FICTION: Middle Years + YA / SUMMER 2022

Five of the ten novels listed below have been published in 2022. I dug into some other titles written not too long ago and revisited an award-winning classic from 1983. Three of the novels deal with queer identity. One novel takes place in Indonesia. One takes place on another planet. One book is a short story collection. Two of the novels are designated as YA fiction. Five titles are by Canadian authors. All ten novels have kept me good company in the heat of July. 

 

ALICE AUSTEN LIVED HERE by Alex Gino (2022)

The setting of this story is Staten Island New York, When their grade seven history teacher assigns a class project to report on historical figures who contributed to the history of the borough of Staten Island, Sam and their friend, TJ who both identify as nonbinary, embark on a research project uncovering the story of photographer Alice Austin who lived with a female partner for decades. The project is part of a contest for a new statue to be erected to celebrate the history of a signifcant historical figure. The two friends conduct top-notch research including  online reaearch, a visit to a nearby museum, and discussions with a lesbian neighbour. Sam and TJ not only discover much about local queer history but learn much about their own friendships and identities. Alex Gino, author of Melissa, writes enlightening stories – important stories –  about young LGBTQ+ young people and Alice Austin Lived Here is an important story about the past informing the present and for taking action for what you believe in. 

SHOUT OUT

BERANI by Michelle Kararusman (2022)

This fine novel, set in Indonesia is a story of activism and animal rights, choices and consequences. The story is told through the eyes of three characters in chapters with alternating voices: Malia lives a privliged life despite the death of her indonesian father. Her Canadian mother plans to return to her homeland, news that is upsetting to Malia since she is passionate about fighting for the preservation of her countries rainforests. Ari has been luck enough to be sent to a school and even though he is away from his family who work the farms, his academic success and prowess playing chess is encouraging. Still, Ari worries about the orangutan, that his uncle won in a bet and now keeps in a cage.  Ginger Juice, the orangutan tells her story, remembering time with her mother but the tragedy of  of being taken way from the rainforest, a place that was once a happy home, but  is now a palm oil plantation.  The three perspectives are woven together as readers enter the worlds of three conflicted, fearful  characters and become compassionate about the choices they are forced to make. Readers will be  introduced to a setting that may be unfamiliar to them. Moreover, the author builds readers’ compassion as they learn about the circumstances and choices of each character who bravely confront the odds of class, culture and climate change. This is a wonderful novel and my guess it will be on several Canadian award lists in the year ahead. 

BLACK BOTTLE MAN:  A fable by Craig Russell (YA)

Rembrandt is the central character of this novel who, as a young child in small rural community,  learns of the arrival of  a man wearing a black top-coat carrying a magic bottle the sets’ a deal with the devil’ plot’ in motion. In Young Rembrandt, his Pa and his Uncle Thompson set out on a journey determined to undo the wager made with the stranger They move from around a lot since the Pact with the Black Bottle Man means that they cannot stay in one place for more than twelve days. If they do, terrible things could happen until they find a champion to defeat the devil. Russell is a talented writer who composes sentences with vivid detail and fine wordsmithing (e.g., “There is a quality to pain that attracts attention: the attention of those who wish to help, and the attention of those who enjoy the distress of others.” (p. 79) / “They were people cast from the same metal, him and her. Not fancy like gold or silver, but something more common like brass. Long used in the world and stronger for being all mixed up.” (p. 106). Russell also creates episodes that arouse great cinematic-like images in the mind (e.g., the eager arrival of a postal package, the stink of a homeless shelter, a first kiss, the selling of a horse). I am fond of fiction that presents different voices and different time periods and the headings for each of the rather short chapters, indicate who, where and when the action is taking place.  Teenagers who rely on linear narratives for their reading pleasure might be somewhat perplexed with the back and forth chapters settings that take place in different decades (mostly during the depression era and the unfolding of events in the year 2007). A backstory about a character named Gail interrupts the main storytelling as does anecdotes about Rembrandt’s family and his spontaneous wanderings over eighty long years. Many questions and puzzlements popped into my head as I read this unique novel over two days  This book is promoted as a fable, with a target audience of Young Adult readers.An intriguing read indeed. 

