September 27, 2016

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival

by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho
Illustrated by Brian Deines
Pajama Press
40 pp.
Ages 6+
September 2016

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch has a proclivity for telling stories of historical fiction that are rarely addressed in the literature:  the Armenian genocide; the airlifts from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War; enslavement of Ukrainians during World War II; the oppression of Alevi Kurds; and the Ukrainian Holodomyr. Now she turns her literary attention to the Vietnamese “boat people” who were willing to risk everything to seek better lives far away from their new communist government.  Based on the story of Tuan Ho, a six-year-old boy whose family separated to make their way to Canada, and with Brian Deines’ formidable illustrations, Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival becomes a testimonial and an acknowledgement of those who demonstrate extraordinary courage in order to escape the horrors of their homelands.

At the onset of the story, Tuan’s father and older sister Linh have already escaped a year earlier (1980) by boat, hopeful of settling in Canada and sponsoring the family. Now Tuan’s mother tells him that they are leaving that night, though without his youngest sister Van whom Ma believes might not survive the journey and will instead remain behind with Tuan’s aunt and uncle.  In the middle of the night, Tuan, his mother, and sisters Loan and Lan, as well as another aunt and two cousins, make their way to the water, amidst gunfire and shouting soldiers.  Transported by motor boat, Tuan, Loan and their mother are reunited with Lan and the rest of his family on a larger fishing boat.

From Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy's Story of Survival 
by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illus. by Brian Deines

Though bullets no longer pepper the quiet of the sea, the challenges of a boat crowded with sixty people without shelter from a scorching sun and having only limited water are exacerbated when the boat starts taking on water on the second day, and the motor breaks down on the third day of their estimated four day journey.  They are now adrift and their fates unknown.   Witnessing another drifting boat setting itself on fire, hopeful that they are a rescue boat, makes Tuan wonder whether their  fate will be similar.
     The flames in the distance suddenly envelop that boat.  It overturns.  The flames and boat are swallowed by the sea.
     We sixty stare in silent horror, but there is nothing that we can do to help.
     Will this be our fate as well?
(pg. 28)
Not until the sixth day are they spotted by a massive American aircraft carrier and taken aboard, whereupon Tuan gets to partake in the glass of milk of which he has dreamed for days.  For Tuan, this would seem to be a happy ending, though the task of reuniting the whole family–father and sister Linh, with Tuan, his mother and sisters Loan and Lan, and finally little sister Van–is still to come, as Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch shares in an addendum, with family photographs.  Even beyond Tuan’s tale which is encompassed in the mere 34 illustrated pages, there is the story of the Vietnamese “boat people” and the circumstances by which they were forced to flee their country explained in Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s historical notes.

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival is a big story to tell.  It’s broad in historical scope, and emotionally hefty in the distress and fear experienced by Tuan and his fellow refugees, and in its moral significance.  I’m afraid not all stories of Vietnamese refugees ended as favourably as for Tuan’s family but I am ever thankful that Tuan Ho’s story does have a happy ending and that Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch chose to share it with young readers in an illustrated book and that Pajama Press chose well to pair it with the art of Brian Deines. From the illustration of a lone boat adrift in a wash of dry heat that graces the cover of Adrift at Sea, to the dark and engrossing images of Tuan’s steps along the journey, Brian Deines’ art is evocative and integrative, resplendent in complementary colours of orange and golds and blues and purples.
From Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy's Story of Survival 
by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illus. by Brian Deines
By recounting Tuan’s story in the limited but succinct text of a picture book, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is able to forge a powerful connection between the emotions of the narrative and the visual i.e., the expansive oil painted art of Brian Deines. This makes Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival more than just a story about Tuan Ho.  It makes it an archive of historical importance for young readers to access.

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.

September 23, 2016

Hungry Bird

by Jeremy Tankard
32 pp.
Ages 3-5
September 2016

Jeremy Tankard’s award-winning Bird is back in his third volume, after the successful Grumpy Bird (Scholastic, 2007) and Boo Hoo Bird (Scholastic, 2009), and this time the little blue guy with the attitude is hungry.  He and his friends–Fox, Beaver, Sheep, Raccoon and Rabbit–have gone off for a hike when Bird, who continues to look grumpy, suffers a grumbling stomach.

