December 22, 2023

The Secret of the Ravens

Written and illustrated by Joanna Cacao
Clarion Books
272 pp.
Ages 8-12
November 2023
Reviewed from ebook
In the Kawumiti Kingdom. twins Elliot and Liza are homeless and scour trash heaps for things to sell. When a boy tells them about capturing marked ravens who bestow upon them missions to earn coins, the twins are all in. Using a shoplifted book of magic, the twins undertake their first task: to collect eggs from the fairy-bluebird. After several additional missions, they head to Capital City looking for shelter but learn quickly how the poor and derelict are mistreated there, all on the orders of King Tavon. They do meet Seb, a royal apprentice, who tries to encourage them to apply for the same program, but Elliot will have none of it.

From The Secret of the Ravens, written and illustrated by Joanna Cacao
When the two go after the active venom of a titan snake, Liza is injured, and no one will help them without payment, so Seb takes them to a mage in the forest who does not charge. Isra, who was rumoured to have fought in the Human-Ryven War a century earlier, agrees to help but she can only create an antidote if they acquire the egg of a crowned eagle, a black lily, and jadeite. And so, as Liza remains with Isra in her cave, Elliot and Seb pursue the elusive ingredients she requires.
From The Secret of the Ravens, written and illustrated by Joanna Cacao
But the ingredients are more elusive than they realize. The egg may be tricky but possible, but Seb learns from his friend and commander, Leya, that the black lily is extinct, and jadeite is so rare that perhaps only Queen Reyna has a necklace with it.
From The Secret of the Ravens, written and illustrated by Joanna Cacao
And so, the  two boys, one a disciplined apprentice with friends in the castle and the other a brother with limited magic skills but a desperation to help his sister, must work together, never knowing whom they can trust, perhaps not even each other.
From The Secret of the Ravens, written and illustrated by Joanna Cacao
The Secret of the Ravens is Winnipeg's Joanna Cacao's debut as both author and illustrator, and, judging by the open ending of this story, it will not be her last. She's got lots more story to tell, whether it's about a family that needs reuniting or a family that needs to be created–there is a very subtle spark between Seb and Elliot–or because of the historical clash between the Humans and Ryvens. And there's always magic to be learned and to be worked.
Family is paramount here, though by creating a new world in which Humans mistreated Ryvens, in which magic and mages are common, and in which unusual species like the titan snake and black lily exist, Joanna Cacao has blended the familiar with the fantastic. The twins and Seb look like any young people, as are their challenges to survive and thrive. But the other elements take the story to a different level. With ease, Joanna Cacao has given us a world in which the supernatural is natural and magic–documented in an appendix to the story–can make things happen. Her art gives us both that reality and the fantastic, depicting characters who look like us but can teleport between locations, castles and forests of extraordinary beauty and detail, and snazzy and brassy magic with spells cast with words like Sumabog and Pakawalan. (Interestingly, casting spells use words that seem to reflect Joanna Cacao's Filipino heritage.)
From The Secret of the Ravens, written and illustrated by Joanna Cacao
I don't know when readers will be returning to the Kingdom of Kawumiti but return we must to discover whether Isra will be successful in seeing her own family again, whether Elliot survives a deadly pact he has made, and whether Liza, Seb and Elliot will be reunited. Oh, and there's also the little matter of justice for the Ryvens and retribution for King Tavon and Queen Reyna. So, there's lots more story to be told and read and imagined.

