December 30, 2021


Written and illustrated by Lori Doody
Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides
40 pp.
Ages 3-7
August 2021
If I have to close out the year with one book with a positive message, let it be Lori Doody's Catalina, a picture book about acceptance and adaptation. Isn't that one that needs to be told as we enter a second year of a pandemic? And it all comes from a tale of a cat and three puppies.
From Catalina by Lori Doody
Catalina is a contented cat. She's happy in that she loves her life as it is. Her life is her own. She eats, plays and sleeps when and where she wants. Of course, there are times when she's a little lonely when her people aren't at home and she's alone but still "Catalina lived a purrfect life." And then everything changes.
From Catalina by Lori Doody
Her people bring home three Labrador Retriever puppies. Catalina is not amused. They are everywhere in her house: where she eats, what she plays with and where she sleeps. They're bigger than her, louder than her and rambunctious. She just can't get away from them and she doesn't like the way she feels: crooked (Newfoundland-speak for in a bad mood, according to the glossary).
From Catalina by Lori Doody
And then she notices a few things. The pups are willing to share with her and keep her company and she was no longer lonely.

Lori Doody gives us a quaint story of introducing new pets into a household already established for another. Many pet owners know the potential difficulties of doing so, whether with the same or different species. Catalina was content with the status quo even if there were things missing for her, like friends. It wasn't until she met the new dogs that she realized what it was that was missing in her life: companionship. But Lori Doody has given us more than a story about a cat and three dogs. In her folk art style, Lori Doody has given us a metaphor for accepting change and adapting to it, even if the benefits cannot be perceived initially. Catalina thought her life was "purrfect." It wasn't though. That became obvious once she embraced the Labs as there to stay, and she gained friends, playmates, cuddle buddies and more. If she'd closed herself off from the unfamiliar, she would have never realized the gifts the puppies brought into her life.

It's a simple story: cat meets dogs, cat is annoyed with dogs, cat learns to love dogs, and everybody is happy. But Lori Doody tells it as a lesson in colour and affection. She does it with softness of line, a landscape of patterns, and the warmth of a hospitable palette. As Catalina learned to love something new, so should we try when presented with something new. Different is not always bad, as we may anticipate. It's just different, and, as Catalina learns, it may even be wonderful.

December 24, 2021

On the Line

Written by Paul Coccia and Eric Walters
Orca Book Publishers
312 pp.
Ages 9-13
March 2022
"...if you're down twenty points in the last two minutes, you still play your best..." (pg. 52)
What's on the line for thirteen-year-old Jordan Ryker? Everything. His parents can't stop arguing. The auto plant where his dad works, being the town's major employer, is shutting down. Even basketball, which is everything to Jordan and his best friend Junior, is somewhat tenuous with the school's new basketball coach who really doesn't know what he's doing. And now Jordan has to figure out how to work with new kids, brother and sister Aaron and Tammy, who are very different and both want on the boys' basketball team.  

Most unexpectedly, Jordan's dad moves out and reveals that he's gay. In a community where everybody knows everyone else's business, Jordan is not dealing well with it. Junior tries to help Jordan see the courage his dad is showing in being true to himself finally, and Tammy with whom Jordan starts going out is all about supporting social justice issues and even starts a Gay-Straight Alliance club at the school. But it's all too much for Jordan who responds to his parents' separation and his father's coming out with frustration and anger. 

At thirteen, Jordan is already dealing with a lot of new situations. He's thinking about girls but is both intrigued and uncomfortable with them. He's been struggling with an unstable home situation, which then becomes even more dubious as he tries to adjust to two different lives and a father different than the one he thought he always knew. Worse yet, Jordan takes it all personally, convinced that he is the aggrieved party, rather than seeing beyond himself what others may be feeling and experiencing. He can't see the efforts that everyone around him are making to support him and themselves in what they need. Sadly, though Junior, Tammy and others try to help him accept their support, there are some whose homophobic and narrow-minded perspectives on the Ryker family cause more tension for all. 

