Showing posts with label fear. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fear. Show all posts

November 06, 2019

Larkin on the Shore

Written by Jean Mills
Red Deer Press
310 pp.
Ages 13+
October 2019
"...her words have stayed with me, just like Jonah's. Words do that. Words spoken and words in books. Words you write. They start to breathe and live and just take over. And right now, I've been taken over by the words of other people–people talking–and I can't find myself or my own words." (pg. 221)
After she is traumatized by something that happened with a boy, Jonah, and ejected from a moving car, sixteen-year-old Larkin Day is sent from her home in Toronto to stay with her grandmother Granne in Tuttle Harbour, Nova Scotia for the summer.  Larkin had managed to finish her Grade 10 exams but the gossip and social media about what happened have left her feeling isolated and unsafe and contemplating the relief of suicide. Her dad decides his mother, a retired principal, would be the best bet for his daughter while he heads to Vancouver to deal with Larkin's mom, a woman addicted to painkillers and bouncing between the unsafe streets and rehab. 

But for Larkin, Granne and Tuttle Harbour are unfamiliar and she must learn to assess every person she meets for sincerity and safety. That includes neighbour Will Greenfield who is helping his dad Billy renovate an old house for Granne into the Tuttle Harbour Café and Reading Room. As Larkin helps Granne with the book donations for the reading room, she deals with her anxiety which tempers her interactions with others, even with nice-guy Will. But when Will takes her to a local campfire with his peers, Larkin meets the gregarious Casey Henwood, his girlfriend Beth and others, and overdoes the drink when " tastes so good and goes down easily." (pg. 70). Could she be putting herself in harm's way?

When a fire destroys the back of the café, Casey and Beth and others are quick to point fingers at Will's dad, a recovering alcoholic, who'd apparently once burned down a shed he was building at the Henwood's farm. Hearing the gossip about Billy as well as about Will from Beth, and reflecting on the talk that went on about her after she was injured, Larkin is perplexed about whom to believe or to trust. What's worse is the news coming from her dad about her mother's health situation.  Walking out into the water until the darkness envelopes her or trying to swim out to Prince Edward Island, knowing she'd never make it, continue to overshadow her regular visits to the shore until she starts to live beyond others' words.

Jean Mills, who wrote the Red Maple-nominated Skating Over Thin Ice (Red Deer Press, 2018), knows how to tell a story about dealing with expectations from family, school and self. She gets what it's like to trust and not trust your own feelings and to be confused about how those you care about conduct themselves around you. From an addicted mother to an unfamiliar grandmother and peers that are both charming and deceptive, Larkin must look at every interaction as a potential disaster and possibly harmful. Sadly this is probably not unusual for teens who are trying to understand a world in which they are expected and allowed to take on greater responsibilities but may be unsure whether they have the strength or understanding to meet them. For Larkin, it may not always be evident which is the safe world or the dangerous one, not unlike a shore that borders land and water, but she is developing the courage to choose her heading and a solid intuition about good people that will guide her.

October 24, 2018

Monsters: The Reckoner, Book Two

Written by David A. Robertson
HighWater Press
246 pp.
Ages 14+
October 2018

Trust comes from truth. (pg. 199)

In Strangers, the first book in David A. Robertson's The Reckoner series, Cole Harper returned to the Cree community of Wounded Sky, a reserve constantly in recovery from tragedy. At that time, he'd been lured back by Coyote a.k.a. Choch with whom Cole had made a deal when the supernatural being helped save Cole's two friends, Eva and Brady, from a school fire ten years earlier that killed so many others. Though treated as a pariah, Cole helped stop a murder spree and provided a cure, with his unique blood, for a flu affecting the community. Now, in Monsters, that trickster Choch expects Cole to stick around and try to expose the truths about the mysterious experimentation that had taken place at the research facility and help heal a community.

Cole's first step is to recover the files he'd discovered in Strangers that revealed how he and others had been test subjects at the former Mihko Laboratories research facility. However, with Mihko returning to the community and quarantining all those who had been cured but now were looking worse, and Victor, a local resident, and Jayney, a spirit girl, talking about a monster or bogeyman or perhaps even Upayokwitigo, Cole's task becomes more complicated. Who is this creature? Why are the "flu" patients looking sick again? Why are guards posted at the clinic and the research facility? With the residents of Wounded Sky vacillating between acclaiming Cole as a hero and a criminal, Cole is finding it hard to learn anything. And did I mention how flummoxed he is about his feelings, particularly for best friend Eva, who has a boyfriend, and for another girl, Pam? Cole's probably feeling like it sucks to be him. No wonder his anxiety is out of control and he's struggling between choosing to take meds and trying to cope without. But can he quash that debilitating anxiety sufficiently to save himself and Wounded Sky from monsters of so many manifestations?
"...if there's somethin' that evil, there's gotta be somethin' that good." (pg. 236)
There is a lot of evil hanging around Wounded Sky and, at this time of year, many will think those monsters will all be vicious creatures that inspire fear. But, though there are a lot of monsters in Monsters, not all are physical beings. Some are inner demons, like Cole's overwhelming anxiety founded in his past but pervading his present and undoubtedly ready to affect his future. But they are also the community's fears that it will be unable to recover from its tragedies and that it's in danger of losing its identity. Those are monsters like no other. Fortunately, there is still much goodness and strength in Cole and the community, and readers will be hopeful that there are some happy endings for both.

David A. Robertson continues the thriller he began in Strangers by setting up new mysteries built on those established in Book One. However, although Monsters may answer a few questions, David A. Robertson leaves the reader still wondering about that research facility and what they did to Wounded Sky's inhabitants, past and present, and hoping that Cole will not lose himself in his struggle to find the answers.

Still, without spoiling the ending, readers need to be prepared for David A. Robertson's plot twist. A monster may be revealed, seemingly tying up a plot line, but Monsters closes out with a shock and a gasp that will have readers waiting for Book Three in the series, Ghosts, to learn how Cole, the Reckoner, is able to make peace for himself and Wounded Sky.  Spring 2019 can't come soon enough.

