June 29, 2023

Dual Book Launch: Gnomes is Where Your Heart Is & The Magic Cap (Toronto)

Authors Casey Lyall and Mireille Messier 
are promising
with a joint book launch for their newest books
Gnome is Where Your Heart Is
 Written by Casey Lyall
Greenwillow Books (Imprint of HarperCollins)
304 pp.
Ages 8-12
May 2023 


The Magic Cap
Written by Mireille Messier
Illustrated by Charlotte Parent
Milky Way Picture Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
May 2023 
Here's the info to get in your calendar early:
Date:  Sunday, July 30, 2023
Time: 1 PM
Location:  Another Story Bookshop
315 Roncesvalles Avenue
Toronto, ON

I haven't been to many launches in the past few years 
but I may just see you there. 
With two charming books, one middle-grade and one picture book, 
and a whole lot of gnomes, this may the one to get me out to celebrate great #youngCanLit.

June 27, 2023

Tegan and Sara: Junior High

Written by Tegan Quin and Sara Quin
Illustrated by Tillie Walden
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
304 pp.
Ages 10-14
May 2023

The names Tegan and Sara are well known to many as the Canadian Indie-pop duo but also producers of the TV series High School, based on their own secondary school experiences. Their Wikipedia page is loaded with accomplishments, collaborations, awards, and activism. But, for Tegan Quin and Sara Quin to become who they are today, they had to navigate the ups-and-downs of the middle grade years and puberty, all while trying to maintain their most important relationship, that of identical twins. This is the story of those Junior High highs and lows.
From Tegan and Sara: Junior High, written by Tegan Quin and Sara Quin, illus. by Tillie Walden
It's the beginning of their Grade 7 year and everything is new for the twins. First, their mom Sonia and stepdad Bruce have moved houses to be closer to the girls' dad, Steve. That means leaving their old friend Faiza and making new friends. But the girls will now be in separate classes so there is an added element of anxiety that their lives are more separate than they're used to. And Tegan and Sara are very close. Still, though they may be identical in their appearance, they do differ in their personalities. (Illustrator Tillie Walden tries to keep the two different in the artwork, when she can, by drawing Sara in red and Tegan in blue, though most of the illustrations are in violet.) So, when they meet Noa, Chloe, Vincent, and Avery, it's Tegan who becomes fast friends with Noa, much to the annoyance of obnoxious Avery who claims Noa as her own best friend and to the disappointment of Sara who is less concerned with becoming popular and more with remaining friends with Faiza.
From Tegan and Sara: Junior High, written by Tegan Quin and Sara Quin, illus. by Tillie Walden
But then Sara meets Kaito from her science class and his friend Roshini and things take another turn. While the twins navigate puberty–and all the surprising changes that come with it–and friends and family, two significant developments arise. First, the girls discover a guitar and start delving into song writing and performing. Second, they both develop crushes, Tegan on Kaito and Sara, much to her surprise, on Roshini. While doing things differently is normal, the twins rely on each other for support, and when things start to go awry, whether it's one getting her period and not telling the other or one exposing secrets that should not have been shared, Tegan and Sara find themselves in conflict. Can they be there for each other to get through the bad times and celebrate the good or will people and other things come between them?
From Tegan and Sara: Junior High, written by Tegan Quin and Sara Quin, illus. by Tillie Walden
Junior high and middle school is always tough. There are so many changes happening for young people, both inside and outside of their bodies, and figuring them out is even tougher when they don't always know whom to trust for support. Tegan Quin and Sara Quin certainly represent what middle graders might be going through as they confront new circumstances at home, at school, with friends and with their own bodies. But what Tegan and Sara understand best is how it feels to be and live with an identical twin. It's that relationship that is key to them becoming the successful musical duo they have and getting through those middle grade years undefeated. Yet their story highlights the fact that Tegan and Sara are their own people with their unique likes, dislikes, insecurities, worries, skills, and more, and, in the context of middle grade angst, they show grit.

Tegan and Sara: Junior High will be a welcome graphic novel for middle grade readers who may or may not know the twins as the singer-songwriters they are, but they will know the uncertainty of figuring out themselves with the coming of age. Tegan Quin and Sara Quin may be telling their story, but it's a story that goes beyond the autobiography and becomes more about encouragement and illustration for getting through.

June 22, 2023

What If I'm Not a Cat?

