October 25, 2016

I Am Not a Number

by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Illustrated by Gillan 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 24, 2016

Tank and Fizz: The Case of the Battling Bots

by Liam O’Donnell
Illustrated by Mike Deas
Orca Book Publishers
163 pp.
Ages 8-11

We all know cheaters, those vile people who manipulate circumstances in their favour, regardless of others.  At the simplest, they are kids who cheat on tests or lie to cover up some misdemeanour.  At worst, they are adults who perpetrate crimes for their own purposes.  It is so satisfying when a cheater gets caught because that’s what they deserve and it’s a small step in making the world a safer and better place for all.  It’s not surprising, thus, that when Tank and Fizz, our intrepid detectives from The Case of the Slime Stampede (Orca, 2015)  are asked by the school Troll Patrol to prove that wealthy and reprehensible classmate Rizzo Rawlins is cheating in the local battle bot competition, that the two monsters are eager to take on the case. If only all cheaters could be caught by Tank and Fizz.
All year, I had watched Rizzo cheat in class.  Math test, science quizzes, coloring contests.  You name it, Rizzo Rawlins cheated.  He bribed the school math whizzes for test answers.  His goons sabotaged classmates’ experiments.  He hired professional artists to do his cut-and-past craft projects. Rizzo Rawlins had to win at everything, every time, any way he could.  I had seen the trail of broken dreams in my schoolmates’ tears.  When I’d seen the sad faces of the Troll Patrol,  I knew Rizzo’s cheating had to stop.  And I was the goblin to make it happen. (pg. 21-22)
But, as is usually the case, everyone knows about the cheating but proving it is far more difficult.  Even with Tank’s code sniffer–her invention to sniff out codes originating from beyond the school–that proves Rizzo’s bot, the Rawlins Reaper, should be disqualified, Principal Weaver refuses to believe Rizzo is anything but a model student, probably because Rizzo’s father makes huge financial donations to the school.  When the two detectives follow Rizzo to the almost complete new stadium, Slurp Stadium, they witness his acquisition of a new illegal part for his bot and his interactions, by screen, with a masked hacker called the Codex.  But the search for evidence of Rizzo’s cheating becomes linked to a situation in which the Codex threatens Mayor Grimlock to suffer unforeseen consequences if the new stadium is ever opened.  The goblin and troll duo undertake surveillance, alongside magic-spinning friend, Aleetha, a lava elf, and discover a conspiracy involving Sanzin Balazar, the wealthy entrepreneur behind SlugCo and the new stadium, a banished demon of goblin legends, and a threat to Slick City of monstrous proportions.  But can they stop the chaos before everything is lost?

Liam O’Donnell has a fun way with words, and more so in his creation of the world in which Tank and Fizz live.
You know that feeling you get when you try to stop a demon from being summoned but accidentally help summon it?  It definitely takes the shine off your scales. (pg. 136)
There are double grubnug-fudge smoothies, glowshroom groves, spicy lizard dogs and choco-slug cookies, and mothers who scratch the scales behind your ears. (Aw.)  And Tank’s inventions, like her spybot and springers, are the contraptions of kids’ dreams. Mike Deas’ graphic novel-type illustrations suggest he got as much amusement as the author in creating the assortment of monsters that populate Slick City and the Tank and Fizz books in general. (Books 3, The Case of the Missing Mage is set for release April 2017.)

From Tank and Fizz: The Case of the Battling Bots 
by Liam O'Donnell, illus. by Mikes Deas
Since the book’s dedication is “To goblin detectives and troll tinkerers everywehere”, it seems only right to review The Case of the Battling Bots in October, the month of goblins, trolls, witches, elves and more. Moreover, the book was just nominated for the 2017 Silver Birch Express award, so it’s review at this time is only fitting.  But the outrageous antics of Tank and Fizz, all in good fun and with the best of intentions, will always entertain, regardless of the time of year, as long as early and middle-grade readers enjoy a bit of fun with their creepy and a bit, but not too much, of the graphic-novel  format to dress up a strongly-plotted story.

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!

October 20, 2016

The Wolf-Birds

by Willow Dawson
Owlkids Books
40 pp.
Ages 5-8

Sometimes I receive review copies of books that get office-bushwhacked on their way to reviews on CanLit for LittleCanadians.  Sometimes I get back to them, and sometimes I don’t.  And then sometimes because of award nominations I feel compelled to finally get that review out.  Such is the case with Willow Dawson’s The Wolf-Birds, recently nominated for the 2016 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, the 2016 Information Book Award and the 2017 Blue Spruce Award.  Mea culpa for not reviewing The Wolf-Birds sooner.

