April 28, 2023

The Woman and Her Bear Cub

Adapted and retold by Jaypeetee Arnakak
Illustrated by Dayna B. Griffiths
Inhabit Media
36 pp.
Ages 3-6
April 2023
Many children take it upon themselves to adopt animals they believe have been abandoned. They do it with the best of intentions, though sometimes without regard for the bigger picture. The Woman and Her Bear Cub is a traditional Inuit story of such a fostering but with the wisdom that comes with living in conjunction with the natural environment and not overriding it.
From The Woman and Her Bear Cub by Jaypeetee Arnakak, illus. by Dayna B. Griffiths
A child and her mother are out on the ice hunting when they discover a polar bear cub stranded behind some broken ice. The mother wisely looks for tracks and evidence that the mother bear is nearby but can find none, so they help the cub from its location and take it home.
From The Woman and Her Bear Cub by Jaypeetee Arnakak, illus. by Dayna B. Griffiths
The child calls the cub her baby brother and their bond is as strong as siblings. They spend time together, playing and such, with the bear becoming an integral part of their family, even bringing back seals and fish that he has caught for them.
From The Woman and Her Bear Cub by Jaypeetee Arnakak, illus. by Dayna B. Griffiths
But when the cub is no longer a baby bear, and he becomes so big that the others in the village are concerned, the mother prepares her child for the time he would have to leave them. Still, it isn't until her brother bear returns from hunting one day with his own mother that the mother and child are able to say goodbye.
From The Woman and Her Bear Cub by Jaypeetee Arnakak, illus. by Dayna B. Griffiths
Jaypeetee Arnakak is a multi-talented Inuit linguist, translator, educator, and writer who grew up in Clyde River on Baffin Island. He has edited a collection of traditional stories from oral recordings of Inuit Elders and adapted several into picture books. The Woman and Her Bear Cub is one such traditional story and one that tells of compassion for living things and letting go when the time is right. There is no willful removal of a wild animal to provide companionship or entertainment. Neither is there a selfishness to take and keep what does not belong to them. The mother and her child give sanctuary to a lost bear cub only until he is reunited with his mother. It's not about their needs but about his needs. 

That quietness of purpose and landscape is portrayed in the illustrations of The Woman and Her Bear Cub by artist and designer Dayna B. Griffiths of Toronto. By creating art that appears stark, with a restrained palette of blue, white, and grey-brown, Dayna B. Griffiths makes the Arctic landscape of blue sky and white snow dotted with an occasional qarmaq (dwelling) very powerful. As such, the interjection of a white bear and grey-brown-clad people, with the occasional dog of both grey and white, in that landscape makes them both an important and insignificant focus.

As with most traditional stories, even those that may take on fantastical proportions, there is a germ of truth, and I suspect this one is based in reality. Adopting a lost animal and caring for it until care is no longer necessary is a story for all times. Here, a polar bear and an Arctic landscape may make this story unique, but its premise is grounded in the authenticity of compassion for those in need and dictated only by the one most affected. It is a lesson in selflessness and benevolence and a true reflection of the graciousness of Inuit values.

April 24, 2023

Visions of the Crow (Dreams, Book 1)

Written by Wanda John-Kehewin
Illustrated by nicole marie burton
Lettering by Kielamel Sibal
HighWater Press (Portage & Main)
80 pp.
Ages 12+
April 2023 

Damon Quinn is a teen who is burdened with challenges that are not of his doing. His mother, Marnie, drinks and doesn't always ensure there's food in the house. At school, he's tormented by a bully Marcus who thinks it's clever to call him an Indian in the cupboard. And there's a crow that seems to be watching him. Damon meets Journey who comes to his defense, saying they should stick together even if he isn't fully Indigenous. When she calls him the Métis Crow Whisperer, he decides to ask his mother about his heritage.
From Visions of the Crow by Wanda John-Kehewin, illus. by nicole marie burton