December 20, 2023

The Golden Apples

Written by Dan Yashinsky
Illustrated by Ekaterina Khlebnikova
Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides
40 pp.
Ages 6-9
September 2023
It all starts with golden apples. And it ends with golden apples. But the story in between is big, far greater than a few golden apples coveted by a king. The real story of The Golden Apples is Jack's story of quests, and it is this story that must be told aloud by a storyteller, such as Dan Yashinsky or the reader, and heard by all children, young and old.
From The Golden Apples, by Dan Yashinsky, illus. by Ekaterina Khlebnikova
Once upon a time–imagine a true storyteller like Dan Yashinsky saying this with an evocative, spirited voice– there was a king, a queen, and their three sons. When golden apples appear on a tree in their garden, and they disappear before the king can enjoy them, he sends his sons out, one at a time, to locate the golden-feathered bird which Jack, the youngest, had witnessed taking them. Both older boys succumb to temptations along the way, but Jack heeds the advice of a benevolent fox and discovers the bird. Unfortunately, Jack too is foolish in that he disregards some directives and lands himself in trouble. Still, he is offered opportunities to get himself out of trouble by undertaking yet another task.
From The Golden Apples, by Dan Yashinsky, illus. by Ekaterina Khlebnikova
Unfortunately, each task requires him to steal something. And each time, he ignores a piece of advice from the fox who tries to help him be successful. From the golden bird to a golden-maned horse, and a princess with beautiful eyes, Jack verges on getting things right until he doesn't. Still, this is Jack, the "hero" of many tales of folklore, so it all works out in the end, even if with a few twists along the way.
Dan Yashinsky, founder of the Toronto Storytelling Festival, knows how to tell a story. Whether it is in person or in written form, Dan Yashinsky keeps listeners and readers captivated, waiting for the next scene, the next conflict, the next laugh. He makes us want to find out what happens next, without padding his stories with filler to draw them out. Readers will quickly realize that Jack is the son often disregarded and the one who, with a little help and some cleverness, is able to surpass the minimal expectations others have of him. This may be familiar to some children who feel undervalued in families or in the classroom, but it offers them hope that they can achieve with perseverance. Still Dan Yashinsky makes Jack real with his ineptitude–come on, Jack, listen to the fox!–and unintentional fumbles but with a good heart. (In the end, he does something very difficult and heart-breaking that comes to a good end.)
From The Golden Apples, by Dan Yashinsky, illus. by Ekaterina Khlebnikova
I think Christmas is a great time for storytelling, as families gather around, perhaps in the aftermath of a big meal or as children are settling down before sleep. And The Golden Apples, told as Dan Yashinsky wrote it, with heart and verve, will bring everyone together. With the added dimension of Russian artist Ekaterina Khlebnikova's illustrations, a blend of different media that add depth and whimsy–like Nirvana and Metallica posters on the princess's walls, or Jack's headphones-wearing brother–The Golden Apples also has colour, humour, and texture. The Golden Apples may not be a Christmas story, but it would be a fine story to tell this holiday season or anytime a great tale is called for.

December 18, 2023

How to Decorate a Christmas Tree

Written by Vikki VanSickle
Illustrated by Miki Sato
Tundra Books
40 pp.
Ages 4-8
October 2023
We always decorate our tree about a week before Christmas so I'm right on target for my family for the reading of this book. But Vikki VanSickle and Miki Sato's picture book How to Decorate a Christmas Tree will resonate with anyone who has ever decorated a tree at Christmas, whether early or late, because of the familiarity of the task and the heart which is embedded in it.
From How to Decorate a Christmas Tree, written by Vikki VanSickle, illustrated by Miki Sato
We may all have our own way of preparing a Christmas tree for the holidays, but certain steps are always needed.  First, the tree must be gotten, whether from a forest, a store, or a storage area. This family waits until it's cold to pick up their tree but, depending on where you live, this might or might not be feasible. Inside, the tree is released from its bindings, placed in the cleared area, and the first sensory experience begins. Ah, that fresh scent!
From How to Decorate a Christmas Tree, written by Vikki VanSickle, illustrated by Miki Sato
With each new step, from unravelling the strings of lights, to retrieving the ornaments and placing them one at a time on the tree, the family must be cautious of the tabby cat that likes to get into things and under things. And as the family places each ornament on the tree, some handmade, some store-bought, there is a memory and an emotion that comes with it. It could be a memory of a time, or a place, or a person, or a feeling, but each ornament touches them as they place them gingerly and strategically upon the tree. And each story is told to a little one in a playpen too young for this year's endeavour but included just the same.
From How to Decorate a Christmas Tree, written by Vikki VanSickle, illustrated by Miki Sato
You could Google "how to decorate a Christmas tree" online and you would probably find hundreds if not thousands of sites to help. But, Vikki VanSickle, who has written everything from picture books to middle grade and young adult, whether humourous, realistic fiction, romance, or speculative fiction, doesn't make this a one-size-fits-all story. She's not telling you how you must decorate. Instead, she lets us glimpse in the window of one family as a little girl tells her baby brother everything that they do and why and what it means. She's sharing and making a Christmas for all to remember.
From How to Decorate a Christmas Tree, written by Vikki VanSickle, illustrated by Miki Sato
Illustrator Miki Sato's watercolour and cut-paper art gives the texture that makes How to Decorate a Christmas Tree something more special. Whether she makes the ornaments that appear tactile though in only two dimensions or gives us a popcorn strand so real that we can smell its popping in the air, Miki Sato brings us into that living room to open boxes, delicately handle fragile memories, and to enjoy the comfort of family.

