July 26, 2017

Caterpillars Can't Swim

Written by Liane Shaw
Second Story Press
256 pp.
Ages 13-18
September 2017

Though sixteen-year-old Ryan Malloy is often treated differently in his small town due to his use of a wheelchair, everything is right with the world when he is swimming.  Because he’s up early even on days when he hasn’t got swim team practice, Ryan witnesses someone disappearing beneath the surface of their local river.  Throwing himself off the bridge, ultimately injuring his shoulder, Ryan saves a school mate, Jack Pedersen, from drowning.  But did Ryan really help Jack out?  When small-town gossip and rumours about Jack’s sexuality and the bullying he endures because of it brings Ryan to Jack’s defense and side repeatedly, the two develop a tenuous friendship.
Not that I'm saying everyone here is like that.  They aren't.  It's just that it seems like this town is frozen in time and a lot of attitudes around here are stuck in the ice.  My mother says she spends a lot of her time at school working on thawing out the attitudes of the kids so that someday things will be different.
   I don't think it's working yet.
 (pg. 10)
Although Ryan’s best friend Cody is somewhat awkward about Jack and about Ryan’s new relationship with him, the three boys’ embark on a summer trip to a local ComicCon.  During those two days, much is revealed about the teens’ fears, attitudes and confusion about each other but also exposed are the hurts, judgments and burdens they all carry, regardless of the limitations or strengths others perceive them to have.  Whether their relationships, new and old, are enough to make a positive difference in their lives is only evident after a stunning climax of rejection, desperation, and intervention.

Liane Shaw, a former educator including special education resource teacher, has never shied away from tough topics like foster care (Fostergirls, Second Story, 2011), physical or emotional limitations (The Color of Silence, Second Story, 2013) and ASD (Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Second Story, 2016). As in her earlier young adult books, she tackles the prejudices people assert on those who are different, whether perceived or real, and turns them into understanding and acceptance for those differences.  Whether caterpillars can or can’t swim is irrelevant.  What’s important is knowing that metamorphosis is foreseeable and all butterflies and moths are to be appreciated.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
(A version of this review was originally written for and published in Quill & Quire, as noted in the citation below.)

Kubiw, H. (2017, September). [Review of the book Caterpillars Can't Swim, by Liane Shaw]. Quill & Quire, 83 (7): 39.

July 24, 2017

Putuguq and Kublu

Written by Danny Christopher
Illustrated by Astrid Arijanto
Inhabit Media
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
May 2017

The children of the title, Putuguq and Kublu, are a high-spirited brother and sister who love playing pranks on one another but in this early reader-graphic novel, they are no match for the wisdom of their grandfather who supervises and enlightens them.

The smaller and younger Putuguq tries to prank his sister Kublu with a snowball but she is older and onto his tricks and gets him with an even bigger snowball.  As he chases her across the tundra, Kublu trips on a rock and almost falls head first into an inukshuk.  Their grandfather takes this opportunity to tell them about the purpose of inuksuit (plural of inukshuk) and of the ancient Tuniit people who used them as hunting markers.  Putuguq, always wanting to show himself as the better-bigger-stronger sibling, tries to lift a heavy rock and just ends up looking silly.  But, he finds his own way to use an inukshuk and to get back at his snowball-dropping sister.
From Putuguq and Kublu 
by Danny Christopher 
illus. by Astrid Arijanto
These kids have spirit and lots of it and a good dose of sibling rivalry–of the friendly nature–that fuels their antics in their home town of Arviq Bay north of the Arctic Circle. (A double-spread graphic maps out key places in their community.)
From Putuguq and Kublu 
by Danny Christopher 
illus. by Astrid Arijanto
But the story is more than a sister and brother trying to "get" the other with snowballs or showing off.  It's a story of family and history and environment.  Danny Christopher has penned a simple story but it is perfect for a child who is an early reader.  The story teaches in a fun way and will help in developing visual literacy skills with the bright and bold graphics of Astrid Arijanto.  From the map to the explanations about inuksuit and the Tuniit, Putuguq and Kublu is a fun romp across the tundra that will spark discussions about the Arctic, the Inuit and getting along with your siblings.
From Putuguq and Kublu 
by Danny Christopher 
illus. by Astrid Arijanto

n.b. The word "putuguq" and "kublu" are Inuktitut words that mean toe and thumb respectively.  