Just a quick note that



Tuesday, October 30, 2018

7 p.m.


McNally Robinson
Grant Park in the Atrium
Winnipeg, MB


will be hosted by
Katherena Vermette

A portion of book sales from that night will be donated to
Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba

February 20, 2018


Written by Charlotte Gingras
Illustrated by Daniel Sylvestre
Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou
Groundwood Books
264 pp.
Ages 14+
March 2018

Ophelia is what she calls herself, though her peers at high school have affixed the label of "rag girl" on her.  But Ophelia, like Shakespeare's tragic character, is much more than she appears.  She is a complex teen, overridden with fears and anger and anxiety and isolation that goes far beyond the teen angst label many use to underplay overwhelming personal issues.  

Ophelia's story, past and present, is told in letters to an author, Jeanne D'Amour, who visited Ophelia's school and gifted the teen with an ink-blue notebook. The unsent letters reveal Ophelia's crushing worries of abandoned children; of being seen as ugly; of her struggles at school; of being alone or of finding love; of a mother who had been undeclared unfit once, forcing Ophelia into foster care, and could be again; of never knowing her father; and of her sexuality, especially as she harbours trauma from an incident of childhood sexual abuse.  
I don't love anyone for real, Jeanne.  If I dive down, down to my very depths, all I find is dark and hard.  Nothing alive. (pg. 122)
But when Ophelia, a girl who goes out at night and tags walls with oil-pastel broken hearts, discovers an abandoned building with walls on which she might express herself artistically, everything changes.  She soon learns that her workshop had previously been discovered by another marginalized teen, a new student and fat young man who decides to call himself Ulysses.  The two work out a schedule so that they do not have to interact, and Ophelia can continue to work on her art–first an "upside-down girl" as a depiction of her namesake, then an empowered "right-side-up girl" and more–while Ulysses endeavours to dismantle an old van he has named Caboose, hopeful of setting it to rights so he could take it on a long journey. 

Ophelia is still overpowered by her anger and worries but the innocuous Ulysses subtly begins to share his own fears and pains and finds a way to connect with Ophelia.
He'd defused my suicide-bomber belt with his chocolate bars and calming voice. (pg. 86)
Similarly Ophelia's artwork begins to have a positive impact on the two teens, enabling them to become the warriors she creates on the walls.  But can those shifts in Ophelia and Ulysses be sustained and carry them through a violent invasion into their safe space as well as their emerging sexualities?

Ophelia is a powerful book of a teen's struggles, a deep and insightful introspection of her shattering anger and apprehension.  Though Ophelia writes with the chaotic musings of a young person in trauma, alternating recollections of the past, with current struggles and anticipation of the future, there is a lifeline of progression from out-of-control angst to increasing self-reflection and empathy to self-acceptance and empowerment that is so real that it is visceral.
From Ophelia 
by Charlotte Gingras 
illus. by Daniel Sylvestre
I am so pleased that Groundwood Books has brought Ophélie (Courte Echelle, 2008), the original French-language novel from Governor General-award winning author Charlotte Gingras, to English readers through this translation by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou.  Emboldened with the artwork of Montréaler Daniel Sylvestre, readers will catch glimpses of the fury and anxiety of Ophelia in her sketches and tags as they bear witness to her progress.  But it is the voice of Ophelia, heartfelt and agonized, as she verges on implosion and explosion, as well as that of Ulysses struggling with his own issues, that need to be heard and heeded by young readers and those who care for them.  There may not be a happy ending but there is hope for better.

October 06, 2017

The Disappearance

Written by Gillian Chan
Annick Press
197 pp.
Ages 12+
September 2017

The who of the disappearance is Jacob but the why and where and how are answers that the police are  trying to extract from his group home roommate Mike McCallum, a teen who obviously has something to hide and is pleased to do so.  

It's pretty hard for Mike to stay under everyone's radar.  He's a big guy and his face is massively disfigured after his mother's boyfriend Danny brought a cleaver down on it.  Still Mike's internal scarring, from the death of his little brother Jon by Danny's drunken hand, is far worse.  Taken from his mother, a woman who regrets Danny being in prison, Mike has been in foster care for three years before he ends up at Medlar House.  There amongst the foster kids he meets the enigmatic Jacob, a boy who'd been found beaten up and unconscious in Dundas Valley Conservation Area and rarely speaks and shuts down in body and spirit when overwhelmed.  But when Jacob finally speaks to Mike it is to tell him that Jon has been there and has told Jacob about his death and more.

As Mike learns the routines of Medlar House and the personalities of the other kids, especially keeping an eye on the vicious Paddy and his lackey Matt, the fearful Adam and the victimized Jacob, he finds his role changing from thug to protector.  In his own way, Mike is trying to right his own wrong i.e., not saving Jon. But before he can really help, Jacob is exposed to far greater danger and horrific bullying that compels Mike to try to find a happy ending for this boy.  What he learns, with the help of Adam, is as mysterious as Jacob himself.

Without spoiling Gillian Chan's extraordinary plot twist, I can say that The Disappearance includes a supernatural element that has never been handled as eloquently as it has here. It is unexpected and unique and wholly convincing. (I want to share.  Really I do.  But I can't.) Still, even beyond her fantastic plot, Gillian Chan creates rich characters–Mike, Jacob, Adam, Chaz, Paddy, and others–that carry this story of hurts.  What has happened to Mike and Jacob is tragic.  Their lives have been destroyed by vicious and uncaring people whose choices superseded benevolence.  Even the charity granted the boys is tempered by the personalities of those involved: some do-gooders, some lazy, others greedy and some, like Chaz, compassionate and effective.  All they can do is endure and hopefully survive.  Without giving the reader a fairy tale ending of rainbows and sunshine, Gillian Chan resolves the story with realism and justness and the anticipation that sometimes you can save another.