There's a great story here but it's Paul Coccia and Eric Walters's characters that carry On the Line. With Jordan, they have given us a typical young man in a somewhat unusual familial situation. They've created a kid who loves his family, hates their fighting, is starting to have romantic feelings, and is angry and frustrated because none of his life feels straightforward or easy anymore. I don't know many who would choose to go through puberty again but to compound that tension with confusion about your father and his relationship with you would be overwhelming, as it is for Jordan. Then there's his father who is trying to navigate a new relationship with his son, with his wife, with his community and even a new partner but most of all with himself. There's Tammy who strives for the world to be fair to her and to others. She challenges the school for her right to be on the boys' basketball team. She's all about diversity and inclusion and she wants others to be the same. Even Junior and Aaron are developed into full characters that add contrast and meaning to On the Line.

This is the first writing collaboration between Paul Coccia and Eric Walters and, having reviewed books by both previously, I can attest to a new synergy to their writing as they bring their strengths in plotting, character development, and voice and meld them with LGBTQ+ issues and sports into something new and important. They've given us a story that challenges young readers to see beyond themselves and from different perspectives and with compassion for the struggles that others may be experiencing. With heart and intention, they've put themselves out there and helped us see from that angle what's really meaningful: friends, family, and fair play for all.

December 21, 2021

The Strangest Thing in the Sea (and Other Curious Creatures of the Deep)

Written by Rachel Poliquin
Illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 7-10
October 2021

The dynamic duo of Rachel Poliquin and Byron Eggenschwiler who created Beastly Puzzles (2019) have returned with a second non-fiction picture book that doesn't just impart information. Rather, The Strangest Thing in the Sea makes young readers think about the creatures of the ocean, especially the more unusual ones, by looking at their attributes from a different perspective, before revealing who they are.

From the onset of the book, Rachel Poliquin intrigues with her mysterious intro.
The seas are filled with strangeness.

Dancing feathers. Goblin teeth. See-through heads.
Creatures that seem to be made from stardust.
Then the book becomes a series of double-spreads with fold-outs imploring the reader to guess what the creature is before revealing what it is. From the swimming head (ocean sunfish) and the spooky creature with attributes of a witch, a goblin and a ghost (goblin shark) to an alien-like fish with see-through head (barreleye fish), all manner of fish, crustaceans, invertebrates and more are revealed. And revealed is the key word here, because Byron Eggenschwiler first illustrates the creature based on its description before the young reader flips open the fold-out to reveal the true creature of the deep.
I look like a tiptoeing 
rock wearing a wig. 
I even have a bow in 
my hair, sort of.
Am I the strangest thing in the sea?
From The Strangest Thing in the Sea by Rachel Poliquin, illus. by Byron Eggenschwiler
For example, this description gives us a rather weird red-haired rock with sneakers and a hair bow before it is revealed to be a hairy frogfish. Speaking in first person, the frogfish explains what it looks like and what it can do, all supported by information boxes that clarify in scientific terms its morphology, habitat, food and behaviour. It's definitely informative but also inventively creative, letting the imagination play in its thinking about the creatures that exist deep in the ocean.
From The Strangest Thing in the Sea by Rachel Poliquin, illus. by Byron Eggenschwiler
By blending scientific information about a diverse assortment of creatures found in the sea with illustrations of strange underwater worlds, Rachel Poliquin and Byron Eggenschwiler bring intrigue with the curiosity and learning. Moreover, by basing the book in the titular question–"Am I the strangest thing in the sea?"–with answers directly from the creatures themselves which are only revealed by spreading open the foldout, author and illustrator make the reading of The Strangest Thing in the Sea an interactive experience.
From The Strangest Thing in the Sea by Rachel Poliquin, illus. by Byron Eggenschwiler
With a riddle of words and a flick of a page turn, The Strangest Thing in the Sea takes non-fiction reading from one of taking in the information to one of connection. Children will hopefully think about the clues as read and seen and try to piece together what each creature could be. They might not know the solution right off or at all but the revelation in text and art will be a valuable surprise and an educational moment. And Rachel Poliquin and Byron Eggenschwiler keep up that atmosphere of the unknown and the odd through their words and illustrations. Rachel Poliquin plays up images of aliens, fighter jets, fanged monsters and walking rainbows while Byron Eggenschwiler, with his dark, weird and wonderful art, emulates it through a mash-up of cut-paper, paint, coloured pencils and digital renderings. 
As curious and unpredictable as it is, The Strangest Thing in the Sea is still grounded in a non-fiction tradition of informing through scientific fact, glossary, infographic and more, though there are a few surprises. For example, there is an answer to the question about the strangest thing in the sea. It's not what might be expected but it is surely as unique and astonishing to those that live there as they are to us. Fittingly, it reminds us that perspective is perception and facts can be rendered to change that perspective. So, is it the strangest thing in the sea? You decide after your own reading of The Strangest Thing in the Sea (and Other Curious Creatures of the Deep).

