys is picked up and threatened with jail unless they help the Red Squad–police tasked with putting away union agitators, anarchists and communists whom they believe are all immigrants and Jews–Sid and Plug find themselves caught up in trying to save themselves and protect their families on the night of the infamous Christie Pits riot of August 16, 1933.

From The Good Fight by Ted Staunton, illus. by Josh Rosen
Ted Staunton has penned a number of picture books, early readers, and middle grade and young adult novels including those as part of The Almost Epic Squad and Seven series, but I believe this is his first venture into historical fiction. Still, with his familial connection–his grandfather was the mayor of Toronto at the time of the Christie Pits riot–he ably links a story of the past to issues of prejudice and discrimination and helps us see how those injustices have been perpetrated. From the vile name-calling, violent skirmishes and exclusionary tactics, Toronto was not unconditionally welcoming to all its communities and not the mosaic it was purported to be. And during the Depression, desperation fuelled those prejudices, sparking abominable behaviour and attitudes throughout. But communities like Sid and Plug's overcame and even thrived, making opportunities for themselves, as the epilogue to the main story shares. 
By focusing on Sid's story with Plug and their families, Ted Staunton gives us multiple perspectives: that of children, those of immigrant families, and those struggling financially. And, of course, those targeted by hatred. The Good Fight tells us how they felt, how they managed, how they fought. Illustrated by Toronto's Josh Rosen, the story is gritty and distressing, and I suspect young readers will be hopeful that Sid and Plug don't go to jail, that their families aren't thrown out on the streets, that their Jewish and Italian friends will not be attacked, and that those responsible for the Christie Pits riot are brought to justice. From newspaper stories, accurate depictions of the clothing and speech of the day, and social conditions, The Good Fight gives parents and teachers a wonderful opportunity to talk about the past and the need to ensure atrocities such as the Christie Pits riot aren't repeated.

For a time, Toronto was known as Toronto the Good but, like anything, Toronto is neither all good nor all bad. It has moments in history of which is should be immensely proud and others, like the Christie Pits riot, which are a stain on the city's reputation. Making it right begins with telling those stories so that learning might happen and social justice prevail.

June 14, 2021

A is for Anemone: A First West Coast Alphabet

Illustrated by Roy Henry Vickers
Text by Robert Budd
Harbour Publishing
28 pp.
Ages 2-6
June 2021

Don't be fooled by A is for Anemone's genre as a concept book into believing it is a simply book that "just" teaches the alphabet. A is for Anemone is so much more. In the hands of master collaborative duo Roy Henry Vickers and Robert Budd, A is for Anemone is a wonder of the sounds and textures of the West Coast, revealed through breathtaking art and rhythmic text.
From A for anemone to Q for the quillback fish and finally Z for the snoring of a sleeping grizzly, A is for Anemone rejoices in the animals, plants and waterways of the West Coast, taking young readers onto and into the water, along on hikes and into the air.
From A is for Anemone, illus. by Roy Henry Vickers, text by Robert Budd
There are dogfish and urchins, geese and humpbacks. There are islands and mountain peaks, rainbows and sunsets. There are totem poles and paddlers, fishboats and clamdiggers. And everywhere, there is art.
From A is for Anemone, illus. by Roy Henry Vickers, text by Robert Budd
Robert Budd keeps the text short–most statements are only 5 to 6 words–but impactful, sharing with readers the sensory nature of the West Coast and its elements, both natural and man-made.  Whether it's "Jellies waltz in watery swirls" or "Totem poles tell our stories," Robert Budd walks us into the West Coast, letting us spy on the beauty found in its heritage, its natural history and its landscapes.
From A is for Anemone, illus. by Roy Henry Vickers, text by Robert Budd
Artist Roy Henry Vickers brings that West Coast spirit into colour and shape with his illustrations. His digitally-rendered art is saturated with the vivid colours of rainbows, sunsets and vegetation and the duskiness of overcast skies and cool waters. From mountain ranges and coastal spits to oceans teeming with life, Roy Henry Vickers welcomes us to his West Coast. But in addition to the evident illustration that celebrates the West Coast, Roy Henry Vickers's art is embedded with spot-gloss illustrations that add a glow and textural element to each. There are the multiple totem poles on the "T" page and fish and birds and more throughout the book that invite the reader to touch and feel and discern forms not easily seen. With this spot-gloss art, Roy Henry Vickers has imbued the concept book with more than just the alphabet or the West Coast. He has shared with us his First Nations ancestry and artistry. (Do check out his gallery at https://royhenryvickers.com/.)
From A is for Anemone, illus. by Roy Henry Vickers, text by Robert Budd
Roy Henry Vickers and Robert Budd's First West Coast books are always a treat for teaching important first concepts like animals, numbers, colours, sounds, and now letters to young children. However, because of the sensory journey that young readers are taken on, the learning is elevated, carrying them over the water and land and into the air to truly see the West Coast as they read or listen.
A is for Anemone (2021)