Though Marnie has always been reluctant to talk about her family and Damon's, and she suggests he's better off without them, she reveals that she is Cree from Alberta, and his father was Métis. When she got pregnant at 17, she left her dysfunctional family on the reserve and she and his father moved to Vancouver. When Damon was four, his dad left to return to the reserve and made a new family with another woman.
From Visions of the Crow by Wanda John-Kehewin, illus. by nicole marie burton
Marnie recognizes that "sometimes when you run from things you run too far the other way" (pg. 21) and that maybe it would be beneficial for Damon to talk to someone. She suggests that this might be especially important to him after he has several visions that he doesn't understand, some when he's sleeping, others when he's awake, that place him in the time of his ancestors. Perhaps it's as he's been told, that the crow is a messenger from his ancestors that they are waiting to help him. 
Damon meets with a counsellor named Craig Ben Bolton who helps Damon see the meaning in his visions while also appearing in them. Damon sees his ancestors debating the signing of Treaty 6, juggling whether to starve or lose their land. He meets his great uncle who instructs him in honouring the drum. He witnesses the pain of his great-great-grandmother as a child at residential school. And while he learns about his family's past and Marnie becomes more forthcoming of her own history, Damon discovers the impact of intergenerational (a.k.a. transgenerational or historical) trauma on his mother and now him.
This trauma flows through the bloodlines and into you, Damon. (pg. 63)
From Visions of the Crow by Wanda John-Kehewin, illus. by nicole marie burton
Visions of the Crow is a powerful graphic novel of how the past is never in the past completely. Its impact can be far-reaching whether because of multigenerational trauma or through the learning of important lessons or passing on of cultural traditions or by framing who we are as individuals. And with visions that take him into the past experiences of his ancestors, Damon draws knowledge which can lead to healing and to growth for both Damon and his mother. As such, author Wanda John-Kehewin has made Visions of the Crow a story of family, albeit one that can go back generations and into the future. 
There is much darkness in Visions of the Crow and graphic artist nicole marie burton gives that shadow quality to their illustrations with their choice of palette and expressive characters that feel so much. There is much to feel in the story and art of Visions of the Crow and nicole marie burton's art takes us from a tenuous home situation to bullying at school and from anger at the unknown to the delicacy that comes from enlightenment, all while taking the reader from Damon's contemporary life into the past with ease.
Visions of the Crow is just the first book in this new graphic novel series–Damon's story continues in the second book, Visions from the Fire–and I anticipate more learning and healing to come for Damon and his family. Maybe it will come through surreal visions again or maybe through very real connection with living family but, whatever way Wanda John-Kehewin decides to take Damon's story, it will be forward.

April 22, 2023

Walking Together

Written by Elder Albert D. Marshall and Louise Zimanyi
Illustrated by Emily Kewageshig
Annick Press
36 pp.
Ages 4-7
April 2023

Many will be undertaking Earth Day activities this weekend and next, whether picking up garbage, planting trees or setting up rain barrels. But Earth Day should be every day, as we look out for our planet, for its water, land and air, and its plants and animals. And Elder Albert D. Marshall and Louise Zimanyi promote a message of Two-Eyed Seeing in Walking Together so that perhaps we can see the big picture and ensure that caring for our world goes beyond a single day of environmental attention.
From Walking Together by Elder Albert D. Marshall and Louise Zimanyi, illus. by Emily Kewageshig
When we walk together in a good way...
...good things happen and that is the message that resonates throughout Walking Together. It's acknowledging the many gifts that Mother Earth shares. It's hearing the stories that come from the ancestors and paying attention to the song of the spring birds and the awakening of plants and animals who have lain seemingly dormant over winter. It's hearing nature as it talks, whether it's the deer or the beaver or the frog or the flowers. The teachings of Elder Albert D. Marshall of the Moose Clan of Eskasoni Mi'Kmaw Nation in Unama'ki-Cape Breton remind us that to see fully means to blend both the Indigenous lessons of the ancestors and the knowledge that comes from non-Indigenous ways. With Two-Eyed Seeing will come respect for the Land and Water, so that it may continue to sustain us.
We take only if there is enough.
We ask before we take
And we listen for the answer.
We share.
From Walking Together by Elder Albert D. Marshall and Louise Zimanyi, illus. by Emily Kewageshig
The message that Elder Albert D. Marshall offers with education professor Louise Zimanyi is that Mother Earth offers many gifts but gifts that must be respected, not just received. Walking Together is a thoughtful treatise in being grounded in the lessons of the past with those still to come for greater clarity and compassion. It's keeping both eyes and mind open to hearing and listening what lessons are being shared.
From Walking Together by Elder Albert D. Marshall and Louise Zimanyi, illus. by Emily Kewageshig
Those same important messages are conveyed in the Woodland art of Anishnaabe artist Emily Kewageshig who furthers the stories with her illustrations. The boldness of her lines and colours draw readers in to see, to witness, to walk together in landscapes through the seasons. There is a continuity of place and people that comes through Emily Kewageshig's illustrations, drawing from the past and moving to the future. She shows the sense of grounding that comes with connection and the life that comes with respect for Mother Earth.
Today, on a day when we celebrate Mother Earth and on every day on which she should be honoured, I recommend taking a walk under the guidance of Elder Albert D. Marshall, Louise Zimanyi and Emily Kewageshig as they remind us how to see best.

