December 07, 2017

Coyote Tales

Written by Thomas King
Illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler
Groundwood Books
60 pp.
Ages 6-9
October 2017

If anyone ever believes that the storytelling tradition of First Nations has disappeared, they need only read aloud the Coyote stories of Thomas King.  Undoubtedly told better in his own booming voice, these Coyote Tales are told with the mischief and wisdom to impart awe and lessons aplenty.

Coyote Tales is actually two previously published Coyote stories by Thomas King.  The first, Coyote Sings to the Moon (originally published in 1999), has that trickster Coyote interrupting the nightly song by Old Woman and the animals praising the Moon.  When Coyote offers to join them, they deny him a voice, knowing how poorly he sings.  Chastized, Coyote leaves in a huff, criticizing the Moon for its disturbing brightness.  Moon, not to take criticism, plunges itself into a pond to enjoy a game of chess with Sunfish.  While Old Woman and the animals search for Moon, Coyote struggles in the darkness, using a skunk as a pillow and falling off a cliff.  But clever Old Woman uses Coyote's horrible singing to force Moon to flee the pond and fating Coyote to a nightly song to keeps Moon from returning to the pond and a life of leisure.

The second story is Coyote's New Suit (originally published in 2004), a charming tale of vanity and envy.  Coyote is perfectly content with his suit of gold, toasty brown until Raven's comments convince Coyote to steal Bear's suit left on a pond's shore. When Bear returns to find his suit missing, Raven tells him that the humans hang clothes they no longer need on ropes and encourages him to help himself.  Coyote continues to steal the suits of Porcupine, Raccoon, Beaver and more animals who, in turn, help themselves to the human clothes hanging on the clothes line.  All orchestrated by Raven, the shenanigans come to a head when Coyote holds a yard sale to clean out his closet and humans and animals alike come in search of new suits.
From Coyote Tales 
by Thomas King 
illus. by Byron Eggenschwiler
Thomas King's Coyote Tales recognizes the traditional Coyote stories of First Nations, taking readers to "a long time ago, before animals stopped talking to human beings" (pg. 11) when lessons were learned at the antics of a mischievous and oft humiliated Coyote and the clever playfulness of Raven and the natural world was honoured and celebrated. The legends are told here as comical allegory but are rich in lessons and advice.

Groundwood Books is doing something very clever in opening up previously published picture books to new audiences.  By re-releasing them as very short anthologies, perhaps only two or three stories, with new and fewer illustrations (here by Calgarian Byron Eggenschwiler), they are capturing the early reader and middle grade reader who might not want to be seen reading "babyish" picture books.  Margaret Atwood's A Trio of Tolerable Tales (Groundwood, 2017) was such a collection and I'm hoping that there are more in the offering from Groundwood, especially for Thomas King who still has more Coyote tales to share.

December 06, 2017

The Hanging Girl

Written by Eileen Cook
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
308 pp.
Ages 13+
October 2017

Skye Thorn is a tarot card reader, helping her peers with their questions about love, school and more.  But, though she cultivates an image of having psychic powers, Skye is just an astute observer of human nature and a sneak at private files and conversations.  Her mother might purport to have the gift but Skye knows she herself does not.

Still Skye is a teen who has always wanted a certain life and had a willingness to make it happen. 
Destiny is like a boulder.  Bulky and hard to move.  It's easier to leave it alone than to try to change it.  But that never kept anyone from trying.  Trust me: I'm a professional. (pg. 1)
She hates her name, Candi, the one she was given by her 15-year-old mother, and has managed to get her friends and school to use her middle name, Skye.  She had woven a story about her father, whom she has never known, being a military hero.  That story ended badly, though, and had her labelled a liar and headed for counselling.  Now, she’s telling her best friend Drew that she’s saving her money so that they’ll be able to get an apartment in New York City when Drew heads to art school next year.  But she hasn’t. 

When she is approached to use her psychic flair in a scheme to kidnap popular and wealthy Paige Bonnet, Skye convinces herself that it would be alright.  Paige would not be hurt and Skye would get some of the ransom money.  Her role would be negligible: all she had to do was convince the police that she was having visions of Paige’s disappearance and to help direct their investigation.  Ah, the best laid plans…

Like the tarot card called the Hanged Man, which suggests someone at the crossroads, Skye is balancing who she really is with what she wants people to see and what they actually do see in her.  From her mother to Drew and classmates and then the police and others, Skye's self is hanging, perhaps precariously as she makes choices.  She truly is The Hanging Girl. But the mystery that is Skye extends beyond her, embedding readers in a young adult thriller with a myriad of twists and reversals and red herrings.  Never, never can the reader tell what will happen next or whom to believe.  The tagline "Trust no one. Deceive everyone" is especially apt.  The plot is intricate and multilayered and, even when Skye figures things out in a climactic graduation ceremony setting, I was never convinced I knew the truth. That just tells you how convincing Eileen Cook's writing is.  It is tight but complex, and she never lets the plot lag or the storyline get caught on ineffectual plot twists.

