Showing posts with label parents. Show all posts
Showing posts with label parents. Show all posts

July 10, 2020

He Must Like You

Written by Danielle Younge-Ullman
Viking (Penguin Random House)
336 pp.
Ages 14+
July 2020
Reviewed from advance readers copy

Young girls are often told, or at least they once were, that if a boy teased you or went out of his way to annoy you or get your attention that “he must like you.” And even though  they may feel unsafe or targeted, they were instructed to just bear it and were essentially chastized for making a big deal of it. Everyone should know better today. But do we?

Libby lives with her parents in the small community of Pine Ridge and in January of her senior year, her parents inform her of her new reality. Seems that because her older brother Jack dropped out of pre-med and skipped off to Greece around the time her dad was fired from his real estate brokerage firm, her parents have decided that they’ve spoiled their kids and it’s time for Libby to become independent. Not only do they want her to get a job and look for an apartment–they have plans to redo her and Jack’s rooms for Airbnb rental–but her education fund is gone. Libby is flabbergasted but she has no choice but to find a way to make some money.

She is determined to get a job as a server so she can boost her savings with tips. Because of her dad’s reputation as a jerk who provokes local businesses–they later learn he’s moved on to trolling on social media–she gets a wait job at the Goat, a restaurant just out of town. The staff is friendly and she likes the work, and Kyle, the host, helps her out by sending the big spenders her way to increase her tips.

Though Libby is not currently seeing anyone, she’s struggling with feelings about relationships and interactions she’s had and is having with certain guys in her life. She had a weird relationship with her ex-boyfriend Boris that was based more on relenting to sex than consenting to it. Then there’s Kyle who flirts like crazy with her and with whom she has sex though doesn’t feel good about doing it. There’s also her good friend Noah who is in a long-distance relationship but to whom Libby is drawn romantically.  And then there’s Perry Ackerman, the town’s saviour and big-tipping Goat customer, who regularly harasses her with sexually explicit banter and handsiness.

The turning point for Libby is a school assembly about consent given by a public health nurse.
…Dahlia Brennan basically just reached into my brain, grabbed a bunch of my memories from where they were filed (mostly under “crappy sex” or “boy acts like jerk” or “Libby is an idiot”), threw them on the floor, and told me I have to refile them under “coercion,” “sexual assault,’ and “rape.” (pg. 66)
So not only is she dealing with a lousy family situation, Libby is recognizing that, beyond the overtly offensive Perry whose behaviour should never have been tolerated by so many,  her crappy feelings related to Boris and Kyle need to be resolved if she is to have a positive relationship with Noah (fingers crossed) and keep a job she needs.

He Must Like You is a big story. (Danielle Younge-Ullman knows how to do important stories for young adults. If you haven't read her Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined, which won the Forest of Reading's White Pine Award and was nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award, put it on your to-be-read list.) He Must Like You is a story about sexual harassment, assault, consent, relationships and family. And Danielle Younge-Ullman ensures that it is all about Libby and what she is experiencing and what she needs. She gets to choose how she feels. She gets to decide what is acceptable for her in approaching the guys who have compromised her will and safety.  She gets to decide what she will and will not accept. In a time of #MeToo, Danielle Younge-Ullman educates young teens of all genders that consent is not just a yes or a no. It’s so much more. And Danielle Younge-Ullman does this with subtlety and sensitivity, common sense and even humour.

He might like her–and Noah does–but no person should feel unsafe or compromised or guilted by the another's interest or actions and He Must Like You and Danielle Younge-Ullman leave no room for misinterpretation or ambiguity about this while telling a great YA story that inspires hope for love and empowerment.

May 23, 2019

The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali

Written by Sabina Khan
336 pp.
Ages 14+
January 2019

Rukhsana Ali's parents have three rules by which she, a Muslim Bengali, must abide: No parties, no shorts, no boys. The hardest rule to keep is the parties one because she's seventeen, living in Seattle and set to graduate in a couple of months and she's in love with Ariana. Rukhsana is hopeful that once she turns 18 and heads to Caltech, where she has a full scholarship, she'll be able to come out to her parents and live and love as she chooses.

But her parents have a different idea for her life.
It is our job is to make all the important decisions. That way we can make sure there is nothing for anyone to gossip about. (pg. 17)
And one of those ideas is that she must learn how to be a good wife and marry a Bengali man. In fact, there is talk of potential matches, even with the handsome Irfan who admits his love for Sara, a white girl, of whom his parents would definitely not approve. Learning that Rukhsana is gay, the two are determined to support each other in their love choices. But then Rukhsana's mom catches her daughter and Ariana kissing. Soon Rukhsana and her parents are leaving for Bangladesh, ostensibly because her beloved grandmother is at death's door. Of course, Nani is far healthier than announced and Rukhsana's parents delay their return and begin to welcome potential suitors and their families. When the teen realizes what they are doing, going so far as to lock her in a room and get a jinn-catcher to relieve her of the demons that inhabit her body, Rukhsana is determined to find a way to escape. With the support of Nani, who offers courage via her own diary of pain within a loveless marriage, as well as that of her cousin Shaila and a potential groom Sohail, Rukhsana makes a plan to return to Ariana. But will she have a girlfriend waiting for her when both of their parents have been discouraging their relationship? Can their love survive the distance, the families and the cultural divide?

The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali is packed with the teen angst of intense love, parental expectations and choosing what is best for oneself. But author Sabina Khan goes beyond that common YA theme and embeds it in a culture and religion that seem to pose obstacles rather than support development. The teen's parents only see her successes as matrimonial currency, continuing to favour her brother Aamir. The community talks of LGBTQ individuals as abnormal and disgusting, even inspiring violence against them. How is Rukhsana to balance being herself with that of being an obedient daughter of Muslim parents? But Sabina Khan has Rukhsana maneuvering her way through, advancing herself to a life with love and without lies. Like the front and back book covers of The Love and and Lives of Rukhsana Ali demonstrates, Rukhsana can be both but she must and does decide who she will be and accept both the burdens and blessings of each.