December 14, 2021

I Love You More

Written by Emil Sher
Illustrated by Barbara Reid
North Winds Press (Scholastic Canada)
32 pp.
Ages 0-8
December 2021/January 2022

We know that telling someone you love them is special but how to express the measure of that love? In Emil Sher's newest picture book, which could only have been given the depth of emotion that Barbara Reid's textured art could convey, it's a game of whimsical comparisons and heartfelt declarations that demonstrate that there are so many ways to love.
From I Love You More by Emil Sher, illus. by Barbara Reid
From an early morning greeting–"I love you more than flowers love noses" through breakfast and a walk to school, a mother and child express their love and witness those expressions by others. From the schoolyard to the classroom, and a mom's lunch on a park bench, there are so many vignettes that show connections and affection. Parents and caregivers are there for the children before school–"I love you more than laces love shoes"–and picking them up after school to return home, with everything showing closeness and linkages. ("I love you more than stars love wishes" and "I love you more than pianos love hands" were two of my favourites.) And as the day ends, with mum falling asleep on the couch, a child uses words and actions to express his love.
From I Love You More by Emil Sher, illus. by Barbara Reid
Emil Sher explains the word game that he and his family played comparing affection with a connected pairing like erasers and mistakes, runways and planes and answers and question marks. Not only does I Love You More communicate loads of messages of things that go together, it offers light-hearted word play off of which Barbara Reid's artwork bounces in delight. Using her trademark plasticine in bright colours and detailed settings inside homes, multi-storey buildings, schools and on streets, Barbara Reid gives life to Emil Sher's text. There a calico cat that cuddles, cleans and plays, neighbours that enjoy their balconies and children unique in their own ways. Not only do we see the city in all its glory, we see the life that gives and feels love.
From I Love You More by Emil Sher, illus. by Barbara Reid
The first reading of I Love You More will give young readers some laughs for the playful pairings and affection conveyed as well as the basis for playing their own word game. But subsequent readings–and there will be more readings–will give them opportunities to delve into the illustrations' details and give them food for thought about what it means to be connected.