Eileen Cook, whose books Unraveling Isobel (Simon Pulse, 2012), The Almost Truth (Simon Pulse, 2012), Remember (Simon Pulse, 2015), and With Malice (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) have been reviewed on CanLit for LittleCanadians, always has some mystery amidst the teen drama but she is particularly adroit at relationship dramas.  Her characterizations and dialogue between characters and inside Skye's head are especially compelling in The Hanging Girl.  Except for several chapters conveyed as Paige's written account of her ordeal, most of Eileen Cook’s text is in the first-person narrative of the young tarot card reader trying to assess her situation prior to Paige's disappearance and then while the teen's family and police investigate.  She's gotten herself involved in something desperate and is in far too deep to get out cleanly.  Still, though she lies and manipulates, it's surprising how sympathetic Skye is as a character.  She always believed that she was destined for a nothing life, so the readers will cheer for the girl who tries to see herself beyond a life at Burger Barn.  As such, the ending will floor you.

See beyond the mess that is Skye and the situation in which she finds herself and discover a thrilling plot of truths and lies and shadows in The Hanging Girl. It's a little dark but more angsty than criminal and definitely an accurate take on the desperate measures people will take to achieve the lives they feel are warranted.

December 05, 2017

Woodrow at Sea

Written and illustrated by Wallace Edwards
Pajama Press
24 pp.
Ages 3-5
November 2017

Not since an owl and a pussycat set off to sea have two wholly unlikely friends shared a boat on the open water.  But the story of Woodrow at Sea is less love story than story of friendship and a far more poignant one than Edward Lear's nonsense poem.
From Woodrow at Sea 
by Wallace Edwards
When Woodrow, the elephant, waves goodbye to his family, setting off on his adventure with only a boat, a paddle and a spyglass, he could never imagine finding a small white mouse marooned on a purplish mound in the open water.  The mouse tells of his own tale of saying goodbye to his own family who gift him with a compass and heading out in a teacup vessel until upturned by a purple, gold and orange creature. 
From Woodrow at Sea 
by Wallace Edwards
Together the travellers set out to seek adventure, with the mouse teaching Woodrow to sing. When a foul cloud blows in nasty weather and the calm sea is awoken into turmoil, the little mouse uses the spyglass to rescue Woodrow. Together they battle their way to calmer waters and, though they both return to their different island homes, they're both richer for their encounter and adventures.
From Woodrow at Sea
by Wallace Edwards
Because Woodrow at Sea is a wordless book, author-illustrator Wallace Edwards allows his illustrations to carry the story.  But it really isn't just one story.  Everyone will read something different into his touching and considerate artwork.  Though less elaborate than his art in earlier books such as Once Upon a Line (Pajama Press, 2015) and Unnatural Selections (Orca, 2014), Wallace Edwards provides more than enough depth of detail for our youngest readers to interpret the illustrations in a myriad of ways.  They will easily recognize the value of friendship and teamwork but there will be questions.  Why did Wallace Edwards choose and elephant and a mouse? Are the elephant and mouse singing or whistling?  Does Woodrow know how to sing or did the mouse have to teach him?  Were the two animals planning on an extended adventure that was interrupted by calamity or were these just day trips? When recounting their adventures to family, why did they focus on different events though both emphasize the goodwill of the other?  For a story told with no words, Woodrow at Sea has much to tell.  And a lesson in creative thinking and visual literacy would not go amiss here.

Woodrow at Sea is truly a story about the importance of friendship and the good fortune of having a friend who has your back when seas get a little rough. It may not always be an angry ocean or a purple monster, but there's always something that is eased with the support of a friend.
From Woodrow at Sea 
by Wallace Edwards

Wallace Edwards will launch his newest picture book this weekend in Toronto. Details for this event were posted here.

December 04, 2017

Woodrow at Sea: Book launch (Toronto, ON)

The wonderfully talented author and illustrator

Wallace Edwards
is set to launch his newest picture book of youngCanLit

Woodrow at Sea
Written and illustrated by Wallace Edwards
Pajama Press
24 pp.
Ages 3-5
November 2017
Review here


  Saturday, December 9, 2017

11 a.m. -12:30 p.m.


Queen Books
914 Queen St. East
Toronto, ON

In addition to book sales and signing by Wallace Edwards,
there will be:
• story time
• a drawing lesson
• crafts
• light refreshments

Look for my review of this special wordless picture book tomorrow!