Showing posts with label grief. Show all posts
Showing posts with label grief. Show all posts

January 22, 2020

Last Words

Written by Leanne Baugh
Red Deer Press
320 pp.
Ages 13+

"I'm sorry" are the last words that Will Szabo speaks to a stranger on the Lion's Gate Bridge before he jumps to his death, but they are the beginning of a new chapter in sixteen-year-old Claire Winters's life as she struggles to understand his suicide.

Just before he jumped, Will hands Claire his cell phone–complete with passcode taped to the back–and this becomes the focus for Claire's probe into his death. She discovers a suicide note, emails, voice mail, text messages and more that help her reconstruct his life. But learning about the young man just leads her to question the way of the world and what hope there is. In fact, Claire's own life begins to unravel as she delves deeper, causing riffs with her boyfriend Ty, friends Izzy and Declan, and straining her relationships with her parents and older sister Belle who is moving to a group home–Belle has Down Syndrome–while also impacting her passion for painting. She speaks to different people, trying to get advice as to how to proceed, including from Paul, the executive director of a hospice, who suggests that
"Sometimes the best way to get to the other side is to go right through the pain, yelling, kicking, and screaming like a crazed fool." (pg. 173)
Then Claire meets Kiki, a teen with cancer, who sees life as a gift and a challenge that she will not deny and Claire begins to wonder who got it right.

It's not unusual for young people to look at the world and see the good and the bad as extremes. Except for a person like Kiki who is on the cusp of losing her life, many become distressed by break-ups and environmental disasters and changes that compel them to take a different perspective from the one with which they've become comfortable. They're not wrong to be distressed but they might not always see the circumstances in the realm of a big picture that might suggest these situations are not worth ending a life.
"...if there's meaning in life, there also has to be meaning in suffering. They go hand in hand." (pg. 241)
Leanne Baugh does not take sides. She doesn't make Claire seem over-the-top in her pursuit of Will's story or a victim of wrong-place-wrong-time circumstances, though it was unfortunate that Claire had to witness something so shocking. Leanne Baugh could have made Kiki into a saint who fights her illness with valour and perseverance but she doesn't. And she certainly doesn't depict Will as a victim or a young man in control of his own life. The paths for these characters, as are our own, are never set in stone and suggesting otherwise would be unfair. Ultimately, Leanne Baugh twists her plot to enable Claire to see her life and those of Will and Kiki from a different perspective, for good or bad, and recognize that, as Emily Dickinson is quoted, "Hope is the thing with feathers."

December 21, 2018

Kate's Ring

Written by Donna Grassby
Red Deer Press
276 pp.
Ages 11-15
October 2018

Thirteen-year-old Kate might wish for a ring just as her best friend has–Grace has an heirloom opal ring from her grandmother–but Kate's Ring is bigger than a child's dream to possess something special. That's because Kate's ring is not one of gold or silver but rather one of people and place.

It's the 1920s and Kate lives with her five younger siblings–Michael, David, Lily, Colin and Sarah–and her parents in Whitney Pier on Cape Breton. Though her story begins on a happy note with Poppa taking her out of school on her birthday to join him on his bread deliveries, Kate's story is not one filled with childhood joys. Mamma has consumption and is weak and often resting, while Poppa has started drinking and rarely at home. Sadly, the responsibilities for children and house fall to Kate, who begins to fall behind in school.  While there is family around, including Mamma's mother and siblings, there is much strife especially from Aunt Flora who constantly berates Poppa about his drinking and Mamma who always forgives him his ways and despises her sister's interference.  With Poppa unable to keep a job, he decides to get one logging on the mountain in Margaree, where his parents, Aigneis and Hector, live on a farm without electricity or indoor plumbing. Mamma is thrilled to go, though Aunt Flora convinces her to allow Kate to stay with her and Uncle Will to finish her school year, as on the mountain only Lily and David would be going to school.

For about three months, Kate experiences what it is like to have guardians who take care of her. They feed her, clothe her, love her and worry about her safety. Though her family is never far from her thoughts, she enjoys a real Christmas of family warmth. Then Aigneis insists that Kate join the rest of her family on the mountain as they need her help and her mother misses her.

While her mother promises her that Kate will return to school and not end up in service, Kate wonders how her mother can make such a promise, especially with Mamma feeling worse and praying to never leave the mountain. Though Kate appreciates some aspects of her new life, like learning skills like carding and spinning fleece as well as participating in a céilidh, she is more than ready to return to Whitney Pier when Mamma starts coughing up blood and collapses.

Though Aunt Flora continues to pass along money and food to the family via Kate, things are not much better with Mamma in the hospital. Unfortunately, things go from bad to worse and the family Kate has always known fractures with one tragedy after another. How the family will survive and in what configuration is only resolved through Donna Grassby's poignant storytelling, both heartbreaking and hopeful.

Kate's Ring is not a story of lightness and familial comfort. There are moments of joy, like when Kate's Aunt Flo and Uncle Will gift her with a pair of snowshoes or when she learns how to spin yarn, but Kate's life is more about responsibilities and chores and getting by. Sadly this probably has been the lot of many children whose families have had to deal with illness and financial woes, especially with parents who could not be there for their children because of their own troubles. Still Kate accepts her responsibilities for her siblings and her family without much fuss; instead she just does what is expected and necessary while holding onto a sliver of faith that things will right themselves. Even the  book's cover upholds the idea that sometimes, even when you feel like you're a long way out from the safety of shore, there's more rain to come.

Setting Kate's Ring in 1920s Cape Breton, Donna Grassby makes sure young readers see that childhood was not always about play and school. Sometimes it was whatever was needed to help the family out. And by contrasting life in towns and in rural areas, where you might or might not have electricity and plumbing, where travel happened by horse, car and train, and not all children were fortunate enough to go to school, Donna Grassby embeds that story of loss and hardship in families of different shapes. It's family created, sustained and reconfigured that makes Kate's Ring real for the time and for now.