Written by Kari-Lynn Winters
Illustrated by Kelly Collier
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
June 2023

Donkey was a cat. He knew he was a cat because all the clues were there. Farmer came into the barn and called out to her kitty cats so that had to include Donkey. Donkey strutted like a cat, he licked his fur, and enjoyed cuddling. And the little things he couldn't do like enjoy cat food, climb trees or catch mice were just some of the things he needed to learn still.
From What If I'm Not a Cat?, written by Kari-Lynn Winters, illus. by Kelly Collier
But then Donkey climbs up on Farmer's lap and hears, "Donkey, you're acting like a cat!" Donkey starts to rethink his attributes relative to the cats and asks himself, "What if I'm NOT a cat?"
From What If I'm Not a Cat?, written by Kari-Lynn Winters, illus. by Kelly Collier
The cats try to help. Some are convinced that Donkey is a cat and, while others begin to question their own identities, there are those who offer suggestions about what Donkey might truly be. Devastated with his identity crisis, he ventures out alone, into the loneliness beyond the farm. When he discovers a kitten in danger from a fox, Donkey helps save the little feline while uncovering some wonderful new things about himself.
From What If I'm Not a Cat?, written by Kari-Lynn Winters, illus. by Kelly Collier
For anyone who has ever questioned their identity and place, from family member to gender, What If I'm Not a Cat? recognizes that fitting in is less about being exactly the same and more about being part of something that feels right. Writer Kari-Lynn Winters has tackled the topic of fitting in and labelling of identities before (see French Toast and Good Pirate, both from 2016) but the farcical nature of a donkey who accepts himself as a cat makes What If I'm Not a Cat? both zany and effective in its messaging. Donkey only begins to question himself when others start to do the same. It's only when he feels accepted completely for both his similarities and differences that Donkey becomes Don-kitty and everything feels right again.
Kelly Collier, author-illustrator of A Horse Named Steve and Team Steve, gives her digitally-rendered illustrations a cheekiness of character. Kari-Lynn Winters gives us the story, but Kelly Collier most definitely gives us the characters, from Donkey who always seems to have a spring in his step–except when depressed–to the cats who are playful, diverse and saucy. There's a perfect balance of content and context that comes from a brilliant collaboration between Kari-Lynn Winters and Kelly Collier.

If What If I'm Not a Cat? teaches readers anything, it's that fitting in is not dependent on being the same as everyone else. Fitting in comes with self-acceptance. So, even if you're not a cat–which is pretty cool–you still belong.

June 20, 2023

Granny Left Me a Rocket Ship

Written by Heather Smith
Illustrated by Ashley Barron
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
June 2023
This is a story of what is left after a grandparent passes. Many think of the tangible bequests. This child's inheritance is so much more.
From Granny Left Me a Rocket Ship, written by Heather Smith, illus. by Ashley Barron
When Granny dies, there was a hole in our family.
Remembering her helped us fill it.
After a boy's grandmother dies, his family deals with their grief in different ways. There's the sharing of stories and photos, and there's reminiscing about the items she bequeathed them. But what did she leave him? It wasn't one thing. She's left him an abundance of memories of adventures that they'd created together. 
From Granny Left Me a Rocket Ship, written by Heather Smith, illus. by Ashley Barron
Whether it's the memory of creating a tent with blankets or a flying broomstick, a knight's sword on which marshmallows were roasted, or a rocket ship, often using Granny's blue cane, this child has a lifetime of memories of fantastic exploits.

Grief and loss are handled differently for everyone and will definitely vary between adults and children. The adults in this household must get on with the task of sorting out Granny's home and cherishing unique gifts bestowed on them, as do the two older children. But what the narrator gets is far greater and this child knows it. Heather Smith, author of everything from picture books like Annie's Cat is Sad to middle-grade novels in verse (e.g., Ebb & Flow) and YA like The Agony of Bun O'Keefe, always gets into the heart of feelings. She finds a way to see something positive and uplifting even in the challenging times. Here, a child is dealing with the loss of a beloved grandparents, and he finds a way to be grateful for the experiences he had with his grandmother. We've all heard of or experienced how a family loss can become a struggle of disputes with who got what, but this child sees beyond the material things his parents and siblings got and knows that he got so much more. He didn't get the tuba or the record collection or the microscope but he got everything he wanted in adventures and time and imaginative play with an elder he loved. In few words, Heather Smith lets us feel the adoration and gratitude.
From Granny Left Me a Rocket Ship, written by Heather Smith, illus. by Ashley Barron
From Ashley Barron's cut-paper collage with watercolour, and acrylic and pencil crayon, readers will never experience the grief that is the reason that the child was left something at all. There is no somberness to Ashley Barron's illustrations and that's because, while this boy and his family have experienced a loss, they are grateful for the gifts and time and  relationships they've had with their mother and grandmother. For the narrator, the gift of time and connection takes him from Granny's very real living room into his imagination with palm trees and teal waters to dragons and owls.
When Granny died,
she left me a world of adventure...
that I can take with me wherever I go.
What a gift.