December 10, 2021

Song for the Snow

Written by Jon-Erik Lappano
Illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler
Groundwood Books
44 pp.
Ages 3-6
September 2021
Here in our northern climate of Canada, we can almost always be assured of snow sometime in the winter season. One year may vary from the next in terms of snow load and snow type–fluffy or wet–but we know that in most places in Canada, snow will come. But what if it didn't?
From Song for the Snow by Jon-Erik Lappano, illus. by Byron Eggenschwiler
Freya loves the snow. She dreams of it and anticipates its return come winter. But it has been two years since the weather has been cold enough for the snow to come to her town and her memories of it are beginning to fade. 
Maybe the snow is lost, she thought.
At the market, where everyone is dressed in light jackets and sweaters and definitely no snow boots, Freya hears a tune that draws her to a trinket table with a woman holding a beautiful snow globe. She tells Freya that the song is very old and special, once sung every winter to call the snow home. Then she gifts Freya with the snow globe.
From Song for the Snow by Jon-Erik Lappano, illus. by Byron Eggenschwiler
At home, her mother recalls the tune and sings her the words her grandmother once sang.
"Come home snow," she sang.
"Fall from high...
cover the trees and fill the sky..."
From Song for the Snow by Jon-Erik Lappano, illus. by Byron Eggenschwiler
For days, Freya sings for the snow to come but there is still no snow. She fears it may be too far away or perhaps she isn't singing it right. Then she wonders if more voices are needed and she enlists the help of her classmates to spread the song.
As they sang, distant memories of cozy, snow-filled nights returned to their parents.
And those parents hum the tune as they go about their days, spreading the song into homes and hearts. What happens next is the stuff of legends.

Young readers may anticipate the ending for Song for the Snow but it is no less gratifying, especially for young Freya whose calling it was to bring the snow home. Her connection with snow drew her to the globe and sharing the song, all of which resulted–or did it?–in the return of the snow. Whether it is to be believed by readers or not, it happened, and Jon-Erik Lappano's telling of this fable makes it real. It tells children that it's possible to dream and to wish for things hard enough to make them come true. (I wouldn't be surprised if there are little ones out there who will want to know the tune so they can sing it when they too want the snow to return.) Jon-Erik Lappano tells the story like a recount, a tale passed down, like the song, through generations to remind young readers that they have the capacity to change things. In our tenuous environmental circumstances, Song for the Snow is a lovely push for children to do what they can to make the world the one they want. And it's told so tenderly, never harsh or in your face. Like a blanket of snow, it coats its message of caring action with patience and perseverance and connection.

The artwork by Byron Eggenschwiler gives Song for the Snow a Scandinavian feel from Freya's knitted sweater to the cable-knit feathers of herself as a dream bird. In fact, the art is very reminiscent of Jan Brett's winter tales, perfect for important messages and a cold landscape. Byron Eggenschwiler's digital illustrations are subdued and yet robust in their somberness, infused with a darkness of wishes unfulfilled with only flakes of lightness for the music and snow.

Whether you already have snow on the ground or are only wishing for it, Song for the Snow will give hope that wishing with action can make dreams come true. Freya proved it.

December 08, 2021

My Words Flew Away Like Birds

Written by Debora Pearson
Illustrated by Shrija Jain
Kids Can Press
40 pp.
Ages 4-8
October 2021

There are all kinds of fitting in. But when you're new to a country with a new language, it is especially hard. Not only are you missing your old home with its familiar people and places, you're in a new place where communication is near impossible. For the child in My Words Flew Away Like Birds, she is completely unprepared for the vacuum of language with which she and her parents must endure.
That was my world 
back then.
This little girl remembers the trees, the noisy market, her grandfather's bakery, and her friends. In preparation for their move, her mother teaches her some rudimentary phrases that should help break the ice, like "Hello, how are you?," and "It was nice to meet you.
From My Words Flew Away Like Birds by Debora Pearson, illus. by Shrija Jain
The words felt strange 
and lumpy 
in my mouth.
But, though she is amazed by the things she sees, like snow and a dog in a coat and booties, everyone speaks so fast in her new country and she cannot grasp the words or their meaning. She tries desperately to watch and listen but she feels so lost. 
From My Words Flew Away Like Birds by Debora Pearson, illus. by Shrija Jain
It's not until the next spring when she helps a little girl who falls off a playground swing that she can use one of her learned phrases, experiment with echoing the other child's words, and finally make the connection that makes her feel she belongs.