March 12, 2019

Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life

Written by Beverley Brenna
Illustrated by Tara Anderson
Pajama Press
128 pp.
Ages 7-10
February 2019

Finding one’s own purpose in life is not an easy task and one which many of us never find. Imagine being a hamster in a cage in a pet store and wondering about what life holds for you. Is it just anticipating fresh bedding? Is it waiting for extra peanuts? Is it to find a forever home? Is it to be free?  But with the hamster’s adoption by nine-year-old Jeannie, the hamster, first known as Harvey Owens and then Sapphire, looks for that meaning and finds it with the help of a rich collection of characters and a few nibbles on fingers.

Told in the alternating voices of Sapphire and Jeannie, Beverley Brenna begins Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life with a long-awaited trip to the pet store for Jeannie’s promised Christmas gift of a hamster.  Though the visit almost doesn’t happen as Jeannie’s mother deems her daughter’s behaviour at the mall as inappropriate, Jeannie picks out the white hamster with the navy blue eyes and purchases all the materials to make his home perfect. But the hamster, whom she originally names Harvey Owens after her father who has moved out of the house, is frightened by the new sounds, smells and temperatures and lashes out by biting, even more so after they are involved in a car accident. Jeannie, who is dealing with her own stresses that include not being heard, a father who seems to be off with a new life and a mother struggling with two young children and trying to deal with her own grief and anger about her marriage, recognizes that the little guy bites when scared or surprised, and helps educate all who come near him to be considerate. And since he is such a great comfort to all of them–Jeannie, her brother Alistair, her mom and others–once they learn how to be kind to him, he has much to offer them back. And it makes no difference when he is identified as a her.

Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life is far greater than a story about a girl getting a pet hamster. It’s about struggling to find your place. Jeannie is a pretty good caregiver for Sapphire but she’s trying to figure out why her father isn’t keeping in touch, whether her parents are “getting put back together” (pg. 40), why her little brother seems stressed, how to be a friend, why her Mom’s new friend Anna Conda seems reserved though really cool, and the questions that kids want answered but no one will respect them enough to tell them the truth. Meanwhile Sapphire is recognizing how nice her new home is, singing when pleased, and beginning to understand freedom, especially after a dangerous escape outdoors in frigid January.
It seems to me that Free is just a little bit too big to think about for very long. (pg. 67)
It’s perfect that Jeannie’s story and Sapphire’s come together to become something bigger and better. Just as the two are better for having each other in their lives, Beverley Brenna’s text is enhanced with the adorable illustrations by Tara Anderson which head each of the forty-two chapters. Her pencil sketches of Sapphire make up the majority of these illustrations and show the little hamster eating, playing, sleeping, hiding and just being all-around cute. I had some trepidation about an animal story, especially one which begins in a pet store, but Tara Anderson’s charming artwork reassured me that Sapphire’s story would turn out well.

A perfect early reader for kids who love animals, Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life is actually more about giving significance to managing our own stories. It may require a nip or a bite or some yelling to be heard, or perhaps a snuggle or a quiet voice might be in order, but it's about finding the meaning of your own life, even if only for the time being.
From Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life by Beverley Brenna,               illustrated by Tara Anderson

March 05, 2019

What We Buried

Written by Kate A. Boorman
Henry Holt and Company
320 pp.
Ages 14-18
February 2019

You created your reality; live with it. (pg. 260)

But the realities that have been created for eighteen-year-old Jory Brewer and his sixteen-year-old sister Lavinia (Liv) are only minimally their own doing. Jory, born with Moebius syndrome, has several paralyzed craniofacial nerves which affect his appearance, his speech and his eating. He may choose to say very little and be more socially withdrawn but how others respond to him is not on him. He'd had one corrective surgery as a child and doctors had recommended further intervention but his parents didn't think it was a good investment. On the other hand, what they thought was a good investment was putting Liv on the child beauty pageant circuit, including a stint on Darling Divas, the reality TV show about pageants and their contestants. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of that career, Liv is now suing her parents for "irreparable and lasting harm." (pg. 11)

On the day of the trial, their parents disappear from the courthouse. Liv returns to the house, for the first time in months, ostensibly to help Jory but more to learn what has happened to their parents whom she believes Jory is helping. When she thinks she knows where they've gone, the two siblings head out to an old cabin their mother had inherited and which their father had always wanted to sell. But in a chilling road trip during which the two are haunted by fleeting visions, possible déjà vu, recurrent memories and danger, Liv and Jory transform from squabbling sibs to something unexpected.
And there it was–an uncanny sense of temporality. Like my reaction to what was happening–the focus of my attention–was a better measure of time than the minutes clicking over on the digital clock.  Everything was beginning to feel malleable and unfixed, like if I looked hard enough at the road illuminated by our headlights, I'd see beyond it, or behind it, or something. (pg. 103)
Kate A. Boorman has written a thriller that is equal parts plot and character in which both are significant and extraordinary. As the reader struggles to sort out the plot including what happened to the teens' parents, how the repeating news story on the radio is important, and what is real and either supernatural or illusion, Jory and Liv are exploring who they were, who they are and who they want to be.
Book jacket of What We Buried by Kate A. Boorman
The front cover of What We Buried may look like the story is about Liv and her perceptions but the back cover reveals that Jory's perspective is just as important. It's the way the two siblings see things about themselves, each other, their parents and the outside world and how it sees them that makes What We Buried intense and emotional.
You know the saying "Seeing is believing"? It's a problem, when you think about it. I mean, it's reasonable for people to want proof before they accept something they've been told. I do. I'm a fan of logic and demonstrable facts. But the idea inherent: that you can believe what you see? That's majorly flawed, because people usually have no idea what they're looking at. It's why people think my sister is a lovely, tragic victim. It's why they so often assume I can't tie my own shoes. (pg. 6)
The contrast of reality and illusion is a complex one in What We Buried and that's because Kate A. Boorman draws us in but doesn't join us for the journey. It's up to the reader to determine what might be real and what might be memory or what might be something else entirely. See if you can see beyond the masks of Liv's beauty and Jory's disorder and look deeper into their stories to find what may be buried, both literally and figuratively.

