Dr. Larry Recommends

Dr. Larry Recommends

What books have I recently enjoyed reading? What plays have I recently enjoyed seeing? This section offers recommendations of some of my current favourite literary and arts experiences.  I look forward to frequently posting children’s literature book lists here.

CHILDREN’S FICTION: LESS THAN 200 pages

At 200 pages or less (except for one title), these books range from the funny to the serious.

BECAUSE OF THE RABBIT by Cynthia Lord

After reading and enjoying the novel Rules, I became a fan of Cynthia Lord’s writing. She does not disappoint in this book about a young girl, Emma, who has only known home-schooling but now finds herself in the public school system. Being new to a new school can be stressful, but a class project where groups of grade five students each must tell ‘two truths and a lie’ tests Emma’s sense of being different, particularly when she befriends Jack, a special needs student with whom she is partnered with.  And yes, the caring of a pet bunny threads this story of compassion and kindness.

PLANET OMAR: ACCIDENTAL TROUBLE MAGNET by Zanib Mian; illus. Nasaya Mafaridik / (oops! this one’s 211 pages)

This is an engaging, entertaining read, particularly for fans of Wimpy Kid series. Playful fonts and comical illustrations add to the appeal of this book. What sets this narrative apart is the fact that the hero of the story is Muslim which connects to the world of many contemporary readers at the same time as inviting non-Muslim  students to learn about his culture through celebrations and religious observances. Omar joins bookshelves of characters who stressed out about attending a new school and get caught in incidents embarrassing and challenging (encounters with the school bully). The author dedicates this book to “all the children who ever felt that being different is a negative thing.” HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

FISHBONE’S SONG by Gary Paulsen

Up until a few years ago, I bought any/every new Paulsen novel in hardback. His work from the 1990’s – survival stories set in wild nature settings – knocked me out (Hatchet (series), Woodsong, The Island). (I once asked for Mr. Paulsen’s autograph at a conference and i told him he was my hero). Books that I came across in the past few years seemed to be a diversion from Paulsen’s genius at explaining and celebrating the natural world. Fishbone’s Son, the story of an orphan boy who comes to be raised in the woods by a wised old man. reminded me of the Paulsen “I used to know” and i was gain impressed with his wondrous storytelling and detailed factual writing. Paulsen’s world, I am assured comes from authentic experiences and they are so removed from my own world of urban living. You are a hero. The lyrical nature of this book may not appeal to a wide range of young readers but his sentences and images can serve as mentor examples of fiction/nonfiction wordsmthing. Mr. Paulsen, you are a hero. “First story I heard I was a baby still in birth blood in a wooden beer crate down where the creek crossed under the county firebreak trail.”

THIS SIDE OF WILD by Gary Paulsen

Everything you wanted to know about experiencing the wild, living with the wild, learning from the wild,  can be found in most of Gary Paulsen’s books. This book is presented as 5’chapters’ / nonfiction pieces.  The collection of true stories “have taught Mr. Paulsen lessons that have enriched his life and deepened his respect for animals”. The man has certainly lived a life of extreme adventure so far from my world experiences but I am fascinated to read about his encounters with dogs, bears, birds, snakes, etc that led him to believe that animals know more than humans can ever fathom. Fascinating. Sample chapter title: A Confusion of Horses, a Border Collie named Josh, a Grizzly Bear who LIked holes and a Poodle with Three Teeth.

SIX KIDS AND A STUFFED CAT by Gary Paulsen

No nature writing or animals (except for a stuffed cat) in this story of six young adolescent boys who don’t get along but are enforced to be exiled in a restroom, when a storm forces them to stay in school. As the story unfolds, the six strangers, each with his quirks and personalities, eventually become friends. The narrative occurs over 73 pages, but what is intriguing about this publication is a play adaptation (about 65 pages) of the story that we had just read about. Clever. (I preferred the script over the narrative)

FINDING LANGSTON by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Eleven-year-old Langston and his father move from Alabama to Chicago leaving behind memories of Grandma’s cooking and cherished times with Mama. It is 1946 and the ‘country boy’ is continually being harassed in his new school. Salvation is found within the walls of the George Cleveland Hall Library where blacks are welcome and the oetry words of Langston Hughes which give the young boy hope, courage and a connection to his mother’s spirit. Beautiful writing shining a beautiful light on the power of poems.

LEAVING LYMON by Lesa Cline-Ransome

A companion story to Finding Langston that stands on its own. Lymon doesn’t remember much about his mother and father is in a State Penetentiary.  After Lymon is being raised by two loving grandparents, circumstances force him to move to Milwaukee where he feels terribly alone, is caught in an abusive relationship, gets himself in trouble and is desperate to return to a place where he was loved by relatives and neighbours. In the first novel, poetry was the main character’s salvation, and in the second novel it is the music that becomes part of Lymon’s soul.

SUNNYSIDE PLAZA by Scott Simon

Any book that highlights its theme “KINDNESS STARTS FROM WITHIN” appeals to me. This is a wonderful novel, arousing empathetic understanding of a cast of adult characters with developmental disabilities who live in a community home.  Sally Miyake  is the resident who observe and questions the life of those around her and eventually becomes the hero to help sovle the problem of mysterious deaths and incidents that have struck the home. Yes, ‘kindness is found within’ the pages of this 191-page novel.

HIGH AND DRY by Eric Walters

In this chapter book, the author tells the story of a young boy and his grandfather who are forced to help rescue a young orca stranded on the rocks on remote island.  An appealing survival story for young readers.

 

INTO 2020: ECLECTIC READING

Have experienced varied reading over the past six weeks and the lists below include adult, YA, Middle Years fiction, one nonfiction title and yes, one poetry anthology (for grown-ups)

FIND ME by Andre Aciman (Adult Fiction)

The author of the novel Call Me By Your Name (loved it!) re-introduces some of the characters and is true to form in presenting stories about deeply falling in love. Told in separate sections (father falls in love with a girl on the train, Elio has an affair, and Oliver wants to return to Europe to pick up the pieces from long ago. The narrativess unfold in Rome and Paris, where music and food illuminate the settings.

KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES by Kacen Callender (Fiction, ages 11 – 14)

Author Kacen Callender won the 2019 Stonewall   Book award for her debut novel Hurricane Child and with the author was inspired to write a novel after their editor Andre Davis Pinkney said she ne er read a middle-grade book with a gay Black boy.  Kingston Reginald James (King), and his family are grieving over the death of Khalid. King is certain that his older brother continues to live as a dragonfly, who visits King in his dreams.  King keeps this secret to himself along with the secret that he might be gay. An incident  with a friend (a former friend)  forces King and his family to live beyond secrets. This book might (should) win the author another Stonewall book award.

ONE by Sara Crossan (YA Fiction)

A powerful story, told in verse form of two conjoined twins, who after sixteen years of surviving symbiotically, are forced to make an impossible decision of being separated.  Winner of the Carnegie Medal. A knockout!

TOFFEE by Sarah Crossan (YA Fiction)

After reading ONE, I will definitely be seeking out titles by free verse novelist Sara Crossan. In this book, a teenage girl runs away from home and eventually finds herself hiding in the shed of a house, where a lonely confused elderly woman, named Marlo lives. Marlo, who is living with dementia is convinced that Allison is a long lost friend from the past named Toffee. In an attempt to survive, Allison assumes Toffee’s identity and provides a comfort for Marlo. A book about identity, belonging and mental health.

AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins (Adult Fiction)

Despite controversy of misappropriation – because of controversy about misappropriation – I picked up this novel with claim to fame as being Oprahs’ book choice of the season. My attention was caught in the opening pages of the book, when 16 members of a Mexican family are slaughtered by powerful drug lords. A mother and her son, are desperate to survive and so unfolds the against-all-odds journey of immigrants desperate to find a better world in the U.S. Certainly a novel of the times. A novel of fear, resilience and hope.