June 10, 2021

The Player

Written by Paul Coccia
181 pp.
Ages 14+ (RL 2.0)
March 2021

Cooper knows he's gay. He was out to his old hockey team and even had a boyfriend on the team but, since it folded and his boyfriend moved away, Cooper is now back to keeping  this sexual orientation a secret to his new team, the Great Blues. So when his teammate Pesh makes a move on Cooper in their hotel room at an away game, he's pleased. But Pesh is an enigma to Cooper. The teen, the son of British Sri Lankan parents who aren't behind his hockey dreams of becoming the team's centre and captain on his path to going pro, is also going out with Bobbi, a girl who wants to go into sports PR and handles Pesh's social media and brand. 
Pesh likes flirting with Cooper and making out with him on away games but also starts wanting to fool around before games, convinced it improves their game. But, regardless of this "secret pre-game action" (pg. 110), Pesh is always one of the guys, leading the locker room chatter about girls, while driving his team with practices and high-handedness to ensure he'll look good to the scouts. Meanwhile Cooper can't resolve Pesh's egotism and expectations with the excitement of being in a relationship, albeit a secret one.

While Bobbi takes on helping Cooper with his image, having figured out that he is gay and determined to help him come out in a sport with little practice in being inclusive, Cooper works to keep his relationship with Pesh a secret from her, not wanting to hurt his new friend or jeopardize his position on the team or with Pesh.  But secrets are a dangerous currency and Cooper has to balance what he wants, what he feels and what he knows is right if he's to survive the evolving hockey drama.
Because The Player is part of Lorimer's SideStreets hi-lo series, addressing mature teen issues and written with text to engage the reluctant or less experienced reader, Paul Coccia helps all teens hear the voices of young men who are gay, or bicurious, or something else. As he did in his earlier book Cub (2019) and now in The Player, Paul Coccia makes sure that we see relationships like between Cooper and Pesh for what they are: young love, intoxicating and fulfilling, born of attraction and common interests. But as in any relationship, things can go wrong when the individuals have different expectations about exclusivity, openness and needs. The fact that Cooper is gay and Pesh bicurious or perhaps bi is irrelevant. What is important is what Cooper thinks and feels, because The Player is told in his voice. It's through him that we experience Pesh's actions and his own discomfort with Pesh's less-than-straightforward approach to their relationship and that with Bobbi. But, as in any relationship, it's being yourself first and foremost that gives you the strength to be able to give to another. By standing up for himself and what he needs, not only trying to be something for someone else, Cooper opens himself up to greater things in hockey and love.

June 09, 2021


Written and illustrated by Derek Desierto
Feiwel & Friends
32 pp.
Ages 2-6
May 2021
When a grey-feathered little bird finds his way to a community of colourful birds who preen and avoid cooling off in a pool for fear of blemishing their appearances, he is chagrined to see his own blandness for the first time. Though he finds a solution, ultimately it's what's inside of him that will unite him with the other birds.