July 20, 2017

A Trio of Tolerable Tales

Written by Margaret Atwood
Illustrated by Dušan Petričić
Groundwood Books
68 pp.
Ages 7-10
March 2017

I suspect Margaret Atwood doesn’t abide rules for writing, especially ones that insist that alliteration is verboten. Still, writing as she chooses, Margaret Atwood’s style is acclaimed as unique and refreshing and unconventional.  It doesn’t matter whether she writes for adults or for children, dystopia or realistic fiction, graphic novel or picture book.  Her stories poke our psyches into response, whether into delightful laughter or revulsion for worlds gone wrong.  I’m pleased to share A Trio of Tolerable Tales and commend its objective to yield mirth.

The three stories in this tome were originally published as three separate picture books: Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (Key Porter, 2003); Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda (Key Porter, 2004); and Wandering Wenda (McArthur & Co., 2011).  Together the three have become a short story collection for early readers who wish to read beyond picture books and a challenging read-aloud for anyone wishing to trip over their tongues and twist themselves into tenuous ties.

Rude Ramsay resides with his relatives Ron, Rollo and Ruby and is tormented by the horrific food regularly presented.  He finally revolts.  On the advice of his friend, Ralph a red-nosed rat, Ramsay sneaks across (or rather through) the rampart to enter a realm of fresh and inviting food. But when he helps himself to a radish, they attack, calling him a robber.  It is only when a girl named Rillah steps in that Ramsay is made to see that each lives in a world with attributes the other appreciates.
From A Trio of Tolerable Tales 
by Margaret Atwood 
illus. by Dušan Petričić
Bob of Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda is abandoned by his mother and raised by a bounty of dogs.
But Bob was bashful.  He did not believe he was a boy, and barked when bothered.  He was bewildered by blithering barbers, blathering butchers, bun-bearing bakers and belligerent bus drivers, and would bound behind bushes or burrow under benches when they blundered by.  He would bite busy businessmen in their briefcases.  (pg. 31)
Dorinda, the Cinderella slave of her distant relatives, runs away and discovers Bob and his doggie family.  She takes it upon herself to teach Bob to speak.  When a buffalo, labelled a begonia, ventures into their neighbourhood, it is Bob who becomes brave and Dorinda who becomes daring and together they save the day.
From A Trio of Tolerable Tales 
by Margaret Atwood 
illus. by Dušan Petričić

Wandering Wenda and the Widow Wallop’s Wunderground Washery is the story of Wenda whose “parents were whisked away by a weird whirlwind” (pg. 45).  She befriends a woodchuck whom she names Wesley. Wenda, with Wesley secreted away in her sweater, is whisked away rather unceremoniously by the Widow Wallop who takes them to her underground washery where three other children–Wilkinson, Wu and Wanapitai–were “washing, rinsing and wringing out the whiter than white washing” (pg. 55).  It is Wesley in doing what woodchucks do who helps the children escape the abuse of the Widow and the horrors of their slavery in the Wunderground, and ultimately, with the help of some wolves, they bring a criminal to justice and ensure the return of their parents.
From A Trio of Tolerable Tales 
by Margaret Atwood 
illus. by Dušan Petričić
If you feel there’s a Roald Dahl flavour to Margaret Atwood’s stories, you’d be right.  There are children who must find the means, often humourous though sometimes tragic, to survive selfish or evil adults.  They make comrades of unlikely animals and children, and restore their lives to some semblance of contentment.  As Wesley often says, “Could be worse.”

Dušan Petričić illustrated the original picture books but the black and white drawings in this volume lend a dark air that emphasizes the darker aspects of Margaret Atwood’s stories.  There’s a bleakness that seems more appropriate for readers who are too old for picture books–perhaps only in their own minds–but too young for really disturbing stories.  So, courtesy of Margaret Atwood and Dušan Petričić, A Trio of Tolerant Tales, brought to you by the letters R, B and D and W, fits that bill in all its alliterative glory.