🌎 🌎 🌎 🌎 🌎

April 19, 2023

Forest of Reading®: Festival of Trees coming soon

If it's April, then young readers are voting for their favourite books in the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading® award programs. And those votes will be tallied and awards announced at the Festival of Trees. These award ceremonies were always a big event at Toronto's Harbourfront, though over the pandemic, award ceremonies were conducted online. For the first time in several years, young readers will have the opportunity to attend in-person events which include workshops by authors and/or illustrators, get their books autographed by authors, and cheer in person when the award winners are announced. The Festival of Trees will be held from Tuesday May 16 through Thursday May 18, 2023. If you're still not convinced to attend (tickets available here), check out the full schedule of events below.

TUESDAY, MAY 16, 2023

11:45 AM-12:15 PM Eric Walters: Bear in the Family
12:15-12:45 PM  Shenaaz Nanji: Alina in a Pinch
12:45-1:15 PM Alma Fullerton: Flipping Forward Twisting Backward

11:45 AM-12:45 PM
    Alma Fullerton: Flipping Forward Twisting Backward
    Greer Stothers: Kaleidoscope of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life: Their colors and patterns explained
    Rachel Poliquin: The Strangest Thing in the Sea: And Other Curious Creatures of the Deep
1:00-2:00 PM
    Shenaaz Nanji: Alina in a Pinch
    Eric Walters: Bear in the Family
    Juliana Armstrong: This is What I’ve Been Told / Mii yi gaa-bi-wiindmaagooyaan
    Kallie George (tentative): Crimson Twill: Witch in the City

10:15-10:45 AM Colleen Nelson: The Undercover Book List

10:15-10:45 AM J. Torres and David Namisato: Stealing Home
10:30-11:00 AM  Wesley King: Butt Sandwich & Tree

11:15-11:45 AM Catherine Egan: Sneaks
11:15-11:45 AM Meagan Mahoney: Meranda and the Legend of the Lake

1:15-1:45 PM David A. Robertson: The Stone Child (The Misewa Saga, Bk 3)
10:00-11:00 AM
    Rosena Fung: Living with Viola
    Meagan Mahoney: Meranda and the Legend of the Lake
    Catherine Egan: Sneaks
    David A. Robertson: The Stone Child (The Misewa Saga, Bk 3)
1:00-2:00 PM
    Wesley King: Butt Sandwich & Tree
    Colleen Nelson: The Undercover Book List
    J. Torres and David Namisato: Stealing Home  
 •   •   •   •   •   •   •
 WEDNESDAY, MAY 17, 2023

11:45 AM-12:15 PM  Teresa Toten: Eight Days

12:15-12:45 PM Meaghan McIsaac: The Bear House

12:15-12:45 PM Chad Lucas: Let the Monster Out
12:45-1:15 PM Kevin Sands: Children of the Fox (Thieves of Shadow, Bk 1)

1:15-1:45 PM Paul Coccia and Eric Walters: On the Line
1:15-1:45 PM Lori Weber: The Ribbon Leaf
11:45 AM-12:45 PM
    Kevin SandsChildren of the Fox (Thieves of Shadow, Bk 1)
    Paul Coccia and Eric Walters: On the Line
    Lori Weber: The Ribbon Leaf
    Joanne Levy: Sorry for Your Loss
    Kathy Kacer: Under the Iron Bridge 
1:00-2:00 PM
    Leisl Adams: Batter Royale
    Meaghan McIsaac: The Bear House
    Teresa Toten: Eight Days
    Chad Lucas: Let the Monster Out



10:15-10:45 AM Christy Goerzen: River Mermaid
10:15-10:45 AM H. N. Khan: Wrong Side of the Court
10:30-11:00 AM Kate McLaughlin: Daughter