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

September 24, 2018


Written by Kenneth Oppel
Illustrated by Sydney Smith
256 pp.
Ages 8-12
September 2018

When  a splotch of ink pulls itself out of the sketchbook of graphic artist Mr. Rylance, only the cat Rickman sees it roaming and exploring until it hides itself within the drawing efforts of sixth grader Ethan. In fact, while the talented Mr. Rylance, known for his Kren graphic novels, struggles with writer's and artist's block undoubtedly stemming from the death of his spouse, his son is just struggling to contribute the artwork to a class project. (His peers are convinced he should be able to draw like his dad.) But after Ethan discovers the ink splotch which he calls Inkling is able to absorb the ink from books, newsprint and even photographs and complete incredible illustrations, he begins to use the inky entity to build on his own clumsy stick figure drawings and submit the artwork as his own.
From Inkling by Kenneth Oppel, illus. by Sydney Smith
While Inkling feeds on a variety of print which affects its voice and behaviour–violent comic books are the worst!–and draws Ethan's homework, the boy struggles to keep his secret advantage safe and undercover. But, like all good secrets, it is revealed, first to one friend and then to his father, before being discovered by Ethan's archenemy, the daughter of Dad's publisher.  Too soon, Ethan is scrambling to keep Inkling safe and stop those who wish to enslave it. 
From Inkling by Kenneth Oppel, illus. by Sydney Smith
What starts out as an imaginative creation story of a splotch of ink soon becomes a cautionary tale against finding an easy way out of work and taking advantage of those who might help you. And you'll be astonished when you feel like cheering for a blob of ink who expresses itself wildly in terms of whatever text it has most recently consumed, including L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, Roald Dahl's The BFG and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, and then feel angst for it when Inkling writes, in inky bold writing, that "I AM ALONESOME" (pg. 82). Kenneth Oppel has made us care for bats, a fostered chimp and now a blob of ink. Too soon the reader will see Inkling as a living thing, even before given a name, and I defy any science teacher to do a lesson on the characteristics of living things and not struggle with Inkling's classification. It's all in Kenneth Oppel's ability to give life through his words, invigorating Inkling with needs and wants and free will.

Though Inkling is not a picture book or a graphic novel, it is illustrated, here by Governor General award-winning artist Sydney Smith who takes Kenneth Oppel's story and sugars it with artwork that adds but doesn't explain. From chapter heading panels to ink splats small and large on every double-spread and the occasional expression of Inkling's work, Sydney Smith guides us to understanding the evolution of Inkling from static ink on a page to living being, absorbing, learning and feeling. Remember: Inkling is composed solely of ink.

I suspect teachers will be jumping on Inkling (please don't hurt him!) to use in class for everything from writing voice and setting to writing "What If?" stories as the basis for plot. But don't disregard Inkling's magic as a blob of ink restores life to a family disintegrating in grief and offers hope through the art of its dynamic efforts.

August 07, 2018

Fire Song

Written by Adam Garnet Jones
Annick Press
232 pp.
Ages 14+
March 2018

Maybe the game is rigged and the only way to win is by giving up. (pg. 115)

So much about Shane's life hurts that it's hard to find the faith he needs to help endure it.  It should be full of hope and promise. He's finishing his final year of school and anticipating a move to Toronto for post-secondary. He's smart, given the nickname of "College".  He has a pretty girlfriend, Tara, who adores him. But much is a facade because underneath it all, Shane is a mess of grief, confusion and guilt.

Fire Song begins the day of the memorial for Shane's younger sister Destiny who took her own life six weeks earlier. His mother Jackie is despondent, unwilling to leave Destiny's room, even with the constant ministrations of elder Evie. Fortunately, his Anishinaabe reserve community, the only home he's every known, is tight and supportive.
His heart beats under this ground and the roots of the trees spread through his lungs. (pg. 14)
But Shane has secrets and burdens that are disturbing his potentially bright future. He has just learned that his funding for school isn't available from his reserve because he is registered with his father's reserve, though his father is long passed and Shane never lived there. School wants a hefty deposit but Jackie hasn't worked since Destiny's death. Moreover, the roof on their house is disintegrating and, though the materials are in at the store to repair it, his family does not have the money for both the roof and his schooling. But Shane's most emotional struggle comes with balancing his growing sexual relationship with David, Evie's grandson, and his public romantic involvement with Tara, a teen eager to find a new life away from an abusive father and a private writer of introspective prose and poetry.
How can it be
That the smell of home and
the smell of lonely are the same? (pg. 70) 
As Shane tries to keep a roof over their heads and prompt his mother into action, hide his relationship with David while craving it desperately, make some money in a community with few opportunities, and grieve the loss of his sister, his life continues to fray and threaten his future. It's all about choices and not one of them is easy.

Adam Garnet Jones tells Shane's painful story in such expressive prose and poetry, the latter courtesy of Tara's writing, that the reader is carried on a wave from anguish to heartbreak to misery. Shane's story is a tragedy on so many levels: family, school, community, love. But, in each of those circumstances, there are still slivers of buoyancy: a mother who loves him but has abandoned him in her grief; acceptance to school in Toronto, though the money is not at hand; a community of friends who support Shane but would not accept his being a two-spirited person; and a boy and a girl who love him but confound his life's plan.  Adam Garnet Jones may not pretty up Shane's story but he does bring a fitting conclusion to it. I won't tell you if the roof gets fixed or if Shane goes to school in Toronto or if he chooses David or Tara, but I can tell you that things get worse before they get better but better they do. With acceptance of his choices and the life he needs, Shane survives another day to love and be loved.


Fire Song is based on a film by the same name, written and directed by Adam Garnet Jones and produced by Fire Song Films Inc. and Big Soul Productions Inc. I encourage readers to check out the trailer for Fire Song which premiered at TIFF in 2015.

Retrieved from YouTube at on August 6, 2018. 
Uploaded by TIFF Trailers on August 13, 2015.

July 30, 2018

The Funeral

Written and illustrated by Matt James
Groundwood Books
40 pp.
Ages 4-7
April 2018

Funerals always mean something different to those attending. There are those who are overwhelmed with grief and others who treat it as a social event. There are some for whom the funeral is just part of the cycle of life. But what does a funeral mean to children, particularly for the very young?

When Norma's mother's gets the phone call that her Uncle Frank has passed, she is saddened. Norma knows she should be too–in fact, she practises her sad face in the mirror– but attending a funeral for Norma means getting the day off school and seeing her favourite cousin Ray. 