DEAR MR. HENSHAW by Beverly Cleary; illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

I’m very fond of this Newbery Medal winning novel, written in 1983 by the remarkable, favoured author Beverly Cleary. Ever since he read books by Boyd Henshaw when he was in grade two, Leigh Botts has become a devoted fan. Now Leigh is in sixth grade and decides to write letters to the author sharing his school troubles (stolen lunchbags) and his yearning to be reunited with his father who is a cross-country trucker.  Mr Henshaw does write back to  Leigh offering advice and support. The Dear Mr. Henshaw letters are balanced by Leigh’s personal diary entries to ‘Dear Mr. Pretend Henshaw’  an important forum  for Leigh confide and reflect. I love this book!!!!

HARVEY TAKES THE LEAD by Colleen Nelson (2022)

Harvey, the loveable West Highland Terrier returns in the third book (Harvey Comes Home; Harvey Holds His Own) be award-winning author, Colleen Nelson. The story once again take place in a retirement villa where the hiring of new Assistant Director means enforcing new rules, making  visits by Harvey rather difficult. Mr. Kowalski, a resident at Brayside shares his worries about his wife who is hospitalized and his stories about life during World War II. Characters Magie and Austin reappear, each having problems at school. Harvey Takes The Lead is an engaging story with adventure, warmth and personal connections. 

HEARTSTOPPER by Alice Oseman (Graphic novel) (YA)

Boy meets boy. Boys become friends. Boys fall in love. For a graphic novel, I’d say that the amount of verbal text is somewhat limited but the story of adolescent  relationships and mixed-up emotions comes through beautifully. This is the first of four graphic novels in a series made into a Netflix TV Series.  The book does the series proud, the series does the book proud.

IN THE KEY OF US by Mariama J. Lockington (2022)

This novel is centred on two thirteen-year-old girls, Andi and Zora, the only black girls attending the Harmony Music Camp one summer. Each girl has special music talents (Andi=trumpet: Zora=flute). Each girl brings baggage from the past. Andi’s mother was killed in a car accident and the young girl now lives with her Aunt and Uncle who are expecting a baby. Zora is burdened with the high expectations her parents have for her future. The book is divided into four sections (four weeks in summer camp), alternating voices. The camp adventures are well-described, as is the lesbian relationship between the two girls. In fact, coming-out doesn’t seem to be an issue that the author digs into.Andi and Zora’s friendship and romance seem to blossom naturally, as they learn about each other – and themselves. Lockington weaves in episodes from the past lives of the two girls to help us understand the turmoil they have gone through in dealing with grief (Andi) and fighting with friends (Zora).  

THE LION OF MARS Jennifer L. Holm 

In the world of fiction, there is indeed life on Mars. The protagonist of this science fiction story is eleven-year old Bell with family members and other adults on this mission seem to live an ‘ordinary’ in different circumstances (algae is the primary food ingredient). There are rules that need to be followed and when a virus breaks out in the settlement, with the grown-ups getting sick, the young people are desperate to break the rules (Do not go outside without a buddy/ Keep a glow-stick in your pocket / Do not go beyond the flag) and head out to other foreign settlements that they have been forbidden to visit. (Settlement Rule: No contact with foreign countries, ever). This Barnes and Noble summer choice book will appeal to middle-years people  who enjoy reading about space adventures  

RESTART by Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman writes good books, entertaining, funny, adventures about  kids who get into problems, mostly in school settings. Middle Age readers can certainly identify with the plot, setting and characters that Korman presents. The premise of Restart is intriguing. When Chase has an accident falling off the roof, he looses his memory and needs to restart his life when he returns to school. The issue is that Chase, football hero, was also known as the uber school bully. Chase now has the opportunity to restart his life and show kindness to others, despite the scepticism of those he has harmed and his partners in bully crime.  Chapters are presented as multi-voiced narrativesAs with most of his novels, Korman presents some farcical , sit-com-like episodes which delights his reading audience, I’m sure, but is somewhat of a distraction for me. (e.g., a character covered in shoe polish gets stuck in a tuba; a bully episode that involves a fire extinguisher; a mad chase in a senior’s home). 