February 19, 2019

A World Below

Written by Wesley King
A Paula Wiseman Book/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
261 pp.
Ages 8-14

It's a dark, dark place in the caves and tunnels of New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns and Eric, Silvia and the other students of Mr. Baker's small advanced middle-school class are going to find out just how dark it can be when a field trip goes from scholarly to scary.

When an earthquake hits, sending rocks falling and splitting the ground beneath, teacher Mr. Baker disappears into one crack and the kids are dragged deep into the earth by currents of cold water. When thirteen-year-old Eric Johnson drags himself out of the water, he finds himself alone and determined to find his way out. The other students have travelled further down, unable to extricate themselves until they reach still waters. After reviving one student with CPR, Silvia Rodrigues who is desperately trying to keep her anxiety in check is unofficially designated their leader and suggests they find Eric. But, in addition to chapters focusing on Eric and Silvia's perspectives, there are those told of a boy of similar age, Carlos, the King of the Midnight Realm, who is determined to keep his underground community safe from the exiled traitors called Worms and the dangerous "surface humans."

In an adventure-survival story that feels a bit like a melding of Indiana Jones with The Lord of the Flies without the creepy parts, Wesley King, award-winning author of The Vindico (Penguin, 2012) and OCDaniel (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2016) celebrates kids who may see themselves as different and even weak because of their mental health issues or personalities but who are strong and bright and resilient and the stuff of heroes. Silvia tries to hide the vulnerability she feels with her anxiety and panic attacks that keep her from sleeping well but her peers see her as brave and a true leader. Eric and Carlos are living with the reminders of their fathers' strengths or failings and judging themselves by those memories. Eric's father, before leaving to make a new family, was a jerk to Eric's mom and called Eric weird because he was a loner who liked to read. Carlos is trying to lead his people as his father before him did but sees his compassion and insight as contrary and consequently dangerous to those he is destined to rule.
"We shouldn't be spending our whole lives trying to be exactly like our parents. That won't work." (pg. 189)
In an extraordinary world of tree-like mushrooms, rats the size of beagles, spiders and catfish-like creatures as large as cars, and oppressive darkness only relieved by occasional bioluminescence and intermittent flashlight or cell phone light, these young people struggle through their fears, shared and not, to survive and even learn about others and themselves.
"But keeping my distance ... it's just ... easy."
"Stupid things usually are," she said simply. (pg. 215)
Like Jean Craighead George's book My Side of the Mountain, to which both Eric and Wesley King both reference, A World Below allows young people to see what separation from our peers and families can deliver. It gives us a chance to see ourselves as we are, not as others might see us or as we think we are seen. There's a clarity of perception that comes with focusing on what really matters–here, survival–and finding new realities, both within and externally. A World Below may be a coming-of-age story, based solely on the youth of the characters and their efforts to understand themselves and the world around them, but it goes beyond that, guiding readers through the darkness of twisted thinking and fears and into the light of understanding and empathy for self and others.

January 14, 2019

The Beauty of the Moment

Written by Tanaz Bhathena
Penguin Teen Canada
384 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2019
Reviewed from advance reader's edition

They say that those who look to the past are often saddened, those who look to the future only are anxious and those who stay in the present are content. While this is tremendously oversimplified, it could describe the experiences of seventeen-year-old Susan Foster who has immigrated from Saudi Arabia with her parents to Mississauga. Actually, although her father, whom she calls Appa, came with them to purchase a condo and a car, arranged for driving lessons for Susan and registration for school, and generally got Susan and Amma established, he has returned to Jeddah to his work as a doctor, hopeful of soon joining them permanently. So, except for regular Skype visits and phone calls to friends and family, Susan and Amma are left to navigate their new lives in Canada essentially alone.

While Alisha, her best friend in Jeddah, insists Susan is lucky to be in Canada, away from dating restrictions, Susan sees the complexity of her new situation. She will be living alone with her mother, a woman who focuses only on Susan's academic excellence and is bitter that they've moved essentially for Susan's education, and away from Appa who seemed more amenable to Susan's artistic proclivities.
In Jeddah, my father played the role of a buffer, the water to my mother's fire, a tree that bent to her wind instead of resisting its pressure. (pg. 75)
Though Susan has always excelled at school, she is learning that she is much better at rote and memorization than at interactive learning like labs and even her driving lessons. And not doing well is not an option, especially as Appa is directing her to medical school and Amma to engineering. She can't even tell them that what she dreams about is going to art school.

And then there are the boys. Actually there is one boy, Malcolm Vakil, who has caught Susan's eye, as she has caught his. Dealing with the death of his mother and a father who is abusive and cheated on his mother, Malcolm turned his grief and anger into behaviours his teachers and father see as problematic. But, though he's had a history of sneaking out, drinking and smoking, doing drugs and dating the beautiful but capricious Afrin Patel, Malcolm finds himself drawn away from those behaviours and towards Susan.