From Oddbird by Derek Desierto
Finding a lovely blue pool in the jungle on a sweltering hot day, a little grey bird is perplexed why the birds surrounding it aren't in the water cooling off. When he dips his toes in, though, the other birds finally notice him.
"He has no color," said one bird.
"Are those even feathers?" said another.
All the birds agreed that Oddbird didn't belong there.
From Oddbird by Derek Desierto
To the screeches of "Out!" and with tears, the little bird flies off. Noticing how much colour there is in the jungle, he fashions himself a fabulous display of colours. When he returns, the other birds are mesmerized by his appearance, showering him with compliments and recognition.
From Oddbird by Derek Desierto
Emboldened with new confidence, the little bird heads to the diving board before plunging into the cooling pool. So happy is he to enjoy the water that he doesn't noticed that all his colourful "feathers" have fall off. The other birds certainly notice, but they also observe how refreshing the pool looks and jump in, disregarding the water's impact on their own appearances.
From Oddbird by Derek Desierto
This is Vancouver's Derek Desierto's debut picture book as an author and illustrator, having previously illustrated for others (e.g., Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes), but I hope there will be more. I think Derek Desierto was meant to tell stories. His tale of a little unadorned bird feeling out of place in a community of flashy and multi-coloured birds speaks to all of us who feel out of place and try to find ways to fit in. But by fitting in, the little bird gains the confidence to actually accept his colouring as it is and encourage others to enjoy a world beyond the superficial and to look inside to see what really counts.
By harmoniously intertwining his messages of self-acceptance and diversity with his vibrant digitally-rendered art, Derek Desierto has made Oddbird even more inspiring. Children know how much they want to fit in and unfortunately they know how often it's based on what they look like and what clothes they wear. With the boldness of his art, colourful and textured with patterns and expressive in shape and form–those eyes shout fear, distress, awkwardness and joy– Derek Desierto draws children into the story and helps them see that fitting in is sometimes more about being oneself than how others see you. Though the little grey-feathered bird may feel like his absence of colour makes him an oddity, his differences are what actually add the colour to this community and that inclusivity is the foundation for connectedness.

June 08, 2021

2020 Governor General's Literary Awards: Winners announced


On June 1st, the Canada Council for the Arts announced the winners for the Governor General's Literary Awards for books published in 2020.

Please join me in congratulating the year's winners in the two categories for young readers. 

Young People's Literature -  Text

The King of Jam Sandwiches
Written by Eric Walters
Orca Book Publishers

Young People's Literature - Illustrated Books

The Barnabus Project
Written and illustrated by The Fan Brothers 
(Eric Fan, Terry Fan and Devin Fan)
Tundra Books

June 07, 2021

Snazzy Cat Capers series: Guest review

 This review was written by teacher Elizabeth Cook.
Written by Deanna Kent
Illustrated by Neil Hooson
Imprint (Macmillan)

This series has been sitting in my TBR pile for quite some time and I am regretting how long it has taken me to get to this treasure by Deanna Kent and Neil Hooson. This middle grade series, which blends the text of novels with black-and-white graphic novel artwork, focuses on cat burglar Ophelia Von Hairball V, a fun and fabulous character who is a fusion of master criminal (though she always returns the stolen goods), secret agent and glamorous diva. Because I was instantly hooked by the globetrotting cat adventures, entertaining characters, and witty word play, I devoured the first three books in the series (see details below) in just two days and am already hoping that at least one more book will follow. 

Snazzy Cat Capers 
(Book 1)
Written by Deanna Kent
Illustrated by Neil Hooson
Imprint (Macmillan)
240 pp.
Ages 7-10
In the first book of the series, we are introduced to Ophelia Von Hairball V.  She is a classy cat burglar who steals only the most precious items from around the world to enjoy at her house. But, after she's played with the trinkets, she always returns them to their owners, since keeping them would make her a criminal! While she loves the glitz and glimmer of her sparkly treasures, it is the thrill of the chase that she enjoys most and she is quite good at it too!  Ophelia Von Hairball V is the #1 rated cat burglar in the FFBI (Furry Feline Burglary Institute). This title is hard earned as the dogs of CCIA (Central Canine Intelligence Agency) are always on her tail, as is her evil uni-browed cousin, Pierre, who regularly ranks at #2 because of his sloppy execution. Though the FFBI provides their agents with access to inventors, Ophelia prefers to work alone, though she finds inventor Oscar Fishgerald Gold, a hard-working goldfish, useful and so she keeps him around...but at a paw’s length. In this book, the FFBI have challenged their cats to steal a rare Himalayan diamond and deliver it to headquarters for the opportunity to earn the top spot. Using her cunning, Oscar's incredible gadgets, a good plan and the ability to think on her paws, Ophelia is determined to hold onto her top ranking, even if she has to evade the CCIA and her evil cousin Pierre to do so.