June 16, 2023

Mr. S: A First Day of School Book

Written and illustrated by Monica Arnaldo
Katherine Tegen Books (An Imprint of HarperCollins)
40 pp.
Ages 4-8
June 2023
When is a sandwich more than sandwich? How about when it's a teacher and called Mr. S. Or is it?
From Mr. S by Monica Arnaldo
When the children arrive for their first day of class in room 2B they are met by...no one! Of course, they know they should have a teacher but the only indications that a teacher is around is a steaming mug of coffee, a sandwich, and "Mr. S" written on the board. The perplexed children are divided what to do until a loud slap of a ruler hitting the ground, from beside the sandwich, grabs their attention and they start to wonder. With that and the connection to Mr. S–it must be Mr. Sandwich, right?–the students feel compelled to do an alphabet lesson on sandwich types, an art class, a music class, and storytelling, even giving an errant boy lines to write.
From Mr. S by Monica Arnaldo
Unbeknownst to them, there is a story going on outside their window in the gloom of a thunderstorm. The man who'd been in their classroom before they arrived–this was on the title page– is dealing with mayhem upon mayhem with his car in the parking lot. There's a whole farce happening out there, including everything from lightning and pizzas, a sympathetic raccoon or two, and a fire. For the man, it goes from bad to worse. And when he finally does show up, it's still not clear whether the sandwich has been in charge all along.
From Mr. S by Monica Arnaldo
Okay, let's forget that a class would never be left unattended, especially a kindergarten class and not on the first day of school when kids are normally greeted by their teachers outside before being led into the school. Let's forget that because this is fiction and suspending reality is necessary to make this story so charming. But that's me as an adult and a teacher who knows how things are supposed to be. But these are little kids on their first day. What do they know? And look at that sandwich with its olive eyes, bologna tongue and lettuce ears or hair. It looks like a face. And the name on the board did say "Mr. S." Those children were actually quite clever putting the clues together. They were even more clever for directing their own instruction, albeit very sandwich-based. 
Montreal's Monica Arnaldo has written a quirky story of a class being taught by a sandwich but it's surprisingly plausible, especially since children can come up with some pretty fantastic ideas when presented with unusual clues. These kids are a hoot, policing themselves under the watchful eyes of a sandwich, learning the alphabet–could you find a sandwich for each letter of the alphabet?–and creating artwork that emulates great artists like Warhol, Banksy and perhaps Rothko. These kids have character, from differences in their mobility–one child is in a wheelchair and another uses purple forearm crutches–to their shapes, sizes and colours, and their attitudes which range from silly and playful to studious and bossy. Monica Arnaldo has given us real children, and, for them, Mr. Sandwich is just as real, even giving them fodder for debate about different kinds of teachers.
From Mr. S by Monica Arnaldo
The art is as playful as the story and there's so much to find in Monica Arnaldo's digital illustrations created with watercolour, coloured pencils and ink. Whether it's the details in the classroom, like the children reading from Monica Arnaldo's picture book Are You a Cheeseburger?, or the endpapers of children's lunch bags and teacher photos, and definitely the drama happening outside in the parking lot, there is humour and reality that will put a smile on every reader's face and a chuckle in their belly. (And I haven't even given away the ending which will surprise and make children wonder.)

Here's to Mr. S, the sandwich and the book, to all the teachers who guide and inspire and delight, and to the children who find learning opportunities in the most unconventional circumstances.