The Beauty of the Moment, told in alternating chapters from Susan and Malcolm's perspectives, focuses on the merging of two teens' stories, rich with back stories and future ambitions. Because their story is neither straightforward nor uncomplicated, exactly as life is, The Beauty of the Moment takes the reader backwards, sideways and in circles as the two may or may not find their way to each other and contentment in their family situations.

Tanaz Bhathena rocketed onto the YA CanLit scene in 2018 with her debut novel A Girl Like That (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018) that captured the tragedies of a Saudi teen's relationship with a boy in a place of gender inequality and religious restrictions. By moving this story to Mississauga, while tethering it to Saudi Arabia via Alisha and Appa, Tanaz Bhathena expands her story to one of immigration and cultural contrast.  Yet The Beauty of the Moment is still a story of teens because Susan and Malcolm could be any teens, dealing with family, school, dating and considering their futures. Their stories are just more complicated because of cultural expectations.

Still it is the way Tanaz Bhathena tells their stories, imbuing them with the distinction of their situations and with the eloquence of voice and thought, that uplifts the plot. It may be titled The Beauty of the Moment, but the book makes sure to see that the lifetime beyond the moment helps create that beauty. There are former lives that we think were better but also hold uncomfortable memories. There is the future which generates dread but holds the promise of opportunity and change.
"Nothing lasts forever," I say. "Not this snowflake. Not our homes, not our families. But it doesn't mean you can't live in the beauty of the moment." (pg. 221)
It's being mindful of that moment and all the beauty it entails that brings contentment, and that's what Susan and Malcolm ultimately attain. That's a beautiful thing.

November 30, 2017

Louis Undercover

Written by Fanny Britt
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou
Groundwood Books
160 pp.
Ages 9-14
October 2017

From the acclaimed partnership of Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault that brought us the award-winning Jane, the Fox and Me (Groundwood, 2013), which was also translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou, comes a second graphic novel of emotional sensitivity, this time in a complex familial context.

The title may suggest a children's game of spying but Louis is more discreet observer and listener.  He watches important people in his life and sees what they do and hears what they say.  These observations form the fabric of his interactions with them, bringing out his sensitivities, fears and compassion. And he has much to observe, as he and his little brother Truffle bounce between their city apartment where they live with their mother and their country house where their alcoholic father still lives.
From Louis Undercover 
by Fanny Britt 
illus. by Isabelle Arsenault
Louis sees the ups and downs of his father's alcoholism: the manic periods of song and big plans and the depressive times of tears and melancholy, especially when the boys leave.  At home, he sees the joy in his mother when they return but also her sarcasm and loneliness.  Louis has his own secret burdens which he only shares with his good friend Boris.  Louis is in love with Billie.
She’s a spectacled siren, a rainstorm,
A chocolate fountain, a silent queen.
 (pg. 50)
From Louis Undercover 
by Fanny Britt 
illus. by Isabelle Arsenault
He is overwhelmed by his affection for Billie but he is immobilized into inaction.  
I had no idea that love is like a rock shattering your heart, as painful as it is life-giving, and that even as it makes you want to bolt, it keeps you glued to the spot. (pg. 58)
Though he makes plans to speak with her, just to say a few words to the gutsy girl who stands up to injustice and reads voraciously, he can't do it, even with the summer holidays imminent and a gift of dice for her in his pocket.  

From Louise Undercover 
by Fanny Britt 
illus. by Isabelle Arsenault
But two weeks of the summer at their father's becomes a turning point for the family.  Their father has stopped drinking and seems to be his old positive self, as reflected in the splashes of yellow, hitherto reserved for Billie.  Though their mom is seen as mired in the sadness of the turquoise and the browns of regular life, when Truffle is injured and sent to hospital, she rushes to his side and stays with them at their old house.  She makes breakfast and laughs with their father and sleeps in his bedroom.  They're back to their "normal" family and a trip to New York City holds the promise of a complete reunion.  But, sadly and realistically, the yellows give way to the family's blues of the past.  Returning to school in the fall, Louis can take this experience as a life lesson that love can end badly or he can see the hope that it can conquer the worst.

Fanny Britt has given us a story about a family dealing with an alcoholic parent and creates a story of understanding.  Louis sees what has happened to his family and is disheartened by it.  He recognizes the signs of his father's drinking and the impact on his mother and their family.  He is wary of love and how it can go horribly wrong.  (Note Louis' watching of his sober father playing with the happy Truffle in the illustration above.) Even his mother, ever immersed in the sadness of needing to be separated from her husband, holds out hope for recovery and reconciliation.  How Louis will adapt that understanding to his own crush on Billie, desperate to speak with her but reluctant and apprehensive about the outcome, is an ending that must be read and seen to be fully appreciated.  
From Louis Undercover 
by Fanny Britt 
illus. by Isabelle Arsenault
Isabelle Arsenault does emotional storytelling in illustration. She doesn't just draw pictures to go with the story; she builds the story with surreal elements that create depth and carry the nuance of Louis' family's circumstances.  The use of yellow and turquoise, with the browns and greys, subtly convey the emotion of each situation.  The yellow is positive and hopeful and cheery, as when Louis watches Billie or his family is happy and Dad is sober.  Turquoise permeates those illustrations of lives living with heartbreak.  Real life is brown and grey because it's sobering and no-nonsense.  

There is much sadness in Louis Undercover.  Turquoise and browns and greys are the overwhelming colours.  But be assured that there is yellow in Louis' life and Fanny Britt resolves his story with a subtle explosion of positivity matched by Isabelle Arsenault exquisite artwork.