CLOSED, STRANGER by Kate De Goldi (YA Fiction)

This is an early novel  by Award-winning New Zealand author Kate De Goldi (author of The 10 PM Question). It is the story of a strong attachment between two adolescent boys who seem to be joined at the hip. Max Jackson recounts his experiences with golden boy Westie. When love and lust enter each of the boys’ lives, their relationship becomes tumultuous, especially when Westie meets up with his birth mother who had abandoned him.  For mature YA readers.

THE 13-STORY TREEHOUSE by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (Fiction, ages 8-11)

Funny! funny! funny.1For young readers who are fans of Bad Guy, Captain Underpants, Dog Patrol and Diary of a Wimpy Kid., this is the first of a terrific series by Australian author Andy Griffiths and Illustrator Terry Denton. Enjoy the first book in the series and then climb higher to the 26-Story Treehouse, The 39-Story Treehouse, the 52-Story Treehouse and beyond.

THE WOMAN IN THIS POEM by Georgia Heard (editor); (Adult Poetry)

How many poetry anthologies do you buy/ read in one year? I challenge myself to go beyond poetry collections written for young people and was pleased to come across this special creation (2015) , by a special poet. Georgia Heard has collected  over seventy classic and contemporary poems written by women about women’s “lives and dreams, thoughts and experiences.” The book is divided into five thematic sections (Love, Motherhood, Work, Family and Friends, Balance. An exquisite – and tough – collection that shines a light on women voices.

SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES by Christian McKay Heidicker (Middle Years Fiction; short stories)

Heidicker is a great storyteller. The book is divided into 8 sections, with an older fox  recounting eerie tales of young foxes, forced to escape danger, challenged to survive in the wild and bravely confront enemies – and ghosts. Newbery Honor Book, 2020

SONG FOR A WHALE by Lynne Kelly (Fiction, ages 9-13)

A deaf girl longs to be understood and connected to others. When she learns about a whale who longs to be understood and connected to others, she sets herself on a mission to join an Alaskan Cruise (along with her deaf grandmother) and meet up with Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales. Readers will root for Iris and her determination at the same time as they will learn much about the aquatic world of whales.

OUTWITTING HISTORY: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued A Million Yiddish books  by Aaron Lansky (Adult Nonfiction)

An amazing story that documents the journey of one man to save the worlds’ abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late. Lansky’s tenacity take him throughout America and beyond to eventually collect more than an a million books. This true to life adventure introduces readers to a cast of characters, an array of Yiddish authors as Lansky crosses the bridge from the old world into the future. A fascinating, entertaining read about history and literature and the preservation of culture.

HARVEY COMES HOME by Colleen Nelson (Fiction, ages 8-11)

Harvey, a Westland Highland Terrier, beloved by his owner, Maggie, runs away from home. Austin volunteers in the retirement home where his grandfather works as custodian. Told in alternating chapters, this entertaining novel tells about Harvey’s adventures when he meets up with Austin. Readers will care about about what happens to this dog  but also gain compassion as they read about Mr. Pickering, a senior who is coping with memory loss, as he recounts  stories growing up in poverty during the Dust Bowl. (Curious that the title of thew book gives away the ending!) Forthcoming sequel: Harvey Holds His Own.

A GENTLEMAN FROM MOSCOW by Amor Towles (Adult Fiction)

This book has been on my bookshelf for a couple of years (hardback and paperback) and I was determined to dig into, and finish, it at last because it came highly recommended from friends. I loved the authors storytelling and backstorying and the blossoming of details.  An atmospheric and character driven book… but not enough carry forward plotting for me.  I liked it but didn’t love it. Now I can dig into at least ten other books on my pile that  I’ve promised myself to get into.

SHOUT OUT

TEACHING TOUGH TOPICS by Larry Swartz

How does children literature help deepen understanding of social justice, diversity and equity?

I am quite proud of this just-released publication which encourages teachers to choose and use children’s literature to unpack and dig deeper into topics that may seem tough (challenging, risky) but are vital to weave into our programs if we hope to enrich compassion, understanding, tolerance and kindness with young people as they become caring citizens of the world. Tough Topics include: Race and Diverse Cultures; The Immigrant and Refugee Experience; Indigenous Identities, The Holocaust; Physical and Mental Challenges; Poverty: Death, Loss and Remembrance, Gender Identity and Hom0phobia; Bullying; Ripples of Kindness,. 

Format: Each Tough Topic Chapter Includes;

  • Quotations from Children’s Literature
  • An Essay Introducing the Topic
  • Perspective Voice (s)
  • Language and Vocabulary Focus and Activities
  • Minds On lesson to open up the topic
  • Two model lessons , each using children’s literature and a focus response strategy
  • LiSTS: Great Books for a Great Topic

     

A FEW OF LARRY’S FAVOURITE THINGS, 2019

The list below highlights some of my favourite cultural experiences listed alphabetically by author (books), or alphabetically by title (movies and plays). Those items marked with an asterisk (*) deserve a  SHOUT OUT

 

PICTURE BOOKS

THE UNDEFEATED by Kwame Alexander; illus. Kadir Nelson

THE DAY WAR CAME by Nicola Davies; illus. Rebecca Cobb *

THE BOY, THE MOLE, THE FOX, AND THE HORSE by Charlie Mackesy *

WILLA’S HOUSE by David Booth; illus. Renia Metallinou *

ALWAYS WITH YOU by Eric Walters; illus. Carloe Liu

 

MIDDLE YEARS FICTION

COUNT ME IN BY Varsha Bajaj

THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS by Ann Braden

BEVERLY, RIGHT HERE by Kate DiCamillo

BROKEN STRINGS by Kathy Kacer and Eric Walters

THE BRIDGE HOME by Padma Venkatraman

 

YA FICTION

MY BROTHER’S NAME IS JESSICA by John Boyne

THE 10 PM QUESTION by Kate Di Goldi *

HEY, KIDDO by Jarret J. Krosoczka (graphic autobiography)

FREE LUNCH by Rex Ogle (autobiography)

CHICKEN GIRL by Heather Smith

 

ADULT FICTION

FIND ME by Andre Aciman

THE INNOCENTS by Michael Crummey

THE READER ON THE 6:37 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

WHEN ALL IS SAID by Anne Griffin

OLIVE, AGAIN by Elizabeth Strout *

 

MOVIES

CAPERNAUM

JOJO RABBIT

MARRIAGE STORY

PAIN AND GLORY

PARASITE *

 

DOCUMENTARIES

AGNES BY VARDA

HALE COUNTY: THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING

HONEYLAND *

MIRACLE OF MIRACLES

63 UP *

 

PLAYS (local)

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

THE FATHER

THE FLICK

THE JUNGLE

PASS OVER *

SCHOOL GIRLS: Or the African Mean Girls Play

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

 

PLAYS (New York)

THE CONSTITUTION AND WHAT IT MEANS TO ME

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE

JAGGED LITTLE PILL

THE LEHMAN TRILOGY *

OKLAHOMA *

 

ETC.