Though Norma and Ray follow their parents' directives and participate in the process that is the funeral–the procession, the church service, a reception–they are young and find ways to focus on other things: the smell in a mother's purse, a giraffe stuffie, the dancing dust mots, the music and the other funeral attendees. They have questions but their natural inclinations are to participate in life. The two slip outside into the graveyard and natural world, feeling the freedom that comes from being able to move and observe and explore.
From The Funeral by Matt James
Though Norma recognizes that Uncle Frank died because he was really old, she still ponders what his death means to those around her. In the end, she recognizes that "I think Uncle Frank would have liked his funeral."

There are many books that help discuss end of life with children but never have I seen one that honours how children see death and the funeral process as aptly as Matt James's The Funeral. It is just one funeral and it's not every child's response to a funeral but it is very honest and real. Perhaps it's a book for parents to recognize that children may be part of the grieving process, without grieving as their elders might, and their ways are appropriate for them. I'm pleased that the parents and others don't chastize the children for being disrespectful for playing outdoors or being inattentive to all the rituals (though Norma does recognize "how looong they sat on those hard seats, with all that talk about God and souls, and not very much talk about Uncle Frank.")
From The Funeral by Matt James
The story in The Funeral is carried by Matt James's illustrations, the same acrylic-and-ink artwork that won him a Governor General's Literary Award for Northwest Passage (Groundwood, 2013). The art is raw, not necessarily neat and tidy, but, just like life, it is buoyant and energetic and hopeful even during times of great sadness.  With its colour, its lines and its words, The Funeral celebrates the spirit of those who lived and those who love life.

July 19, 2018

The Whirlpool

Written by Laurel Croza
Illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Groundwood Books
96 pp.
Ages 10-14
May 2018

Don't be deceived by the simple cover illustration and the less-than-100 page count. The Whirlpool, a collection of seven short stories from award-winning picture book author Laurel Croza, is not an early reader.  Its stories are sophisticated and aimed at upper middle grades, covering a wide variety of issues from emotional abuse and grief to destiny and bullying.

In It's a Step, the narrator Charity lives with her mother and abusive father.  As her dad rails against her mom taking a job at Tim's, both mother and daughter find the means to take a small step to a better life.  In Book of Dreams, Mike finds the support he doesn't get at home from his mom and her latest boyfriend at a restaurant where he gets respect, appreciation and a turkey dinner. While a very different story in terms of characters, OH! is also about finding home. The Oh! So Perfect Hair Dolly goes from factory to store shelf and dreams of being named by a child. The desolation of being passed over during Christmas shopping and then being relegated to the reduced price bin is reflective of any child who has felt unloved.  

The Whirlpool is the story of fifteen-year-old Jasmine who is the brunt of swirling rumours at the whirlpool that is school about her having a baby. As she deals with the gossip and nastiness, Jasmine resolves to "look the whirlpool in the eye" (pg. 30) and reveal her story. A Beautiful Smile also looks at nastiness at school, this time with a young teen from the north standing up to a mean girl at her new Toronto school. Most satisfying is the public and clever way in which Nicola finds support and salvation.

Although all the stories have something important to impart, my two favourite stories are The Sunflower and Destiny. Though told from the perspective of a squirrel, The Sunflower is neither trite nor silly. It is an emotional story about loss and grief and making connections, and I defy anyone not to sob at its telling.  Destiny is a revealing story about following one's dreams, regardless of others' desires and opinions.  Johnny helped inspire his younger sister Dani to play hockey even when her father thought figure skating would be more appropriate. Dani persevered and changed her father's mind about her playing hockey. Now, with Johnny drafted to the OHL, she wants to help her brother accept his true destiny too.

Each story in Laurel Croza's collection is packed with emotional growth, from taking first steps to fulfilling one's destiny, or saving yourself, or accepting strengths and weaknesses as part of the whole package. The stories may be brief (each less than 20 pages) but they wallop you with the power of their storytelling, dialogue and message. My favourite, The Sunflower, does that all in five pages.

I shouldn't be surprised that Laurel Croza can weave such powerful tales. Her highly-acclaimed picture books, I Know Here and From There to Here, which were beautifully illustrated by Matt James, conveyed amazing stories in few words. But these stories are not picture book tales transformed into text. They are not for our youngest readers, though, because of the length of the books, parents and teachers might expect them to be so.  The stories in The Whirlpool collection deal with issues of abuse, gossip, abandonment, and death. While these are issues with which younger readers may be familiar, the older protagonists in Laurel Croza's stories suggest that older middle grade readers might understand the messages better.

I've always loved short story collections for the breadth of stories that can be told and the piecemeal manner in which the text can be read. They are potent teaching tools and convenient for reading in shorter time periods. With The Whirlpool, Laurel Croza has provided a worthwhile addition to the youngCanLit collection of short story anthologies as it enlightens, reassures and inspires.

July 09, 2018

All That Was

Written by Karen Rivers
Farrar Straus Giroux
384 pp.
Ages 12-18
January 2018

Seventeen-year-olds Piper and Sloane are friends. On the surface, they are very similar, or at least make themselves appear similar in hair style and colour and clothing, and spend all their time together or they did until the No-Boyfriend Rule is broken.  But Piper and Sloane's friendship is one of contradictions: love and hate, appreciation and disrespect, and camaraderie and rivalry. With that kind of a basis for a friendship, what happens when one of the friends is gone?

Though Sloane Whittaker thinks of herself as common compared to the more exotic Piper Sullivan, Piper is actually more like the flirty alpha in their friendship. If she wants something, she goes after it and is oblivious to the nuances in their friendship that might indicate Sloane may think differently.  So when they attend an art show that includes the work of Soup Sanchez, a boy Sloane has liked since fourth grade, Piper teases her shamelessly until Sloane denies liking him. The next day Piper reveals she and Soup connected after the show and are now going out. Now Sloane must endure Piper's personal divulgences about their kisses and sex while secretly yearning for the boy she has always liked and coincidentally seems to like her. But it's hard to say "No" to Piper. So when Piper decides that Sloane must experience sex, and she sets her up with a boy, James Robert Wilson, Sloane goes along.

But trouble is brewing as Soup and Sloane are regularly thrown together and Piper, oblivious until one fateful night, continues to direct their lives and her story to her best advantage.  That all changes when Piper dies.