The launch for The Disappearance is tomorrow in Hamilton.  Do go if you're in the area.  Details are provided here.

October 06, 2016

When the Rain Comes

by Alma Fullerton
Illustrated by Kim La Fave
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
October 2016

When the Rain Comes may be the story of the monsoons hitting Sri Lanka and the flash floods that can occur but it’s also that of a little girl who finds the courage to do the right thing at the right time, demonstrating that it doesn’t matter how small or insignificant you may feel, you can make a difference.  Malini certainly does.

Alma Fullerton’s text takes the reader to Malini’s Sri Lankan village of choruses of spurfowls, bright warm colours and a ox-driven cart carrying a load of rice seedlings ready for the important seasonal planting. For Malini, it’s a milestone day because, as little as she is, she would finally learn how to plant those seedlings. Her worries that she might do it wrong are supplanted when the bullock driver asks her to keep on eye on the massive creature while he pops into a café for a break.

Then the  uproar of wind and rain takes over.
The skies go dark
and even the birds
take cover. 
Their songs silenced
by wind whipping
through the palms,
bringing a sheet of rain
toward the village

                       (pg. 13)
From When the Rain Comes 
by Alma Fullerton, illus. by Kim La Fave
With an orchestration of flip-flap, whooshes, booms and cracks, the thunder claps and rains descend, creating a river of water down the road separating the bullock driver, as well as her parents, from Malini and the cart.  Yelling above the uproar of water and wind, they instruct the terrified little girl who is being knocked down by the wind to get to the barn on higher ground and save the rice seedlings.  It’s a monumental task of coordination and connection between Malini and the ox but one that ends in safety and a bond, even if only as long as the rain comes.
She leans close to him,
They wait
breathing together 

                       (pg. 26)
When the Rain Comes may tell the circumstances of a single flash flood, but Alma Fullerton’s text, as well as her endnote about Sri Lanka, enlighten young readers about a life unknown to many: one of monsoons, poverty, agriculture, and children’s contributions to family needs.  But it’s Alma Fullerton’s rhythmic lines and sound scape of life and weather that carries the story, along with Kim La Fave’s stirring illustrations. From the brightly-coloured warmth of Malini’s home life to the turmultous gloominess of the storm of flashing water, wind and sound, Kim La Fave contrasts the two realities, echoing Alma Fullerton’s cheerful and fearful situations. Moreover, Kim La Fave’s distinction between the gargantuan ox and the tiny child reinforces a message that anyone, no matter how small or young, can move mountains, or oxen, if need be.
From When the Rain Comes 
by Alma Fullerton, illus. by Kim La Fave
When the Rain Comes is a resoundingly effective addition to our diverse youngCanLit collections and for enabling cultural competence for all readers, adult and young.

October 05, 2016

Friend or Foe?

by John Sobol
Illustrated by Dasha Tolstikova
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
October 2016

The beginning of Ottawa author John Sobol’s debut picture book Friend or Foe? is only missing the “Once upon a time…” because the sentiment is definitely that of a traditional tale, here based on a lonely, dark mouse who lives in a small house beside a great palace in which a white cat lives.

The two creatures have their evening routine, with the mouse creeping out onto the roof of the house, and the cat peering down from the palace’s tower window, each staring at the other. When the mouse notices a tiny hole in the palace’s exterior wall, he decides to slip into the palace, hopeful that he might find a friend in that cat with whom he feels a connection.  As he makes his way through the palace, he continues to wonder whether the cat really is a friend or perhaps a foe.
As the mouse climbed the stairs to the palace tower, he began to grow afraid.
What if he was wrong? If he was, the cat would tear him to pieces.  Still he kept climbing.
Was the cat friend or foe?
He had to know.
(pg. 11)
But as he approaches the feline from behind, asking her aloud whether she is a friend or foe, the feline is startled and tumbles off the palace tower.  John Sobol ends Friend or Foe? with a twist, both in the animals’ reversal of fortunes and in the answer to the titular question that is probably reflective of many relationships though nebulous in its honesty.

From Friend or Foe? 
by John Sobol, illus. by Dasha Tolstikova

John Sobol's story is aptly illustrated by American Dasha Tolstikova’s austere artwork which emphasizes the disparity in the characters’ sizes and situations, powerfully using hues and tints of greys with only dashes of brightness in a red brick wall or orange light bulb.  Though there is little colour in Friend or Foe?, supporting the idea that there really is a subtle differentiation between the two situations of the title, Dasha Tolstikova uses colour cleverly both to reflect that contrast and suggest their similarity. Friend or Foe? is a very artful examination of connection in which only differences and likenesses are normally perceived.
From Friend or Foe? 
by John Sobol, illus. by Dasha Tolstikova


A very special launch event is in the works for John Sobol’s Friend or Foe? 

Be part of Small Print Toronto’s Cat & Mouse City 
with author John Sobol 

for young readers 
(ages 2-8, who must be accompanied by an adult) 

on Saturday, October 22, 2016 

from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. 


Lillian H. Smith Library 
(Toronto Public Library) 
239 College Street 
Toronto, ON 

The event is free but participants must sign up early as space is limited so register at

Small Print Toronto’s invitation describes the event as follows: 
Our popular model city-building workshop, Mouse City, is about to face its its biggest urban planning challenge yet: the arrival of cats! Urban planners aged 2-8 can decide how Mouse City will accommodate its new, feline citizens. 
Ottawa author John Sobol will unveil his new book, Friend Or Foe?, and help young planners find the best place for their cardboard buildings on a large city grid.