YOU WON’T ALWAYS BE THIS SAD by Sheree Fitch (Poetry)

WHITE BIRD by R.J. Palacio (graphic novel)

LOOK BOTH WAYS: A tale told in ten blocks by Jason Reynolds (short stories) *

THE FRONT PAGE (Stratford)

THE MUSH HOLE (Young Peoples Theatre)

THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (Bridge Theatre, London)

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE (National Theatre / London)

 

DECEMBER: LARRY’S READING LOG

There’s quite a varied batch of books of different genres listed below.  Travelling  to London for six days allowed me to catch up with some of my reading.  When I was awaiting my luggage at the carousel back in Toronto, a gentleman came up to me and said “I saw you reading during the whole flight!”.  I have to have a book or two on a plane while travelling. Surprised that he noticed, but he also said, “I think you were the only person on the plane reading!” (no comment). December, a month without going to work, allowed me to reduce my reading pile.  I am determined to read the ten books that are on my table, before buying any new ones. Ha! Ha! What follows is my reading diary over the past 31 days.

 

December 1st

FREE LUNCH by Rex Ogle (autobiography)

As he enters sixth grade, Rex tries to hide the fact that his mother has signed him up for free lunch meals, He is also to hide the fact that his out of work mother and her boyfriend are abusive to him. This is a touch-the-heart story about a family who struggle to survive poverty. The story is all the more powerful because it outlines the true events of the author who struggles to stay optimistic.

December 4th

THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C.S. Lewis (middle years fiction)

I reread this novel because I’m going to see a theatre production in London at the Bridge Theatre. I’m going to see this play because of the terrific director Sally Cookson. Alas, the book didn’t wow me as much as the first time I read it 35 years ago!

December 6th

THE BOY AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS by Onjali Rauf (middle years fiction )

A new boy arrives in class and is a refugee from Syria. This sparks curiosity in the students who sit around him who are anxious to seek answers about the boy’s past. As Ahmet’s story unfolds, a group of friends are determined to come up with a ‘great idea’ to reunite the boy with his parents. Statistics inform us that there are 65 million people seeking refuge and freedom in today’s world. This first novel is a worthy contribution to literature that helps middle age readers learn about the plight of refugees through one boy’s story. Winner of the Waterstones best book for children 2019.

December 9th 

IF YOU GIVE A PIG THE WHITE HOUSE  by Faye Kanouse; illus. Amy Zhing (picture book)

An adult parody of the popular picture book titles by Laura Numeroff (If You Give a Mouse a  Cookie) telling the story of a presidential pig who binges on Fox news, fast food and tweets.

December 10

TOUCHING THE VOID by Joe Simpson (nonfiction)

Joe Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates explored the 21 000 foot peak in the Andes. When Simpson plunged off an ice ledge, Yates tried to lower his friend to safety but eventually was forced to cut the rope in order to prevent his own death. The harrowing adventure is outlined in the book Touching the Void which I read in advance of seeing the theatre production in London. How could the story of mountain-climbing possibly transfer to the stage? Theatre magic!

December 11

THE READER ON THE 6.27 bv Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (adult fiction)

The book starts off a little surreal as the author tells the story of Gylain Vignelles who hates his job working in a pulping factory. But each day on the 6.27 train, Vignelles reads aloud from texts which gets the attention of a rapt audience of passengers. When the protagonist discovers the diary of a young woman, he sets on a quest to find out the location of the public toilets that she cleans.  He is convinced that he is determined to find the love of his life. A bestseller from France, this book proved to be an enchanting testimony to a love of books and the love of one’s life.

December 11

WHY YOU SHOULD READ CHILDREN’S BOOKS EVEN THOUGH YOU ARE SO OLD AND WISE by Katherine Rundell (essay)

British children’s author shines a bright  light on the world of children’s books, suggesting that when adults read children’s literature it can validate, stretch and change their world. “Read a children’s book to remember what it was to long for impossible and perhaps-not-impossible things. Go to children’s fiction to see the world with double eyes: your own, and those of your childhood self.” (p. 62)

December 13

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman (fiction)

I read this novel in advance of seeing the play at the National Theatre in London. Gaiman is a master at presenting fantasy worlds that makes the unbelievable seem believable.  This is the story of a man who digs into his past centred on the spells of three women who were his neighbours. Disclaimer: I never am ‘enthralled’ with fantasy but the layer of this story filled with childhood imaginations and coming to terms with loss is captivating. The theatre production is astounding!!!

December 15

THE BEAST OF BUCKINGHAM PALACE by David Walliams (middle years fiction)

I’ve gone to London for the past five Decembers and each time I go, there is a new release of a David Walliams novel.  This adventure is set into the future, where people in dark London where people are starving. Prince Alfred has never left his Buckingham Palas home but when his mother is dragged off to the Tower of London, the boy is determined to save her (and the kingdom) (and the world). Hysterical. Of course!

December 15

NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE by Greta Thunberg (speeches)

A collection of 11 short speeches by young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg who pleas for a call to action for adults to ‘start acting as you would in a crisis’. Thunberg shouts out that ‘our house is on fire’ since according to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), we are less than twelve years away from not being able to undo our mistakes.” (p.19) and the lives of young children are in the hands of those adults. Thunberg was honoured with Time Magazines Person of the Year, 2019.

December 16

BOY GIANT: SON OF GULLIVER by Michael Morpurgo (middle years fiction)

Master storyteller Michael Morpurgo presents a refugee story with a twist. Omar and his mother are forced to flee their home and Afghanistan and Omar finds himself rescued on an island of wee folks who bestow him with the name Son of Gulliver. An adventurous tale of community, humanity and kindness. Bravo Morpurgo!

December 17

TEENAGE DICK by Mike Lew (script)

Is it better to be loved or feared? Shakespeare’s Richard III is now embodied in the life of a disabled teenager, Richard, determined to gain power, as president of the senior class, no matter the cost to those around him. Revenge is spurred on by the abuse he has received from others because of his disability but now Richard is set not only to defeat Eddie, the school jock, but fall in love with the dream girl at the school.  I saw this play at the Donmar Theatre, London.

December 17

FAIRVIEW by Jackie Sibblies Drury (script)

This strongly reviewed off-broadway play has to be seen to best be experienced. But I was able to catch a performance of this at the Young Vic theatre in London. Fairview audiences are advised to never give the ending (you’ve never seen anything like it). Scene One provides insights into a domestic family preparing for Grandma’s birthday. The unfolding of the dinner turns out to be a surprise – for the audience – and takes some time adjusting to what is going on and what indeed the message is about confronting our views of race. A play that invites conversation. Even after reading the script, I didn’t entirely buy into the unfolding events – and ultimately, the play’s message. Let me think about it.

December 19 SHOUT OUT

WHEN ALL IS SAID by Anne Griffin (Adult fiction)

a debut novel by an Irish author. telling the story of 84 year old Maurice Hannigan sitting alone in a bar in the grand hotel. Over the course of the evening Hannigan raises five toasts to five people who helped to shape his life. I loved this book – oh those Irish! – though the deep losses and deep loves he has encountered are quite heartbreaking.

December 20

PET by Akwaeke Emezi (YA fiction)

A National Book Award finalist. By spilling her blood on her mother’s artwork, a transgender teenager brings a monster (Pet)to life from the painting. In a world where monsters have supposedly become extinct, Jam and her best friend Redemption, soon discover that there are monsters that continue to lurk and must be stopped. A rather strange novel.  Adolescent readers who enjoy fantasy horror will find an intriguing read in this debut novel.