11:15-11:45 AM Nicola Davison: Decoding Dot Grey
11:15-11:45 AM Jen Ferguson: The Summer of Bitter and Sweet


1:00-2:00 PM
    Kate McLaughlin: Daughter
    Nicola Davison: Decoding Dot Grey
    Christy Goerzen: River Mermaid
    Jen Ferguson: The Summer of Bitter and Sweet
    Louisa Onomé: Twice as Perfect
    H. N. Khan: Wrong Side of the Court 

Digital Award Ceremony  1:30-2:00 PM EST
 •   •   •   •   •   •   •

THURSDAY, MAY 18, 2023

11:45 AM-12:15 PM Andrée-Anne Gratton: L'enfant qui jouait du piano dans sa tête
11:45 AM-12:15 PM Marie-Andrée Arsenault: La Guerre des pupitres
12:15-12:45 PM  Patrick Blanchette: Aube du monde des rêves 01 Le réacteur onirique
12:15-12:45 PM Carole Tremblay: La chose dans l'étang
12:45-1:15 PM  Jocelyn Boisvert: La ligue des (pas si) champions
12:45-1:15 PM Pierre Chastenay: Une visite guidée du système solaire
11:45 AM-12:45 PM
    Jocelyn Boisvert
: La ligue des (pas si) champions
    Pierre Chastenay
: Une visite guidée du système solaire
1:00-2:00 PM
    Patrick Blanchette: Aube du monde des rêves 01 Le réacteur onirique
    Carole Tremblay
: La chose dans l'étang
    Andrée-Anne Gratton
: L'enfant qui jouait du piano dans sa tête
    Marie-Andrée Arsenault
: La Guerre des pupitres


10:15-10:45 AM Annie Bacon: Chroniques post-apocalyptiques d'un garçon perdu
10:15-10:45 AM Dïana Bélice: L'escouade du bonheur
10:30-11:00 AM Isabelle Roy: Brûlé 01 Premier degré
10:30-11:00 AM Marie-Hélène Jarry: Les carnets de novembre
11:15-11:45 AM Simon Lafrance: Carnet de bord d'un (aspirant) chef de meute
11:15-11:45 AM Alexandre Côté-Fournier: Quincaillerie Miville
1:15-1:45 PM  Suzanne Aubry: Le Septième étage et demi
10:45-11:45 AM
    Isabelle Roy: Brûlé 01 Premier degré
    Marie-Hélène Jarry: Les carnets de novembre
    Suzanne Aubry: Le Septième étage et demi
    Paul Tom: Seuls
    Gabrielle Boulianne-Tremblay: La voix de la nature
1:00-2:00 PM
    Simon Lafrance: Carnet de bord d'un (aspirant) chef de meute
    Annie Bacon: Chroniques post-apocalyptiques d'un garçon perdu
    Dïana Bélice: L'escouade du bonheur
    Alexandre Côté-Fournier: Quincaillerie Miville 

Digital Award Ceremony: 1:30-2:00 PM EST 
 •   •   •   •   •   •   •
Links to purchase tickets for these Festival of Trees (including General Admission tickets without award ceremonies but all other events) as well as those that are only available as Digital Ceremonies (Blue Spruce, Yellow Cedar and Le prix Peuplier) are available at https://forestofreading.com/festival/.