WAR AT THE SNOW WHITE MOTEL by Tim Wynne-Jones (short stories)

Master storyteller Tim Wynne-Jones has written a number of short story collections (Some of the Kinder Planets; The Book of Changes; Lord of the Fries) along with some fine novels. In this 2020 collection, captures moments in character’s life that centre on such issues as bullying, dementia, anxiety, activism. Setting (a motel, a forest, a rural community) are important characters within Wynne-Jones stories. The book is introduced with the Zen saying “When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing.” which serves as a significant mantra for characters who are courageous, resilient and hopeful for better life now and in the future. 

 

GROWN-UP SUMMER READING 2022

SHORT STORIES x2

POETRY x3

FICTION x4

NONFICTION x2

 SHOUT OUT

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY by David Sedaris

The newest collection of short stories that are,very very funny and yes, quite moving. This will be at the top of my list of favourites for 2022. I wish I could write like Sedaris. Happy and lucky to be able to read him. 

LEARNING TO TALK by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Booker Prize, author of the Wolf Hall trilogy has written short stories about childhood and youth, drawn from her early years growing up in the 1950’s in a village in the north of England. Stories of loss and identity and identity, the 7 soulful short stories are part memoir, part imagination, originally published between 1987 and 2002 and have now been published for release in  North America. Even though slim at 157 pages, some stories (‘Learning to Talk’ and ‘Third Floor Rising’) are better than others. 

 

NEW YORK CITY HAIKU from the readers of the New York Times

In celebration of National Poetry month (2014), the New York Times put out a call for citizens to write about the Big Apple by submitting snapshots of the sites and people written as  three-line HAIKU (five, seven, five syllables). Poems were created under such themes as ‘strangers’, ‘solitude’, ‘commuting’, 6 a.m.,’ and ‘kindness’. This book is a collection of 150 entries and was a fun way to read poetry and an inspiring way to be a part of it, New York, York. 

I see all of you

And you see me sitting here

We all stare ahead.

TIME IS A MOTHER by Ocean Vuong

I rather enjoyed the award-winning author’s novel On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous so decided to delve into this poetry collection of poems of tribute, memory and grief as Vuong searches for meaning following the death of his mother. Truth be told. I didn’t ‘get’ most of the poems and found myself working too hard (or not). Too oblique for me. My  poetry-reading brain just didn’t click in . Oh well!

the tub is a red world save for the silent

    island of fur flickering

in my fugitive words guys I say

   just wait for me alright

THE WAR POEMS by Siegfried Sassoon

After seeing the marvelous movie BENEDICTION directed by Terence Davies I wanted to read the War Poems by Siegfried Sassoon who served on the Western Front in the first world war, and later was charged for speaking out against the war. This collection of 60+, fairly short poems, presents stark image of the ugly truths of the trenches, the soldier’s dreams and those left behind. Astonishing.