While his friends are well prepared for their hike, sporting backpacks some of which contain their favourite snacks, Bird is supply-less, though he is the first one to feel peckish.  Unfortunately,  instead of asking his friends politely if they might share a treat with him, he wants to know if they packed anything for him.  Worse yet, when each answers him, politely offering to share, Bird declines.  At first, he refuses with relative politeness, but, just as in Grumpy Bird and in Boo Hoo Bird, Bird’s responses become more impassioned, ranging from “Are you crazy?” and “YUCK! That sounds DISGUSTING!” to demanding food and shouting, “HOW ON EARTH CAN I EAT A CARROT?!”  At last, Bird’s pleas escalate till he is convinced he will starve to death –of course, he won’t–and crawls with weakness to his friends, finally agreeing to try their snacks.
From Hungry Bird by Jeremy Tankard
As egocentric as Bird is, he’s not unlike the very young children (and self-centered adults!) who see everyone as there to meet their demands and needs immediately.  Only when he’s desperate does Bird relent and recognize that his friends have always been there to help him and are more than willing to share.  The only impediment to having his needs met is the petulant Bird himself.

Jeremy Tankard’s animals are distinct, walking on two legs, and colourful in bold colours of blue, orange, gold, tangerine, red and white.  With distinctive features like large buck teeth and characteristic tails and ears, the six creatures are easily identifiable while still unlike any other animals ever created in illustrations.  These coarsely-outlined creatures, displayed in landscapes of generally single colours, always stand out, never lost in backgrounds of irrelevant details.  Hungry Bird, like its predecessors, is all about the characters, both in illustration and story, with subtle messages about responsibility, courtesy, sharing, and trying new things. Lots of life lessons for an ornery but lovable, little blue bird.
From Hungry Bird by Jeremy Tankard

September 22, 2016

A Little Taste youngCanLit: Multi-author book launch (Waterloo, ON)

Partake in a little taste of youngCanLit,
middle grade and young adult, 
at this multi-author book launch


A Little Taste of Poison
by R. J. Anderson
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
352 pp.
Ages 10+
September 2016

The Swan Riders 
by Erin Bow
Margaret K. McElderry Books
384 pp.
Ages 14+
September 2016

Icarus Down
by James Bow
Scholastic Canada
374 pp.
Ages 12+
August 2016

Howard Wallace, P.I.
by Casey Lyall
Sterling Children's Books
272 pp.
Ages 8-12
September 2016


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

 at 7 p.m.

Words Worth Books
96 King St. S.
Waterloo ON
(519) 884-2665

September 21, 2016

Weerdest Day Ever!: Interview with author Richard Scrimger

Today I'm please to present, 
as part of Orca Book Publishers' blog tour for
  the Seven Prequels

my interview with 

the author of 

Weerdest Day Ever!
by Richard Scrimger
Orca Book Publishers
216 pp.
Ages 9-12
September 2016

Richard Scrimger
(looking very dapper in a hat)

Many thanks to Orca Book Publishers' publicist Melissa Shirley for arranging this blog tour and to author Richard Scrimger for answering my questions about Weerdest Day Ever!, Bunny and the writing process.


HK: Of the seven grandsons in the Seven series, Seven Sequels and now Seven Prequels, Bunny is my favourite (please don’t tell the others).  I don’t know if it’s his humility or his special learning needs–perhaps as a teacher I really want to “help” him–but I am consistently drawn to him and his stories and am never disappointed.  How did you ever find Bunny’s voice?

RS: Bunny’s is one of my favorite of my voices.  For all the things he doesn’t know, he knows himself.  And that’s the coolest knowledge of all.  Bunny goes his own way.  He doesn’t ‘fit in’ well – and he is totally ok with that.  Kind of like me.


HK: As Bunny will attest, his spelling is not always the best.  As an author whose vocation it is to write well, how difficult was it to write as Bunny, spelling and grammatical mistakes and all?

RS: Writing and spelling are different things. I care about writing well.  That is my vocation. I really don’t care about spelling.  My mom would tie herself into knots about the subjunctive mood or the misuse of an apostrophe, but I don’t give a donut. Because I can spell, it’s a bit tricky to write like Bunny.  I have to put myself into his mindset.  Once there, I rite like him.  As you see. Problem is I hav trouble turning him off.  So a letter to a friend mite sound like Bunny and shed rite back: Are you feeling OK?  What’s wrong?


HK: Readers learn so much from the way characters see and interpret and react but perspective is key.  However, Bunny is very much prone to misinterpret circumstances. Right from the onset of Weerdest Day Ever! Bunny witnesses a re-enactment and believes he’s in the middle of a war.  To what do you attribute his frequent misinterpretation: his naiveté, his inexperience, his gullibility, his benevolence, or something else entirely?

RS: On a human level, Bunny believes what people say. Whether that’s naivete or great wisdom is up to you.  In fact, nothing gives you away so clearly as the lie you tell.   Why are all my stories about people who don’t fit in? Why are they all funny? Why do they all have sadness or loss underneath the humour?  I am telling the truth while I am lying.  This is who I am.  In the same way, re-enactors are not really fighting, but the truth is that they are war-obsessed attention seekers playing dress up.  There is truth there.  And Bunny sees this truth – or some of it.