December 21

DOG SONGS by Mary Oliver (poetry)

A poetic tribute to man (and woman’s) best friend. The poet celebrates and pays tribute to the dogs who have accompanied her on walks, and loved her unconditionally. (“A dog comes to you and lives in your own house, /but you,/ do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them.”)  (p. 25)

December 22 SHOUT OUT

YOU WON’T ALWAYS BE SAD: A Book of Moments by Sheree Fitch (Poetry)

Poet Sheree Fitch’s son died on March 2, 2018, and to deal with grief and pain and gratitude, the poet lifts a heavy pen, which ‘became a wand of healing’.  (“those who are on the other side/are never very/far/ away/ they are/ ever there/ over there/ waving/ saying we’re fine just fine.” (P.125)

December 25

DEAR SWEET PEA by Julie Murphy (Middle Years fiction)

When Sweet Pea’s parents decide to divorce, they think it’s best that life be as normal for thier 13 year old daughter as possible. They share custody and arrange to live on the same street (separated by only one house).  Sweet Pea strives to accept things as they are but holding onto friendships proves to add to her middle year’s anxieties. Miss Flora Mae, a famed local advice columnist,  is sandwiched between Sweet Pea’s two homes and plays an important role in the the girl’s life as she strives to get – and give advice. An engaging novel, particularly for tweenagers who may experience troubled parent relationships and changing friendships.

December 31

TRUST EXERCISE by Susan Choi (adult fiction)

A book award does not a great novel make. I was intrigued with this National Book Award for Fiction title since one of the central characters is a drama/theatre teacher but this book gets a thumbs down from me. I didn’t care about any of the adolescent characters and their troublesome relationships. I get more authenticity from reading YA fiction.  Since I had nothing else to read on an airplane flight, I plodded on, but gave up with 50 pages to go. I ended up giving my copy to the stewardess on the plane and hope she gets more out of this book than I did. Feh!

December 31

FROM THE CUTTING ROOM OF BARNEY KETTLE by Kate De Goldi (Middle Years fiction)

This novel by New Zealand award-winning author Kate De Goldi (The 10 PM Question) was a good read. This author has a story for each of the characters that she introduces and the premise of this novel introduces a street of interesting folk.  Barney Kettle, who is determined to be a famous film director someday, embarks on a documentary project that digs into the stories of a range of characters on High Street. A narrative about a homeless couple hiding in the post office adds another layer, and a sense of mystery to this book.

 

 

LARRY READS: November 2019

Below are ten titles (varied) of books that I’ve read over the past month.

 

MY BROTHER’S NAME IS JESSICA by John Boyne

Sam idolizes his brother, a popular good-looking footballer. But life changes dramatically when Jason announces that he knows he was born in a girl’s body and is about to transition. The boys’ parents aren’t any help – actually very harmful – to the circumstances, especially since the mother has her heart set on getting the prime minister’s job in Britain and family secrets must be kept.   Boyne is a favourite author of mine and I was intrigued throughout by the arguments, emotions and confrontations this family with humour. Mom and Dad’s comments are so outlandish they’re often funny. This is a signficant contribution to literature dealing with young people questioning their gender identity and with those around them who need to learn about acceptance. Despite some controversy (Who is Boyne to tell a story about a transitioning adolescent? The offensive title?), I applaud – and highly  recommend – another John Boyne creation.

BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY by Brian Francis (YA)

Toby’s mother committed suicide and the girl, now a teenager lives with her grandparents. Toby is troubled by her past (who is my father? who are my real friends?) and now plans to kill herself.  Her estranged father finally appears on the scene and when Toby learns that he is gay, and a drag queen she continues to ask questions about her past? A meeting with Toby’s father is strained and she struggles to accept things as they are and move on. A strong YA book concerning mental health, homophobia and acceptance.

ONE GOOD THING ABOUT AMERICA by Ruth Freeman

Written as letters to her grandmother in Africa, a young refugee girls recounts her experiences in “Crazy America”. Insightful narratives about a newcomer adjusting to North American customs, friendships and learning the English language.

ALL OF ME by Chris Baron

Ari is fat and he constantly worries about what others think of him. To add to his woes, he is being bullied, he is supposed to be practicing for his Bar Mitzvah, his parents are breaking up. But Ari does develop friendships who help him through his emotional turmoil and help him to see dealing with problems is all part of growing up. Written in free verse style.

SERAFINA’S PROMISE by Anne E. Burg

Serafina promises her family that she will get all her chores done so that she can go to school. Her bigger promise is to become a doctor one day and take care of the poor people in her community. Told in free verse, this book, set in Haiti, is a story of courage and perseverance and family love.

SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA autobiography)

A biography written in free verse. Anderson’s main claim to fame as an author is her novel “Speak” which provided teenage readers with a story dealing with rape. Shout is based on Anderson’s personal experiences beginning with her life as a shy thirteen year old, her own rape story, and how she slowly recovered from that experience. Jacket blurb: “This book is for anyone who has ever been lost, ignored, silenced, abused, assaulted, harassed, talk down to, made to feel small. or knows someone who has.” Powerful poems best suited for a teenage audience.

THE LION THE WITCH and the WARDROBE C.S. Lewis

I chose to re-read this novel because I am going to see a stage production at the Bridge Theatre (London, UK).  I’m going to see the play because the director, Sally Cookson, has wowed me with previous productions (Jane Eyre, Peter Pan).  Alas, the novel didn’t engage me as much as it did the first time I read it (about 35 years ago).

HURRICANE SEASON BY Nicole Melleby

11 year-0ld Fig (Finola) has a lot on her shoulders. She is burdened with the erratic behaviour of her disturbed, unpredictable father, a once-renowned piano player. Fig fears that she will be taken away by child services when her father has ‘episodes’. With the help of a caring neighbour who just moved into the neighbourhood, Fig comes to learn that her father is bipolar – and gay.  A well-written moving story about mental health, homophobia, facing danger, confronting friendships, first loves,  mental health and homophobia.

WHITE BIRD by R.J. Palacio (graphic novel)

Palacio’s novel Wonder has inspired millions of readers to think about what it means to be kind. In this graphic text, Julian (the character who bullied Auggie) learns about the Holocaust from his grandmother  who recounts her experiences as a young Jewish girl, hiding from the Nazis  in occupied France. The book is introduced with the words by philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” White Bird is an important contribution toHolocaust literature that helps bring the past into the present and help students to consider the power of courage and kindness in a time of war.

 

SHOUT OUT

OLIVE, AGAIN by Elizabeth Strout

This is a sequel to Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, once again presented as short stories. Much of the cast of characters are connected to Olive (her son and his family, a new husband, a former student), but sometimes Olive’s name just seems to fly by.  The author has a gift at getting at the truths of how people feel about each other. With cranky, critical Olive, who seems to be as grounded as they come, openly observes and reflects on the quirky behaviours of those in our family and our community and the strange emotional connections to those we love (or pretend to love) relationship choices, Strout is a fantastic writer, observing the world without any word fuss, but always with keen observation and deep heart. Strout understands the lonely and loneliness. As Olive journey’s through her senior years, there is a sense of sadness in the stories of her world and these stories are certain to raise questions in readers’ minds and consider “What’s it all about?”. .  S I loved this book, certain to be at the top of my favourite’s list by year’s end.

20 PICTURE BOOKS: SOCIAL JUSTICE DIVERSITY AND EQUITY

I am working on a new book entitled : How children’s literature can help deepen understanding of social justice, diversity and equity, and so manyof recent book purchases have been centred on a range of topics of diversity. The list below outlines some FICTION and NONFICTION choices, designated by the topics in the ten chapters of my book: RACE AND DIVERSITY, POVERTY, GENDER IDENTITY AND HOMOPHOBIA, DEATH, BULLYING, INDIGENOUS IDENTITIES, THE iMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE EXPERIENCE, THE HOLOCAUST, and RIPPLES OF KINDNESS.

 

FICTION

 

WHERE OLIVER FITS by Cale Atkinson (Race and Diverse Cultures/ Kindness)

Oliver, a little puzzle piece, is determined to find out what part of the puzzle he fits into. Even though he tries to ‘fit in’ with others who are different than him, he discovers that it is best to just ‘be yourself!’