June 14, 2023

Maud Lewis Colours

Artwork by Maud Lewis
Words by Shanda LaRamee-Jones and Carol McDougall
Nimbus Publishing
24 pp.
Ages 0-4
June 2023

Concept books such as this one are created to help teach our very young children basic concepts like colours and numbers. The vehicle by which that teaching happens is what separates the basic from the sublime. With the artwork of Canadian folk painter Maud Lewis providing the foundation for this board book, concept teaching goes from elemental to elevated.
From Maud Lewis Colours, art by Maud Lewis, words by Shanda LaRamee-Jones and Carol McDougall
Maud Lewis's life in rural Nova Scotia was one of hardships and isolation. But her art was joyous and that's what is seen in Maud Lewis Colours. Because the artist used whatever paint she could scrounge up, her colours are intensely vibrant but harmonious in a balanced way. It's the kind of art that will captivate children while teaching them white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, pink, purple, brown, and black. For each colour, one of Maud Lewis's paintings is displayed with text printed on the opposite page of contrasting colour.  Nova Scotian writers Shanda LaRamee-Jones and Carol McDougall had a great number of pieces of art from which to choose because all Maud Lewis's are colourful, but the authors' selections ensured a wonderful cross-section of her art. There are landscapes of purple hills, green grass and blue water, many animal paintings from a white cat to brown oxen and yellow birds, and wagons, sleighs and even a Model T car. There's a little bit of everything but mostly a lot of boldness of paint–appropriate for a concept book on colours–and a celebration of Nova Scotia from both the past and the present.
From Maud Lewis Colours, art by Maud Lewis, words by Shanda LaRamee-Jones and Carol McDougall
I know Maud Lewis Colours is a concept book for very young children but for when they're a little older and for those who share it with them, it is also a beautiful introduction to a Canadian artist–there is a double spread dedicated to "one colourful artist" with information about her–and an invitation to see colour in their own lives.
From Maud Lewis Colours, art by Maud Lewis, words by Shanda LaRamee-Jones and Carol McDougall

There is an earlier book, Maud Lewis 1, 2, 3 (Nimbus, 2017), that would be a fitting accompaniment to Maud Lewis Colours for teaching basic but colourful concepts.
Maud Lewis 123 (Nimbus, 2017)
Maud Lewis Colours (Nimbus, 2023)

June 12, 2023

Malaika, Carnival Queen

Written by Nadia L. Hohn
Illustrated by Irene Luxbacher
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
May 2023
Malaika, whom Nadia L. Hohn introduced us to in Malaika's Costume (and revisited with Malaika's Winter Carnival and Malaika's Surprise), is always joyous with colour and exuberance. But it's family that brings her the most happiness. In Malaika, Carnival Queen, family is no less important but there is an element of grief that is wrapped in that familial warmth.
From Malaika, Carnival Queen by Nadia L. Hohn, illus. by Irene Luxbacher
Malaika lives with her Mummy, her new father Papa Fred, her Grandma, her new sister Adèle and new baby brother. But she's dreaming of a man carrying a basket of fruit, handing her a mango. Malaika believes it a dream about her father and her mother confirms it. Grandma gives Malaika a photo of her daddy working on a fruit farm with a message "To Malaika, my likkle one." He'd come to Canada before them to work on a farm, but he'd become ill and passed away without them.
From Malaika, Carnival Queen by Nadia L. Hohn, illus. by Irene Luxbacher
They decide it's important for Malaika to learn more about her father, so they take a trip to the farm where he'd worked, meeting some men who'd worked with him. They speak of his love for his daughter and his dream to make a carnival like back home. Malaika is invited to be the Carnival Queen for their upcoming harvest festival to which she agrees.

Malaika is ready with her carnival peacock dress, but she has a plan to make the parade extra special and ensure that "home" is at the heart of the event.
Malaika, Carnival Queen is an involved story but at its heart it's about family and home. Malaika has a family, but she has lost her birth father and needed to know more about him. With him showing up in her dreams, it was time to learn more. Nadia L. Hohn gives us the Malaika whom we've grown to love through her earlier books but in Malaika, Carnival Queen we are introduced to another side of her, that which has experienced loss. With Malaika's father as a migrant worker, Nadia L. Hohn opens the discussion with children about families who are separated through immigration, particularly because of farm work. Though the story of migrant farm workers is one of hardships, that's not the story that Malaika, as the daughter of one, needed to hear. She needed to connect with her father through his coworkers and through a carnival, and Nadia L. Hohn does that for the little girl. 
From Malaika, Carnival Queen by Nadia L. Hohn, illus. by Irene Luxbacher
That connection of family and place comes through Malaika's creation of a carnival flag of home. It's a banner of colour and heart and memory, and all those are depicted in Irene Luxbacher's illustrations. The artwork, created in gouache, soft pastels and found papers, gives the story both a softness of purpose and a quilting of connection. Those media are perfect for a story of loss and finding connection but also making connection. Irene Luxbacher, who has illustrated all four of the Malaika books, gives the colour and the boldness of a child with high spirits, but she also gives us tenderness for the loss felt by Malaika and others as well as a collage-feel that comes from kinship.