HK: Bunny may be a character in a book but, as I’ve read his stories, I’ve come to care what happens to him.  So, please tell me, what kind of a future do you foresee for him (and I’m not talking books here)?

RS: Bunny knows himself, and likes himself well enough. He gets along with his brother, makes new friends, and doesn’t mind risking his heart even though things don’t always work out.   In the long run, Bunny’s going to be fine. (Now if I could just believe that about myself!)


HK:  I’ve heard you and your collaborative team of Seven series authors discuss the writing process and how the series began.  It sounds very collegial.  Collaboration between two individuals can be tricky, balancing writing styles, egos and intent.  How do you manage it with a group of seven extraordinary writers, each with their own style and vision and probably egos as well?

RS: In fact all of us like each other and play off each other, and tours are a whole lot of fun.  This is good question to ask me specifically, because my and Ted Staunton’s books are probably the closest linked of any in the series.  The problem is to develop story lines that work together.  We want plots that dovetail but don’t give away each other’s endings. For the sequels, I wanted Bunny to be kidnapped. As soon as I said that Ted snapped his fingers and said, “And I know who kidnapped him!” The prequels are extra tightly linked since the brothers share a campsite for a couple days and keep just missing each other.  Ted’s and my plot conversations usually involve a bottle of something.  This conversation went from history to re-enactors to the War of 1812.  Then Ted smiled.  “I just saw Spencer in Laura Secord’s costume,” he said.  “Isn’t that funny,” I replied.  “Because I just saw Bunny as … “


HK:  Are the Seven Prequels the last of the Seven-based series or is there another in the plans?  Or do you anticipate any other multiple-author collaborations, similar to the Seven series books, with these same writers or others?

RS: As of now, there are no more ‘7’ plans. We’ll wait and see how this one does.  BUT it’s funny you should ask about other co-productions.  Ted and I were talking about how humour writing never gets a fair shake.  So we made some phone calls.  Scholastic jumped at our idea, and (drum roll!!) in two years Kevin Sylvester, Lesley Livingstone, Ted and I will put out 4 linked books starring teens with goofy superpowers.

Be sure to check out all the blog stops on the Seven Prequels tour, each highlighting one author:

Norah McClintock at Lost in a Great Book
Richard Scrimger here at CanLit for LittleCanadians
Eric Walters at Literary Treats
John Wilson at teenreads
Ted Staunton at Young Adult Books Central
Shane Peacock at MrsReadsBooks
Sigmund Brouwer at Lost in a Great Book


Read the Seven Prequels in any order you want. 
But you'll want to read them all!

September 20, 2016

Weerdest Day Ever!

First there was the Seven Series.

Then came the Seven Sequels.

Today the long-awaited Seven Prequels launches! 

Get a taste for the Seven Prequels with my review of  
Richard Scrimger's contribution to the series here.

by Richard Scrimger
Orca Book Publishers
216 pp.
Ages 9-12
September 2016
Reviewed from advance reading copy

Weerdest Day Ever! is a story that Bunny (Bernard) is writing for his Grade 10 English class about a camping trip with his Grampa and brother Spencer.  It begins with an “Oops. Sorry.” that is pure Bunny.   But as weird as his tale might be, he makes a point of clarifying that it is essentially true, though knowing Bunny, he does tend to misinterpret much since he often takes things literally and at face value.
This story is true–mostly its true.  You wont think so but it is.  Like the war. Yah there reely was a war. Or the cow.  Or the hollow tree. Or what happened to the 1 arm man. (pg. 3)
Since I know he’s got you hooked with that beginning, his story is off to a great start.  And, if I were his teacher, I could easily disregard his spelling mistakes because the content of his story is so engaging.

Grampa doesn’t tell them much about the trip except that there will be surprises at the park that weekend.  His only rule is that, if they go out on their own, that they must stay close and check in.  When Spencer loses his new and distinctly yellow-cased smart phone, Bunny goes exploring by himself and discovers some guys in blue jackets and white pants and tall hats armed with guns that looked longer and fancier than rifles he knew.  He meets two kids, Beth and her quiet brother Tyler, both dressed in fringed leather clothing and with makeup, sneaking through the woods.  Beth tells them they are with the British and those men in blue are the Americans and there would be in battle tomorrow.  Beth then introduces Bunny to their father, Tecumseh, a general with an impressive sword, at a community of tents, wagons, horses and a log house in a large open area.