April 17, 2023

I Am Not a Ghost: The Canadian Pacific Railway

Written by David Bouchard with Zhong-Yang Huang
Illustrated by Sean Huang
Plumleaf Press
40 pp.
Ages 7-12
May 2023
While the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s was considered an achievement in connecting eastern Canada with British Columbia, its history is clouded in infamy. From its treatment of Chinese workers to the expulsion of First Nations from their lands, the construction of that national railway is a bigger story and one made up of many. I Am Not a Ghost is one story.
From I Am Not a Ghost by David Bouchard with Zhong-Yang Huang, illus. by Sean Huang
Granddaughter, you and your children must know this story, and you must remember. (pg.9)
As a grandfather remembers, he recalls the hardship of finding work in China and leaving his family to find a better life. But what he found were tireless working conditions, hunger, cold and the bigotry that had the white men calling every Chinese man by the name Johnny. Still, he persisted, hopeful of a prosperous future, eventually saving enough money to send for his wife and son.
From I Am Not a Ghost by David Bouchard with Zhong-Yang Huang, illus. by Sean Huang
When he falls ill, laying in the snow as if already dead, and is ignored by the foreman, Lady Amelia Douglas, the visiting wife of the late Governor of BC, comes to his aid and demands he be taken to her home in Victoria. Although the men at the camp tell his family he has died, Mrs. Douglas gets him medical attention and, once she learns of his family days later, brings them to him. After several weeks, his family returns to Chinatown and he to the railway.
From I Am Not a Ghost by David Bouchard with Zhong-Yang Huang, illus. by Sean Huang
But, upon his return, his countrymen are aghast, convinced they are seeing a ghost. He has to persuade them with the words of the book's title that he is not a ghost and recounts the goodness and compassion of Mrs. Douglas, a Métis woman, who was their friend like other Indigenous people. 
Because of the kindness of Mrs. Douglas, he was able to survive the building of the railway, build a business and extend kindness to other Chinese immigrants, helping to grow a compassionate and vibrant community.
From I Am Not a Ghost by David Bouchard with Zhong-Yang Huang, illus. by Sean Huang
Non-fiction books that teach history, especially those used in schools, tend to be verbose and comprehensive, skimming over many topics, using dense text, and leaving no memorable impression. I Am Not a Ghost is not such a text. By focusing on the immigrant experience of one Chinese Canadian in the 1880s, Victoria's David Bouchard with Regina's Zhong-Yang Huang effectively place young readers into the treacherous life of working on the railway as a Chinese immigrant in the 1880s. The toil, the racism, and the unfairness of conditions and treatments all speak to oppression and perseverance in that oppression. The story of this man is heartbreaking and very real, as is the true story of the building of the railway and Mrs. Douglas with her  compassionate nature. ("Historical Notes" at the end of the book give further details about the context for the story of I Am Not a Ghost.)
With the seriousness of the story and the realism of a historical narrative, the art of Sean Huang adds to the story, taking us from frozen landscapes of workers in canvas tents or collapsed in snowbanks, to the opulence of a fine lady's Victorian home, to the busyness of countless workers on the railway. Combining both a heaviness and lightness to his brushstrokes and the classic palette of old masters, Sean Huang takes us into the past of David Bouchard and Zhong-Yang Huang's story, and tells a history where a man is disregarded because of his heritage and taken for dead because he might not have mattered enough to be helped.

If you're a teacher of Canadian history for young people and want a fresh take on the building of the railway, I Am Not a Ghost provides a very personal story that goes beyond the placement of that last spike and reminds us that achievements are often on the backs of others who should be recognized and their stories told.

April 15, 2023

Garden Wonders: A Guidebook for Little Greeen Thumbs (Little Explorers Series)

Written and illustrated by Sarah Grindler
Nimbus Publishing
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
March 2023
While many in the US were celebrating National Gardening Day yesterday (April 14), our own National Garden Day takes place on the Friday of the week of Father's Day so June 16, 2023. Still, I'd rather not wait another two months to share Sarah Grindler's picture book Garden Wonders with its sweet illustrations and lessons about how to garden, from what to grow and what is needed to help plants grow.
From Garden Wonders: A Guidebook for Little Green Thumbs by Sarah Grindler
Whether you're on the west coast, as is author-illustrator Sarah Grindler, on the prairies, on the east coast or in an urban setting, a rite of spring is preparing a garden. It might be a large vegetable plot, or flower cutting garden, or perhaps containers of herbs for culinary endeavours. Regardless, starting a garden and sustaining it is pretty much the same.
From Garden Wonders: A Guidebook for Little Green Thumbs by Sarah Grindler
After taking us through the garden gate of her garden, which including a lovely tabby cat, Sarah Grindler starts with explaining the need for soil and the components that help things grow. She discusses nematodes and moisture, aeration and ensuring sufficient nutrients and minerals. 

Next, she discusses the planting of seeds for successful germination, giving helpful tips about watering and a visual example of how to plant. Sarah Grindler also delves into perennials, biennials, and annuals; veggies that are root vegetables or leafy greens; and all the creatures, both beneficial and harmful, that might be found in a garden.
From Garden Wonders: A Guidebook for Little Green Thumbs by Sarah Grindler
Garden Wonders: A Guidebook for Little Green Thumbs has a very retro feel to it, both in its text and illustrations. There is a nostalgic feel to the picture book, reminiscent of Little Golden Books, which relied on traditional storytelling rather than cartoons, sauciness, or issues-driven tales. Sarah Grindler's picture book is to inform but she does it with colour, using watercolour and more, and gentleness with the reality of her art and the modesty of her words. 
There are so many types of amazing gardens.
Creative gardens are everywhere, and you don't
need a lot of space to plant your very own.