July 18, 2017

What's My Superpower?

Written by Aviaq Johnston
Illustrated by Tim Mack
Inhabit Media
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
July 2017

Every child wants to fit in but also wants to excel at something.  Nalvana is no different. But while she enjoys playing outdoors and riding her bike in her "small town where winter is always longer than summer" (pg. 2), she thinks about having superpowers and wears a yellow blanket and snowmobiling goggles as her costume.
From What's My Superpower? 
by Aviaq Johnston 
illus. by Tim Mack
But, when she sees her friends doing extraordinary things, which she always commends them on, like running fast or flying through the air, sculpting with snow and stone or holding their breath underwater, Nalvana is perplexed by her own lack of superpower.  Over and over again, she tells her mother about her friends' amazing strengths and asks what hers might be.  Her mother, unruffled, encourages Nalvana to be patient, sure that her superpower will be revealed in time.
From What's My Superpower? 
by Aviaq Johnston 
illus. by Tim Mack
Just as might be expected, Nalvana's superpower was always evident.  It is as natural as breathing for her so she just needed to have it pointed out.  Fortunately, her mother can see the truly gifted child Nalvana is.
From What's My Superpower? 
by Aviaq Johnston 
illus. by Tim Mack
Ensuring that Nalvana's superpower is not one of the athletic or other overt skills that are normally so admired in our current society that revere celebrity and personality, Aviaq Johnston has made her story one of inclusivity, not exclusivity.  Everyone has a superpower if we look beyond winning awards and competitions.  Everyone has a strength or two that sets them above the rest.  And Nalvana's superpower truly makes her a superhero to others.

Aviaq Johnston's story about Nalvana is also about her milieu which is the basis for her experiences.  The little girl compares Davidee's speed to a Ski-Doo or to the wind on a blizzardy day, and expounds on Joanasie's snow sculpting and inuksuk building similar to his dad's skill as a carver.  Her Arctic home is as unique as the young girl in its offerings.  Tim Mack embeds Nalvana's story in that community, right down to her husky puppy.  And though the palette of turquoise blue-green, golds and salmon may appear more southwestern than northern, it's plays up the natural world in which Nalvana's journey of discovery takes place.

I may not tell you the answer to Nalvana's question of What's My Superpower? but suffice it to say it is something remarkable and terrific, and her mother, her friends and now readers will all know what it is.

July 17, 2017

Polly MacCauley's Finest Divinest Woolliest Gift of All

Written by Sheree Fitch
Illustrated by Darka Erdelji
Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides
68 pp.
Ages 5-8
June 2017

Before Sheree Fitch even begins to tell her story, she invites "Listeners Young and Old" to enjoy her yarn.

Tales are for telling and the truth may be tall,
My yarn is for spinning as the earth spins for all. 

This is a yarn for
   a windy night
      or a rainy day
         or any old time
            or a circle of souls
               or a broken lonely heart– 

so hunker down by a crackling fire and read aloud just to yourself
or share my yarn with those you love.
(pg. 5)

Her yarn begins with the joyful first "Baa" bleated by a very special lamb born in the village of River John. It's a sound that

"...wrapped round that village 
like a ribbon of joy 
     a warm woolly scarf 
          or a magical spell from a long ago fairy tale" (pg. 8)

Meanwhile in the small countship of Woodland, the greedy Count Woolliam and his sister Woolamina, the Countess of Fleece and Fluff, are ruminating over the status of their flock and whether there will be sufficient wool for all their woolly needs: robes, sweaters, hats, socks, blankets, rugs, tissues and more.  They too hear that first "Baa" and head out in search of that special lamb, determined to take it for their own.