THE PENCIL by Susan Avingak and Maren Vsetula; illus. Charlene Chua (Indigenous identities/ Poverty)

Susan and her Inuit family live in an iglu.  The most precious Anaana  owns is a pencil which she uses to write letters to people in other camps. The children come to discover her pencil, each using it to draw and draw as the pencil gets shorter and shorter.  A story about life a family living in an iglu who learn to use things very wisely.

A DAY WITH YAYAH by Nicola I Campbell; illus. Julie Flett (Indigenous identities)

A First Nations family set out to gather edible plants and mushrooms and during their adventure the children learn about their grandmother Yayah’s wisdom and knowledge of the natural world.

AFRICVILLE by Shauntay Grant; illus. Eva Campbell (Race and Diverse Cultures)

When a young black gilr visits Africville in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she learn stories about the community that thrived for more than 150 years living without essential services. Winner of the Marilyn Baillie Best Picture book prize, 2019.

BE KIND by Pat Zietlow Miller; illus. Jen Hill (Kindness)

A story about being thoughtful, kind and discovering that any act big or small can help to make a difference in someone’s life.

THE PROUDEST BLUE: A story of Hijab and family by Ibtijah Muhammad, with S.K. Ali; illus. Hatem Aly (Race and Diverse Cultures)

It is the first day of school and Fazia is excited. For her older sister Asyia it is the first day of hijab which Fazia sees as ‘the ocean waving in the sky’ The young girl learns that not everyone sees the hijab as beautiful and that she must learn to overcome hurtful words.

AT THE MOUNTAIN’S BASE by Traci Sorell; illus Weshoyot Alvitre (Indigenous identities)

A poetic sparse narrative of a Cherokee family, living in a cabin under an old hicklory tree. More than a story about holding on to traditions this is an important recognition of American Indian and Alaska Native nations who served in wars started by European colonizers.

WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA by Traci Sorell; Illus Frane Lessac (Indigenous identities)

Otsaliheliga is a Cherokee word used to express gratitude. The story, and lively illustrations, help readers not only to better understand the traditions of tribal nations but to be thankful for life’es blessings and giving  for celebrations large and small.

GHOST’S JOURNEY: A Refugee story by Robin Stevenson (The Immigrant and Refugee Experience)

Inspired by the true story of two gay refugees, the author tells the story of arriving in Canada, through the eyes of Ghost, the family cat.

DEAR MR. PRESIDENT by Sophie Siers; illus. Anne Villeneuve (Bullying/Kindness)

A series of letters addressed to the president where a young boy complains about the bedroom room he has to share with his brother. In the letter the young boy debates the pros and cons of building wall – yes a wall! This book can be used as a source for persuasive letter writing but more important helps readers to contemplate sibling rivalry, compromise and tolerance.

THE TREASURE BOX by Margaret Wild; illus. Freya Blackwood (The Immigrant and Refugee Experience)

What would be the most important possession to take with you if you were forced to flee your country. Peter and his father carry a treasure box that holds something more precious than jewels… a book!

SHOUT OUT (Kindness)

THE BOY, THE MOLE, THE FOX AND THE HORSE by Charles Mackesy

I’m going to claim this as my favourite picture book of the year.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

“Kind” said the boy.

“What do you think success is?: asked the boy

“To love, ” said the Mole.

NONFICTION

 

REFUGEES by Brian Bilson; illus. Jose Sanabria (poem) (Immigrant and Refugee Experience

The powerful poem, read top to bottom, then bottom to top ignites contrasting motions about rrefugees – fear and hate/ compassion and empathy.The illustrations often illuminate the verbal text, though sometimes the scenes are too busy, distracting from the message.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE FOOD? by Eric Carle et al (Race and Diverse Cultures)

Fourteen children’s book artists draw pictures of their favourite foods and provide reasons for their choices. A book to inspire readers to create their own food drawings and stories which can help celebrate diversity in tastes and culutures.

HO’ONANI: Hula Warrior by Heather Gale (illus Mika Song) (Gender identity; Indigenous Identities)

Ho’onani doesn’t see herself as a wahine (girl) or kane (boy) but is happy to be in-between. Based on a true story, this book is a celebration of Hawaiian culture and a girl who is empowered to accept who she is and rule wisely as a warrior.

WHAT IS A REFUGEE? by Elise Gravel (Immigrant and Refugee Experience)

Gravel helps to explain the refugee experience for young readers by offering simple sentences that answer the title’s question.

THE INCLUSION ALPHABET by Kathryn Jenkins (Kindness)

A is for acceptance; B is for bravery; C is for capable; D is for different. Twenty-six words, used in sentences to help explain the meaning of the words, help readers to consider what it means to be INCLUSIVE.

SHOUT OUT

FRY BREAD: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard; illus. Juana Martinez-Neal (Indigenous Identities)

A beautiful, beautiful example of nonfiction picture book using verse to explain what Fry Bread means to a modern Native American family.  The title of each spread, helps to highlight the appeal of this dish, embracing community and culture in face of opposition. The Author’s notes that appear at the end of the book, extend facts that were presented throughout the pages: Fry Bread is Shape…; Fry Bread is Sound…Fry Bread is Flavor…Fry Bread is Time.I’d give this perfect  book an award.

MALALA: A brave girl from Pakistan / IQBAL: A brave boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter (Race and DIverse Cultures)

Winter presents two biographies about a brave girl and a brave boy from Pakistan in one book. Read one way, we learn the story of Malala, flipped over and read the other way, we learn the story of Iqbal.

OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE: Greta Thunberg’s Call to Save the Planet by Jeanette Winter

When she learns about the effects of climate change, young Greta Thunberg, decides to go on strike from school. Word of the strike spread in her Stockholm community and around the world inspiring children to take action even though grown-ups hesitate to do so. A full page spread ends the book with the words WHAT WILL YOU DO? thus nudging young readers to consider taking action for a cause they believe in. A timely book. An important story.

RECENT CANADIAN TITLES

Here is a listing of 2019 CANADIAN publications that include picture book, novels for middle years and adult fiction.

 

PICTURE BOOKS

TREES:  by Pamela Hickman; illus. Carolyn Gavin (nonfiction)

A wonderful xample of nonfiction picture book, filled with facts with ‘just enough’ information about trees filling each page. The range of text features that includes, headings, diagrams, labels, captions, maps, glossary – and the  abundance of appealing scientific and imaginative illustrations – make this a top-notch information book.

AFRICVILLE by Shauntay Grant; illus. Eva Campbell

Africville was a Black community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a vibrant self-sustaining community that thrived without such services as running wter, sewers, police or ambulance service. A young girl revisits the community and the stories she heard from her family in free verse narrative. Winner of the Marilyn Baillie best picture book, 2019.,

WHEN MOLLY DREW DOGS by Deborah Kerbel; illus. Lis Xu

The Japanese folktale “The Boy Who Drew Cats” inspired this story, a young constantly doodles bringing the many dogs who move through her head to life through her dogs. A story of mental anxiety and finding comfort through art.

THE PLAYGROUNDS OF BABEL by JonArno Lawson; illus. Piet Grobler

Children gather around in a playground to listen to an old woman tell a story inspired by the Tower of Babel. One child translates for another who doesn’t understand the language. Told entirely through dialogue in speech balloons. Clever and imaginative both in text and art.

LIGHT A CANDLE by Godfrey Nkongolo and Erik Walters; illus. Eva Campbell

The Chagga people are the caretakers of Mount Kilimanjaro. In this story, in English and Swahdili, a young boy is determined to climb up the mountain without his father’s approval.  The goal: to light a candle  at the mountaintop to honour Julius Nyerer, the first leader of Tanzania hoping to unify the two territories of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

THE PHONE BOOTH IN MR. HIROTA’S GARDEN by Heather Smith: illus. Rachel Wada

Japanese villagers grieve over all that was lost by a tsunami. Mr. Hirota builds a phone booth giving the community to feel close to those they love. What a unique, heartwarming story (by a favourite Canadian author) about loss and recovery.