The Fast and the Furriest 
(Snazzy Cat Capers, Book 2)
Written by Deanna Kent
Illustrated by Neil Hooson
Imprint (Macmillan)
224 pp.
Ages 7-10
The second book in the series starts with the theft of the valuable Secret Claw from FFBI’s vault. This device emits a red laser beam so strong that it can control all of the cats around the world. Naturally, the dogs of CCIA want control of this device to prevent thefts by the cats. Ophelia, as the FFBI's top cat burglar, is tasked with travelling the world to locate the three pieces of the device and return them safely to the Institute's vault. Ophelia plans to use her panache and global connections to help steal the components back, though she knows that the CCIA and her cousin Pierre will be out to thwart her efforts. Luckily, she has her fin-ventor, Oscar, and their loyal invention P.U.G. (Personal Ultra Gadget) to help her.

Meow or Never 
(Snazzy Cat Capers, Book 3)
Written by Deanna Kent
Illustrated by Neil Hooson
Imprint (Macmillan)
224 pp.
Ages 7-10

In Ophelia Von Hairball V's third book, the feline burglar is presented with perhaps her greatest challenge yet.  Every cat burglar has been instructed to steal the most valuable item they can and bring it to FFBI headquarters for judging within seventy-two hours.  For a cat burglar of her calibre, stealing is the easy part. For Ophelia, though, the real challenge is working cooperatively in a team, as each burglar must work with an inventor to demonstrate that "teamwork makes the dream work." Having fired 16 previous inventors before Oscar Fishgerald Gold, and relentlessly trying to give Oscar the slip on every mission, Ophelia needs to learn how to cooperate with her team if she is to be successful on this mission. Fortunately, Oscar creates many fabulous disguises and inventions to keep Ophelia interested and readers entertained, including the O.M.G. (Ophelia Mew-bile Go) car which boasts endless modes, including pirate, cuppa-tea and leprechaun, and which comes in very handy as they travel across the globe to steal a jewelled purple sceptre. Now if Ophelia can out-manoeuvre her evil cousin Pierre and the CCIA, she is sure to win this competition paws down!

I highly recommend this series for its fun themes of cat and mouse, or should I say cat and dog! Young readers will enjoy delving into Snazzy Cat Capers themselves but older readers will also appreciate the humour and be encouraged to read them aloud to younger children.  I especially enjoyed the oodles of puns including “paw-rtner”, “fin-tastic”, and “hiss-tory.” In fact, almost every chapter title is a clever play on words that will make adults and astute young readers chuckle. Moreover, every chapter is preceded by a quote from Ophelia Von Hairball V that is a misappropriation of a famous line from history. A few of my favourites include: "To be fabulous or not to be fabulous? That is the question. Except it is a ridiculous question because we all know the answer" and "I came. I clawed. I conquered."  The clever wit embedded throughout the series will definitely entertain readers of all ages.
~ Reviewer Elizabeth Cook is a teacher in the Halton District School Board. She is an avid reader and fan of Canadian literature.  

June 04, 2021

Sonata for Fish and Boy

Written and illustrated by Milan Pavlović
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
May 2021

I love a good wordless picture book and Sonata for Fish and Boy is a good one. In the hands of illustrator Milan Pavlović, Sonata for Fish and Boy rejoices in the ability of music to endow our spirits and transport us to other worlds.
A fish in the water catches a musical note coming from a child playing a violin on a bench beside the water. In their watery and terrestrial worlds of rose taupe hues with minimal splashes of pale teal, the two are together but separate.