“The battle winks and thuds in blundering strife.
And I must lead them nearer, day by day,
To the foul beast of war that bludgeons life”
(excerpt from ‘The Dream’)

 

NIGHTCRAWLING by Leila Mottley

That this novel was selected by Oprah Winfrey intrigued me. That this debut novel was published when the author was 19 years of age intrigued me. It is 2015 and Keira Johnson is months behind in the rent. Her father, a former Black Panther died of cancer after being released from prison. Her mother is in prison after drowning her baby daughter. Her older brother Marcus with dreams of becoming a famous rapper, refuses to get a job and he too ends up in jail. Keira is desperate to get work to support herself and her crack addicted neighbour’s son. Things spiral downwards when 17 year old Keira is at the centre of sex-trafficking where the johns are police. The story is set in Oakland California which has the reputation of being at the top of the list of criminal cities in the United States.  Mottley was inspired to write this story in response to a 2015 court case in which the Oakland Police Department was accused of sexually exploiting a teenager. Nightcrawling’s readers accompany Kiera through the streets of Oakland and  come to the desperation of black citizens living poverty and tragedy.  The book opens with description of a swimming pool filled with dog poop. A grim metaphor of a grim story. 

MOONSTONE: THE BOY WHO NEVER WAS by Sjon

On a recent trip to Reykjavik I stepped into a book store to investigate titles written by Iceland writers and an employee recommended this title by  one of Iceland’s award-winning authors. The story is set early in the 20th Century when the Katia volcano erupted, the Spanish flu comes ashore killing hundreds. The protagonist of this short (142 pages) novel is Mani Stein, an orphan,  a film fanatic, a male hustler who like the citizens of the time struggles to survive, find love as the capital city of Iceland transforms. An often poetic narrative that blends imagination and reality in a unique setting.

SCHOOL DAYS by Jonathan Galassi

Sam Brandt teaches English at an uber-preppy boarding school and one day in the year  in the year 2007, he is called in to investigate an allegation of a sexual assault that may or may not have happened decades ago. Readers are transported back to 1964 where stories of privileged, bright boys abound with friendships, crushes, yearning, and sexual adventures. My oh my there was a lot of gayness merrily going on (a bit too ‘accepted’ and abundant/confusing for me).. Sam, as others did, contemplate their sexual identity, often drawn from their admiration of a charismatic (closeted) teacher. In the last third of the book, the narrative returns to 2007 (and eventually 2017) where Sam and his former classmates question their past struggle to understand what happened all those years ago and what impact it had on their adult selves.

THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS by Laurie Frankel

At five years old, Claude loves wearing a dress, dreams of being a princess and knows that when he grows up he wants to be a girl. Claude ‘becomes’ Poppy and even though he has strong support from mother and father, problems in Poppy’s life emerge with his family (Poppy is the youngest of five brothers), his friendships (with girls), the world outside his home. but mostly within Poppy herself. This is a powerful story about parent and sibling relationships and a powerful story about being true to self as a transgender young person, uncertain of what the future will bring.  I was intrigued and sometimes challenged by the family’s discussions, arguments and decisions to both protect and prepare Claude/Poppy.  I would highly recommend this Reese’s Book Club novel, even though the last third of the novel lessoned my emotional response to the story.  

 

THE GIFT OF STORY  by John Schu

John Schu is a popular conference speaker and school presenter who is on a mission to help everyone find the books that their hearts need. This book provides the author with a chance to explore the affective side of the reading life by considering story as healer, story as inspiration, story as clarifier, story as compassion, story as connector. The book includes voices from teachers, librarians and authors. Throughout the book, a number of authors define what story means to them and of there is a wealth of Mr. Schu book suggestions that includes book cover images, synopsis and applications. John Schu’s passion, enthusiasm and inspiration leap off every page of this celebration of story and worship of children’s literature.  He is children’s book lover extraordinaire. 

“Story connects us. It gives us calm in the storms of life. It rejuvenates us. It helps us feel safe. Reading someone else’s story can inspire us to tell our own stories and live an authentic life. Stories contain the healing power to make our hearts calmer and more compassionate, comfortable and roomy.” (p. 131)

NEW YORKERS: A CITY AND ITS PEOPLE IN OUR TIME by Craig Taylor

Journalist CraigTaylor interviewed hundreds of New Yorkers about their experiences about living in New York and this book documents 75 conversations that provide a remarkable testament to living, surviving, and dreaming a range of experiences.  A window cleaner, an elevator repairman, a lice consultant, a private cook,  a meditation teacher, a subway conductor, a retired 911 dispatcher, a security guard at the Statue of Liberty are some of Taylor’s subjects.  Everyone has a story, everyone is a story and this book is a fascinating portrait of a the people and in a city that never sleeps.

