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 22, 2017

Inuit Spirit: A Colouring Book

by Germaine Arnaktauyok
Inhabit Media
48 pp.
Ages 7+
December 2016

This may be a colouring book and I know the expectation is that pencil crayons will be taken to the black-and-white line drawings, but it almost seems sacrilegious to mar Germaine Arnaktauyok’s stunning illustrations.  Perhaps this reverence is essential for all who behold this book as it will ensure that, even if you do take on the near impossible task of bringing new life to Germaine Arnaktauyok’s outlines, you do so with respect, care and an authentic appreciation for her images of traditional Inuit life.
From Inuit Spirit: A Colouring Book 
by Germaine Arnaktauyok
There are twenty-nine different line drawings that may be coloured, from the title page to Neil Christopher’s introduction and the author’s page, though the emphasis is definitely on the 26 drawings set up in double spreads opposite explanatory text about the art.  Some of the art focuses on the natural landscape of the North like the numerous drawings of the tundra plants including willow, lichens, saxifrage, bilberry, and its inhabitants such as the Arctic char, plankton, sea mammals, ptarmigan and gulls.  Other drawings feature characters  from traditional Inuit stories such as the very creepy mahahaa, the taliillajuuq, the qallupilluit, the nanurluk and Sedna, the mother of the sea mammals, as well as scenes from these tales. (See reviews of Way Back Then and Those That Cause Fear by Neil Christopher (Inhabit Media, 2015 and 2016, respectively) for original illustrations by Germaine Arnaktauyok for these and similar stories.) There are also several line drawings of Inuit dress and activities such as drumming.
From Inuit Spirit: A Colouring Book 
by Germaine Arnaktauyok
The text is informative, bringing a knowledge of Inuit life and traditions to help clarify the black-and-white artwork. While the snippets are generally quite brief, the text teaches while helping the reader/colourist discern the elements of the drawing and selecting colours.

Inuit Spirit may not be graced as completely as it could be with Germaine Arnaktauyok’s own colouring version of pointillism–though there is a lengthy discussion of her style being based on squiggles of varying densities–but this colouring book brings an interactive element to her remarkable illustration and to the book’s aim of bringing the art of Inuit life to those beyond the northern areas.  Perhaps by doing rather than just seeing, readers of Inuit Spirit will achieve a new appreciation for Inuit life in general and Germaine Arnaktauyok's art specifically as defining of the northern experience.

February 21, 2017

Liam Takes a Stand

Written by Troy Wilson
Illustrated by Josh Holinaty
Owlkids Books
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
March 2017

In the aftermath of Family Day here in Ontario, I think little Liam would have a thing to say about family and brothers in particular.  Twin older brothers actually. And brothers so overwhelmingly competitive that nothing else matters.  Fortunately Liam is an insightful child who is determined to “win” his brothers’ attention and, though they are too busy outdoing each other, Liam perseveres, making for a happy family in the end.
From Liam Takes a Stand 
by Troy Wilson 
illus. by Josh Holinaty
Lester and Lister’s competitive spirits take them from sports activities to creative endeavours and finally to entrepreneurship when they each open lemonade stands for the summer.  It’s Lester’s Lemonade Universe vs. Lister’s Lemonade Multiverse, and Liam wants to help but is told he’d just told them back, ostensibly from winning this latest venture.  So Liam, determined to show his brothers how hard he can work, takes on a series of neighbourhood jobs, paid in cash by all but Mrs. Redmond who pays him in apples.
From Liam Takes a Stand 
by Troy Wilson
illus. by Josh Holinaty
While Lister and Lester continue to grow their businesses to outrageous proportions, trying to outdo and to outsell the other, Liam works hard, saves his money and eventually opens Liam’s Apple Avenue.  He takes a soft touch to his business, though, unlike the hard sell and gimmicks of his older brothers, and Liam’s business becomes a resounding success.  Hard-pressed to be outdone by their little brother, Lester and Lister start their own apple drink stands, too busy with hype to work on making the best product possible.