Whether you decorate your Christmas tree with a cat in attendance or a dog, with popcorn or tinsel, with homemade ornaments or store-bought bling, your tree will be perfect because it's yours, created with love and memories of Christmases past and future, and always family, whether present or not. Merry Christmas!
From How to Decorate a Christmas Tree, written by Vikki VanSickle, illustrated by Miki Sato

December 14, 2023

Dragon's Dilemma

Written by Catherine Little
Illustrated by Sae Kimura
Plumleaf Press
32 pp.
Ages 5-10
December 2023
When Catherine Little told us of the Emperor's Great Race, a story often told to children for the Lunar New Year, in Twelve in a Race (2022), we learned that there were twelve animals whose positions lead to the Chinese Zodiac: a pig, a dog, a rooster, a monkey, a goat, a horse, a snake, a dragon, a rabbit, a tiger, an ox and a rat.  This is the dragon's story.
From Dragon's Dilemma, written by Catherine Little, illustrated by Sae Kimura
Seeing his competition, Dragon comes into the race convinced that he would win.
I am by far the biggest, by far the fastest, 
and I am the only one who can fly! (pg. 13)
As the emperor  begins the race, the dragon takes to the skies and surveys his competition, seeing who is faster and slower, and all the while assured of his victory. So, while the other animals raced along the ground, Dragon decides he has no need to rush and would take in the sights of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World: the Grand Canyon, Parícutin Volcano, Guanabara Bay, the Northern Lights, Victoria Falls, Mount Everest, and the Great Barrier Reef.
From Dragon's Dilemma, written by Catherine Little, illustrated by Sae Kimura
From his final stop on Mount Everest, Dragon spots the animals in the final leg of the race and prepares to swoop in to victory. But, as he passes over the parched mountainsides and dried rice fields, he is spotted by villagers who are sure the dragon has arrived to help them out, because "We Dragons are kind, and we try to help when we can." (pg. 24) And even though he intends to help after the race, children singing a song to praise him compels him to deliver, via many trips, water from the river to their parched lands.
From Dragon's Dilemma, written by Catherine Little, illustrated by Sae Kimura
Resuming the race, he is moved to see Rabbit struggling and blows him across the finish line before taking his own place, coming in fifth. Though disappointed in his showing in the race, Dragon can still recall the impact of his good deed and the appreciation of the villagers.
From Dragon's Dilemma, written by Catherine Little, illustrated by Sae Kimura
Though many Asian-Canadians will know the story of the Emperor's Great Race and the Chinese Zodiac, it was a new one to me. The story of how the animals' behaviours impacted their placement (see Twelve in a Race) is riveting and learning more details of Dragon's race result is all the more compelling. He may have been disappointed by his fifth-place result but for young readers there is far more to the story. Catherine Little not only introduces the Seven Natural Wonders of the World to readers but she teaches the decency of benevolence and compassion. Dragon is initially quite confident, even overly assured of his success. He could have swooped in and won the race handily. However, he was able to put aside his hubris and do good, even at a cost for himself. And that good will would sustain him, as it often does all of us, through a time of disappointment.
Dragon's Dilemma is Catherine Little's second collaboration with illustrator Sae Kimura, a Japanese-born, Toronto-residing multidisciplinary artist who creates stories with acrylic gouache, pencil crayons or watercolour, as well as puppets and silkscreen (Check out her website at for a more complete bio.) While keeping the realism of the animals and known landmarks, Sae Kimura introduces fantastical elements that give her illustrations a dream-like quality. Her dragon is exotic in colours and form, and her landscapes, from pink-tinged clouds and textured lands, are wonderfully evocative of a different and unreal time. 
The Lunar New Year on February 10, 2024 will herald the Year of the Dragon so the Dragon's Dilemma, as well as Twelve in a Race, will be perfect accompaniments for the festivities whether at home, at school, or in the community. And take a lesson from Dragon that, given the choice of selfish achievement or benevolent charity, compassion should always lead.