HAWKS KETTLE, PUFFINS WHEEL And other poems of birds in flight  by Susan Vande Griek: illus. Mark Hoffman (poetry)

AN OWL AT SEA by Susan Vande Griek; illus. Ian Wallace (nonfiction/ free verse)

 

NOVELS: MIDDLE YEARS

THE COLLECTED WORDS OF GRETCHEN OYSTER by Cary Fagan

Hartley Staples is dealing with the trauma of having his older brother run away from home. The family attempts to move on but Hartley, burdened with anxiety, tries to cope with school assignments, an antagonistic sister, a best friend who rejects him and the stress of having to complete a final grade eight project. The sporadic appearance of artful postcards with wise messages keeps Hartley intrigued and provides a digression – and a support – for dealing with life’s problems. I really enjoyed this novel and applaud the insightful, humourous first-person voice Fagan has given to this middle years student.

BROKEN STRINGS By Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Two of Canada’s most celebrated authors for young people have collaborated to tell a thoughtful, informative and heartwarming story of Shirli Berman and Ben Morgan two junior high school students who have been selected to star in the school production of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. The production tightens the relationship between the Jewish girl and the cutest, popular boy in the school (non-Jewish). The event also proves to be of significance by deepening the bond between Shirli and her Zayde. She enjoys visiting her grandfather often and knows that there is a story about his past that is being kept secret. As the play goes into rehearsal, and the novel unfolds Shirley and readers discover the hidden story of being a survivor of the Holocaust. This is a fine example of middle years novel about the Jewish culture, the power of music and the need to have family stories revealed so that the stories can be cherished and passed on. Five stars.

THE STARLIGHT CLAIM by Tim Wynne-Jones

Noah  missing his friend who died in an accident and hopes to find some answers, heads up to a camp in Northern Ontario. Alone. A storm is a-comin’. Noah encounters convicts who escaped from jail. And a masked man who seems to know a lot about Noah. A gun.  A skidoo chase. No cell phone.  An exciting adventure and survival story from Canadian storymaster Tim Wynne-Jones.

 

ADULT BOOKS

IMMIGRANT CITY by David Bezmozgis (short stories)

The thing about a short stories collection is that  you can read the stories chronologically and you can even choose to skip over one’s you don’t like. These stories are linked by immigrant memories and experiences layered with humour (some) and kvetching (some)The thing about short story collections is that you might tend to like some (“Little Rooster”) better than others (“How It Used to Be”). Giller prize nominee.

THE INNOCENTS by Michael Crummey

What a staggering writer. I think I learned a new word (or two or three) on every single page. A rather haunting tale of two orphans who thrive and survive live in an isolated cove in northern Newfoundland.  Fighting to survive through meagre catches, wild storms and illness, Ada and Evered are symbiotic siblings, independent and fiercly loyal – even when vistors,  nature and their own natures test their loyalties. Giller prize nominee.

AKIN by Emma Donoghue

Ever since reading Room, I have become a Donoghue fan and am eager to discover her new publications. This story about a retired professor and his relationship with his great nephew intrigued me. (I am a semi-retired professor; I have 4 great nephews). Circumstances (the 11-year-old grandnephew, without any parents or guardians  is forced upon Noah who is about to embark on trip to Nice France. Noah hopes to reconnect with a place that was once his home before being shipped off to America as a child to escape the Nazis. Armed with a series of photographs taken by his mother, Noah and Michael hope to identify the places and people depicted in these snapshots. I enjoyed the story of the relationship between these two characters, 79 year old Noah who is out of his depth as a guardian, and Michael, a wise and wise-cracking kid who frustrates and educates Noah.  I loved reading about Nice, but in truth i wasn’t caught up in the mystery of the family’s past that involved (perhaps) spying, surviving the Nazis and affairs.  A good, but not a great, read for Larry.

 

 

SHOUT OUT

CANADIAN CHILDREN’S BOOK CENTRE AWARDS, October 15, 2019

Seven awards in total were given out:

  • Ebb & Flow by Heather Smith, won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award ($50,000)
  • Africville by Shauntay Grant, illustrated by Eva Campbell, won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award ($20,000)
  • Turtle Pond by James Gladstone, illustrated by Karen Reczuch, won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction ($10,000)
  • The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis, won the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People ($5,000)
  • Sadie by Courtney Summers, won the John Spray Mystery Award ($5,000)
  • The House of One Thousand Eyes by Michelle Barker, won the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award ($5,000)
  • They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki won the CBC Fan Choice Award ($5,000)

 

TEN NOVELS: October 2019

This posting features ten new novels I’ve recently read (including 2 for grown-ups), of ‘troubled’ characters, young and old.

MOMENTOUS EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS by Dusti Bowling

I was so looking forward to reading this sequel to Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus and was very pleased to gain deeper insights into the life of Aven Green, a girl born with no arms, as she enters high school. An incident involving harassment, is likely to infuriate readers and who will cheer Aven on as she tries to keep it cool and find a place of acceptance. Abandoned friendships, DNA testing, horse-back riding and punk rock bands play are indeed momentous events in the life of this teenage cactus. Hooray for Aven!

BEVERLY, RIGHT HERE by Kate DiCamillo

This title shines a light on Beverly Tapinski, a girl we first met in the novel Raymie Nightingale. The author has now given each of the three girls her own novel platform. Beverly has run away from her Florida and seems to be quite the determined free spirit.  As the novel unfolds she meets some rather quirky characters – a wise-cracking waitress, a rebellious cook, a feisty teenage store clerk, and a generous senior citizen who invites Beverly into her home. DiCamillo always seduces readers into cheering on her protagonists and she has done it again with Beverly’s story.

AKIN by Emma Donoghue (adult fiction)

Ever since reading Room, I have become a Donoghue fan and am eager to discover her new publications. This story about a retired professor and his relationship with his great nephew intrigued me. (I am a semi-retired professor; I have 4 great nephews). Circumstances (the 11-year-old grandnephew, without any parents or guardians  is forced upon Noah who is about to embark on trip to Nice France. Noah hopes to reconnect with a place that was once his home before being shipped off to America as a child to escape the Nazis. Armed with a series of photographs taken by his mother, Noah and Michael hope to identify the places and people depicted in these snapshots. I enjoyed the story of the relationship between these two characters, 79 year old Noah who is out of his depth as a guardian, and Michael, a wise and wise-cracking kid who frustrates and educates Noah.  I loved reading about Nice, but in truth i wasn’t caught up in the mystery of the family’s past that involved (perhaps) spying, surviving the Nazis and affairs.  A good, but not a great, read for Larry.

THE COLLECTED WORDS OF GRETCHEN OYSTER by Cary Fagan

Hartley Staples is dealing with the trauma of having his older brother run away from home. The family attempts to move on but Hartley, burdened with anxiety, tries to cope with school assignments, an antagonistic sister, a best friend who rejects him and the stress of having to complete a final grade eight project. The sporadic appearance of artful postcards with wise messages keeps Hartley intrigued and provides a digression – and a support – for dealing with life’s problems.  I really enjoyed this novel and applaud the insightful,  humourous first-person voice Fagan has given to this middle years student.