 

TEN PICTURE BOOKS, June 2022

The following is a list of ten picture books that came across my desk in the past few weeks. Most are recent 2020-2022 publications. 

 

BALLEWIENA by Rebecca Bender

Dolly the daschund feels that shw was born to dance ballet. Despite attempts to discipline Dolly at the Canine School of Obedience,  the dog just can’t seem to learn. Will he learn to dance the dance of her dreams? Perhaps daily meetings with Louis-Pierre, a rather peculiar squirrel will teacher the proper way to jete, fouette, arabesque.

“It was no use. Dotty wasn’t cut to sit and stay and roll over. After class she ran off in tears. “All I want to do is dance,” she whimpered. 

BEAR WANTS TO SING by Cary Fagan; illus. Dena Sieferling

When bear finds a ukelele in the forest he is delighted to burst out in song. He soon discovers that he is not the only musician as other animals (crow (tambourine); snake (drum) and tortoise (horn) join in to join the wildlife band.  Glorious monochromatic full-page illustrations and  rhyming chorus poems work together to make this a picture book treasure.

I’ma bear. I’m a bear. I’m a bear. I’m a bear,

I’m a bear. I’m a bear, I’m a bear, I’m a bear.

I’m a bear, I’ma bear, I’m a bear…

I’m a BEAR!

COME READ WITH ME by Margriet Ruurs; illus. Christine Wei

A reading journey through pages where readers meet iconic characters from classic stories (gnomes and dragons and pirates and whales, a jungle, a castle and Neverland) Simple rhyming texts, vibrant drawings helping young readers to make connections to stories in their head.

“Come, let’s read.
Cuddle closer, open your eyes.
Let’s look at the pictures and fly through the skies”

GIBBERISH by Young Vo

During Dat’s first day of school in a new country and every time he hears someone speak it sounds like gibberish – until a friendly girl helps Dat with there are different ways of communicating.

“Back in the classroom, Dat tried to read, but his words broke.”

HARLEY THE HERO by Peggy Collins

Harley, the service dog to ensure that every day Ms. Prichard feels safe so she can be the best teacher she can be,.All the children love Harley but they aren’t allowed to play with him when he’s wearing his work vest. So they write letters to him. Inspired by a true story and winner of OLA Blue Spruce Award book prize by children who voted this their favourite picture book of 2021.

“Our class is the quietest, most amazing class in the whole school. That’s because Harley is always on the job.”

I AM NOT A LABEL by Cerrie Burnell; illus. Laurel Baldo

This is a nonfiction picture book that is a collection of 34 biographies that highlight the lives of disabled artists, thinkers, athlete and activists from past to present. Biographical information is presented in a single page accompanied by a full page illustration. Some familiar names include Beethoven, Helen Keller, Steve Wonder, Terry Fox and Lady Gaga. 

“We all have the power to shine our own light. Everyone deserves to live in an inclusive and accessible world and feel like they belong, A world that embraces differences rather than tries to hide it, and a world where every person’s story” valid. ” (Cerrei Burnell, intoduction)

LULI AND THE LANGUAGE OF TEA by Andrea Wang; illus. Hyewon Yum

Because no one knew how to speak English, the children in the playroom, played alone until one day, Lily pulls out a pot of tea and called out ‘Cha!’ in her native Chinese. Suddenly, the children all perked up and joined in enjoying a cup of tea, each asking for tea in their own language. (“Cay?” asked Kerem in Turkish; “Chah-ee” Nikou said in Persian; “Shay?” asked Hakim in Arabic; 

“Now everyone had a share. Hands curled around warm cups. Mouths curved into shy smiles.”