All That Was is told in the voices of Sloane and Soup in terms of "Before" and "Now" relative to Piper's death. Most of the story is the "Before" in which we learn about the basis for Sloane and Piper's friendship; their revealing discussions which are both friendly and hostile; Sloane's aspirations to be a documentary filmmaker; and Soup and Piper's relationship. The "Now" brings to light the police investigation and arrest of a murderer, the guilt Sloane and Soup harbour, and the necessity of perspective and forgiveness, even of oneself.

Although many would consider Piper and Sloane frenemies and their friendship essentially doomed, I think it goes far deeper than that. The two girls sincerely love one another as friends but there is an inherent meanness to their interactions.  Theirs is a dance of sarcasm and one-upmanship, trying to be individuals but scared to be separated.  It's a very real relationship though not one to which anyone would aspire. Although I like some aspects of Sloane, probably identifying her as the underdog of the two, neither Piper nor Sloane are very likable. Karen Rivers made them very real–I suspect most teens know a Piper and a Sloane at their high schools–and their connectedness authentic though strained. Whether there is a message here about forgiveness or getting past tragedy, I don't know.  I do know that Karen Rivers makes it clear that not all friendships are rainbows and unicorns, just as she did in her earlier book Finding Ruby Starling (2014).  Some relationships are darker and deeper like crows and tumultuous waters, but they still build our life experiences, good or bad. Sloane and Soup, and yes, even Piper, can take from this chapter and move forward. Sometimes it is what it is. And All That Was just was.

June 01, 2017

Undiscovered Country

Written by Jennifer Gold
Second Story Press
320 pp.
Ages 13+
April 2017
I feel the familiar wave of sadness overtake me, trapping me underwater, stealing my breath.  Here in the jungle, it is easier to forget my grief.  Sometimes, it feels like something I forgot to pack, something there wasn't room for in my suitcase, and I feel I've won, I've escaped.  Then I remember, and it feels as fresh and raw as it did the night she closed her eyes for the last time. (pg. 125)
Seventeen-year-old Caitlin Marks' grief is as raw and unrelenting as the environs of Bolivia  to which she has thrown herself as a volunteer for nine months with Students Without Boundaries. SWB is Cat's way of running from Ohio and the recent death of her mother from cancer and a father too wrapped up in his own anguish to be a parent to his daughter. But what Cat discovers is that grief resides everywhere, in different forms, and can travel as easily as she does.

Told in alternating perspectives of Before and After, Undiscovered Country is Cat's story of the months leading to her mother's death from cancer and then her experiences as a volunteer in the village of Calantes, a community of poverty, violence and political unrest. As the reader learns of Cat's mom finding the lump in her breast and subsequent gruelling chemo, loss of hair, struggle for dignity and affliction with brain cancer which ultimately takes her life, Cat struggles with balancing being the support her mother needs and going on with her own life, taking her SAT, dealing with peers who see her in terms of her mother's illness, and planning for school at Stanford.  Each step is a struggle of emotions and logistics, helped only somewhat by her sessions with Dr. Shapiro who diagnoses her with Bipolar II.  Bolivia undoubtedly seems like a chance to really help while escaping the overwhelming torment of her sadness.
Sadness is like cancer that way, an unwelcome guest that takes the body or the mind hostage, stripping the joy... (pg. 138)
In Calantes, Cat meets bunkmates Margo who's there to appease her ultra-competitive parents and outdo her cousin who just got into law school; Taylor who'd flunked his first year of college after coming out as gay to his wealthy family; and Melody, a devout Christian, whose self-righteousness masks hidden traumas. And, though everything reminds her of her mother–make-up, Diet Coke, pretzels–Cat soldiers on, meeting the handsome local Rafael and others in the village where she ends up working in the rudimentary infirmary.  But, as she and fellow SWBers  struggle with their emotional baggage, the people of Calantes must deal with their social and political strife, troubles which Rafael is adamant can only be solved with dangerous actions.

The ambiguity that is Cat is normal after a tragedy.
Sometimes it feels as if there are two Cats–the one who longs for love and companionship, who's lonely and desperate for affection, and the other one, who's desperate and desolate and pushes people away, almost determined to stagnate in her grief. (pg. 187-188)
It's unfortunate that Dr. Shapiro and others in Undiscovered Country are so quick to label sadness and grief as mental illness in need of medication.  Cat's foray into a third-world country to volunteer and ease her impotence in helping her mother may not be ideal for all but it works for her, allowing her to discover herself and others in new circumstances.  Without realizing it, Cat's explorations abroad and within challenge her to accept her new normal.

Jennifer Gold, author of Soldier Doll (Second Story Press, 2014), again takes the issue of grief and connections and creates a story of loss, confusion and redemption, with honest characters dealing with realistic challenges but this time in a contemporary setting.  Her characters are dealing with grief, cancer, sexual abuse, foster care, sexuality, family expectations and the teen angst of relationships, peer and romantic.  It's a lot for them to deal with and a lot for Jennifer Gold to tackle.  Still Undiscovered Country, unlike most of us and most definitely Jennifer Gold's characters, never stumbles, instead exposing different paths of salvation to life's struggles, some safer than others, but all viable and very real.

April 26, 2017

Grandfather and the Moon

Written by Stéphanie Lapointe
Illustrated by Rogé
Translated by ShelleyTanaka
Groundwood Books
100 pp.
Ages 10-13
May 2017

Grand-père et la Lune won the 2016 Governor General's Award for French-language children's illustration and Groundwood Books has astutely engaged Shelley Tanaka to bring this jewel as Grandfather and the Moon to English-language readers. It's sensitive and nostalgic and emotive in a finely understated approach, blending a grandfather-granddaughter relationship with an exceptional journey into space.

Though it is evident from the subtle words and illustrations at the onset that the young girl's grandfather has passed, this is her story of how she remembers him.  He affectionately called her Mémère and, though he spoke few words, he said much to her.  He told his granddaughter of his past work, and always insisted she go to university and get her degree.  He drove around in a tank of a Chrysler and loved spaghetti that came out of a can.
From Grandfather and the Moon 
by Stéphanie Lapointe
illus. by Rogé

Life passed through Grandfather
like one long breath.
and slow.