The Wolf-Birds is a story of survival in the natural world and it’s not an easy one.  But when life is governed by the weather and food availability, how can it be anything but perilous?  Two hungry ravens endure the cold of winter, scavenging for food wherever possible.  When they hear four wolves in pursuit of a buffalo, they follow, expectant of some scraps.  Instead, one of the wolves is killed and the three remaining wolves continue their own search for food, alerted by the ravens to a starving and injured deer.  

From The Wolf-Birds by Willow Dawson

In the wild winter wood…
…one animal’s life helps many others live.  

From strongest to smallest,
everyone feasts in turn, filling
bellies and beaks. (pg. 24-27)
The interdependent relationship between the ravens and wolves is recognized by the common use of the term “wolf-birds” for ravens, acknowledging the unique connection between the two creatures.  As Willow Dawson’s story reveals, ravens are prepared to steal food killed by wolves as well as lead them by call and display to potential prey, while wolves pay attention to where ravens congregate and willingly clean up that which the birds do not eat.  It’s a unique interdependence and one that affords greater discussion in science classrooms, discussions aptly supported by the book’s references and information guide available at the Owlkids website here.

But, The Wolf-Birds is an illustrated children’s book and one whose artwork must be recognized as fundamental in the telling of its story.  The text is spare and that is because the illustrations, acrylic paint on board, propel the story through the cycles of food and life. Eerily reminiscent of the sleek animals of cave dwellings, Willow Dawson’s fauna are simple, outlined creatures, unadorned but easily identifiable, coloured in muted earth tones of feathers and fur, alongside cool snow and winter skies, with occasional brightness of rose or green.
From The Wolf-Birds by Willow Dawson
There is a story to tell here of life in the wild and a mutualistic relationship of which many readers are unaware.  The Wolf-Birds, beautifully depicted by Willow Dawson's artwork, is a story that must be told and appreciated for its lessons and its message about working together and survival, teachings that go far beyond the natural environment portrayed within.

October 19, 2016

Tagged Out: Book event (Toronto)

The Toronto Blue Jays may have played their last game of the season today


if you baseball,
live in or around Toronto
want to support youth baseball

Then come out to the book event featuring 
author Joyce Grant's

new middle grade sports novel

Tagged Out
(Sports Stories series)
by Joyce Grant
123 pp.
Ages 12-14

on Sunday, October 23, 2016

at 12 noon

at Christie Pits
(corner of Christie St. and Bloor St.)
Toronto, ON

On the Lorimer website, the book is described as follows:

The inner-city Toronto Blues baseball team is having a lousy year. Shortstop Nash and the Blues can't seem to win. They especially hate losing to their archrivals, the rich kids of the Parkhill Pirates. When all-star player Jock joins the team, it looks like the Blues might be able to turn the season around. The only problem? When the Pirates find out that Jock is gay, they ambush Nash and Jock, and Nash has to decide if he wants to stand by his teammate.

Get a signed copy of Tagged Out for $10
participate in the  Toronto Playgrounds Baseball
Derby for Distance

You can help fundraise 
for new equipment for 
the Toronto Playgrounds kids' baseball program
by participating in 
the batting competition 
at pitching machines of different speeds 
for different ages
There will be prizes, a raffle, refreshments, book sales and fun!

October 18, 2016

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk

by Jan Thornhill
Groundwood Books
44 pp.
Ages 8-11
October 2016

The story of the Great Auk, a bird of unique anatomy and behaviour, is truly a tragic one, and Jan Thornhill takes great care to ensure the details of that tragedy are thorough, though never explicit, and the basis for some ecological contemplation.

The Great Auk, which inhabited areas of the North Atlantic including Iceland, Greenland, Scandinavia and Newfoundland, was a part of the history of Stone Age humans, the Vikings, the Inuit and the Beothuk, and then that of the Europeans who arrived on North American shores.  The bird was a magnificent bird in size and structure, a lethal fisher spending 10 months of the year in the water.  But, its downfall–or at least a couple factors contributing to it–was advanced by the bird’s inability to fly and its clumsiness on the land upon which their eggs were laid.  Though they laid their eggs in highly-inaccessible areas in order to afford them some protection, humans found ways to reach them and exploit them.