A PLACE TO BELONG by Cynthia Kadohata

World War II has ended. This book is a beautiful example of historical fiction telling the story of twelve-year=old Hanako whose family was forced, after being imprisoned in camps to return to Japan to start a new life. Living in a small village with her grandparents, Hanako encounters a ravished Hiroshima, a starving nation, black markets, begging orphans. But the young girl and her family continually strive to be hopeful and share kindnesses. Winner of the National Book Award,

GUTS by Raina Telgemeir (graphic novel)

Telgemeier is the queen of graphic novels, particularly for the pre-teen girls. (i.e.,  Smile, Sisters, Drama, Ghosts). This book is autobiographical taking the author back to her years as a fourth grade student who was consumed with mental anxiety. Young Raina often wants to stay home to school rather than face woes about food, school assignments and fickle friendships. And she has an intense fear about vomiting (i.e, Emetphobia). Obviously the author has dug deep into stories from her past and her graphic creations serve as a kind of therapy for the author and a forum for true-to life worries that many young people can  identify with. No wonder, Telgeemier is the queen of graphic novels.

RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson (adult fiction)

This novel, by bestselling, award-winning author presents a powerful poetic narrative told in varied narratives, moving backward and forward in time. Melody, a child born out of wedlock is celebrating her coming-of-age ceremony in 2001. Her mother, Iris, abandoned her daughter with the hopes of getting a better education. Her father remains steadfast in his devotion to Melody. The novel weaves in themes of family love, ambition, class, sexual longing and racial identity.

THE STARLIGHT CLAIM by Tim Wynne-Jones

Noah  missing his friend who died in an accident and hopes to find some answers, heads up to a camp in Northern Ontario. Alone. A storm is comin’. Noah encounters econvicts who escaped from jail. And a masked man who seems to know a lot about Noah. A gun.  A skidoo chase. No cell phone.  An exciting adventure and survival story from Canadian storymaster Tim Wynne-Jones.

 

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BROKEN STRINGS By Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Two of Canada’s most celebrated authors for young people have collaborated to tell a thoughtful, informative and heartwarming story of Shirli Berman and Ben Morgan two junior high school students who have been selected to star in the school production of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. The production tightens the relationship between the Jewish girl and the cutest, popular boy in the school (non-Jewish).  The event also proves to be of significance by deepening the bond between Shirli and her Zayde. She enjoys visiting her grandfather often and knows that there is a story about his past that is being kept secret.  As the play goes into rehearsal, and the novel unfolds Shirley and readers discover the hidden  story of being a survivor of the Holocaust. This is a fine example of middle years novel about the Jewish culture, the power of music and the need to have family stories revealed so that the stories can be cherished and passed on. Five stars.

SHOUT OUT

LOOK BOTH WAYS: A tale told in ten blocks   by Jason Reynolds

This book should win the Newbery medal. This book WILL win the Newbery Medal.  Jason Reynolds: heroic black author, a hero for black characters getting through the day.  Reynolds is riding on Reynold’s shoulders. Walter Dean Myers is riding on his shoulders. ManiacMagee is jumping around in his brain.  Don’t ask me to  pick a favourite of these ten short stories, but “Skitter Hitter” is one of the best bullying narratives story I’ve read in a long time. This book will be at the top of my favourites for 2019, It deserves awards.

FALL INTO FICTION: Middle Years Novels

My pile of fiction dwindled somewhat over the past five week as I dug into some new novels for mostly ages 9 through 12.  Many middle school readers will identify with the character’s finding a place of belonging both within friendship circles and family circles and surviving (even a story about a wolf).

DENIS EVER AFTER by Tony Abbott

Denis died at a young age and his twin brother is still grieving. Denis returns to earth, so that both he can rest in peace and his family can let go. This novel wasn’t what I expected it to be as it focuses on the circumstances surrounding Denis’s death. It is a ghost story, a mystery story and what becomes a thrilling adventure story as the two boys go an a quest to answer many questions. Alas, I wasn’t intrigued by the mystery but was more interested in the mystery of what happens after we die and how a family copes with death.

FINDING ORION by John David Anderson

The name of the family is KWIRK and they do indeed live up their name with quirky adventures that involve journey to find Papa Kwirk’s ashes. Rion (not Ryan) is the storyteller recounting the families quest to find out where his grandfather has been buried. Rion’s father did not have a good relationship with his father growing up, and discovers the truth about his dad who, as it turns out was beloved by many in his community. The author tell a mystery story filled with adventure and family bonding and odd yes, quirky stuff : a toothbrush collection, a singing ‘telegram’ (announcing Papa Kwirk’s death), , a marching band,  the challenge of eating a sundae made of 36 scoops of ice cream, a war museum, a fried chicken-flavoured jelly bean and a python. Kwirky, fun and ultimately heartwarming.

EACH TINY SPARK by Pablo Cartaya

Cartaya’s fine novels focus on the lives of Latinx youth and how they navigate their culture (The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish) and in his latest novel readers are introduced to Emilia Torres who must deal not only with special needs issues, but more importantly with the relationship with her father who returns from deployment and shuts himself in the garage to work on an old car. The two are brought closer together by the act of welding. Once again, Pablo Cartaya celebrates Cuban culture, effectively weaving Spanish language throughout the dialogue.

THE ACB of HONORA LEE by Kate De Goldi

I have found a new favourite author this year, thanks to my friend Shelley who passed on the award winning novel The 10 PM question to me (loved it.) I have sought out other titles by the author. In The ACB Honora Lee Young Perry is challenged to develop a relationship with her grandmother who suffers from dementia. On her frequent visits to Santa Lucia rest home, Perry embarks on creating a illustrated abecedarium (ABC book)  filled with the people and events of her grandmother’s life.  The quirky art that accompanies this story is a bonus. Can’t wait to read another Kate De Goldi book!

IT WASN’T ME by Dana Alison Levy

This book is “The Breakfast Club” put into contemporary middle years’ fiction. When Theo’s self- portraits are vandalized at his school, five tweenagers (the Nerd, The Princess, the Jock, the Weirdo, the Screw-Up) are brought together by a teacher who believes that learning to trust and getting to the truth can happen through a Justice Circle. The group of six meet each day during a week of school holidays and learn truth’s about each other and about themselves. Young adolescent readers will likely come to recognize these characters as being real and will hopefully understand the complexities of bullies, victims and bystander. For me, the story would hold stronger believability from the onset had the characters students been enrolled in high school. And would a principal be required to give up her holidays to help facilitate these meetings?

NOT IF I CAN HELP IT by Carolyn Mackler

Willa has been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder who’s idea of order and sensory sensations (e.g., the taste of eggs, getting her toenails trimmed) make life seem out of whack at times.  Willa has a best friend, Ruby, and things get more out of whack for Willa when she learns that their parents are dating each other (and will soon be getting married). This engaging novel is a fine contribution to stories that deal with divorce and the changes many middle grade student encounter.

THE 47 PEOPLE YOU’LL MEET IN MIDDLE SCHOOL by Kristin Mahoney

A great title that will inspire those entering – and living through – the trials and tribulations of Middle School life and the students and staff that comprise their school day life. The story is one girl’s advice to her younger sister who will eventually have to meet life as a sixth grader. The book struck me as a balance between authentic (yes, we know these people) and quirky character and events that (the stuff of fiction).

TIGHT by Torrey Maldonado

Bryan is caught between a rock and a hard place.  His father and especially is mother have geared him to understand the difference between right and wrong, but peer pressure has lured him into behaving badly (skipping school, jumping trains).  The world of comic book heroes gives Bryan strength but he himself can’t seem to be the superhero he want to be. What sets this novel apart is the setting of the New York projects. Torrey Maldonado masterly creates the tensions of street life and the colourful lingo that paints a strong picture of Latino and Black youth (“Big Will isn’t fazed by dip dudes rocking bling or pushing fat whips.”