What would you like to grow?
She's encouraging while thoughtful, understanding the breadth of opportunities–some limited, some vast–that young explorers might have to growing a garden. And, with an offering of several gardening projects for kids to try,  Sarah Grindler takes us into the garden to learn and grow in a calm and unassuming way.

• • • • • • •
If your little explorers might like to venture out into the forest or the seaside as well as the garden, I might recommend the other books in this series from Sarah Grindler.

Seaside Treasures: A Guidebook for Little Beachcombers 
(Nimbus, 2019)
Forest Magic: A Guidebook for Little Woodland Explorers 
(Nimbus, 2021)
Garden Wonders: A Guidebook for Little Green Thumbs 
(Nimbus, 2023)

April 12, 2023

Otis & Peanut

Written by Naseem Hrab
Illustrated by Kelly Collier
Owlkids Books
80 pp.
Ages 6-8
April 2023

Otis is a long-haired guinea pig. Peanut is a naked mole rat. And they are as different in their personalities as they are physically. Yet, they are the best of friends, being for the other what they are not easily themselves. Together, they will touch your heart and remind you that diversity gives the world a soul.
From Otis & Peanut by Naseem Hrab, illus. by Kelly Collier
Told in three graphic stories, author Naseem Hrab, recent finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Weekend Dad, introduces us to her unlikely friends Otis and Peanut. In the first story, The Haircut, the two set off for the barbershop to get Otis a much-needed haircut. Unfortunately, their fears about the process and what they might look like causes them much anxiety. As Peanut tries to help Otis embrace change, Peanut realizes that they too would enjoy change. While that could be a new hat, a new coat, and new shoes, it might include a new friend. Fortunately, with a haircut, Otis becomes that new friend!
From Otis & Peanut by Naseem Hrab, illus. by Kelly Collier
The Swing is the second story in the book and focuses on Otis missing their friend Pearl. As Otis tries to subdue the sadness that keeps him from enjoying a swing, Peanut recognizes that recalling the good memories of Pearl is important, as is accepting that grief and joy can coexist.
From Otis & Peanut by Naseem Hrab, illus. by Kelly Collier

In the final chapter titled The House, Otis is decorating their new house to make it a true home. 

"Well, I want to feel like my heart is here. So I'm painting it my favorite colors. And putting special things inside of it and outside of it."
From the front door to the lilac bush, Otis has reminders of friends that make the house truly his. But when there still feels like something is missing, Peanut becomes the solution.

There have been many comparisons of Otis and Peanut to the celebrated Frog and Toad as a duo of friends that learn from their interactions with each other and others. But I think Otis and Peanut are far more diverse both in their appearance and their demeanors. Naseem Hrab has made Peanut the confident and extroverted character, eager to take on change and challenges, while Otis is more sedate and thoughtful, more sensitive to their feelings and surroundings. But both are capable of expressing themselves beyond those personalities, with Peanut showing compassion and insight beyond what might be expected of an exuberant extrovert and Otis able to enjoy things beyond self and feeling. Through their self-expression and Nassem Hrab's storytelling, Otis and Peanut have loads to teach young readers about friendship, grief, change and self.

Those important lessons come by way of a lightness of text and art. Kelly Collier–whose Steve the Horse series was reviewed here–illustrated this early graphic novel digitally and yet it has the delicacy of ink and watercolour. Surprisingly, the economy of her palette brings a boldness to the illustrations. While Otis and Peanut are essentially black and white with only the barest hints of pink for ears and nose and such, Kelly Collier saves the chartreuse yellow, pale turquoise and bright pink for backgrounds and large swaths of coats and furniture and such. It is a limited palette but it's fabulous to highlight Otis and Peanut, the stars of the stories.

It's tough to write an early reader that doesn't talk down to kids while addressing big issues like grief and friendship and home. But Naseem Hrab has done so with her words and, with Kelly Collier's graphic novel illustrations, Otis & Peanut is sure to be a hit. And, since this is only Book #1, there will be more stories with which we can visit Otis and Peanut, and I look forward to all of them.