June 03, 2016


by Caroline Pignat
Razorbill Canada
320 pp.
Ages 12+
May 2016
Reviewed from advance reader’s copy

A whole lot can happen in one hour.  Ask those who tell Shooter’s story: Alice, Isabelle, Hogan, Noah, and Xander.  From the initial school lockdown at St. Francis Xavier High School which brings the five students barricaded together in a boys’ washroom to its dramatic, life-altering climax as the clock reads down to 00:00:00, Shooter is an unforgettable, heart-stopping story of heroes, written, read and made.
"This is real life. Not everything has a story."
Alice smiles. "But every person does."

I guess she’s right.  We all have one–even if it’s one we’d rather forget. (pg. 86)
There’s Hogan King, a hulking senior notorious for what he did to his older brother and who feels he is deservingly beyond redemption.  There’s Alice, another senior, who is an incredible writer–accepted to UBC’s prestigious Creative Writing Program–who prefers her position of invisibility which allows her to read life and care for her older autistic brother Noah. Uber-popular, egocentric and high-achieving Student Council President and go-to person for everything St. F-X, Isabelle Parks has her own issues, revealed in text messages with BFF Bri who is locked down in the office. And finally, there is the socially awkward Xander Watt, shooter of film images, who writes about himself as,
I think too much sometimes,
blurt the wrong things often, and
feel confused, always.”
(pg. 48)
How these seeemingly incongruent characters come together, and together they do come, in a complex plot of action, angst, and deliverance makes Shooter the extraordinary story that it is.  And story-telling, or rather writing, is a key foundation for Shooter.  With several of the students classmates in Writer’s Craft, it’s not surprising that elements of writing–plot, hero’s journey, characters’ fatal flaws, resolution–become part of the story. (Caroline Pignat is herself a high-school teacher of Writer’s Craft.  Lucky students.)

I can’t possibly reveal the itricacies of the story and the role of each character in its resolution.  But suffice it to say, Caroline Pignat’s brilliant writing immerses the reader in the terror of a school in genuine lockdown and the anxiety of relating to those whose differences make you uncomfortable.  Beyond the drama, and there is much, Shooter is a story of empowerment, taken and accepted and relinquished, and a formidable tale told by one of Canada’s greatest writers.

April 17, 2016

#CanLitChoices: Alternatives for Hatchet

by Gary Paulsen
Bradbury Press
195 pp.
Ages 11+
RL 6.3

Hatchet, recipient of the 1988 Newbery Honor Book and winner of the William Allen White Children's Book Award for 1990, as well as the basis for A Cry in the Wild film, is a favourite novel read by young people across Canada and the U.S. It is the story of thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson who must learn to survive in the northern Alberta wilderness after the pilot of his small plane has a heart attack and dies, crashing the plane.

Themes upon which teachers focus lessons include the following:
• survival (man vs. nature)
• perseverance
• attitude
• fear

But we have a plethora of youngCanLit that can fill the same novel study bill and, of course, I would like to promote them here.  Each one of these deals with the same themes but in different ways and are all the better for the variety of storylines covered.  This listing includes classics and hi-lo reads, as well as middle-grade and YA titles.  There’s something for every reader who wants an adventure story set in the wilderness, many in the wilds of Canada.

Camp Wild
by Pam Withers
Orca Book Publishers
104 pp.
Ages 10-14
RL 3.8
Fourteen-year-old Wilf runs away from summer camp to stay alone in the woods but ends up with a couple of unwanted followers and a fight for survival.
Teachers guide available at

Chocolate River Rescue
by Jennifer Kent McGrath
122 pp.
Ages 8-12
RL 3.9
Three boys rough housing on the ice of the Petitcodiac River in New Brunswick face danger when the ice breaks away, sending them out towards the Atlantic.

Cut Off
by Jamie Bastedo
Red Deer Press
340 pp.
Ages 12+
RL 4.0
Teen Indio McCracken is sent to a wilderness-based rehab camp, which includes a 50-day canoe trip, to help him with his tech addiction.

The Darwin Expedition
by Diane Tullson
Orca Book Publishers
128 pp.
Ages 12+
RL 2.5
After going off run when snowboarding, two boys must deal with an accident, a bear tracking them, impending weather dangers and hunger to survive.

Frozen Fire: A tale of courage
by James Houston
139 pp.
Ages 12+
RL 5.9
Determined to find his father who has been lost in a storm, Mathew and his Inuit friend Kayak brave wind storms, starvation, wild animals, and wild men during their search in the Canadian Arctic.

The Hill
by Karen Bass
Pajama Press
256 pp.
Ages 12+
RL 4.1
March 2016
After a plane crash, a privileged teen is helped by a Cree young man when his decisions have the two pursued by Wîhtiko, the legendary Cree monster.

Island: Shipwreck, Survival, Escape
by Gordon Korman
Scholastic Canada
144 pp., 144 pp., 160 pp.
Ages 8-13
RL 4.6, 4.9, 4.8
Six kids must survive after they are shipwrecked on a deserted island with no food and very few supplies.

Lost in the Barrens
by Farley Mowat
McLelland & Stewart
244 pp.
Ages 12-16
RL 7.1
Jamie MacNair and his Cree friend Awasin are separated from others during a canoe trip to the remote barrens and must find the means to survive the winter in the harsh environment.

by Caroline Pignat
Red Deer Press
206 pp.
Ages 11-14
RL 4.5
In this historical fiction, a young man awakens in the snow, knowing neither his name nor his story but find his way back to himself and survive, with the help of a young Anishnaabeg man.

October 17, 2015

An Inheritance of Ashes

by Leah Bobet
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers
388 pp.
Ages 12+
October 2015
Reviewed from advance reading copy

An Inheritance of Ashes is a dark tale.  A dark, dark tale. And, though it has supernatural elements, An Inheritance of Ashes is a familiar tale of fears and love and heroes and isolation and pride, and family.  And it has a force within.  A force that good may come from evil.
The emptiness grew, and split, and ate the whole world in its wake.  It was never going to be all right again. (pg. 126)
Hallie, 16, and her sister, Marthe, 26, both inherited Roadstead Farm from their abusive father, and now run it–raising barley, goats, poultry, etc.–with Marthe’s husband, Thom Clarlund, or they did until Thom went to war against the Wicked God and his general and prophet Asphodel Jones and army of irregulars, and their creatures, nay monsters, everyone calls Twisted Things.  Though the two young women are cautiously hopeful of Thom’s return, now that a man named John Balsam who “by magic, skill or cunning killed the Wicked God” (pg. 23), Hallie and Marthe take on a vet named Heron for whom “No one’s waiting for me to turn life normal again” (pg. 13) to help with the harvest and running the farm.  