December 11, 2023

The Imposter

Written and illustrated by Kelly Collier
Clarion Books (An imprint of HarperCollins)
40 pp.
Ages 4-8
November  2023
In her newest picture book, author-illustrator Kelly Collier addresses the efforts we go to in order to belong, whether to a family or a peer group.  And it doesn't matter if you're human, dog, or skunk, belonging brings comfort, protection, and even resilience. It's no wonder that Skunk doesn't like being alone.
From The Imposter, written and illustrated by Kelly Collier
Skunk sees all the love and attention dogs get at the park and he is envious of them and their relationships with their people and other dogs. When he sees a notice for a lost dog, he's flummoxed that a dog, Max, would run away from the very life for which Skunk yearns. Although he is chastised by a squirrel, a raccoon, and a cat for even wanting to be a dog, they agree to help him pretend to be the missing dog.
From The Imposter, written and illustrated by Kelly Collier
First they paint away his stripe, and dress him up with fake ears, a collar and more. Then they teach him how to act like Max. But just as he's on the threshold of presenting himself to Max's family, his conscience takes over and he thinks about Max being lost. Not only does he blow his chance for a family in a very skunky way, but he also decides that he must find Max and return him to his people. Together the quartet of new friends find a happy ending for Max and Skunk and his new friends.
From The Imposter, written and illustrated by Kelly Collier
Why do we always think that being something else or attaining something will make us happier? Why do we believe the grass is always greener on the other side? Skunk truly believes that dogs have better lives, being loved and cared for. It's no surprise he wishes for that same comfort and affection. But Skunk has a conscience that prevents him from usurping Max's role. He has empathy and compassion. He realizes what he is doing is wrong and, instead of taking advantage of Max's disappearance, Skunk tries to make things right by finding the missing pooch. As such, Kelly Collier has given us a skunk with heart.
From The Imposter, written and illustrated by Kelly Collier
Even though Skunk was looking for a better life, not unlike the lead character in Kelly Collier's first book, A Horse Named Steve, Skunk lacks Steve's hubris. Skunk can see beyond himself and thus recognize the need to give rather than just take. He could've stepped into Max's comfortable doggie boots–though we know it would never have worked–but instead gave up his chance in a big and smelly way when he realizes he wasn't being honest or true to himself. And though it looks like he's given up on his dream, Kelly Collier makes us feel for Skunk through her illustrations. She makes us see him sagging in posture and spirit until he finds a purpose and friends with whom he can work for that purpose. She's gives us the greens of hope and the softness of line and colour in her artwork as she takes Skunk on his journey from desperation to contentment.

Self-acceptance is a tough concept for young people when they see others living what may appear to be better lives. Skunk just needed to be accepted by others to see his own self-worth, though his new friends already knew that he was a creature who mattered. He is no imposter and never was. He was always the real thing.

December 08, 2023

Once, a Bird

Written by Rina Singh
Illustrated by Nathalie Dion
Orca Book Publishers
32 pp.
Ages 3-6
September 2023 
I know many people are trying to forget a time of lockdowns and restricted movements during the early years of the pandemic. But Rina Singh and Nathalie Dion's story reminds us of the gifts of nature and community that were revealed during those tenuous times. And though their story takes us out of those times, it never lets us forget what discoveries were made when tensions were high, isolation was the norm, and health was insecure.
From Once, a Bird, written by Rina Singh, illustrated by Nathalie Dion
Without words, Rina Singh tells a story of the arrival of a robin to a land of complexity and quiet. There may be snow on the ground but as the bird travels over parks, highways, and agricultural fields, there is no one to be seen. It is people-less and still. It could be a dystopian landscape, but Nathalie Dion gives us hope and light in the greenness of the fields, the blues of the skies and the unscathed infrastructure.
From Once, a Bird, written by Rina Singh, illustrated by Nathalie Dion
The bird finds its way to a budding tree outside a walk-up apartment building where an elderly woman spots it. She alone is looking out her windows as her neighbours keep their blinds and curtains closed. But then others take in the sight of the robin, each in their own way. Whether it be a grandson and grandfather watching it with binoculars, or a young person taking photos with her phone, or two children chatting between windows. Even a new puppy dog is held up to witness the bird.
As life goes on for the bird, building its nest, laying its eggs, and feeding its young, the neighbourhood begins to open up: a door, a window, a walk with the dog. And, with time, the neighbourhood returns to normal as the bird and its young fly off, having taken the people through the tough times.
From Once, a Bird, written by Rina Singh, illustrated by Nathalie Dion
Although the audience for Once, a Bird is listed as 3-5 years of age, the depth of the storytelling is far greater, and could be for all ages. Rina Singh has given a nuanced story of isolation and connection with nature that may have been born of a pandemic, and all who have been living with solitude and/or withdrawal, whether because of distance, mental health, or even personality, will also understand. She offers hope that separation does not mean desolation, and that opening oneself to the natural world can help sustain us.