April 10, 2023

The Song That Called Them Home

Written by David A. Robertson
Illustrated by Maya McKibbin
Tundra Books
52 pp.
Ages 4-8
April 2023
A day out with their Moshom becomes a supernatural experience when a child must enter the world of the Memekwesewak to rescue her little brother.
From The Song That Called Them Home by David A. Robertson, illus. by Maya McKibbin
During a trip to the land with their grandfather, Lauren and her little brother James head out in their canoe to fish while Moshom takes a nap. But after stirring up the waters to attract the fish, the waters become violent, and the kids are tossed into the lake.
From The Song That Called Them Home by David A. Robertson, illus. by Maya McKibbin
When Lauren resurfaces, she sees the Memekwesewak, or Little People, dragging her brother beyond a waterfall. Following, Lauren discovers a portal to their world where the Memekwesewak dance with James around a fire and sing a song to keep him with them. Things worsen when Lauren tries to release him from their supernatural bindings, and she too is ensnared. Only when a song from their own world penetrates and beckons them home do the kids return to their Moshom.
Come back! You've been gone so long!
What places have you found to roam!
Come back! Hear my welcome song!
My beating drum will guide you home!
Governor General's Literary Award-winning author David A. Robertson tells his best stories when he reaches into the stories of his family and people, as he has done here with his father's story of an encounter with the mischievous Memekwesewak. Perhaps that is why the story of The Song That Called Them Home seems so believable. It is rooted in the ordinary, in an outing with a grandfather who takes a nap as the children fish. What happens when they fall in the water, though, is perhaps the stuff of legends and the supernatural. But, as David A. Robertson's "Author's Note About the Memekwesewak" tells us, perhaps this part of the story is just as real. Regardless, this story reminds us that when we're lost, whether to the surreal or the dangerous, there is hope that those who love us will call us home and we will hear them. The threatening voices of the Memekwesewak, or contemporary dangers of risky behaviours and unsafe friendships, may seem unyielding but there are those who would guide us back to safety, as does Moshom with his song and drum.
From The Song That Called Them Home by David A. Robertson, illus. by Maya McKibbin
That ordinary and extraordinary is conveyed in the art of Maya McKibbin, an Ojibwe, Yoeme, and Irish-settler artist who illustrated the Governor General nominated Swift Fox All Along. Maya McKibbin's digital art transitions from the calm and comfort of family and the land and water to that of the turmoil of the Memekwesewak's world. They plunge us into the danger and the fears associated with the Little People through their use of line and shape as well as colour, emphasizing the wildness and the uncertainly that comes with the rush of the Memekwesewak, pasty creatures with purplish ink and long pale hair. Still, if you're worried about little ones being frightened, don't be. Maya McKibbin does not play up the fearful elements; instead, they emphasize the bonds of family and connection in Lauren and her brother, and the strains of a drum beat that can "Thum Thump" to draw them home.
While a story based in an Indigenous legend of the Little People, The Song That Called Them Home speaks to everyone. I can only hope that everyone will always have a song to call them home and the heart to hear it.

April 08, 2023

The Weird Sisters: A Robin, a Ribbon, and a Lawn Mower

Written by Mark David Smith
Illustrated by Kari Rust
Owlkids Books
93 pp.
Ages 7-10
April 2023

They're back! The Weird Sisters of Mark David Smith's early middle grade series are back in their second book, creating mayhem with their magic and their misinterpretations to solve their newest mystery: who vandalized the local tire swing?
From The Weird Sisters: A Robin, a Ribbon, and a Lawn Mower by Mark David Smith, illus. by Kari Rust
The three sisters, Hildegurp, Yuckmina and Glubbifer, who opened their pet emporium and detective agency in the first book in the series–The Weird Sisters: A Note, a Goat, and a Casserole (2022)–are lamenting their lack of business with their young neighbour Jessica who is missing going to school during the summer holidays. When the girl offers to teach them how to use the tire swing to cheer them up, they discover the rope frayed and the tire useless on the ground. They enlist the help of their friend Officer Nazeri who takes them to see Mayor Ronald Bombast who is desperate to attend another ribbon-cutting ceremony and deputizes the group to solve the crime. But there always seems to be another mystery in Covenly and the sisters and their friend are also drafted to help Chelsea Oh attract her local robin who'd been chased off by the Weird Sisters' cat, Graymalkin.