But things are far from normal at the farm. Twisted Things begin to appear, one here, another there, killing the air, burning whatever they touch, contaminating the remnants of their lives.  And Hallie worries that the Great Army, desperately searching for John Balsam, will quarantine the farm, if not take it away from them.  Though Hallie is reluctant to ask for help, Heron and their neighbours, the Blakeley’s, come to their assistance.  Moreover, even though Hallie recognizes that, because of the abuse of their father, “We were ruined for loving people.  We were ruined for being loved” (pg. 244), Tyler Blakely who has his own war ghosts begins to court her and, with his sister Nat and Heron, help her recognize that she doesn’t have to take on the evil alone, or hide or run from that which seems too much. “We made each other less alone.” (pg. 272)

There are things not of our world in An Inheritance of Ashes, and there are things that were never of their world either, including a Wicked God that is more storm than substance and bird- and lizard-like creatures that burn and kill that which they touch, and a violent purple and green world that is evident only through a hole in the air.  But fighting evil and finding strength with others and holding onto that which is everything–a home, family, friends–are our world, and Leah Bobet easily supplants readers from their comforts into the darkness of Hallie’s world.  Rife with atmosphere and Hallie’s longing for rightness, An Inheritance of Ashes demonstrates that what we get from family is not always what is expected.  If might be an inheritance of a family farm, or of fear, or isolation, but it can be the fortitude to continue on, when all expect failure to reverberate.  And, with powerfully evocative text, Leah Bobet allows Hallie and others in An Inheritance of Ashes to sift through the cinders and residue after a horror and find something worth keeping.

May 05, 2015

Forever Julia

by Jodi Carmichael
Great Plains Teen Fiction
262 pp.
Ages 14+
April, 2015

Julia Collins must feel like she's living her life from out-of-body. And with the life she has, I might want out too. Her much-adored dad has passed from cancer just 6 months ago, and her Mom is so grief-stricken that she can't even bear to speak of him.  They now live in a small two-bedroom flat above their bookstore and money is an issue, though Julia had never minds thrift-store shopping with her long-time best friend and creative fashionista, Annika, who understands about Julia's issues with depression and anxiety and watches out for her constantly.

But now Julia is going out with the obscenely wealthy Jeremy Thurston, a.k.a. the Third, jock and popularity icon, and he is pressuring her to have sex, though she has made it clear that she is not ready.  The gutsy Annika can’t stand Jeremy and makes it clear every time he pulls some stunt, like kicking Julia out of the ski chalet where they were supposed spend the night when she refuses his advances yet again.  Sadly, in her mind, Julia is convinced that she can have it all: the wonderful dating relationship with Jeremy who calls her “beautiful”; new friendships with the popular girls; a scholarship to USC for architecture; and the best friendship she has ever had.  Imagine thinking,
Maybe if I convince Annika to tone down her wardrobe, Jeremy would see how incredible she really is and then maybe everyone would get along. (pg. 105)
Sadly naïve, but probably not atypical for a teen who is trying to work everything out.

Then Grandma, who generally splits her time between Arizona and the cottage, arrives to stay–in Julia’s room–while being treated for breast cancer.  Now both Grandma and Mom are watching her and what’s going on around her, and they’re not always pleased by what they see.

It’s not surprising that Julia questions everything that she feels but what’s worse is that she never trusts her feelings to be legit or honest.  Whether that’s because of her anxiety or depression is irrelevant.  All that matters is that the life that was once warmed with Dad and Mom happily living in a modest home and with a reliable and loving BFF is now a life she doesn’t even recognize as her own.  Who is the girl who lets herself drink when she knows it’s verboten with the meds she’s on?  Who is the girl who kisses her boyfriend in public like there's no one else around?  Who is the girl who apologizes to a guy who thinks nothing of stranding her at a ski resort when she doesn’t want to have sex?  Jeremy may get a tattoo, even a temporary one, that reads “Forever Julia” but Julia can’t be forever when she doesn’t  know who she is, who she wants to be, or who she can be.

Jodi Carmichael gets inside of this Julia and gives her a true voice, albeit one mixed and confused with guilt, grief, envy, desire, and affection.  Julia definitely morphs over the course of Forever Julia though I suspect she hasn’t come into herself completely, yet. Forever is a long time to be someone, to love someone, to trust someone, to be friends. It may be possible but maybe not.  Not everything can be forever: not life, not love, not lust, not even family nor  friends.  And Jodi Carmichael makes sure that Julia accepts this, even if only temporarily, in Forever Julia.

March 03, 2014

Running Scared

by Beverley Terrell-Deutsch
Red Deer Press
176 pp.
Ages 9-12
October, 2013

How far would you go out of your way to avoid walking past  a point that held traumatic memories?  Twice as far?  Three times as far? Grade six student Gregory is willing to take a route between school and home that is four times longer than the direct route past the Jiffy Mart to avoid where his father was killed in a car accident last winter.  He might have to deal with the big yellow dog that barks at him when he runs (to save some time) but it's his choice to take this route, a secret he only shares with his best friend, Matt.  But everything is set to change.  It has been announced that their school will be closing January 1st and the bus that Gregory and others will be taking to their new school will be picking them up in front of the Jiffy Mart. 
So what are Gregory's options?  He has tried, with and without Matt's help, to overcome this fear and continues to try, now with the help of new student Teisha too.  But, he's convinced that they must stop the school from closing, joining the Save Our School campaign.  The only saving grace in his school life (especially since his grades have definitely been slipping in the past year) is participating in the Math Club.  Gregory loves numbers and patterns, as does Teisha, and Gregory doesn't find it difficult to concentrate on the problems the club works on. 