Many of us know what it's like to travel to new places where different languages are spoken. If we're considerate, we try our best to communicate in their language but appreciate it when the locals help us out by speaking in ours. But for immigrants, immersion in a new culture with a new language is undoubtedly daunting. Not only do they have to navigate bureaucratic and new cultural norms, they often must do so in a new language. For children who are desperate to make connections at school or in their neighbourhoods, how do they do this without words? Fortunately, what the child in My Words Flew Away Like Birds realizes eventually is that kindness and play have no language barriers and learning only happens when mistakes are made. These are both simple and complex messages and Debora Pearson shares them with a convincing text rich in auditory embellishments and striking dialogue, emphasizing what is most important to the young child. She'll remember the sounds she hears and the muffled vocalizations, hand-lettered for emphasis, until they can become words to her, words that don't fly away but instead are ones she can grab hold of.
From My Words Flew Away Like Birds by Debora Pearson, illus. by Shrija Jain
Artist Shrija Jain's pen and ink illustrations, which were coloured digitally, underscore the importance of the words and the connectivity between child and place. Using only pastel shades of blue, rose, purple and orange to offset the vivid black details of hand-lettered words, the immigrant family and those with whom they interact, and sparse landscape elements, Shrija Jain demonstrates what is truly important: connection through communication in all its forms and efforts.

This child may feel like the words of her first language flew away but she does find some new words and is delighted to move forward and recognize that "these words are here to stay." As with much learning, it happens with time and practice, and that includes mistakes, and the making of connections to make that learning worthwhile.

December 03, 2021

I'm Good and Other Lies

Written by Bev Katz Rosenbaum
211 pp.
Ages 13+
September 2021 
It doesn't take long for me to start feeling a constant pit of dread in my stomach. The future... (pg. 108) 
Seventeen-year-old Kelsey Kendler has every right to be anxious about her life. If the recent past is any indication, things are not heading in the right direction. And the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't even hit yet. There will be lots more to set her off kilter and how she manages is only partly up to her. Parents, friends, school, work and social media will all have a hand in taking her down or bringing her up.

Kelsey and her parents Hannah and Mark have just moved from fashionable and wealthy Rosedale to transitional Parkdale because of Kelsey's celebrity comedian mom's fall from grace. Perennially stoned, drunk or abusing her pain meds, Hannah Kendler, a former participant on "Those Crazy Comics" TV show, is now unemployable and a raging, confused mess. Sadly, Kelsey's dad is less than helpful, either arguing with his wife or avoiding the household altogether. Not surprisingly, Kelsey vows to make some meaningful connections outside of their rat-infested house. There's Molly, a classmate whose perfect family doesn't prepare her for meeting the out-of-control Hannah, and crush Luca, which whom Kelsey begins a textlashionship. But, best of all, Kelsey gets a part-time job at an ice-cream place called Soft Spot. There she meets Chelsea, Veer, Quinn, Ruby, and Lee in addition to Kira, the owner's stoned niece and ineffective manager. Except for the rats in the house, her sleep paralysis that turns her nights into terrors, her warring and oblivious parents, and missing her only friend from before, Makayla, now in LA, things are stable. Then the pandemic hits.

They'd all been hearing about the virus. Makayla's mom, an actress, gets sick, as do others on her film set, and Kelsey worries that her mom's coughing could be it too. But when school is cancelled after spring break and then returns in some mishmash of independent learning and then virtual lessons, and Soft Spot is closed, and she's stuck at home with her worthless parents, Kelsey is left untethered. She may be saying she's fine but dealing with a tenuous support system and mental health during the trauma of a pandemic with lockdowns is just a lie.