He adored his wife Lucille and was devastated by her death, slipping into a depression of fewer words, "Like his heart ran out of gas." When the Who Will Go to the Moon Contest is announced (though Grandfather hadn't heard of it, since he rarely watched TV, declaring that "Television is something that ends up doing our thinking for us"), the young girl is selected from hundreds of thousands of people for the space journey.

From Grandfather and the Moon 
by Stéphanie Lapointe
illus. by Rogé
After a booming launch, the girl ponders the beauty and silence of space, infusing her deliberations with her perspective on the history of space travel.  Just like the overwhelming emptiness her grandfather endured upon the death of his wife, the girl is staggered by the desolation.  Her response is stunning, to herself and others, but her grandfather in his box of a car is still there for her.

From Grandfather and the Moon
by Stéphanie Lapointe
illus. by Rogé
The relationship between granddaughter and grandfather is everything in Grandfather and the Moon.  There may be an extraordinary trip into space by an ordinary girl but even that does not surpass the profound connection between the two as the most important feature of the book.  Hardly effusive, the two still nurture their relationship as you would a fragile glass sphere, taking care with it but not engulfing it.  And even though I never knew either of my grandfathers, I know this young girl and this man who says so much in his actions and impacts her choices.  This must be a relationship very familiar to author Stéphanie Lapointe as her perspective is so intimate and touched with affection.

Award-winning artist Rogé who has illustrated countless French- and English-language books, his own and those of other authors,  uses pencil to evoke both the delicacy and the transparency of the relationship between the two generations in Grandfather and the Moon.  Moreover, the contemplative nature of the story comes out in Rogé's illustrations, from scenes of Grandfather at Lucille's bedside or the young girl's sojourn into space.  The colours are ever muted, with only glints of red, green or blue like stars in an oppressively darkened sky.  Together Stéphanie Lapointe and Rogé ensure that Grandfather and the Moon is loaded in gravitas in both words and art but with twinkles of humour and sweetness.  Because that's what life is generally like.  

September 26, 2016

All the Things We Leave Behind

by Riel Nason
Goose Lane Editions
240 pp.
Ages 14+
September 2016

There are so many incidents that can stand out small and don’t seem like anything at the time but end up meaning so much.  There are so many tiny twists in a life that you can never know the ultimate significance of. (pg. 80)
As teen Violet Davis looks back through her copious memories of incidents with her older brother Bliss and their parents, she now seems to see the significance of them with respect to his disappearance from their lives after graduation from high school.  There were all the signs of a wanderlust for moving beyond their small town of Riverbend and Hawkshaw, New Brunswick, for travel, for adventure.  There was also the darkness in Bliss that may have been triggered when the two first discovered the Department of Transportation’s gruesome boneyard of deer and moose road kills, perhaps Bliss’s “first proof of unhappy endings” (pg. 116) but this melancholy could not be repressed.
It seemed that every bad memory, in fact only bad memories, bubbled up in his brain.  His entire perspective changed and every thought he had was permeated and tainted, shifted and reinterpreted in a negative way. (pg. 116)
Now it’s the summer of 1977 and Violet’s parents are ostensibly on vacation, but really in search of  any evidence of Bliss’s travels.  And Violet has been left in charge of the family business, officially known as Charles J. Davis & Son Antiques but known locally and by all travellers as The Purple Barn, a roadside attraction and store brimming with crafty twig furniture and quilts and antiques and collectibles.

For Violet, the summer is more than just working at The Purple Barn, and keeping the busybody employee Mrs. Quinn in check; it’s also a time of hanging with her boyfriend Dean and best friend Jill and her boyfriend Johnny.  While her brother’s disappearance is always foremost in her mind, as she rethinks what she should have and could have done to keep him from leaving them behind, Violet is forced to struggle with two unrelated issues.  First, she must negotiate the purchase of the contents of the renowned Vaughn cottage, a grand home deserted after the drowning of the owners' grandson. Secondly, Violet is haunted by a white buck that no one else seems to see.  Is it Speckles, a piebald deer Bliss befriended years earlier,  or an apparition that is part of the rumoured ghost herd of the boneyard?

Riel Nason’s first book, multi-award winning The Town That Drowned (Goose Lane Editions, 2011), was a deeply moving examination of a small town dealing with its impending demise by deliberate flooding.  That community, Haventon, is now a memory in All the Things We Leave Behind, both as place and experience, but only one of many things left behind when people move, or die, or disappear.  Those things can be like the goods that The Purple Barn sells from estates or deserted houses, or the mementoes set to be bequeathed to family upon a grandmother’s death.  Or they can be people, like Violet, left behind when a brother goes exploring, or when someone dies.  It can even be the bones of the dead or their ghosts remaining to haunt people’s thoughts and dreams and nightmares.  The concept of things, including people, being left behind is a monumental one but one that Riel Nason addresses with sensitivity and completeness, understanding the nature of memories and mementoes as powerful beyond reason.
Having a reminder, a souvenir, to help you remember is great, but I think the best memories are through a special door in your mind that you can open without a key. (pg. 105)
Riel Nason’s writing, both intricate and profound in addressing the nature of loss and memory, does not dwell on grief, though the boneyard and the tragic deaths of the animals and people in the book are disturbing.  But, All the Things We Leave Behind is bigger and better than just that, instead becoming a souvenir in itself, one of  weighty contemplation and yearning for a past remembered and a future unlocked.  Even with the tragedies that unfold in All the Things We Leave Behind, there is a lightness and brightness in the darkness, and acknowledgement by Riel Nason that all the things we leave behind, tangible and intangible, become powerful tributes in their own ways.