Ultimately, the big yellow dog becomes an important focal point by which Gregory helps Teisha (who has her own issues), by which Gregory helps the dog, its owner and an elderly woman who also cares for the dog, and perhaps sets the scene for making things better for Gregory and his mother.  By helping others, Gregory is ready to find the means (or the math) to help himself. 

Running Scared may seem to follow a straightforward storyline.  You know: boy has fear/dilemma, boy conquers fear/dilemma.  But the inclusion of Teisha who has her own issues with which to deal, Sam Briggs, whose bravado only masks her own needs, and Miss Sunny Marshall who searches for the means to stay independent and successfully navigate her way to and from the Jiffy Mart suggest that everyone needs some help some time and is not always willing to ask for it.  Beverley Terrell-Deutsch creates an assortment of characters who become a community of allies, helping and taking help as given, all without looking fragile or debilitated.  Problem-solving, whether with numbers or issues, is the means why which fear can be alleviated or at least by-passed. Gregory had the right idea all along.  He just forgot that, as in math, reciprocity can lead to balance and progress.

November 19, 2013

Little Chicken Duck: Book Launch (Toronto)


author Tim Beiser

illustrator Bill Slavin

for the launch of their newest picture book

Little Chicken Duck
Written by Tim Beiser
Illustrated by Bill Slavin
Tundra Books
24 pp.
Ages 3-7
Release date November 26, 2013 

Described as a lovingly illustrated, heartwarming tale in rhyme about facing childhood fears


Sunday, December 1, 2013

1 pm 

Type Books
883 Queen St. W.
Toronto, ON
Meet Froggie and Little Chicken Duck there!

September 22, 2013

Curse of the Dream Witch

by Allan Stratton
Scholastic Canada
266 pp.
Ages 8-12
September, 2013

While Allan Stratton has demonstrated a craft for social justice fiction writing with Leslie's Journal (Annick, 2000), Chanda's Secrets (Annick, 2004) and Chanda's Wars (HarperCollins, 2008), last year's The Grave Robber's Apprentice (reviewed here) has grounded the author's writing feet firmly on middle-grade turf.  With Curse of the Dream Witch, Allan Stratton has secured himself a position in MG youngCanLit.

In the Kingdom of Bellumen, it is the twelfth year of the Great Dread, a time in which parents fear for their children's safety, with boys and girls disappearing at night or in the woods.  All is blamed on the Princess Olivia, whose parents King Augustine and Queen Sophia had sought the help of the Dream Witch in having a child.  The Dream Witch had only asked for a small keepsake which she demands at their daughter's christening: the heart of their daughter, Princess Olivia.  But, Olivia is protected by a dozen pysanky (decorated eggs) gifted to her from Ephemia, the court wizard, and the Dream Witch angrily curses them,
"By the morning of the princess's thirteenth birthday, these twelve pysanky will be destroyed and I will have her heart. Until it beats in my hand, none of your children will be safe." (pg. 11)
So the Great Dread began, with curfews and restrictions placed on the children of the Kingdom, including Olivia, so that they may be kept safe from harm, though many children do go missing and their family homes burned.  By the time Olivia is 12, there is only one of the delicate pysanky left unbroken and she is locked in a turret cell with it and only her books and pet mouse, Penelope. 

Milo, a farmer's son born on the same day as Olivia, is desperate to leave his tedious life of corn farming by day and locked in the house at night.  Accidentally, Milo ventures into the woods and is taken by the Dream Witch, awakening in a glass jar, one of many with children from which she takes gratings for her spells. Using a drawing to transport Milo to the armoire in Olivia's turret, the Dream Witch threatens Milo with his parents' lives if he does not bring Olivia to her.  It is fortuitous that Milo is there in the armoire when Olivia decides that she must runaway rather than going with the disgusting and arrogant Prince Leo of Pretonia and his uncle, the Duke of Fettwurst, ostensibly to keep her safe but ultimately for marriage.

So the adventure begins, with everyone tackling their fears, Olivia trying to evade Leo and the Dream Witch, Milo struggling with his need to save his parents but not get Olivia harmed, Penelope showing herself to be...(you'll discover this when you read the book) and Leo and the Dream Witch manipulating everyone with lies and magic.  For Olivia, Milo and Penelope, it's a perilous escapade through repugnant heaps of earthworms, demon dolls, deceiving look-alikes, and other beasts, with only fear, friendship and courage to guide their actions.

Curse of the Dream Witch is a cautionary tale that illustrates, as the Dream Witch so aptly recognizes, "Dreams can become nightmares" (pg. 4) with Allan Stratton's imagery so visual that the nightmare is almost tangible. From the Dream Witch's nose that was,
"Longer than an elephant's trunk, and twice as wrinkled, its base spanned the width of her forehead, descending between her eyes to her waist, where it coiled around her body and looped itself into a belt." (pg. 4)
 to Leo who was "... slimy, with spots. Sweat dripped from his pasty cheeks, while his pimples glistened like ripe cherries" (pg. 59) and a beast with, "Claws attached to tentacles with suckers the size of plates." (pg. 152-3) Yuck, right? In the true spirit of folktales and fairy tales, children's stories that include supernatural elements such as the magic of the Dream Witch, Curse of the Dream Witch does more than teach about perseverance and self-respect and caring for others (that's the teacher in me talking): it entertains with humour, irreverence and surrealistic repugnance, without the violence.  I can already hear the laughs and "Yucks" soundtrack that is sure to accompany any reading of Curse of the Dream Witch.