May 12, 2017

Optimists Die First

Written by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books
240 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2017

Reviewed from audiobook
Read by Julia Whelan
Listening Library
4 hr 58 min

Apparently optimists do die first.  By ten years.  Pessimists, it seems, are more realistic because they see eventualities the oblivious optimists ignore.  No wonder Petula De Wilde, 16, is obsessed with all the circumstances that can take and have taken peoples’ lives before expected.  Her obsession about all things dangerous has her keeping a scrapbook of news stories of deaths from falling debris at construction sites, a faulty roller coaster or elevator, and even deadly paper cuts, leaving her fearful of everything from double-dipping eaters, public washrooms, biological warfare, and airplanes.  This since the death of her baby sister Maxine two years earlier, a death for which Petula blames herself.  Now she can’t keep herself safe enough.

In lieu of counselling, Petula attends YART, Youth Art Therapy, along with recently out-of-the-closet Alonzo, alcoholic Koula, angry, grief-stricken Ivan and new guy Jacob Cohen, the guy with the bionic arm.  Under the instruction of therapist Betty, the group undertakes a series of juvenile projects.  But, after Petula and the aspiring film director Jacob prepare a cat adaptation of Wuthering Heights (to rave reviews, except from their English teacher), the group convinces Betty to let them organize their own projects, more relevant to their needs and issues.

Amidst their YART sessions, Petula’s phobic life style, overwhelming guilt, regrets over falling out with former BFF and crafting buddy Rachel, and a disintegrating family, Petula and Jacob fall in love.  But Jacob only reveals a few scenes from his life, and apparently a lot of it is fiction, jeopardizing his relationship with Petula and the other members of YART.  Whether they can find a way to heal their own guilts and allow another into their worlds is only up to Susin Nielsen, director of fine stories and creator of characters more real than those we encounter every day.

If you’re familiar with Susin Nielsen’s earlier works (Word Nerd; Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom; The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen; and We Are All Made of Molecules)–and if you’re not, go out right now, rush, get them and read them–you’ll know the power of her writing to blend stories of families in transition with heavy issues like death, divorce and homophobia, while still leaving room for humour and romantic love.  Optimists Die First is a package of inspiritment (even from the tragedies) that serves to entertain because of Susin Nielsen’s diverse characters, human and cat, subplots of secrets and shames, and reassurance of a close that’s more a beginning than an end.
But that’s life, I guess. We know we can’t do a rewrite.  We can’t undo what’s been done, or control what’s coming next.   
All we can do is hope for the best.
Just stick to the bright side (away from falling construction debris) and you’ll be just fine.  I’m positive.


Author Susin Nielsen speaks about Optimists Die First in a brief video on YouTube and is accompanied by her cat who is not named Moominmamma, Anne of Green Gables, Ferdinand, Stuart Little, Stanley, Alice or Pippi.

Susin Nielsen talks all things 'Optimists Die First' avec cat
Uploaded by Maximum Pop! Books on March 13, 2017 to YouTube.

April 10, 2017

Me (and) Me

Written by Alice Kuipers
HarperCollins Canada
288 pp.
Ages 14+
April 2017

Lark Hardy’s seventeenth birthday should’ve been a fun day, and it had begun that way, a first date with Alec Sandcross canoeing at Pike Lake.  But one moment changes everything.  As the teens are about to embark on some swimming, a cry from Suzanne Fields, the mother of five-year-old Annabelle whom Lark had babysat, draws their attention to the child face down in the water. Alec dives in but hits his head and starts going down.  And as Suzanne yells at Lark to do something, the teen hesitates, not knowing whom to save.  So begins a novel split in two voices, both Larks and both Lark’s.

The first Lark begins to describe the days after the near drowning in which Alec has been saved and Annabelle lays in a hospital bed in a coma. Alec and Lark’s new relationship is blossoming, and he begins to teach her how to do parkour, climbing, running and jumping across obstacles such as buildings and bridges. Becoming so entwined with the attentive and charismatic Alec, Lark starts blowing off best friend Lucy and bandmates Nifty, Reid and Iona to spend time with Alec.  When she starts getting weird messages on her phone about Alec not being saved, Lark is disconcerted but has no answers. But when she visits Annabelle in the hospital, and hallucinates that she’s drowning in water and then glimpses a girl who is but isn’t her, Lark starts to think she’s going crazy.

In an alternate voice and chapters, a second Lark, one who cuts her hair short and dyes it red, recounts those same days, but ones in which music exec Martin Fields and wife Suzanne are ever grateful to her for saving their young daughter while Alec’s family sits by his hospital bedside, contemplating turning off the machines that are keeping him alive.  Lark still harbours much anger about her mother’s passing and translates that anger into petty shoplifting of items she doesn’t even want.  But though this Lark is starting to connect with bandmate Reid, she too is baffled by freaky messages including those of a not-hospital bound Alec and an intimate relationship with him.

Lark, whether the long- and dark-haired one or she of the red hair, have similar circumstances: a musical mother who has passed; a dad with heart issues; best friend Lucy; a passion for writing songs; and playing with bandmates Reid, Iona and Nifty.  She is also starting to suspect she’s losing it, seeing things like imaginary water near drowning her and disappearing messages.