Though the various cultures came to kill the birds for meat, some respectfully ensured that the rest of the animal was not wasted, instead used for clothing, oil, tools, and weapons.  But once the Europeans arrived in North America, the slaughter of the Great Auk went beyond just meeting their needs to survive.  The disappearance of the Great Auk from Funk Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, may have been the canary in the mine shaft but it just encouraged the continued exploration for and exploitation of Great Auks and their eggs for museum and private collections.

From The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk
by Jan Thornhill

Yet in this historical and natural history story, Jan Thornhill who excels at comprehensive but accessible non-fiction for middle-grade readers (e.g., I Found a Dead Bird, Maple Tree Press, 2006; This is My Planet: The Kids’ Guide to Global Warming, Maple Tree Press, 2007; Who Wants Pizza?: The kids’ guide to the history, science and culture of food, Maple Tree Press, 2010) the story of the Great Auk is told with insight and hindsight.  The bird’s own nature limited its ability to adapt and escape humans as predators but the role of humans in the Great Auk’s extinction is sadly obvious.  Still Jan Thornhill, whose illustrations of the bird in various natural situations and a few unnatural ones depict the Great Auk’s former glory and reality, makes a point to note the bird’s extinction in allowing other species, such as the Puffin, to flourish where it once could not.  Sometimes, though not always, there is a silvery lining to a story of extinction.

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk will be a useful text for talking history, birds, ecology, human interference and so much more–the addenda are very informative–and for opening discussions to help young people address their own role in the natural world and ensuring that world's endurance without our manipulation of it into a sorry state of irreversible destruction.

October 17, 2016

If I Were a Zombie

by Kate Inglis
Illustrated by Eric Orchard
Nimbus Publishing
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
April 2016

With Halloween almost upon us and young children (OK, adults too) thinking about costumes, consider reading If I Were a Zombie to jump start those creative juices and delight young readers with the back-and-forth poems of two friends, Evan and Poppy,  imagining life as monsters and other-worldly creatures.

The list of creatures that Kate Inglis includes is extensive: zombie, fairy, robot, giant, vampire, witch, ninja, ghost, alien, superhero, sea monster, goblin, skeleton, mermaid, and even adult. There’s something a little scary and a lot funny about all of them. Each double-spread has a full-page illustration and a multi-stanza rhyming poem about the entity each child envisions for themselves.

If I were a zombie
I’d package my drool
Put it in Mason jars
Sell it at school. 

I’d mumble and stumble to sniff out some lunch
Chase Ben and Lucy…
(Think they’d be juicy?)
And sweet little Tilly?
“Quit runnin’, silly!
All I want’s a good nibble and munch.
(pg. 3)

So begins Evan’s speculative verse about being a zombie, and the two children’s remaining proposals are just as evocative.  There are discussions of the robot’s price tag and robospeak (AFFIRMATIVE for yes, NEGATIVE for no, And DOES-NOT-COMPUTE for “I ain’t gonna go.”; pg. 7); the ninja’s "collection of secrets and dark-of-night prizes" (pp. 15); a pirate ghost who knows of Oak Island and eluding the Mounties; an alien called Zeekoid the Freakoid ready to take over New Brunswick; and a photo-bombing sea monster that has ...

...stingers for fingers
Seaweed for hair
Flip-floppy gills
And a bum that’s bare.” (pg. 23)

From If I Were a Zombie 
by Kate Inglis, illus. by Eric Orchard
But most wonderful of all is the cool dad who declares that,

I’d stay up past midnight
And my kids would too
We’d eat pretzels with pop
That turned our tongues blue.
(pg. 31)

Eric Orchard, who illustrated The Terrible, Horrible, Smelly Pirate (Nimbus, 2008), easily gets down and dirty in his imaginings of these weird and wacky characters.  The illustrations are as bold as their colours and more fun than scary, sure to entertain young readers with their quirky whimsy.

From If I Were a Zombie
by Kate Inglis, illus. by Eric Orchard
If I Were a Zombie pairs Kate Inglis’s imaginative rhymes with Eric Orchard’s fanciful but goofy creatures in such a way that life as an other-worldly creature seems almost cool, even if it requires eating nachos with brain dip.