As Malaika grows older, Nadia L. Hohn shows us more sides to the little girl and her family, but she always keeps her as one with sensitivity. She may be a carnival queen but she's also a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, and a friend, all which make her truly impressive and inclusive.
• • • • • • •

Malaika's Winter Carnival (2017)

June 09, 2023


Written by Jack Briglio
Illustrated by Claudia Dávila 
Kids Can Press
128 pp.
Ages 9-12
May 2023
Going to the Santa Claus parade is a tradition that many families enjoy, even if they might worry about safety in the huge crowds. For Logan's family, those fears are far greater because Logan is nonverbal. So when Logan dashes away to see something and gets separated from his family, it is a scary situation for all. Thankfully ThunderBoom is around to help.
From ThunderBoom by Jack Briglio, illus. by Claudia Dávila
As the family prepares for their trip into the city for the parade, it becomes evident that Logan communicates with his parents and older sister Izzy in his own way. He uses hand and body actions, and occasionally speaks the first letter of the words he wants to say, and they get him. He loves playing with his tablet and he loves trains. And he's Mister Social speaking to everyone on the train. But he also is unaware of the dangers that might befall him when he's excited. Logan might understand that he's being told to listen more carefully but that doesn't stop him from bolting from his family when he wants a closer look at the parade.

He soon realizes he's in an uncomfortable situation, faced with a group of clowns. But when faced with a stressful situation, Logan's imagination kicks in to protect him. (Illustrator Claudia Dávila demonstrates this with a white haze that appears and displays Logan's thoughts in yellow boxes.) So Logan envisions himself as ThunderBoom, a superhero who can stomp his way into protection. Still, after getting away from the monstrous clowns, he finds a new dilemma to solve: the little girl he'd met on the train has lost her teddy bear and her parents. ThunderBoom springs into action once again.
From ThunderBoom by Jack Briglio, illus. by Claudia Dávila
After several more heroic adventures, Logan is finally reunited with his family, though he does have some moments of insight that his issues with discerning who is friend or foe, and hence his consequent reactions, may be him misunderstanding situations, just like others misunderstand him.

This may not be Jack Briglio's first book, but I suspect it's his most personal, as his "Author's Note" confirms. But that also means that his character Logan is more real, and Logan's alter ego of ThunderBoom evenmore genuine. Logan, modelled after Jack Briglio's son who has Angelman syndrome, has a great many fears and finds solace in his imagined superhero ThunderBoom for protection. He has found ways to communicate with his family but his ability to connect with others is limited, especially when he's anxious about those interactions. Thankfully his cheerful disposition seems to help him make friends, and also allies, who will help him become more independent and successful when he encounters challenges, whether it's a yappy dog or getting separated from his family.
From ThunderBoom by Jack Briglio, illus. by Claudia Dávila
The message from Jack Briglio is more about Logan's ability to successfully meet those challenges in his own way, whether it's using an imagined superhero or asking for help from others. Everyone is faced with challenges, but we all need to find strategies to confront and overcome those obstacles or hardships. Logan's strategy works for him –I do wonder what really happened to those clowns and baton twirlers he fights off–though he has undoubtedly learned other skills from his family to approach his difficulties with patience and confidence. He's just a kid who is learning, and Claudia Dávila's digital illustrations–appropriately using superhero colours of yellow and red, though subdued, like Logan himself–make him as real as Jack Briglio's characterization and story.

ThunderBoom tackles a lot of important issues, not the least of which is coping with challenges. Giving Logan a voice, both in ThunderBoom the superhero and ThunderBoom the book, Jack Briglio may help other children find their own voices. Moreover, with ThunderBoom  providing us with insight into individuals with Angelman syndrome and the families that love and support them, the story is an act of courage itself, much like that shown by the superhero depicted within.