The linchpin for Lark becomes the lyrics her mother started penning before her death.
Perhaps you see it differently
You and me
It’s just a case of who tells the story
Perhaps you see it differently.
(pg. 86)
Showering her intense text with astounding lyrics, Alice Kuipers  brings both Larks together to juxtapose the parallel lives they lead after the near drowning at the lake.  Confused by grief, fears and even guilt, both girls (or are they really two?) attempt to make sense of a world in which their own choices for actions have consequences that they wish they could undo.  They are two halves of the same whole, different but similar. They are Me (and) Me.  (There’s even a crazy moment when the two face off and shout, “Who even are you?” “Who the hell are you?”; pg. 240) It’s hard to say whether the two will come together equally, though Lark recognizes that,
I have to stitch myself back together.  I have to make myself whole. (pg. 270)
or whether Lark will become more of one than the other.  However, it’s clear that Alice Kuipers in her daring storytelling and almost maternal concern for her characters wants to help keep Lark together. Life is hard enough without questioning your decisions, especially those made under pressure, and when literally being torn apart by them.  I can’t tell you how it ends (you’ll see when you read Me (and) Me) but I can tell you that the story comes full circle, secured in its own way, though not tied up as you might expect.

Check back tomorrow for my Me (and) Me blog tour stop with a guest post by author Alice Kuipers.  Ever enlightening, Alice Kuipers speaks about why she writes YA.

February 23, 2017

A Month of Mondays

by Joëlle Anthony
Second Story Press
340 pp.
Ages 9-13
March 2017

I was reminded of the Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays" when I read the title of Joëlle Anthony's middle grade book and I couldn't even imagine a month full of those oppressive days.  It's just too overwhelming.  Not unlike Suze Tamaki's life.

Suze Tamaki is twelve years old and a Grade 7 student at Maywood Junior High in Victoria, BC.  She lives with her father and her slovenly sister, seventeen-year-old Tracie, in a cramped apartment.  Her Aunt Jenny a.k.a. AJ and Uncle Bill essentially round out her family.  That is, until her mother Caroline who’d abandoned them when Suze was 3 returns to town and wants to reconnect with her daughters.  Everyone has an opinion about that happening, especially Tracie who vehemently refuses to have anything to do with Caroline or allow Suze to do so.

At school, things aren’t any more settled. Suze, who regularly spends time in the office of the principal, Mr. Farbinger, and seems to be quite content to coast through her coursework, is moved into Honours English to work with best friend and super achiever Amanda on a speech presentation.  With the aim of presenting to the school board, the two decide to take up the cause of the custodians who are set to lose their jobs to more cost-efficient contractors.  But even that becomes a fiasco when Suze finds some unorthodox ways to research the custodians’ impact on schools.

Meanwhile, Suze is trying to navigate a potential relationship with a mother who seems to be out of touch with her children, though she has plenty of money to try and make an impact.  The question for Suze is whether any of her hurdles–her schooling, her mother, the rest of her family–are worth the effort necessary to overcome them and lead to some positive resolution.  Unfortunately or not, it’s up to her how she proceeds.  And when life feels like a month of Mondays, it’s hard to get up for any of it.

It’s nice to see a kid who neither has it all together or sits at the bottom of the heap trying to crawl out of the despair of a horrific life. Suze is probably more like most kids, at neither extreme but somewhere in the middle, just trying to make sense of the people and circumstances of her life.  She may not always choose well–her recurrent trips to the principal’s office attest to that–and may get distracted and discouraged but she keeps on plugging away.  Without creating a superhero for the middle grade set, Joëlle Anthony has created a very realistic young teen who’s just trying to find her way.  She may drag a few people along for the ride, and it’s sometimes a bumpy one, but she keeps heading somewhere and in her own time. I guess that’s as real as it gets, isn’t it?  And Joëlle Anthony ensures the reader comes away with a lesson in stick-with-it-ness, demonstrating that things always resolve themselves somehow, sometimes more and sometimes less positively than you might imagine.

February 15, 2017

If This is Home

by Kristine Scarrow
Dundurn Press
184 pp.
Ages 12-15
January 2017

The bright sun and wheat fields of the cover may hint at the Saskatchewan setting but not the darkness and confusion of If This is Home, Kristine Scarrow’s second novel for young people.  And though the story resolves itself to a setting in which a swing, grain fields and fresh breezes prevail, don’t expect a happily-ever-after ending because If This is Home is more real than that.

Even with their mother working two jobs, there is barely enough food in the house for sixteen-year-old Jayce  (J.J.) Loewen  and her four-year-old sister Joelle.  But now their mom is missing shifts, barely able to get out of bed, and their dad Joe, a touring musician, hasn’t been in the picture for years, never even having met Joelle.  When J.J. meets the intriguing senior Kurt at detention,  he shows interest in a friendship with her which she tries to nix.
My mom has kind of given up on everything and stays in bed all the time.  My four-year-old sister pretty much fends for herself.  I'd invite you in, except I'd have nothing to offer you but a hot, steamy bowl of oatmeal and, really, my life is getting far too complicated to add something new in, so it's best if we cut ties now. (pg. 22)
However, after her mom is taken to hospital and diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and J.J.’s best friend Amanda pays little attention to anything but her own dramas, J.J. finds Kurt a valuable support as she seeks out her dad, as instructed by her dying mother.

However, the search for Joe does not lead to the comforting family the girls need.  In fact, J.J. discovers Joe is no longer the bad-boy musician she’d remembered and is harbouring secrets that stun and anger her.  Meanwhile her mother is reaching out to her own mother who’d stood by when J.J.’s grandfather kicked J.J.’s mother out upon learning of her pregnancy at 18.  Will J.J.’s father and grandmother be able to offer the support her family needs?  Does she have it in her to forgive their trespasses against her mother and sister and herself?
I'm done letting people walk in and out of my life at their whim. It's better just to keep them out altogether. (pg. 119)
When  troubles overwhelm, most of us seek out family.  After all, they’re the ones who are supposed to take you in when no one else will.  But what happens when history and disappointment and anger impede that happy reunion?  Do you look elsewhere or find the means to forgive?  Kristine Scarrow creates a tenuous situation of an ill mother trying to find caregivers for her children when there seems to be no one around and worrying that she will die before she is able to restore familial links.  But more than that, If This is Home is about a teen trying to be the adult in a family untethered, trying to secure assistance without showing her vulnerabilities or forgiving those who’ve neglected them for so long. While Kurt, a young man who lives and cares for his ailing grandmother and is very forthcoming about his own parents’ inadequacies, provides a sharp contrast to J.J.’s own situation, he provides her with the unconditional support she requires.  He becomes the family she desperately needs while helping her to reconcile the family she has.