Fortunately, Lester and Lister recognize what they must do to win even a little bit, and Liam is smart enough to hold onto what he has accomplished while getting what he’d always wanted i.e. play time with his brothers.

Troy Wilson’s take on sibling rivalry is over-the-top and yet so realistic.  Two brothers willing to do whatever it takes to succeed over the other–success itself is never the goal–and ignoring their little brother who ends up being their biggest competitor yet.  In starting to believe their own hype, they disregard all else in the pursuit of domination. And it’s little Liam who initially loses out but finally wins in the brother game of life.
From Liam Takes a Stand 
by Troy Wilson 
illus. by Josh Holinaty
While Josh Holinaty has illustrated for non-fiction books and for other media, Liam Takes a Stand is his first picture book project and his artwork is gloriously over-the-top, perfect for the story.  His big-headed stick figures and colourful displays of convoluted businesses ensure the focus is on the boys and their efforts and I can see children rolling on the floor laughing (yes, they do actually do this) with the boys’ uproarious results.  And I can see them all trying to copy Josh Holinaty’s characters, as children tend to do with favourite cartoons.

Beyond the obvious entertainment value of Liam Takes a Stand, as a teacher I could envision using the fun and hyperbolic attention of the boys to their work for lessons in advertising and economics as well as character education. That makes Liam Takes a Stand a nice little package of fun and life lessons for all to enjoy.

February 18, 2017

Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses

Written by Caroline Stellings
Peanut Butter Press
32 pp.
Ages 5-8

It may be about trucks and cars and mechanics, but Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses is truly a love story. And Caroline Stellings slips in that bit of romance so subtly that, except for the inevitable "Aw" at the end, young readers will still think it's a story about mechanics fixing up vehicles.

From Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses 
by Caroline Stellings
Matt works at Ben’s garage and his only dream is to own an eighteen wheeler.  But, from his meagre room at the back of the garage, it’s evident that Matt does not have the money for such a purchase. But Ben has an idea of fixing up an old car.  He finds a wreck missing most of its parts but it is free. So the two work all spring until it is drivable.  But when his cat friend Harry is desperate for transportation, Matt gives away the newly refurbished yellow car.

Next Ben finds an old clunker of a station wagon that the two repair, only to have Matt give it to Mrs. Potter, the rabbit, who is struggling to take her ten children to school in the pouring rain.

From Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses 
by Caroline Stellings

Their next project is an old pick up truck that takes them all autumn to fix. When a customer at the hardware store  overhears Matt talking about his truck, identical to one in  a calendar posted at the store, you know it’s going to change hands again.  Showing Matt an old photo of his wife on their wedding day beside such a truck, Tom had been searching everywhere for one just like it.  So on Christmas Eve, with a dozen roses, Tom picks up the Neptune Green truck to surprise his wife.  But, in a twist of fate, the surprise don’t end there and Matt’s dream comes true after all.

In a true tale of kindness and kismet, Caroline Stellings portrays a generosity rarely experienced in our world today, and demonstrates that “what goes around, comes around” in a charming plot of dogs, a cat, rabbits and cars and trucks.  It’s a story about an ordinary Joe (or rather Matt) who just keeps plugging along at life, dreaming of an eighteen wheeler and working just to survive.  But his heart is bigger than his dream and, though no one takes advantage of him, Matt gives away far more he gets. Or so it seems.  In that turn of destiny or fate or karma, Matt gets what he wants without having to compromise himself or his work ethic, still able to help many along the way.  With an understated story of kindness repaid, Caroline Stellings’s watercolour and pen and ink illustrations convey that softness and subtlety.  (By the way, if you’re a dog lover, Matt and Ben are based on the author’s own Schipperkes, Matt and Ben, to whom she dedicates the book, along with her mother “who treasured them.”) 

In Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses, Caroline Stellings gives an alternative explanation for the country song of the same name.  I think I prefer this one, as it carries a profound sentiment about good works and karma and important lessons worthy of sharing with young readers.

From Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses 
by Caroline Stellings

February 17, 2017

Celebrate Inuktitut Language Month with Inhabit Media book signing (Iqaluit, NU)

Inuit-owned publishing company

Inhabit Media

in partnership with

Qikiqtani Inuit Association 

are hosting 

a multi-author/illustrator book signing

on Saturday, February 18, 2017

from 1-3 p.m.

Frobisher Inn
Koojesse (North) Room
Iqaluit, Nunavut

Authors and illustrators in attendance include:

Author Celina Kalluk

Christina Rooney

Illustrator Germaine Amaktauyok
Reviews here and here

Author Laura Deal

Author Nadia Mike

Author Nadia Sammurtok

Author Noel McDermott

Author Roselynn Akulukjuk

Author Solomon Awa

Authors Susan Avingaq & Maren Vsetula

Author William Flaherty

I'm so pleased to promote this event 
(though with very little lead time, sorry)
 because I so rarely hear about events this far away.  
But if you're in Iqaluit,
 this is a great event to meet a plethora of 
authors and illustrators of important youngCanLit. 
(If you go, please let me know how great it was.)

February 16, 2017

My Beautiful Birds

Written and illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 6-10
March 2017

In My Beautiful Birds, author-illustrator Suzanne Del Rizzo offers a poignant story of a Syrian child refugee traumatized by leaving his cherished pigeons behind.  It is a tale of sorrow and suffering and promise, and beautifully rendered in Suzanne Del Rizzo’s distinctive art.

From My Beautiful Birds 
by Suzanne Del Rizzo
Sami is a little boy who delights in caring for his pet pigeons.  When the family must escape their war-torn home and trek endless days to the Za'atari refugee camp, Sami worries for his birds’ safety, though he filled their bowls with food and saw them escape into the skies above. As life unfolds tenuously at the camp, first with shelter and then with the restoration of household routines and school, Sami worries and longs for his birds.
I wish it were like it used to be, just me and my pigeons up on our rooftop with the wind and the boundless sky.   Happy.  Free. (pg. 13)
Even a painting activity that starts out well enough, with Sami painting his “beautiful birds, knowing each wispy feather by heart” (pg. 15)
From My Beautiful Birds
by Suzanne Del Rizzo
becomes a disaster of blackened paint, not unlike the darkness in the sky and worries in the little boy’s heart.
Now, when the smoky nightmares boom, I watch the clouds. Sometimes, fluffy cloud-pigeons take shape.
Sharing the sky.
(pg. 19)
From My Beautiful Birds
by Suzanne Del Rizzo
Everything changes when four birds–a canary, a dove, a rose finch and a pigeon–reach out to Sami, painting “the sky with promise, and the hope of peace.” (pg. 22) The boy in the blue hoodie and yellow boots reaches right back, and finds a way to look to a tomorrow where he can help others.

The sadness and trauma in this little boy’s life is so palpable, from the family’s departure to their adjustment to the refugee camp and to the despondency that permeates Sami’s new life.  Through use of colour and the texture of her art–here polymer clay with acrylics–Suzanne Del Rizzo balances the shadows of war and trauma with the bright colours of youthful exuberance and pastels of hope for a future.  There’s the tumultuous skies and the ordinary days, and the anger of loss with the chirpiness of birds and children at play.  I know the excellence of her art, complex in the depth of detail and its ability to evoke emotions.  But Suzanne Del Rizzo has demonstrated a new depth to her writing.  Perhaps it’s the tragic circumstances of the story but Suzanne Del Rizzo has put heart and hope into her words, giving breath to a staggering situation, suffusing it with some degree of optimism where there is so little.  My Beautiful Birds provides a promise that all the the darkness from that Syrian skyline of smoke is behind Sami and remains open to a bright sky of birds and lightness, the landscape of his future.
From My Beautiful Birds 
by Suzanne Del Rizzo

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.