Following a promising lead involving their neighbour Cosmo Keene, creating a love potion for an unlikely pair, and enhancing the power of a souped-up lawn mower, the Weird Sisters and Jessica get to the bottom of the latest Covenly conundrums.
From The Weird Sisters: A Robin, a Ribbon, and a Lawn Mower by Mark David Smith, illus. by Kari Rust
Young readers who are transitioning from early readers to middle grade will appreciate the humour, the plotting and most definitely the characters in Mark David Smith's The Weird Sisters series. With a trio of wacky sisters who want to do good, a young girl who offers a bit of normalcy (though she does have a pet goat), and all manner of secondary characters who do everything from cook seed cakes for robins and are passionate about cutting ceremonial ribbons, there is much to tickle the funny bone. And, for me, the humour is paramount, especially when it revolves around idioms and the sisters' misinterpretations of them. Idioms are often tough for young children to appreciate so they will laugh at the Weird Sisters' confusion about giving someone a lift (we know superhuman strength is unnecessary), going undercover (blankets also needless) and being blue (which does not involve the colour or dye). Coupling the strong storytelling and amusing voice of Mark David Smith's text with a splattering of Kari Rust's quirky black-and-white illustrations, The Weird Sisters: A Robin, a Ribbon, and a Lawn Mower takes us for a wild and loony ride, with or without the swing or lawn mower for conveyance.

April 05, 2023

Standing on Neptune

Written by Valerie Sherrard
160 pp.
Ages 13+
April 2023

Brooke Wells's story begins with an important line:

…this is about what happened (pg. 1)

But the seventeen-year-old explains that it’s only a moment in her story, not her whole story. It's less than a week, in fact, but a monumental one of a secret, hidden beneath the facade of being a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a friend and a classmate. It's a moment and one that may, or may not, change her life.
x + y = -5 is the equation Brooke envisions for her situation on the Monday of her story. What this means is she and her boyfriend Ryan had sex and now her period is five days late. Standing in Neptune is primarily her story, told in free verse, as she comes to terms with what it means, who to tell, and what to do. While she grapples with the shock and enormity of the possibility of a pregnancy, Brooke is almost frozen in place, telling only Ryan and only in the briefest of terms. She sees his panic, his anger, his fear, and even hope, and, instead of supporting each other, Brooke becomes more aloof and distant. 

Her bestie Emma knows something is up, but Brooke lies, worried that Emma may let her secret slip. Brooke's nine-year-old brother Kevin can also see that she is distracted, but she denies it and lies to him as well. Her thoughts are her only support, though she finds a convenient distraction in a science project on Neptune. As she learns about the frozen planet, she finds parallels to her own situation, like how it was detected mathematically and what is visible and not visible.
Our shared truth, I suspect, is that
it too has secrets, hidden beneath
what can be seen.      (pg.79)
Like Neptune, with so much more to it than the obvious, Brooke is more than her relationships with others. She is more than Ryan's girlfriend or Emma's friend. She is holding in a secret that might impact her whole life. Or will it? The frozen blue planet of Neptune with its orbiting moons is easily recognizable but, like Brooke, there is much beneath the surface that is unknown. And, until she knows the truth, i.e., is she pregnant or not, she is frozen with inaction, with hesitancy to share, and projecting a facade that all is normal.
Perhaps I am simply frozen in place, afraid of
facing things, of
getting it wrong.      (pg. 99)
Novels in free verse are one of my favourite genres, packing so much emotion and storytelling in few but well-chosen words, structured for meaning. Valerie Sherrard, whose earlier novel in verse Counting Back from Nine (2013) was nominated for a Governor General's Literature Award for children's text, knows how to use the genre to tell gripping stories. She takes us into the thoughts of teens as they contend with issues of teen pregnancy, shaky friendships, blended families, insecurities, and self-awareness. There's a lot going on in Brooke's head, more than she reveals to others, and Valerie Sherrard lets us hear Brooke's thoughts. Though Ryan's point of view is occasionally shared in excerpts of prose, it is Brooke we hear. It's her perspective that is paramount in Standing on Neptune. Whether she is pregnant or not, or right or wrong in her choices is irrelevant. They are hers. And as she studies Neptune and sees herself as a lone planet with moons that orbit her, perhaps someday being torn apart by her gravitational force, Brooke still knows she's part of something far greater.