From Polly MacCauley's Finest Divinest Woolliest Gift of All 
by Sheree Fitch 
illus. by Darka Erdelji
Polly MacCauley, a woman rarely seen and about whom the grownups often whisper and the children wonder, who did "extra-ordinary, wild and wondrous things with W-O-O-L" (pg. 18), hears that same "Baa" and is thrilled to realized that she would soon be able to knit her "finest, most divinest, woolliest gift of all." (pg. 23)

But, after the lamb's mother dies and her mournful cries are heard around the world, Star–as she is named by Farmer John's family–feels disconnected and good for nothing.  That is until Polly, venturing out for the first time in ages, visits Farmer John's farm.  Though there is a potential conflict when the Count and Countess demand the lamb, they are moved by the love that the village of River John feels for Star (it's a woolly Grinch moment: "Something, some hole in his greedy brittle heart, stitched together."; pg. 53) and Star goes home with her new mama, Polly.

The magic is just beginning, though, because Star grows a very thick coat of fleece daily which Polly shears and uses to work on her masterpiece, as well as the plethora of wool projects Polly and her new knitting group undertake for the newborns, children and fishermen of River John and the people of the world. "Like love, there is always enough wool to go around." (pg. 57)

From Polly MacCauley's Finest Divinest Woolliest Gift of All 
by Sheree Fitch 
illus. by Darka Erdelji
And, though there is finally great purpose and much happiness with some sorrow still to come in Star's life, it is Polly MacCauley's gift to Mother Earth that will become the true star of the story, there "wherever and whenever someone needs a bit of wool or a bit of warmth or maybe the piecing together of a sad and lonely heart" (pg. 65).

Polly MacCauley's Finest Divinest Woolliest Gift of All is an atypical picture book.  Though the illustrations by Slovenian artist and former St. John's resident Darka Erdelji add the whimsy and ethereal fiber to Sheree Fitch's story, this tale is lengthy and text extensive and not a quick read before bedtime.  It is, however, a read-aloud story of story-telling breadth, deep and involved and rich with the essence of life.  It has love, sadness, grief, death, conflict, compassion and hope, so much hope.  There will be cheers and tears and bleats of appreciation for a story of history and connectedness, generosity and inspiration.  Sheree Fitch, whose poetry I have long admired, can turn a phrase with such adeptness that readers will feel the tugs on their own heart yarns and the weaving of a blanket of comfort and contentment.  And though Polly MacCauley's Finest Divinest Woolliest Gift of All is firmly rooted in the Maritimes of her home, Sheree Fitch has woven a story for the world in both context and spirit.
From Polly MacCauley's Finest Divinest Woolliest Gift of All 
by Sheree Fitch 
illus. by Darka Erdelji


If you're fortunate enough to live near or be visiting the Maritimes, consider stopping it at Mabel Murple's Book Shoppe and Dreamery in River John, Nova Scotia, a specialty bookstore just opened this month by Sheree Fitch and featuring Atlantic Canadian books in all genres as well as Canadian children's books.

July 12, 2017

#Tundra50 Tote Bag Auction

Tundra Books
an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada

is celebrating its 50th anniversary 

with a wonderful online auction in support of

a non-profit organization committed to bringing books and children together. 

Tundra Books asked the following 34 youngCanLit illustrators 

Cale Atkinson
Raphaëlle Barbanègre
Ben Clanton
Genviève Côté
The Fan Brothers
Eugenie Fernandes
Rebecca Green
Janet Hill
Matt James
Marthe Jocelyn
Madeline Kloepper
Julie Kraulis
Ron Lightburn
Julie Morstad
Olivia Chin Mueller
Vicki Nerino
Maxwell Newhouse
Kenard Pak
Gina Perry
Dušan Petričič
Kass Reich
Esmé Shapiro
Zoe Si
Lori Joy Smith
Sydney Smith
Bill Slavin
Mika Song
Ashley Spires
Carey Sookocheff
Chihiro Takeuchi
Frank Viva
Phoebe Wahl
Mélanie Watt
Cybèle Young

to decorate one side of the limited edition Tundra50 canvas tote bags


and these bags are being auctioned off 
between June 23 and July 28, 2017.

That gives you just over two weeks to place your bid

Minimum bid is $10 and all bids must be made in $5 increments. 

Details about the Tundra50 Tote Bag Auction can be read here The actual auction and images of the tote bags (both front and back) as well as current bids are listed here.