July 03, 2013

Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping

by Mélanie Watt
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
April, 2013

Everyone's favourite squirrel, Mélanie Watt's Scaredy Squirrel, is back and thinking about camping.  But, he's not thinking about going camping because there are too many hazards and preparations.  So, content to experience the camping experience digitally, Scaredy Squirrel starts setting up his TV.  Oh no! The electrical outlet for the TV is so far away he'll need to prep himself for entering the wilderness after all.

Ever the compulsive planner, Scaredy Squirrel lists the supplies he needs, all the gear for his wilderness outfit, a detailed schedule, training routines, and an elaborate map of the area.  As always, Scaredy Squirrel is prepared for everything, except the one thing that is never part of the plan! Luckily, Scaredy Squirrel always finds a way to accommodate the unexpected, even if he panics at first, and resolves the situation triumphantly.

When Mélanie Watt introduced young readers to this rodent in Scaredy Squirrel (Kids Can Press, 2006), he was an immediate hit.  He's cute, he's compulsive, he's troubled, and he's quick thinking.  And things always seem to go wrong, no matter how prepared he is.  While his books never have predictable endings, they're always satisfying.  And, in Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping, young readers can look forward to Scaredy drifting off into the sunset.  Natural bliss!

If you and yours are planning to enjoy Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping or just a little camping, Kids Can Press provides a few accompanying activities at their website here.

If you haven't enjoyed the full range of Mélanie Watt's Scaredy Squirrel books, check out these available or coming soon from Kids Can Press:
  • Scaredy Squirrel (Kids Can Press, 2006)
  • Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend (Kids Can Press, 2007)
  • Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach (Kids Can Press, 2008)
  • Scaredy Squirrel at Night (Kids Can Press, 2009)
  • Scaredy Squirrel Has a Birthday Party (Kids Can Press, 2011)
  • Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas (Kids Can Press, 2012)
  • Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping (Kids Can Press, April 2013)
  • Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Halloween (Kids Can Press, August 2013)

May 28, 2013

The Lives We Lost

by Megan Crewe
Disney Press
288 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2013

The first book in Megan Crewe's Fallen World Trilogy, The Way We Fall, ends with Kaelyn sighting her best friend, Leo, returning alone on the ferry to the island.   The Way We Fall is essentially a series of journal entries that Kaelyn has been writing to Leo who is attending dance school in New York City as a way to share her experiences about their island's ruin by a contagious virus that takes its victims from scratching, coughing and sneezing, to hysteria and delusions and ultimately death.  Though her microbiologist father had attempted to find a vaccine, he was killed senselessly by panic-stricken islanders.

The Lives We Lost begins with Leo's return and news that the virus has also ravaged the mainland communities and Kaelyn's discovery of six vials of vaccine that her father had synthesized before his death.  Determined to get the samples to Ottawa, probably the largest centre with medical and biotech facilities to help determine the vaccine's formulation, Kaelyn and her boyfriend Gav have loaded up an SUV with gas, food and supplies to help get them there in the bitter winter conditions of December.  But rogue soldiers dropping bombs from a helicopter onto their island has all of their group loading up a boat with the supplies and heading to the mainland with their rescuer, a young soldier named Tobias.  Once on the mainland, the plan changes to Kaelyn and Gav using Tobias' army jeep and travelling to Ottawa with Meredith, Kaelyn's young cousin; Leo; Tessa, Leo's girlfriend; and Tobias. 

So begins a trek across a frozen, deserted land, rife with criminal survivors and the awkwardness of Kaelyn and Leo's reunion, especially after he kisses her.  While the tenuous nature of their relationship pervades Kaelyn's deliberations on their journey, the danger and uncertainty of finding help overwhelm their daily travels.  It isn't long before the group crosses paths with some people who learn about the vaccine (courtesy of Meredith's innocent comment), disabling their jeep and hunting them down, using two-way radios and armed with rifles.  Kaelyn and company manage to evade this group, ultimately entering Quebec, always on the lookout for rations, shelter from cold and blizzards and transportation. 

Their arrival at a former artists' colony brings them some comforts: showers, warmth, food and information.  Although Gav and Tobias are quarantined, being the only two of the group who have not been exposed to the virus or received the vaccine, the rest are welcomed to stay with the colonists who've organized themselves well to protect themselves from danger and looters.  But, a surprise visit by those who'd been hunting Kaelyn's group for the vaccine has them on the road again, this time leaving Tessa and Meredith at the artists' retreat, and reluctantly letting fourteen-year-old Justin join them.  Their destination: Toronto.

While The Way We Fall reads as a series of shocking developments, The Lives We Lost emphasizes the arduous journey of Kaelyn and her group, looking for help and hope, forced to grow into their new lives because their former lives are gone, just as are so many of their loved ones.  Megan Crewe uses the unsettled winter weather, the unsophisticated characters and the fear of the unknown to keep the tension high.  The young people are never sure whom to trust or to what extent and what recourse they should follow whenever they cannot proceed as originally planned.  But they demonstrate the resilience and determination needed to achieve the greater good (i.e., get the vaccine replicated so that others' might survive); unfortunately, they learn that sometimes tough, even reprehensible choices must be made, whether to continue to strive for that greater good or just to survive, as we learn Leo did.  And yet Megan Crewe's characters could be anyone who finds themselves in desperate circumstances, drawing from their past experiences to help them maneuver through new situations: viral, fatal or otherwise.  With The Worlds We Make (Fallen World #3) due out in February 2014, readers will learn how successful they've all been in their endeavours.

March 28, 2013

The Way We Fall

by Megan Crewe
Hyperion Disney Group
308 pp.
Ages 12+

There are many ways to fall.  You can fall down, fall in love, fall apart, fall asleep, fall at someone's feet, fall back, fall away, fall behind, fall flat on your face, fall short, fall afoul. And in Megan Crewe's first book in her YA Fallen World Trilogy, The Way We Fall, someone at sometime has demonstrated each type of falling.  On an island that succumbs to the wrath of an infectious virus, "falling" becomes the norm.