CATERPILLAR SUMMER by Gillian McDunn

Cat’s mother creates picture books about two characters, Caterpillar and Chicken who depend on each other. In real life, Cat is a devoted caring sister to Henry (Chicken), a boy who demands attention because of special needs. One summer, Cat and Chicken spend time with their grandparents who live in an island in an island. Hesitant at first to enjoy the summer, Cat grows to love the seaside setting, fishing and especially her understanding of what it means to stay together as a family. A heartwarming story.

A WOLF CALLED WONDER by Rosanne Parry

This book stands out from the other titles on this list, being a story of a wolf’s journey to survive, told from the point of view of that wolf. When he is separated from his family, Swift encounters danger through different landscapes forests, barren wilderness, wild water and other perils of survival (fire, hunters, hunger). What makes this a remarkable narrative is that it is based on a true story of a wolf named) OR-7 (aka Journey) who trekked across 1000 miles across the Pacific Northwest. Because the book is told through the point of view of a wolf,  readers get into the minds of the animal and learn much information about their characteristics, behaviours and instincts.

SHOUT OUT

COUNT ME IN by Varsha Bajaj

Told in alternative voices: Karima a young Hindu girl who has a talent for photography; Chris (the boy next door) who doesn’t do all that well in math. The friendship of the two characters when Karina’s grandfather comes to live with the family and ends up tutoring Chris. An episode involving a shattering encounter “Terrorists don’t belong here” helps readers to examine the issue of hate in society. An important timely novel, about immigration, about hate and about communities – and a society – coming together, counting on one another. A good companion to Wishtree by Katherine Applegate.

 

Count Me In by Varsha Bajaj

LARRY BOUGHT 15 PICTURE BOOKS

A batch of new picture books have gathered in my office over the summer. Some with 2019 titles. Some were recommended by colleagues and students. Some seemed ideal to reference in my forthcoming Pembroke Publishers’ title  TEACHING TOUGH TOPICS. A brief synopsis and a brief rationale for choosing this book accompanies each title.

 

 WORM LOVES WORM J.J. Austrian; illus. Mike Curato (2016)

What: Worm is in love with Worm and their animal friends help prepare for the wedding. Either   worm can be the groom. Either worm can be the bride.

Why: Gender differences, families, and same sex marriage – for youngsters! (Topic: Gender Identity)

 

A BIKE LIKE SERGIO’S by Maribeth Boelts; illus. Noah Z. Jones (2016)

What: Ruben finds a one hundred-dollar bill  – and now he can afford to buy a new bike. Should he do the right thing and return the money to its rightful owner.

Why:  A book to help children think about what’s right and what’s wrong. And the have’s and the have not’s. A beautiful companion to Boelt’s “Those Shoes” to help children think about wants and needs.  (Topic: Poverty)

 

YARD SALE by Eve Bunting; illus. Lauren Castillo (2015)

What:  It’s hard to let go of stuff  that has been important to you a Yard sale, even though it’s for the family time to move to a smaller place.

Why: A story about letting go of things, moving on, and realizing that there’s more to life than the our possessions. (Topic: Poverty)

 

14 COWS FOR AMERICA by Carmen Agra Deedy; illus. Thomas Gonzalez (2009)

What: A gift of 14 cows from the Masai tribe in Kenya to the United States Embassy in Nairobi following September 11, 2001.

Why: This book of honour and strength and generosity needs to be shared in every classroom. (Topic: Kindness)

 

DRUM DREAM GIRL by Margarita Engle; illus. Rafael Lopez (2015)

What: Newbery Honour Winner about ‘how one girls’ courage changed music’. Inspired by a Chinese-African- Cuban girl who broke Cuba’s taboo against female drummers.

Why: A celebration of music. A story of perseverance. (Topic: Gender equity)

 

ADA’S VIOLIN: The story of the recycled orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood; illus. Sally Wern Comport (2016)

What: The children of Paraguay played instruments made from recycled trash and ended up performing concerts around the world. This is the story of how they orchestra came to because of man’s vision, and one girls dreams.

Why: Resilience. Determination. (Topic: Poverty)

 

IDA ALWAYS by Caron Levis; illus. Charles Santoso (2016)

What: A true story of true love – between two bears.

Why: Those who were part of our hearts will always be there, even when they are gone. (Topic: Loss and Death). (see also Always With You by Eric Walters)

 

BIG WORDS FOR LITTLE GENIUSES by Susan and James Patterson; illus. Hsinping Pan

What: An alphabet book of unusual – big – words (definitions provided). (e.g., catawampus; dulcifluous, empyreal). A worthy companion to The Word Collector by Peter Reynolds.

Why: It’s important to engage readers of all ages with a celebration of the looks, sounds, and meanings of words in order to increase their word power with reading, writing and talk (See Word by Word by Larry Swartz, Pembroke, 2019)

 

LITTLE LIBRARIES, BIG HEROES by Miranda Paul; illus. John Parra (2019)

What: The story of Todd Bol who became the founder of the Little Free Library movement where millions of books have been shared in ‘little libraries’ into outdoor neighbourhoods throughout the world.

Why: A love of books. And those who choose to share books with others. (Topic: Kindness)

 

HIAWATHA AND THE PEACEMAKER by Robbie Robertson; illus. David Shannon (2015)

What: The story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker  and the uniting of the five Haudenosaunee (Iroquois tribes)

Why: The message of peace informing readers about the ways of the Iroquois people. A must-read to help students gain understanding of Indigenous culture. Staggering visuals by David Shannon. Includes a CD featuring an original song by the author. (Topic: Indigenous Culture)

 

MEMOIRS OF A HAMSTER by Devin Scillian; illus. Tim Bowers (2013)

What: An amusing – informative – recount of fourteen nights in the life of Seymour the Hamster.

Why: First person voice. An engaging, original approach to memoir writing.

 

THE CHANGE YOUR NAME STORE by Leanne Shirtcliffe; illus. Tina Kugler (2014)

What: Wilma Lee Wu does not like her name and frequent visit to the neighbourhood store help her consider alternatives. Told in rhyme.

Why: Inspires students to share stories about their own names. (Topic: Identity)

 

SMALL IN THE CITY by Sydney Smith

What: A story of a small boy who gets lost as he wanders about the city, taking wrong paths, combating bad weather until he finds his way back home.

Why: A story of persverance and resilience.  “Devastating!” (CBC, September 17, 2019)

SHOUT OUT

These two Canadian picture books are treasures.  Both titles were inspired by important people in the authors’ lives. Each is the ideal selection to inspire connections and special memories of people and places. Both books are gifts and both will likely be passed on as gifts. 

ALWAYS WITH YOU

 Eric Walters; illus. Carloe Liu

A beautiful story that journeys over the years. Emily’s grandfather passed away and over the years she receives advice (in the form of fold-out letters) as she reaches various life milestones that include school, marriage and giving birth. Yes, a ‘timeless story about grief, growing up, and  cherished memories of those who are “always with you”.  A gem! (Topic: Loss and death)

WILLA’S HOUSE
by David Booth; illus. Renia Metallinou  (2019)

(from Promo material)

Willa’s House, David Booth’s final book, is a tribute to women teachers, the joy in life’s small moments, and to home.

In Willa’s House, author David Booth takes us on a nostalgic walk back to the quiet contentment of calmer times. Based on a true story, this heartwarming chronicle of a teacher’s life in a small Canadian town illustrates the tragedies and triumphs that centre around this one home. These events demonstrate Willa’s strong ties to family, friends, and students as well as the ways in which she makes a lasting impact on her community. With her less-than-typical trajectory, Willa shows us that there is more than one way to lead a fulfilling life.

 Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the Professor David Booth Memorial Bursary (OISE, University of Toronto).
order: sales@plumleafpress.com  / phone: 1 800 336.0980