If This is Home is all about finding home in whatever form is available to you.  For J.J. and Joelle, home is what is made for them by those who want to do right and it's a home and a family as real as any.

February 12, 2017

Honouring differences in families' lives: Cultural competence with diverse youngCanLit

Today's post is the sixth in seven posts related to my recent presentation at the  Ontario Library Association's Superconference in Toronto.  The presentation, titled Becoming Culturally Competent with Diverse YoungCanLit, included booklists of youngCanLit to help individuals, schools and other institutions become culturally competent.

Today's post focuses on...

250 Hours
by Colleen Nelson
Coteau Books
152 pp.
Ages 12+
Métis, small town, discrimination, arson, independence
Review here

Asha’s Mums
by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse
Illus. by Dawn Lee
Women’s Literary Press
24 pp.
Ages 5-9
Same-sex parents

The Biggest Poutine in the World
by Andrée Poulin
Annick Press
160 pp.
Ages 8-12
Abandonment, community, dysfunctional family
Review here

Dear Baobab
by Cheryl Foggo
Illus. by Qin Leng
Second Story Press
24 pp.
Ages 4-8
Home, Africa, Canada, grief
Review here

by Julie Pearson
Illus. by Manon Gauthier
Trans. by Erin Woods
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
Foster parents, dysfunctional family, adoption
Review here

A Family is a Family is a Family
by Sara O’Leary
Illus. by Qin Leng
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
Diversity, family, parents
Review here

The Finding Place
by Julie Hartley
Red Deer Press
244 pp.
Ages 10-14
International adoption, China, orphanages, self-acceptance
Review here

by Liane Shaw
Second Story Press
256 pp.
Ages 13-16
Foster children, group homes, learning disability
Review here

Four Seasons of Patrick
by Susan Hughes
Red Deer Press
80 pp.
Ages 7-10
Blended families
Review here

by Deborah Ellis
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
201 pp.
Ages 10-13
Prison, convicted parents, bus trips

Looks Like Daylight: Voices of Indigenous Kids
by Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books
256 pp.
Ages 12+
Indigenous communities, heritage, residential schools, ostracism, abuse
Review here

Missing Nimâmâ 
by Melanie Florence
Illus. by François Thisdale
Clockwise Press
32 pp.
Ages 8+
Missing indigenous women,  Aboriginal Peoples
Review here

My Beautiful Birds
by Suzanne Del Rizzo
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 6-10
Syria, refugees, refugee camp, pigeons

My Book of Life By Angel
by Martine Leavitt
Groundwood Books
246 pp.
Ages 14+
Sex trade workers, missing women, drugs
Review here

One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way
by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Pajama Press
128 pp.
Ages 8-12
Vietnam War, airlifts, adoption, immigration, non-fiction
Review here

Outside In
by Sarah Ellis
Groundwood Books
208 pp.
Ages 10-13
Home, homelessness, dysfunctional family
Review here

Pandas on the Eastside
by Gabrielle Prendergast
Orca Book Publishers
192 pp.
Ages 9-12
Vancouver, East Van, poverty, community
Review here

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey
by Margriet Ruurs
Illus. by Nizar Ali Badr
Orca Book Publishers
28 pp.
All ages
Refugees, Syria, dual-language, Arabic, immigration
Review here

We Are All Made of Molecules
by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books
246 pp.
Ages 12+
Blended families, gay parents, grief
Review here

October 25, 2016

I Am Not a Number

by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Illustrated by Gillian Newland
Second Story Press
32 pp.
Ages 7+
September 2016
Reviewed from advance reading copy

Stories like I Am Not a Number should always be told.  They should always be told loudly and emphatically and with purpose, to tell of a wrongdoing that was perpetrated against First Nations families like the Couchie family of Nipissing First Nation.  Tales of children stolen from their homes, under the direction of government, to attend and live at residential schools.  Narratives of holding onto self when everything was done to annihilate that sense.  This is the account of author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ granny, Irene Couchie Dupuis.

In 1928, Irene was living with her father, Chief Ernest Couchie, and her mother and two brothers, George and Ephraim, on Nipissing Reserve Number 10 when the Indian agent of the day demanded the children be surrendered to him to deliver to St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School.  Though her parents protest–her mother especially vehement that eight-year-old Irene needed to be with her family–the children are essentially taken by force.

The children are going with me to the residential school.  They are wards of the government, now.  They belong to us. (pg. 2)

With final goodbyes, her mother telling them to “Never forget home or our ways.  Never forget your mother and father.  Never forget who you are.” (pg. 7), the three children are taken away and separated, boys from girls.  Still Irene tries to stay strong, even after she’s told that she will be known as 759, telling herself “I am not a number.  I am Irene Couchie, daughter of Ernest and Mary Ann Couchie.  I will never forget who I am.” (pg. 8).  And through the horrible showering to “scrub all the brown off” (pg. 9) and the cutting of her long hair–normally only cut when a loved one was lost– and burning of her hands as punishment for speaking her own language, Irene heeds her mother’s words to never forget who she is.
From I Am Not a Number 
by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, 
illus. by Gillian Newland

After a full year of biting her tongue and dreaming of home, to and from which all letters were banned, Irene and her brothers are sent home for the summer.  As happy as she is to feel the love of her family again, to eat well and speak her own language, Irene is troubled by images of her time at school and her impending return in the fall.  But Irene’s father has other plans for his children and none of them include that horrible place.