June 07, 2023

The Halifax Explosion: 6 December 1917, at 9:05 in the Morning

Written by Afua Cooper
Design and illustration by Rebecca Bender 
Plumleaf Press
36 pp.
All ages
For release August 2023
On December 6, 1917, two ships collided in Halifax Harbour. The Mont-Blanc was carrying munitions, and the Imo was carrying war supplies. When the two collided, the devastation was extraordinary. Almost 2000 individuals lost their lives, with approximately 9000 injured, and whole communities disappeared. Buildings collapsed, fires erupted, and a tsunami was created. Certain stories from the explosion are memorialized, like Vince Coleman's telegraph message that saved 300 train passengers from certain death. But there are so many stories, and the ones of African Nova Scotians who lived or died in the explosion need to be recognized. So, Dr. Afua Cooper has done just this in her free verse poem.
From The Halifax Explosion: 6 December 1917, at 9:05 in the Morning by Afua Cooper, design and illustration by Rebecca Bender
Her poem begins with naming the two ships and their purposes for being in Halifax Harbour. The text is differentiated with different coloured fonts, bolding of certain words and enlarged text for emphasis. Dr. Afua Cooper's words don't just tell, they emote. The explosion as a result of the collision in monumental.
The sound of
   The sound of death
The angel blowing the trumpet of destruction (pg. 10-11)
Its destruction is palpable in her words. 
And the City of Halifax gave one long
                           piercing scream
into the bowels of the Earth
           And the Earth moved furiously
                        Belched and vomited
                                         flames (pg. 12)
But then she speaks of the people, and specifically the Black people of Halifax. Some got to work like Clement Ligoure, a Black doctor from Trinidad, though his efforts were not dignified with the support he required. Some were lost and never returned, like Edward Hickey, a dock worker, and little Aldora Andrews. Some survived but with devastating injuries. And many others lived but had everything they'd worked their lives for taken away. Yet, they had greater fights ahead because "Old Jim Crow raised his nasty head". (pg. 19)
From The Halifax Explosion: 6 December 1917, at 9:05 in the Morning by Afua Cooper, design and illustration by Rebecca Bender
The Halifax Explosion was a tragedy. And it was all the more crushing for the racism African Nova Scotians were still subjected to in its aftermath. With The Halifax Explosion: 6 December 1917, at 9:05 in the Morning, Halifax's seventh poet laureate, Dr. Afua Cooper, goes beyond the event and instead goes with the people. She does give the basic facts, including in the "Historical Note" at the end, but her poem does more than just recount the tragedy. With powerful and weighty words, she makes us see and feel for the disaster and how African Nova Scotians were impacted. Her words come from a place beyond the archives. Unlike most picture books in which the illustrations carry much of a story's weight, The Halifax Explosion rests squarely on Dr. Afua Cooper's words. (The poem in its entirety is posted at the conclusion of the book.) Perhaps that's why there is much austerity in the cover and the artwork. The impact of the devastation is well-documented, and key photographs were used to support the details. However, by blending historical photographs with only occasional illustrations by Rebecca Bender, the book goes beyond the reality and extends to the humanity, even if that benevolence was sadly lacking towards African Nova Scotians at the time.
There is power in Dr. Afua Cooper's poem of African Nova Scotians whose stories are little known and perhaps less remembered. However, remembered they should be. There are those whose legacies are solid in Canadian history beyond the Halifax explosion, such as Viola Desmond and Dr. Clement Ligoure, but then there are those whose deaths are perhaps not even recorded, or their injuries and losses disavowed. Dr. Afua Cooper tells us their names and about their families. She acknowledges them. The last words of her poem are "Does Halifax remember?" With her poem, they are less lost and truly commemorated.
From The Halifax Explosion: 6 December 1917, at 9:05 in the Morning by Afua Cooper, design and illustration by Rebecca Bender

June 05, 2023

Meet Buffy Sainte-Marie (Scholastic Canada Biography)

Written by Elizabeth MacLeod
Illustrated by Mike Deas
Scholastic Canada
32 pp.
Ages 6-10
May 2023