From Sonata for Fish and Boy by Milan Pavlović
When the child puts down his violin and lays down on the bench to sleep, the fish catapults itself out of the water and hovering around the child, draws him into the air to journey from the darkness to the colours of new worlds. In a city of buildings and a tall red poppy, the boy and fish witness the liveliness of a community playing, dancing, singing and listening to music. Bold reds and pinks, orange and blues, green and purples create a glowing landscape of song and energy.
From Sonata for Fish and Boy by Milan Pavlović
Then they continue to travel through flocks of singing and mesmerized birds to the planets, bouncing from one to another as the music accompanies them. Next they enjoy a crossing through a park with people flying balloons, children eating ice cream, and a musician playing a concertina. Finally a trip through a field of giant dandelions leads the boy and fish to a cottage where an orchestra of animals plays with relish, before leading them into a storm that tosses both in its darkness.
From Sonata for Fish and Boy by Milan Pavlović
In the end, an old man discovers his violin at the bench from the story's beginning and, playing it once again, is reunited with his piscine friend.

Artist Milan Pavlović needs no words to tell this story of the transformative nature of music, how it enriches our lives and moves us through and to places hitherto unknown. I know that Milan Pavlović has embedded clues to several important pieces of music such as Gustav Holst's "The Planets", Camille Saint-Saëns's "The Carnival of the Animals", and Bohuslav Martinů's "The Romance of the Dandelions", but I challenge young readers, especially music students, and the adults in their lives to discover the Easter eggs that may hint at other important classical works. (The park scene with the balloons stumped me completely.) 
From Sonata for Fish and Boy by Milan Pavlović
With sound conveyed in the colours and shapes, Milan Pavlović allows the movements of this sonata to carry readers through quiet reveries and joyous exuberance, imaginative frolics, and tempestuous storms (perhaps Tchaikovsky's "The Tempest"). This sonata may have started for a child soloist but it becomes one for a duo of friends, taking them through time and place, and bringing new joys into their lives, just as music has always done.

June 02, 2021

Outside, You Notice

Written by Erin Alladin
Illustrated by Andrea Blinick
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
April 2021

How often do we notice things, especially things in the outdoors, that are right under our noses? Erin Alladin wants us to open our eyes, ears, noses and touch the world to know the wonders that our world holds outside, no matter what your outside looks like.
From Outside, You Notice by Erin Alladin, illus. by Andrea Blinick
As children and others participate in the world outside, whether it be a backyard, a park, a playground, a sidewalk or something else, there are so many things to check out, and Erin Alladin makes sure we see it all. Each double-spread asks the reader to notice one attribute of nature like the rain, the soil, leaves or colours, and then info boxes provide brief content related to that focus. For example, when asked to notice "How after the rain everything smells greener," we learn about leaves capturing rain, how a tree's canopy provides cover, why the rain can smell like it does, and why plants get the rain they need.
From Outside, You Notice by Erin Alladin, illus. by Andrea Blinick
We discover how animals make the outdoors their homes, how they live, and the sounds they make. We learn about life cycles of plants, from seeds and germination, to flowers and fruits. Above ground and below, along water ways and at farmers' markets, there is so much to see and learn.
From Outside, You Notice by Erin Alladin, illus. by Andrea Blinick
With Outside, You Notice, Erin Alladin has invited the reader to explore and make observations and grow themselves into sentient beings beyond the confines of our indoors. She may provide information tidbits that instruct and direct inquiry, so perfect for science lessons with little ones, but she also asks us to be mindful of our worlds. Outside, You Notice gives us the prompts to stop and smell and look and touch in the moment, wherever that moment may be. The experiences will be as diverse as the children who are doing the noticing, and the learning as fulfilling and filling as can be. With that, a calmness will envelop the reader, taking away the bustle and the tech, as the focus is on the world we too often take for granted.
Outside, you notice
The breath in your body
Your feet on the ground
Your self in the world
Toronto artist Andrea Blinick uses gouache, coloured pencils, collage and chalk pastel to create the diversity of textures, colours and shape that convey the sensory nature of the text and take us into the outdoors. The eyes that see, the dog that sprints, the dandelions being picked, the sweetness of a strawberry about to be eaten–Andrea Blinick takes us there, to appreciate and acknowledge the outdoors and its moments.
Whether a child of the city or the country, of a place of rain or sunshine, trees or fields or concrete, there is a world of wonder that is the landscape of our lives. With Outside, You Notice inviting us to explore and appreciate the sensations and marvels of the outdoors, young readers can only flourish.

From Outside, You Notice by Erin Alladin, illus. by Andrea Blinick