July 15, 2016


by Deborah Kerbel
Kids Can Press
144 pp.
Ages 9-13
April 2016

Hope can take many forms and be elicited in a myriad of ways.  For Finch Bennett, an eleven-year-old girl in the summer of 1980–a time of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, the hostage crisis in Iran, and the Rubik’s Cube-she needs to find some hope, somewhere, anywhere.  Her father died of cancer less than a year ago, her grieving mother is despondent and oblivious to Finch and her older brother Harrison who is also seemingly indifferent to the young girl, allowing his friend Matt to relentlessly torment her.  For Finch, hope might be found in the tiny scar on her neck from which a single white feather had been removed at age 3.  With that scar, Finch reassures herself that a better life, perhaps one of feathers and flight, might emerge.
That night, I dream about my feathers.  They’ve grown in all white and fluffy and smooth.  And I’m happpy because it means I’m finally able to fly away. I spread my feathered arms and fly up, up, up to where I think I’ll find heaven…where I know I’ll find Daddy.” (pg. 49)
With the arrival of their new neighbours, Finch sees another opportunity for hope, especially with making a new friend of eleven-year-old Pinky Nanda.  This would  be particularly important once dreaded school starts.  School is where Finch is called slow and lazy. It’s where she has major difficulties with writing. And it’s where she sees her former best friend, Karen, has blossomed into a young woman and hangs out with similarly pubescent girls.  But Pinky and her younger sister Padma are staunchly protected by their parents, who argue about how Punjabi Hindus are treated in Canada and do not permit the girls to interact with others.
It’s at that moment when I see myself right there in her face.  I see a girl who’s trapped in a mess of grown-up problems.  A girl who’s struggling just to figure it all out.” (pg. 94)
Strangely Finch’s only friend becomes an anonymous writer with whom she communicates on a bathroom stall door. That is, until Finch finds the courage to untether herself and communicate her feelings, good and bad, with those impacting her life.

Deborah Kerbel may have written Feathered as a middle-grade novel but Feathered is much more sophisticated than much pedestrian MG storytelling. The writing is brilliant, demonstrating  much depth of spirit and story, taking Finch and the reader beyond the obvious and into the realm of optimism and possibilities, where even a little girl can see that she has it in her to soar above the commonplace and anticipate greatness of action and virtue.  Just like Terry Fox, Finch learns to recognize that the will to try is within her and she may or may not succeed, but there’s always the promise that comes with dreaming.

April 29, 2016


by Lesley Choyce
Orca Book Publishers
113 pp.
Ages 12+
RL 3.2
April 2016

At 15 short chapters and a mere 113 pages, and a story plotted by Lesley Choyce (see my reviews of Jeremy Stone and Into the Wasteland from Red Deer Press, 2013 and 2014 respectively), Scam is a valuable addition to Orca Book Publishers' Orca Soundings series of hi-lo books for teens with a story that explores the resiliency of youth.

Scam begins with sixteen-year-old narrator Josh Haslett dealing with the death of his mother.  Josh has always thought of himself as a “good cover-up artist”  (pg. 3) as he had taken care of the household after his dad left and mom had continued to party and do drugs and he had kept social workers oblivious to their situation.  But on the way to his mom’s funeral, as arranged by social work, Josh is scammed of his paltry wallet by a beautiful teen named Lindsey.  Frantic, he chases after her and gets his wallet back but she insists on going to the funeral with him.

As Josh is taken into a group home with other male teens, he continues to meet up with Lindsey who involves Josh in a number of scams, including the theft of wedding gifts, while insisting that she can teach him how to take his own efforts of working the system to the next level.  But Josh knows the difference between survival and cheating others, and he is as uncomfortable with her scamming as much as he is drawn to her.  After helping out at a camp for disadvantaged kids and providing Lindsey with the emotional support she needs after a death in her own family, Josh realizes that somethings that seem very tenous can be very real, even if fleeting.

Lesley Choyce capably gets into the heads of young people, whether they be dealing with dysfunctional families, drugs, mental health or just growing up.  In Scam, Lesley Choyce takes on the issues of grief and trust, and demonstrates that we all need a little help sometimes and that the help can come from the unlikeliest of sources, even those in which we don’t always have confidence.

March 03, 2016

The Inn Between

by Marina Cohen
Roaring Brook Press
208 pp.
Ages 8-12
For release March 2016

Don’t be deceived by the gold and green turquoise lightness of the cover of The Inn Between.  The story is nothing but dark and I believe that Marina Cohen has achieved her goal of a Stephen King novel for middle grade readers.

Eleven-year-old Quinn Martin is travelling by car with her best friend Kara Cawston and Kara’s family–parents and older brother Josh–to the family’s new home in Santa Monica.  The two girls had been inseparable in Denver and the linking of their two woven frienship bracelets, which seems to intrigue the non-Norm man running Norm’s Diner, shows how close the two really are.  After a weird bright light in the desert accosts the family car, they stop at the Inn Between, a gorgeous old-fashioned hotel straddling the border between California and Nevada, that promises “We’ve been expecting you.” (pg. 28)

As beautiful as the hotel is, the people within are very strange (and this is an operative word for everything at the Inn Between) and oddly overly hospitable.  There’s the desk clerk Persephone, the elevator operator Sharon (for the elevaor they are not allowed to use) and the valet-doorman, Aides.  And the guests are just as odd. From old Mr. Mirabelli who tells Quinn “They’re going to pull the plug” (pg. 34) to the little girl with the singed doll and Rico the guy who’d partied a little too hard and had come for a rest.  Most scary though is a tall, unshaven man in a black and yellow ball cap whom Quinn notices pursuing them.

After the first night, Kara’s parents are gone, apparently with the van that had to be towed for servicing, and the three kids spend the time swimming, enjoying the food and just hanging out.  But Quinn’s mind is perpetually troubled with memories of her little sister Emma and the guilt she harbours about her, and smells and sounds at the hotel continue to play on these memories.

When Josh goes awol too, Quinn and Kara go in search of Emma, convinced the crying Quinn hears is her young sister who had gone missing.  But what they find starts Quinn realizing who the guests at the Inn Between really are and why they must escape, without Kara’s parents and Josh.

The Inn Between is a mermerizing read of creepiness and suspense with a healthy dose of action and psychological tension.  Young readers who never get enough of spine-chilling drama (and it is very limited in youngCanLit) will be pleasantly disturbed by the eerie story, unnerving setting, and sinister atmosphere of The Inn Between.  Marina Cohen has done it.  She has written a spooky–but ghost-free–story about a place you wouldn’t want to visit and wrapped it in a cosy hotel robe of mystery and unsettling thoughts, without completely terrifying young readers, though there are some frightening scenes.  Best of all, Marina Cohen has something to say about friendship and grief and guilt but does so in a wonderfully unique and  horrific narrative.