I can't think of a more accomplished person to highlight during National Indigenous History Month and every month than Buffy Sainte-Marie. Though many know her as a singer-songwriter and young readers may be familiar with her Silver Birch-nominated book Tâpwê and the Magic Hat (2022), this latest illustrated biography from Elizabeth MacLeod and Mike Deas testifies to Buffy Sainte-Marie's varied and good work.
From Meet Buffy Sainte-Marie by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
Buffy Sainte-Marie was probably born in the 1940s on the Piapot First National reserve in Saskatchewan but was taken and adopted by the Sainte-Maries of the northeastern U.S.A. Her childhood, often spent alone, was filled with music, with Buffy starting to play the piano at age 3, and learning music by ear. At 16, she taught herself to play guitar, and, while at university, she started playing at small clubs and then larger ones. After graduation, she became a full-time musician.
From Meet Buffy Sainte-Marie by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
As her songs were garnering much attention, from her "Universal Soldier" as a protest song, and "Until It's Time for You to Go" as recorded by countless famous artists, she was noticing how Indigenous roles were depicted on the screen. When she was asked to take a lead rode in an episode of "The Virginian," she maintained the need to hire Indigenous actors for Indigenous roles, leading the action for diversity.
From Meet Buffy Sainte-Marie by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
Her other initiatives included starting the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education which supported Indigenous teens going to university. She has spoken globally about Indigenous Peoples to further understanding. And even though her music was snubbed in the late 1960s and 1970s by radio stations and more for her political messages, she persevered, continuing to extend her activism to championing the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Along the way she won an Oscar, made several important appearances on "Sesame Street," and used new technology for creating visual art and music. She lent her support to the Idle No More movement and was awarded everything from the Polaris Music Prize to Junos and the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award.

With her art fuelling her activism, whether it involved Indigenous Peoples, anti-war protests, missing and murdered Indigenous women, or shelter animals, Buffy Sainte-Marie's story in Meet Buffy Sainte-Marie will provide inspiration to young readers. She defies labelling as she is everything from a singer and a songwriter to a humanitarian, a protester, a teacher, a speaker, an advocate, and more. But by letting her heart and passions lead her, she has accomplished so much and done so much good work
Using the power of positivity, Buffy shares her messages with her songs and through art, education and the organizations she supports. Buffy teaches that we can all work together to help make the world a better place. (pg. 29)
Elizabeth MacLeod makes sure that readers will learn about Buffy Sainte-Marie's achievements–a timeline of key events appends the illustrated story–but also about her spirit, and her spirit is great, both broad and deep. Buffy uses it, with her voice in music and art, to educate, to mobilize to action, to inspire, and to give voice. Mike Deas's artwork, which involves gouache and watercolour paints and ink, along with digital tools, supports the story with detailed illustrations from Buffy's personal and professional life, from childhood to the 2020s. He takes her story from being taken from her Cree parents as a baby to performing on stage with a red dress–a symbol of missing and murdered Indigenous women. With that, Mike Deas carries readers through nine decades of Buffy Sainte-Marie living and performing and inspiriting. 

There are many stirring reads of important Indigenous activists and leaders but, as an illustrated biography, Meet Buffy Sainte-Marie gives us a comprehensive and unequivocal depiction of an amazing woman, a woman of talents, of courage, of conviction and of spirit. The story, as the woman, touches, and impresses.
• • • • • • 

Scholastic Canada Biography series by Elizabeth MacLeod and Mike Deas:
Meet Thérèse Casgrain (2021)
Meet David Suzuki (2021)
Meet Buffy Sainte-Marie (2023)

June 03, 2023

Swept Away: Ruth Mornay and the Unwanted Clues

Written by Natalie Hyde
200 pp.
Ages 8-12
April 2023 
Reviewed from advance reading copy