Jenny Kay Dupuis does her granny Irene and her heritage honour by telling this story.  It’s a difficult one for all families involved in the residential school debacle, even for generations afterwards but one that Jenny Kay Dupuis tells, in collaboration with award-winning historical fiction and non-fiction writer Kathy Kacer, to inform and clarify for young readers.  It’s a shocking tragedy from our history but one from which we can only hope all learn valuable lessons.  I Am Not a Number is illustrated compassionately by Gillian Newland, who also illustrated Kathy Kacer’s The Magician of Auschwitz (Second Story Press, 2014) and A Boy Asked the Wind (Barbara Nickel, Red Deer Press, 2015). In the realistic style of Alex Colville and using the sombre tones of greys, blacks and browns for the residential school and a similar palette with splashes of gold and green away from that setting, Gillian Newland evokes the appropriate sentiment the book.  I Am Not a Number may be illustrated and classified as juvenile non-fiction but the extensive text and the account within is a mature one, yet one that can be told and taught and learned with empathy and as tribute.
From I Am Not a Number 
by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, 
illus. by Gillian Newland

October 21, 2016

King Baby

by Kate Beaton
Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic
40 pp.
Ages 4-8
September 2016

Though some parents might not find it humourous the way the baby in King Baby has his parents running to and fro to make his life perfect–perhaps they'll see it as castigating their own efforts–children and others will laugh at the uproarious manipulation by a swaddled egg of a baby to get everything, and I mean everything, that he desires, now and forever.  Yep, as the book says, "It is good to be king."

From King Baby by Kate Beaton

From King Baby’s birth, after which he is presented to his many admirers bearing gifts and admiration, the baby is generous with his smiles and laughs and kisses, his wiggles, gurgles and coos.  But then he begins to demand: food, burping, changing, bouncing, being carried.  It’s endless.  For King Baby, life is grand.  For King Baby’s parents, life is exhausting.  He sees them as subjects, fools even, though their ineptitude finally gets him up and toddling.  His future is even more glorious now with all that he can accomplish, though not always to everyone’s delight. (The cat looks a little dismayed.)  But King Baby has to grow up, and becoming a big boy, he learns that they’ll be going through the whole process again, this time with Queen Baby.

It’s obvious that Kate Beaton, known as Auntie Katie to the Malcolm to whom she dedicates the book, knows that of which she writes and illustrates.  A new baby is a wondrous joy but an exhausting one.  Kate Beaton’s quirky illustrations, especially of King Baby as a rotund creature swaddled in a blanket and topped with a golden crown, are too funny, and lend a comical air to a bizarrely normal yet wacky situation i.e., the joy and adoration of a new baby.  I don’t know if Kate Beaton meant to give King Baby that evil glint in his eye but he seems to know what he’s doing i.e., making everyone jump to satisfy his every whim.  Without the means to communicate with clarity, King Baby has them running around doing everything to appease him.  Ah, it’s good to be king!
From King Baby by Kate Beaton

Share this hilarious book with any new parents you know.  If they’re not too tired, they’ll certainly see the humour in their situation.  And if they’re just too tired, share it with the aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers and godmothers and everyone else who appreciate the cuteness that is a new baby but recognize the long haul of parenting still to come.  Hail the royal entourage!

September 13, 2016

Hat On, Hat Off

by Theo Heras
Illustrated by Renné Benoit
Pajama Press
24 pp.
Ages 1-3
September 2016

If you're Canadian with young children, you know about that compulsory basket of hats (and mittens and scarves) by the front door from which appropriate outdoor apparel can be plucked before heading out. As this little boy is getting ready and gotten ready to go with a help of a older but still young sister, a menagerie of hats go on and off with every step of the process. Thankfully, judging by the illustrations by Renné Benoit, it's not even the depths of winter so hats are the only on-off selection for this child!
From Hat On, Hat Off 
by Theo Heras, illus. by Renné Benoit
A red bear hat goes on, a sweater gets hidden.  The red bear hat goes off as sister does up his sneakers.  Jacket goes on with a new fleece blue-striped hat with frilly red pom pom which gets traded for a penguin hat after a detour for a sippy cap and pail and shovel. But wait! Time for a potty break (and, of course, you must remove your hat when you go to the toilet, right?) and a new green hat with eyes.  Then the absentee Bunny, with his own hat, must be located, and our little one is back in his red bear hat.  That is, until he isn't.

An autumn day with colourful leaves dotting the ground and ripe for picking is a perfect day for sporting a great hat, even one that is probably mandated by a mum or dad. Theo Heras’ text is not complex but that makes it easy to follow for those for whom Hat On, Hat Off is written, and the book is appropriately packaged for them: small size with padded hardcover, thick paper and rounded corners.  Young children will enjoy anticipating the next hat on and off and spot the common tactics toddlers use to prolong that getting-ready-to-go-outside activity.  But I know they’ll especially be hooked by Renné Benoit’s endearing illustrations of the children and their accounterments, particularly the assortment of head gear.  With knitted caps of varying colours and textures (very important in a hat) and design elements, Hat On, Hat Off a joyful experience of style and taste and childish amusement.
From Hat On, Hat Off
by Theo Heras, illus. by Renné Benoit 


If you're in the Toronto area this Sunday, get a signed copy of Hat On, Hat Off at the book launch with author Theo Heras and illustrator Renné Benoit at Another Story Bookshop on Roncesvalles Avenue at Grenadier.  Details are here.