Through the journal entries of sixteen-year-old Kaelyn, ostensibly to her former best friend Leo who is going to school off the island, the reader is taken on a harrowing trek from health to illness to fear and death, with valiant efforts throughout to manage, if not eradicate, a contagion.  When the infection first hits, it is hard to differentiate it from a cold, with the typical coughing and sneezing.  However, when relentless scratching is evident, followed by displays of extreme expression of affection, distrust and hysteria, coupled with delusions, hospitalization is required. As the microbiologist on the island, Kaelyn's father becomes a central figure in the investigation of the virus, and Kaelyn, her older brother Drew, and Mom, an islander who manages the local café at the local service station, are among the first to wear masks and keep themselves home to avoid contact with others.

With the spread of the illness and deaths recorded from it, some islanders find their way off the island, though some, like Kaelyn's Uncle Emmett and her seven-year-old cousin, Meredith, are encouraged to wait until the mainland has secured a site to process them.  But, when the island is quarantined, the residents become reliant on the mainland government for food and medical and other supplies, a position that many protest, with consequences.  The reactions of the islanders as well as the mainlanders, including soldiers sent to offer protection, to the quarantine could warrant a study in fear.

While Kaelyn volunteers to notify residents of the quarantine and help get ill residents to hospital, Leo's girlfriend Tessa is recruited to help grow plants that may offer hope for treatment (a passionate gardener, Tessa has her own greenhouse).   A young man, Gav, who'd organized a group of guys into a Fight Club, had them "looting" from the grocery store and storing goods in a warehouse, arranging deliveries to those who couldn't get out, were ill, or had no support systems.  Through a series of interactions, including Gav coming by to teach them some self-defense, he and Kaelyn grow closer, offering each other support and affection in a troubling situation.

While I have shared very little about the sequence of events that lead to the story's end, probably because the plot and subplots are complex (but elegant), the reader will not be given much reprise from action and chaos of a community faced with more than a contagion; the mentality of those quarantined presents as much turmoil as the fatal infection itself.  The psychological responses of the residents to living with a contagious illness and in a quarantined situation vary from heroic and charitable to egocentric and even mercenary.  With a complex menagerie of characters, coupled with Megan Crewe's plotting and organizational style i.e., Kaelyn's short, dated journal entries addressed to Leo, The Way We Fall successfully keep readers interested throughout, appropriately earning it a nomination for this year's Forest of Reading®'s White Pine Award.  While the book offers some hope in its conclusion, don't expect everything to be resolved by the time the ferry finally approaches the island again; after all that falling, it will take a lot to help everything right itself ("in love" exempted).

Luckily, The Lives We Lost, Book 2 in the Fallen World Trilogy, came out just last month, and the title of the third book, The World We Make, has been announced for release in the winter of 2014. Megan Crewe can be assured that this reviewer will be pursuing those titles promptly, determined to learn more about Leo, Drew, Aunt Lillian, the underlying hostility between Drew and Gav, and the only positive fall - Kaelyn and Gav in love.

May 11, 2012

The Paper House

by Lois Peterson
Orca Book Publishers
108 pp.
Ages 8-11

Safiyah's ten years of life have been fraught with many hardships and tragedies.  She and her grandmother, Cucu, live in slums of Kibera outside of Nairobi, Kenya.  Her parents have both passed, her mother from AIDS, and now Cucu is ill and coughing up blood.  Fearful of losing the only family she has, and far away from her birth place, where the failure of the crops forced them to Kibera, Safiyah is determined to make improvements to their hut by repairing the holes that let the smoke and cold night air in.  In her daily scavenges of the dump, where she usually excavates those items which she can sell, Safiyah gathers old magazines with their glossy pictures of beautiful women, glamourous homes, fancy cars, and unfamiliar lives, hoping to use the paper to chink the cracks.

After repairing the walls, Safiyah selects magazine pictures to decorate the outside of the hut, using the scissors and paste shared from her friend Pendo's school.  The magazines are coveted by others, including young Chidi who tries to steal the magazines from her in the dump.  Fortunately for Safiyah, the infamous red-hair-dyed gang leader, Blade, comes to her rescue several times, while ensuring his cousin Chidi attends school regularly.  Although Cucu is vehement that Safiyah stay away from Blade a.k.a. Rasul, Safiyah reveals to him her fears for her grandmother's health.

This innocent admission to Rasul and her engagement with Pendo in the decoration of the house walls bring Safiyah to reognizing the efforts she must make in order to enrich her life with others.  As Cucu has reminded her, "Words are easy. Friendship is hard."  By embracing the help of others, without demeaning their efforts, Safiyah gets medical help for her grandmother and creates a work of art on the walls of their hut that brings even more blessings.

Safiyah's story of The Paper House demonstrates that, though the lives of children may be different, everyone has a way to connect with others and can benefit from these connections.  Safiyah learns that not everyone is as poor as they are but this is a lesson she needs to understand to elicit assistance.  Furthermore, although Rasul's family is obviously far wealthier than Safiyah's, the loss of Rasul's sister and the necessity for Chidi to become part of a new family indicate that anyone can experience tragedies and hardships.  With The Paper House, Safiyah makes her own luck, achieving a dream she believed impossible to attain, while endeavouring to improve the lives of others.

While I was not always sympathetic to Safiyah's reactions when she was upset (e.g., chastisizing Pendo for pasting the pictures on wrong when her friend only wanted to help), I cannot imagine the breadth of disappointment, fear, and unhappiness which pervades her responses.  Lois Peterson provides Safiyah with the demeanour of a child who must endure life, not embrace it, and so Saffy's less-than-considerate attitude may be more authentic even if less desirable.

The Paper House is a perfect read for sharing the lives of children in different parts of the world and providing a foundation of empathy upon which the supporting walls of understanding and caring can be built.