July 11, 2017

Stealth of the Ninja

Written by Philip Roy
Ronsdale Press
225 pp.
Ages 10+
March 2017

When Alfred Pynsent set out in his twenty-foot, diesel-electric submarine three years ago, he was an explorer. He's navigated the Maritimes near his home in Newfoundland, the St. Lawrence River, the Atlantic, Arctic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, South Africa, India and saw more in a few short years, both travel-wise and experientially, than most people do in their whole lives.  And he's just on the cusp of turning seventeen.  But, Al has turned from explorer to eco-warrior having seen the desecration of the oceans first hand.
I know that the sea is dying.  I mean, the water will always be there, of course, but the life in it won't.  And even though there are still days when whales breach in front of my sub, and dolphins race playfully past, and flying fish soar over my head with the funny whispering of their fins, there are much longer stretches  when I see nothing on the water but garbage and torn nets with rotting sea animals, as if the sea were nothing but one humongous human garbage patch. (pg. 2)
Heading to Japan, Al is apprehensive, as months earlier (Eco Warrior, 2015) he had helped the Sea Shepherd Society prevent a tanker from refuelling Japanese whaling ships and he was accused of sabotaging a Japanese tanker in Australia (he didn't).  But, when he discovers an old barnacle-laden freighter, seemingly abandoned, six hundred miles southeast of Japan, it's the beginning of a new adventure for Al that has him learning the ways of ninjutsu, being tossed around in his sub by a tsunami, robbing a new acquaintance's home, and saving a life.

Aboard the rusty freighter, Alfred meets Sensei, a 100-year-old Japanese man, a ninja, who has made the ship his home, growing a garden and collecting the plastic detritus of the oceans within the holds.
His face was gentle, kind and wise.  It was cut with laugh wrinkles, which meant he had probably spent most of his life laughing.  And yet there was something about him that was sad, as if he carried happiness on the outside, but sadness on the inside. (pg. 11)
Sensei teaches Alfred the ways of the ninja– jumping, stealth, stick fighting–and instills in him the disciplines of meditation and exercise, though the perseverance and determination Alfred demonstrates are all his.  When they witness a tsunami encroaching, Alfred and his canine first-mate, Hollie, seek the shelter of the sub but cannot convince Sensei to join them.  Except for a few cuts and bumps on the sub explorers, the submarine survives but the old freighter has flipped and is sitting between 130 and 140 feet below the surface.  Alfred is convinced the plastics have buoyed the ship and that Sensei is still alive.  Heading to the port of Choshi for help, Alfred finds the streets almost deserted because, he soon learns, of the tsunami's impact, most notably on the Fukushima nuclear reactor.  How will he get the help he needs to save Sensei without putting his own life in jeopardy, without getting caught by the authorities looking for him, and without breaking an agreement he made with Ziegfried, his friend and engineer of the submarine?

Stealth of the Ninja is the eighth book (!) in the Submarine Outlaw series and it is as riveting and fresh as any book in the series.  Still amazing is that, although I encourage you to read the whole series because it is so engrossing, Stealth of the Ninja and all its predecessors can stand alone as adventure novels, rife with action and extraordinary characters.  And those characters are truly extraordinary.  From Alfred and his first-mates Hollie and Seaweed to Sensei (whose name we never learn or even need to know) and the Japanese men Yoshi and Hitoshi whom he meets, the characters are so real that I could imagine finding photos of them online and recognizing them instantly.  Moreover, Philip Roy always bathes his stories in such distinctive settings that they are virtual characters.  From the submarine and Sensei's ship to the ocean and the streets of Choshi and Okinawa, Philip Roy creates worlds to which readers can travel in their minds to experience Alfred's  ventures and vicariously face dangers beyond the norm.  Still, though they are wonderful adventure stories, Philip Roy has much to tell us about the oceans and the world and the impact we have on them.  Alfred may seem disheartened at times–though he finds some hope at the conclusion of Stealth of the Ninja–but I think Alfred himself is a source of hope that there are amazing young people out there who care about this world and, recognizing its problems, see themselves as part of the solution. They may not all do it as stealthily as Sensei and Alfred but there's still hope that it's getting done.  By telling the stories of the Submarine Outlaw, Philip Roy gives us all hope as well.

Submarine Outlaw series by Philip Roy