We all know how difficult living through this pandemic has been but it's more than just difficult for some. For a teen, when life is in flux as they transition from dependence to independence, it's even more challenging. And for someone like Kelsey, whose home life is painful, she has no respite from the stress. Couple that with sleep paralysis that pervades her nights, this girl has trauma upon trauma with which to deal. I'm surprised she's as sane as she is. Maybe that's the hope that Bev Katz Rosenbaum has written into her story, reassuring her readers that as crappy as things are, there are glimmers of normalcy and even brightness that can help pull you through and out. Whether it's a socially-distanced get-together, texting with a new friend, connecting with a psychologist or being honest about what you're going through, there is hope even while "learning to accept uncertainty" (pg. 182). I'm Good and Other Lies is a powerfully authentic account of a teen living with a multitude of challenges, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes Kelsey accepts the challenge and puts it down and sometimes she buckles, but it is always real and enlightening. With I'm Good and Other Lies, Bev Katz Rosenbaum has told us a story of not being fine but finding a way to make it so.

• • • • • • •

If you would like to hear author Bev Katz Rosenbaum talk about I'm Good and Other Lies, register for Future Shock (and Future Hope), a webinar with authors Wesley King and Eric Walters.

Date:  Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Time:  11 AM-12 PM, 1-2 PM
Registration costs:  School ($150), Class ($65), Home ($10)

December 01, 2021

Oliver Bounces Back!

Written by Alison Hughes
Illustrated by Charlene Chua
North Winds Press (Scholastic Canada)
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
September 2021
Oliver is not having a good day. From struggling with his tangled hair and his favourite shirt being in the wash, his baby sister Annie throwing mushy banana in his face and the burning of his toast, the day doesn't start out well. In fact, it gets worse.
From Oliver Bounces Back! by Alison Hughes, illus. by Charlene Chua
With each new mishap, from breaking a shoelace and Carter taking Oliver's blue spot on the reading-time carpet, Oliver's mood slips from annoyed to irritable and then angry. With each new struggle, Oliver's circumstances are recounted through testimonials from his parents, his classmates, the bus driver and his teacher, attesting to the impact these unexpected troubles have on the little boy.
From Oliver Bounces Back! by Alison Hughes, illus. by Charlene Chua
But, he still is able to hope that the day will get better, and he finds small successes help him through, as does an amazing bouncing apricot that helps him see that he could bounce back too, metaphorically and physically. 

So I tried to make the day get better. I drew a picture. I helped out. I thought of my family and friends, and how nice they were being. I even laughed thinking about my sister chucking that banana at my head! Bullseye!

Resiliency has become a big buzz word in the last decade though teaching someone to become resilient is near impossible. However, what is possible is to share strategies that can improve resiliency and author Alison Hughes notes several of these in a page titled "Learning to Bounce" at the end of the story. Strategies like connecting with others, keeping things in perspective and actual bouncing are all demonstrated somewhere in Oliver Bounces Back! but so discretely that it never reads like a PSA or a directive to a child. Young readers will certainly sympathize and empathize with the boy and will see that he is able to pull himself out of that bad day and make it into something better but they won't feel like they are being schooled. However, they will remember a strategy that might work for them when they too are faced with a day when everything seems to go wrong.
From Oliver Bounces Back! by Alison Hughes, illus. by Charlene Chua
Because key figures in Oliver's day give their takes on what happens and Oliver's reactions to those circumstances–it feels like a reporter asking bystanders what they witnessed before talking to Oliver–Oliver Bounces Back! offers different perspectives on the child's day and shows young readers that they are part of something bigger beyond their own troubles. Oliver is part of several supportive communities, at home and at school, that will help him get through anything, if he asks and listens. Even Charlene Chua's artwork promotes the idea that, though Oliver's troubles may seem insurmountable to him, they are small enough to be manageable and put aside or seen through a different lens, thereby allowing coping and recovery. The brightness of her digital art, the affective faces of the children, and the progression of Oliver's reactions as he struggles and overcomes contribute to the message of childhood troubles survived.
Without instructing children how they should become resilient, let Alison Hughes, Charlene Chua and Oliver demonstrate that bad days happen but, with a few tools, it's possible to bounce back from any challenges that need to be faced.
From Oliver Bounces Back! by Alison Hughes, illus. by Charlene Chua