Most readers would get that what Bunny is witnessing is a re-enactment from the War of 1812 but Bunny truly believes a war is about take place and feels he must warn his Grampa.  But, Bunny knows how to recognize a bully and, when a blue-coated, one-armed man comes by and taunts Beth’s father and uses discriminatory and rude words like "savages" and "red skins", Bunny calls him out on it, making an enemy of the “reactor” (i.e., re-enactor) whom they learn is an American called Brasher.  Later when Bunny and the silent tracker Tyler go snooping and Bunny sees Brasher with Spencer’s distinctive cell phone, Bunny’s mission becomes two-fold: warn Grampa about the war, and get Spencer’s phone back.  Along the way, though, Bunny and his new friends have another mystery to solve, that of the theft of Tecumseh's sword, solved all the more easily because of Bunny's astute observations.

I can’t possible go into all the layers of Richard Scrimger’s plot but it does encompass a war, a one-armed man, a cow, as Bunny mentions at the onset, but also Laura Secord, a sword, a phone, horseback riding, a re-enactment, budding romances for all three campers, an elderly woman with hearing issues, antagonism with Americans, meaningful ice-cream, a hollow tree, a bully, and a familial rivalry.  It must have seemed like the “weerdest day ever!” for sweet and trusting Bunny who spends most of the weekend worried.  He’s worried about Spencer and his lost phone; about a war they may lose and who might get killed; about Beth and a horse-handler named Clod; about the mean bully named Brasher; and more. But even with all these worries, Bunny’s perspective allows him to see circumstances with wisdom and the humour with which Richard Scrimger’s writing is always imbued.
     “What if we lose?” I said. “What then?”
     Wuld we become American? And what would that mean–being American?
     If I was American Id have a different anthem. O say can you see.  I didnt know it all but I knew that part.  No more standing on gard.  If I was American Id have a president.  My capital city wuld be Washington.  Id have green money.
(pg. 104)
How can you not love Bunny?  He may have spelling challenges and trust others too quickly, but he is wise beyond his years (he’s in Grade 6 when the camping trip takes place), recognizing that the only rule he needs to live by is you should do what you want unless it hurts somebody.  

It’s very satisfying to learn a bit about Bunny’s earlier story, as well as get hints of his grandfather David McLean’s covert and romantic entanglements, in this book of the Seven Prequels.  I suspect readers of the remaining Seven Prequels will feel the same after learning a bit more about Spencer, DJ, Webb, Adam, Rennie and Steve.  I can only reiterate what we have said all along about the Seven series, the Seven Sequels and now the Seven Prequels:  read them in any order, just read them.

Be sure to check out all the blog stops on the Seven Prequels tour to launch the series, starting today:

• Norah McClintock at Lost in a Great Book
• Richard Scrimger here at CanLit for LittleCanadians
• Eric Walters at Literary Treats
• John Wilson at teenreads
• Ted Staunton at Young Adult Books Central
• Shane Peacock at MrsReadsBooks
• Sigmund Brouwer at Lost in a Great Book


Check back tomorrow for my own blog tour stop for the Seven Prequels, my interview with author Richard Scrimger.

September 19, 2016

As a Boy

by Plan International
Second Story Press
24 pp.
Ages 5-9
September 2016

I don’t know why we always seem to set up competitions between boys and girls, or separate them into teams that are boys versus girls.  There may be pockets (sometimes very large ones) around the world that feel the need to treat boys and girls differently and separately, justifying that attitude with archaic ideas from religion or culture.  But As a Boy, which launches today, demonstrates that boys can be just as supportive of girls’ rights as girls have needed to be and the book does so in a superbly photographed fashion with simple but prophetic statements of encouragement and defense.
Beginning with a cheerful spread of a dozen photos of babies whose gender is impossible to discern, As a Boy recognizes that being a boy or a girl is simply a matter of chance.  For the boys, choices will be both presumed and provided as opportunities.  While there are opportunities that boys are very fortunate to have, like education, it’s not all glory as there are expectations to being a man.  However, the boys in these photographs from across the globe, photos of boys with other boys, with girls, as fathers, as brothers and sons, recognize that all children need “to be free to choose what they want to be” (pg. 17) and that “As boys, we can stand up for everyone” (pg. 23). What a powerful message of advocacy for the rights of all to choose.
Perhaps a companion book to Plan International’s earlier Because I am a Girl: I Can Change the World (Second Story Press, 2014) or Every Day is Malala Day (Second Story Press, 2014), As a Boy has its own lesson of advocacy to share.  The message is dominant but it wouldn’t have the impact it does if not for the diversity of photographs taken of babies, boys, girls, and families from around the world.  Every child is here, as they should be, given the opportunity to shine with life and chances and choices.  As a Boy lets the world know that this is the way it should be.