When 63-year-old Beatrice Payens is swept away in the Teeswater River, her 11-year-old friend and next-door neighbour Ruth Mornay is grief-stricken and perplexed. Why would Bea, head of the Teeswater River Embankment Rehabilitation Society and diligent advocate for signage warning Pinkerton residents about the danger of getting too close to the water's edge, be so negligent? Something doesn't add up for Ruth. 
Things get weirder when Hugh Rolls and his young son Saul move in next door, inheriting the house from their Aunt Bea, though Ruth knew Bea had no relatives. Ruth has even more questions. Problem is, all Ruth has are questions. Troubled by weird dreams of drowning and a paltry trio of bequests–a weird water sprinkler head, some old, embroidered gloves and an ugly picture of flowers made from human hair (yech!)– Ruth starts looking for clues and suspects among her fellow residents of Pinkerton (population 134). With Saul as her secret ally, Ruth works at putting the clues together, when she isn't running after her escaped Rhode Island Red hen, Dorcas.
The best mysteries are the ones you don't know are mysteries. Ruth suspects something is amiss, but she doesn't really know that Bea didn't just slip into the water accidentally. But, like a puzzle with only a few pieces, Ruth starts slowly. And she thinks and speculates, and she asks questions, and she watches. With Saul, another keen observer and solver of mysteries, Ruth learns there really is much more to Bea's story and her own. That's why Swept Away is so fulfilling as a read. Not only does Ruth figure out what happened to Bea–even putting herself in danger–she learns more about herself and her family in the process. She could never have guessed that pursuing a hunch she had about Bea's disappearance could lead her to a new friend, some family history, and an important discovery about herself. Better yet, writer Natalie Hyde, who has authored outstanding middle-grade novels like Up the Creek (2021), Mine! (2017), and Saving Arm Pit (2015), blends a strong plot with an assortment of unique characters, and a touch of humour. A mystery is always an alluring story but add to it a child with six older brothers and no access to computers, a delinquent but clever hen, a wandering pig, townspeople like the town snoop Mrs. Gorgonzola and Ruth's tedious non-best friend Emily Parsons, and you get a whodunit with twists and turns but also laughter. Natalie Hyde always slips in some subtle humour to add a layer of fun. 
Four years ago at the Fall Fair, Mrs. Parsons–Emily's mom–had to be restrained by committee members when she learned Mrs. Gorgonzola's red pepper jelly had beaten hers. She claimed Mrs. Gorgonzola stole her recipe, which was her grandmother's, and passed it off as her own. Mrs. Gorgonzola said Mrs. Parsons shouldn't flatter herself, that the only thing the Parson red pepper jelly was good for was to oil her furniture. (pg. 81)
Often Ruth's observations about her small town are what give us the most humour, like the red pepper jelly debacle or the purported theft of Mrs. Gorgonzola's ugly green neon lava lamp. It's what's really happening in Pinkerton; it just happens to be funny too.

See if you can figure out this whodunit but, even if it comes as a surprise, especially what it means for Ruth, you'll enjoy visiting Pinkerton, a not-so-sleepy small town, a hot bed of secrets, and a playground for a miscellany of farm animals.

June 01, 2023

The Remembering Stone

Written and illustrated by Carey Sookocheff
Groundwood Books
40 pp.
Ages 3-6
March 2023

Sometimes a stone is more than a stone. Sometimes it's a memory, sometimes it's a connection, and sometimes it's an opportunity.

Alice has brought a stone for show-and-tell. Of course, her classmates see it as a stone. A rock. A piece of earth. Though she has lots of stories about using it to trick her dad or as a shape for tracing, it's the memory of skipping stones with her grandpa that is most important. Her grandpa knew how to skip stones and pick out the perfect ones. When he'd found this perfect stone, Alice had kept it in her pocket, probably for their next outing but perhaps because she didn't want to give it up to the water.
From The Remembering Stone by Carey Sookocheff
But when her grandpa got sick and passed away, the stone became something more.
From The Remembering Stone by Carey Sookocheff
The response to her show-and-tell stone may not have been what Alice expected but, when she realizes she's lost her stone on the playground, her classmates understand how important it is to her and they all start looking. They find a lot of stones, though not her special stone. Still, her new stones become something more too.
From The Remembering Stone by Carey Sookocheff
Carey Sookocheff's story is as deceptively simple as her illustrations. It may appear only to be about a girl and a stone which connects her to her grandfather. But Carey Sookocheff uses that stone as a bridge beyond that intergenerational relationship and allows Alice to see that it is both something special and something ordinary. The stone's value is what she places on it. It can remind her of her grandpa or help make new connections with her classmates or it can be just a skipping stone. Regardless of what the stone or stones have been or become, they have meaning, even when they're gone. 

The Remembering Stone truly becomes Carey Sookocheff's story because she illustrates it. Using acrylic gouache and graphite, she embeds the story in reality. Her art is clean and smooth and gives a calmness to being with others. It's the reality of going to school, participating in show-and-tell, spending time with a grandparent, and losing a grandparent. It's all about what a child might experience so it will speak to many children. But, while the story connects with young readers, it will also give them an opportunity to see that there are opportunities beyond the obvious. A skipping stone becomes a memory first but then it transforms both in its presence and in its absence. It's a remembering stone even when it's not.