February 22, 2016

Girl on the Run

by B. R. Myers
Nimbus Publishing
332 pp.
Ages 12+
September 2015

I’m sorry I didn’t review this book sooner but I should have recalled how much I’d been impressed with B. R. Myers’ debut novel, Butterflies Don’t Lie (Nimbus, 2014).  But, here I am again, reviewing in winter a book that takes place during summer. Let’s look at it this way, though:  it’s that time of year when high school students are thinking about summer jobs and parents are anticipating signing up their children for summer camps.  So, it’s still all good: both Girl on the Run and reviewing Girl on the Run now.

Seventeen-year-old Jesse Collins used to be a runner and a very good one.  But that all changed four months ago when her father died suddenly.
I used to care about provincial records, and even the Olympics, but not anymore.  Those were things I no longer had, and no longer deserved.  I put my hand on my stomach, on the heaviness that was always there.  A reminder of what I’d done and what I’d lost. (pg. 49)
Now it’s all she can do to push forward through her days, convince her mother that she’s not depressed and give in to her BFF’s attempts to get her dating and meeting the right guy.  Jesse needs a fresh start and two months at Kamp Krystal Lake as a counsellor is what she plans to do.  What she doesn’t plan on is there being a mix-up with the camp thinking she was a male and entrusting her with Cabin 4A, a small makeshift cabin, and four twelve-year-old boys: the camp owner’s terror of a son, Spencer; twins Liam and Duff; and the kindest of all, Scotty.

While Jesse tries to make the best of things, which isn’t always easy, she does meet new people who don’t know about her past and she’s so good with that.  There’s Devin, another counsellor (or so she thinks) that is making the moves on her; Lewis, recent grad and part of the kitchen staff; Alicia, a friendly lifeguard; Lacey, the perfect counsellor to a cabin of pink cupettes, as Jesse calls them; and Kirk, the head counsellor who always seems to catch her at her worst but whose milk chocolate eyes consistently attract her notice.

But the pranks pulled by the boys, including a fake drowning that costs Jesse a special necklace from her parents, commemorating her first provincial running record, brings her to the attention of the camp director, Susan, who wonders, along with Kirk and Lacey, whether they should be looking for another counsellor for the boys.  And, though the camp is eager to have Jesse run for them in the annual lake triathlon against other camps, Jesse is adamant that she will not.

Still, guilt-ridden about her dad’s death, Jesse perseveres, through humiliation and misunderstandings and misplaced crushings and some kissing, to find that she has a lot more gumption than she first thought and is able to make Kamp Krystal Lake a positive experience for more than just herself.

B. R. Myers embeds a lot of constructive messages in this sweet volume of teen chicklit. Not only do readers get to share in a summer fling with Jesse and go through the full camp experience of  outdoor activities, dances, dining hall shenanigans and food, they will learn a lot about Jesse’s namesake, runner Jesse Owens, about working through guilt and grief, and about resiliency.  Lessons well learned and even enjoyed by Jesse herself, the Girl on the Run.

November 02, 2015

Missing Nimâmâ

by Melanie Florence
Illustrated by François Thisdale
Clockwise Press
32 pp.
Ages 8+
October, 2015

Missing Nimâmâ is a stunning accomplishment in story telling, though a story that shouldn’t have to be told because no mother should go missing and be lost to a little girl who would grow up without her.  Reading Missing Nimâmâ (nimâmâ is Cree for my mother) is like exposing an wound and it hurts.

Missing Nimâmâ is told in two voices,  distinguished both on the page and with the font.  The first voice is that of Kateri, a young girl, who lives with her nôhkum (grandmother) and dreams and longs for nimâmâ who is one of the lost Indigenous women whose disappearances have been shamefully ignored.  The second voice, in italicized text, is an ethereal one, that of Kateri’s mother, who calls her daughter kamâmakos, her beautiful little butterfly, and who watches over her as she goes to school, is loved by her nôhkum, grows into a young woman, marries and becomes a mother herself.  With every milestone, Kateri wishes for her mother to be with her, occasionally sensing her spiritual presence, while her mother appreciates all that her daughter has become, reasurring her that,

I’m here, kâmamakos.
I’ve never left you. 
When you feel me with you, I’m there. 
You’re never alone.
Your mother is still watching over you.
(pg. 17)

But like far too many of the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, Kateri’s nimâmâ is only a spiritual presence in her daughter’s life and it will be years before Kateri will get the phone call telling her of her mother’s fate.  It is not a happy ending, and there are no happy endings for these women or their families.  But Melanie Florence still allows for Kateri and vicariously for her mother to find some happiness.

Missing Nimâmâ is heartbreaking.  It’s soulful and breathtakingly painful, and all the more so because of Melanie Florence’s free verse text. Never have I read free verse so aptly applied in a picture book.  Melanie Florence, an Aborginal writer, has demonstrated a powerful skill at creating rhythmic emotions with words.  The tugs at the heart are aching for the story they tell and the artistry with which François Thisdale tells it.

The matching of François Thisdale’s art with Melanie Florence’s text is wondrous.  As poignantly as he used mixed media (digital and drawn images) in earlier texts (The Stamp Collector by Jennifer Lanthier, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012; That Squeak by Carolyn Beck, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015), François Thisdale fluidly bridges the concrete world of a little girl and her nôhkum with the ethereal one of her mother.  His choice of colours and the ability to enrich stark outdoor scenes of yards and forests and simply furnished indoor rooms create ghostly landscapes that epitomize the shadows of a girl's longing for her mother, a mother lost but never, never forgotten.

Missing Nimâmâ is a haunting story of lives lost and lived and shared, beautifully rendered in words and art.  Expect to see this one on award lists in the near future.

October 26, 2015

#CanLitChoices: Alternatives to The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
Dutton Books for Young Readers
336 pp.
Ages 14-17
Rl lexile 850
RL 5.5

The Fault in Our Stars, winner of the Teen Book of the Year by the Children's Choice Book Awards and the basis for a critically-acclaimed film, is a favourite novel read by teens across Canada and the U.S. The story focuses on the romance between Hazel, a cancer patient, and Augustus, a teen who lost his leg to osteosarcoma, who meet at a support group and bond over books, falling in love.

Themes upon which teachers focus lessons include the following:

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.