I've reviewed a number of picture books illustrated by Montreal's Nathalie Dion (e.g., The Big Bad Wolf in My House, I Found Hope in a Cherry Tree, The Dog's Gardener) and her watercolour and gouache art lends itself well to contemplative stories such as Once, a Bird. There is an intangible, almost divine, sense of beauty that comes from both introspection and deep relationships depicted in her illustrations. Her art is sensitive to the ephemeral nature of challenges, keeping her colours subdued but calm, and introducing brighter colours, initially only on the robin, as the people emerge, and the neighbourhood returns to life.
For hope through difficult times, take note of how once a bird brought a community together, and how Rina Singh and Nathalie Dion were able to do the same to tell its and our story.
• • • • • • • 

A French-language edition is also available as Il était une fois un oiseau.


December 01, 2023

When the Owl Calls Your Name

Written and illustrated by Alan Syliboy
Nimbus Publishing
32 pp.
All ages
November 2023
While many children will be familiar with the depiction of owls as wise, old creatures, there are many cultures that associate the beautiful, majestic owl with death. In many Indigenous cultures, the owl may be seen as a harbinger of an impending death, a messenger of the Creator calling someone home. This is the premise of Mi'kmaw artist Alan Syliboy's story of When the Owl Calls Your Name which is based on "The Owl Song" performed by Alan Syliboy and the Thundermakers. (A video of this spoken word performance with music and dance is appended to this review.)
From When the Owl Calls Your Name, written and illustrated by Alan Syliboy
When the Owl Calls Your Name is not a typical picture book for children. It does not have a plotted story, moving from initiating conflict to resolution. It is a lyrical exploration of what it means when the owl calls your name. In text that is so beautiful that it is almost sorrowful, Alan Syliboy tells us that when the owl is heard to call our name, he will lead our spirit to the place of the ancient ones. But the owl is very quiet, flying on silent wings, so you never know when it is coming for you. With that recognition, Alan Syliboy reminds us we can't always be prepared for death so we must live our lives as if it could happen at any moment.
From When the Owl Calls Your Name, written and illustrated by Alan Syliboy
There is a unique essence to When the Owl Calls Your Name that speaks to both the Mi'kmaw culture, in content and art, and the spiritual beliefs of life beyond the corporeal. The messaging is straight-forward, both informative of beliefs and inspirational with regards to life paths, even beyond death. But the artwork will draw readers in, especially with the uniqueness of Alan Syliboy's shapes and line that are very reminiscent of ancient petroglyphs, though far more elaborate. The stylized people have upside-down trapezoid heads without facial features and ferns projecting from their heads, while the spirits are softer, in line and shape, with swirls of a different life within. And the owl is gorgeous, ornate in its face, feathers, and body. Alan Syliboy is very strategic with his use of colour, using greys and white, with only hints of purple, for much of the story when the owl visits and the spirit is leaving the body. But when living in the now or joining ancient ones who would embrace the new arrival, there is warmth and colour within.
From When the Owl Calls Your Name, written and illustrated by Alan Syliboy
When the Owl Calls Your Name is both a book that shares cultural beliefs and an inspirational poem that tells readers what the appearance of the owl means. The owl both portends death but reassures that death heralds the beginning of a new journey, according to the signpost that brought us to this life. It reminds that there is a place for us after death with the ancient ones but also that we never know when the Creator will be calling us home.
 So you must live your life in such a way
That you will be ready for the owl
when he calls your name.
• • • • • • • 

The video of the spoken word performance of "The Owl Song" by Alan Syliboy and the Thundermakers, along with members of Symphony Nova Scotia and an interpretive dancer, can be viewed at
The Owl Song – Alan Syliboy and the Thundermakers with Symphony Nova Scotia (The Fusion Sessions)
 Posted on April 29, 2021 by Symphony Nova Scotia on YouTube.