     †                    †                    †                    †                    †  

Before We Go
by Amy Bright
Red Deer Press
222 pp.
Ages 12+
Reviewed here

After visiting her dying grandmother in the hospital, Emily meets another teen Alex and his sister who too are dealing with death.

Crush. Candy. Corpse
by Sylvia McNicoll
219 pp.
Ages 12+
Reviewed here

While volunteering at a long-term care facility, Sunny meets Cole and his grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer's.

The Death of Us
by Alice Kuipers
HarperTrophy Canada
216 pp.
Ages 13+
Reviewed here

Callie's reunion with former friend Ivy brings a summer of boys and, sadly, death.

Dying to go Viral
by Sylvia McNicoll
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
251 pp.
Ages 12+
Reviewed here

Jade's death in a skateboarding accident brings her back for one week to try to make things right for all.

My Beating Teenage Heart
by C. K. Kelly Martin
Random House
288 pp.
Ages 13+
Reviewed here

Ashlyn tries to piece together why her body-less self is watching teen Breckon who is dealing with the death of his younger sister.

The World Without Us
by Robin Stevenson
Orca Book Publishers
226 pp.
Ages 12-16
Reviewed here

Though Jeremy and Melody make a pact to jump from a bridge, Melody chooses not to do so and is left behind to deal with that choice.

In each of the above books, the protagonist must deal with a death or imminent death of someone significant–a friend, a sibling, a grandparent, herself!–and must deal with that grief with someone to whom they are emotionally drawn. There is grief, romance, guilt and fear. What else does a book alternative to The Fault in Our Stars need? Absolutely nothing!

Leave comments if you have any other suggestions for The Fault in Our Stars alternatives or to select an age-old novel that needs refreshing with #CanLitChoices.

October 10, 2015

Between Shadows

by Kathleen Cook Waldron
Coteau Books
100 pp.
Ages 8-12
April 2015

"When we lose people we love, we need to remember how they lived, not just how they died.  Life is more than shadows, it's the light behind those shadows." (pg. 12-13)
Ari Martin's memories of his 9th summer at his Gramps' cabin are filled with learning how to swim, paddle, and picking mushrooms and berries.  That is, until an accident with a logging truck takes his mother's life and Ari and his father never return.  Finally, Ari is 12 and set to visit Gramps alone this summer. Then his grandfather dies.  So what had been a perfect plan becomes Dad and Ari flying from Toronto to meet with Dad's sister Laurel and go to the cabin, now painted in the colours of the rainbow, to settle Gramps' estate.

But, regardless of Gramps' will which leaves the cabin and 160 acres on Canoe Lake to Ari, everything can be sold by his father and aunt if they decide to do so and put the money into a trust for him.  And Aunt Laurel, who'd already put up a locked gate to the property, has arranged for a realtor to appraise the property and is talking to a developer who wants to put up a resort and golf course.

However, Ari is out there reliving the summer with his Gramps and making the acquaintance of a girl named Tam who knew his grandfather–seems like everyone nearby did and really liked the man–and shares with Ari a secret way to a secluded beach that his grandfather allowed locals to use.

The family they once were–with Mom and Gramps–is gone, now in the shadows, and only ever briefly do Ari, Dad and Aunt Laurel come together to act as a normal family.  But Ari is holding out for a family and friends and a place to call home more than his father and aunt realize and, with a little help from new friends and Gramps, he's going to do it.

I'm sorry I missed Between Shadows when it first came out because it is a great read: inspiring and honest and pitched perfect for a middle-grade readership.  While still dealing with difficult issues of death and grief and family dynamics, even dysfunctional ones, Kathleen Cook Waldron gets inside Ari's head and knows what a kid–and he could be any child from 8 to 12–wants and needs without having him become precocious or demanding.  He's just a kid who wants to feel the love of family and the safety of home and friendship.  That's not asking that much.  And by getting Ari to see Between Shadows for the good stuff that was out there and within his grasp, Kathleen Cook Waldron provides a cheery reminder that sometimes things work out just fine.

August 19, 2015

That Squeak

by Carolyn Beck
Illustrated by François Thisdale
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
40 pp.
Ages 6-10
September 2015

With Once Upon a Line (Wallace Edwards, Pajama Press, 2015) and Some Things I've Lost (Cybèle Young, Groundwood Books, 2015), That Squeak makes a trifecta of outstanding youngCanLit picture books being released within the month, truly supportive of the idea that we've entered a new golden age of illustrated books (see an upcoming Quill & Quire examining this issue).

There is no trivial writing or illustration here.  There is a subtle darkness behind That Squeak which draws the reader in from page one.  Two boys, Jay and Joe, on their bikes–Jay's with "that squeak"–spend considerable time exploring and delving in the places beyond town and the farmlands, to the woods and the pond therein. "Our place."  But there comes a time when Jay is gone, killed, and his bike remains abandoned and locked up to a school fence, decaying in the elements of the seasons.  But the new boy, Carlos, doesn't know the bike's history or Joe's friendship with Jay or what happened to Jay and his questions and interest in the bike have Joe erupting.
Everything explodes at once.  I hear the sound of your name bounce off the brick wall of the school  Inside my ribs, big and aching sobs suck and heave like tidal waves.  There's snot everywhere.  And so many tears that I can't see anymore. (pg. 22)
It's not until Joe can see beyond his anger and his grief that he opens himself up to learning of Carlos' own story and the two can deal with their hurts together, recognizing the importance of cherishing some things, even a squeak.

Wow.  That Squeak is not a trivial story or a childish read.  It covers important issues of friendship and death, grief and anger, and acceptance and memory.  And Carolyn Beck writes it with the gravity it deserves.  Readers, younger and older, will recognize the solemnity of the story, and François Thisdale's deep illustrations reflect that weightiness.  Just as he capably conveyed the power of words from a cell-bound writer in the award-winning The Stamp Collector (Jennifer Lanthier, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012), François Thisdale effectively uses painting with digital drawing to deliver colour and line blended just as a friendship can be with sorrows and secrets.  And that's what Carolyn Beck and François Thisdale have done in That Squeak: melded depth and lightness together, in words and images.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Carolyn Beck will also be attending the Eden Mills Writers' Festival on Sunday, September 13, 2015.  It's definitely becoming a go-to event for lovers of youngCanLit!