A QUIET GIRL by Peter Carnavas

Mary is a quite girl, so quiet that her family doesn’t  seem to pay any attention to her – until they go searching for her in the neighbourhood and started to pay attention to the quiet of wind chimes clinking, bees humming, and a gray bird resting at the window. A book that celebrates QUIET and considers MINDFULNESS as a way of helping our minds and bodies to take time to be still and pay attention. 

“Mary was a quiet girl. She thought quiet thoughts, stepped quiet steps, and whispered quiet words. Because Mary was quiet, she heard things nobody else heard.”

ROOM FOR MORE by Michelle Kadarusman; illus. Maggie Zeng

When a fire sweeps through the Australian bush, two wombats find safety and eventually are joined by other animals seeking shelter (wallabies, koalas, tiger snakes) and even though it is rather crowded, there is always room for more. A close-up look at Australian wildlife, devastating fires and generosity of spirit. 

“Dig and Scratch hunkered down in their wombat home, grateful for the cool, damp chamber that kept them safe from the smoke and flames.”

SUMMER FUN by Sheree Fitch; illus. Carolyn Fisher

A rhythmic joyful frolic through summer days sure to make you want to take off your shoes and let your tootsie friends shout, flutter, screech, splash, kick, somersault, hide and seek, dance and soak up the season.` Ms Fit-ch, you are a poem-genius who delights in the fun of words – and feet!

“We race faster than fast/ through pastures of grass/ over freshly mown fields to a strawberry patch/ past barnyards/ to backyards/ then a sprinkler-spray dash!/ in our twinkle toe”d /inky-green-stinky/so very red-berry/ bare-naked/ summer feet.

 

FICTION (ages 9-13): Teaching Tough Topics/ June 2022

Am in the middle of teaching a course entitled CHILDREN’S LITERATURE WITH A MULTICULTURAL CONTEXT and lo and behold the books that I’ve recently chosen help to unpack issues that deal with diversity, equity and social justice. Each of these titles corresponds to at least one tough topic outlined in my book TEACHING TOUGH TOPICS (e.g. homophobia, racism, bullying, physical challenges, mental health, and yes, kindness).  Many of these titles were short in length (less than 225 pages).

 

SHOUT OUT

ANSWERS IN THE PAGES by David Levithan (HOMOPHOBIA; CENSORSHIP) (163 pages)

Children’s literature, as author Jason Reynolds says, are ‘time capsules’. It’s amazing how children’s authors can capture the pulse of what is happening in the world.  Kelly Wang tells the story of the pandemic and anti-Asian racism (New From Here); Eric Walters writes about the pandemic lockdown (Don’t Stand So Close to Me); Jewell Parker Rhodes tells a story of police brutality and Black Lives Matter (Ghost Boys);   Gordon Korman exposes the impact of Anti-semitic  hatred (Linked);  exposes the impact of Isamophobia  (Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero) and John Cho presents a story about riots and gun possession (Troublemaker (see below).  Censorship of children’s literature has forever been an issue of rights and freedoms. Most recently there has been huge movement in some U.S. states to have books have been banned because of content that SOME parents find are objectionable and feel that their kids aren’t ready to be exposed to (George by Alex Gino, Stamped by Jason Reynolds,   The Watsons Go To Burningham, Captain Underpants, A Wrinkle in Time, Drama, All American Boys, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, Roll of Thunder, Here My Cry and yes, even Where the Wild Things Are and Harriet The Spy). Lo and behold, David Levithan, author of many fine books with queer content,  has now written a novel for middle –age readers+  that is a now story about those who want to attack books,  and those that know that we need to defend books in their communities (particularly titles with LGBTQIA+ content that contradict the “Don’t Say Gay” beliefs).

This rather short novel (163 pages) is presented as three alternating narrative: 1) an adventure story about two boys who are trying to prevent an evil genius from acquiring The Doomsday Code that will destroy life; 2) a relationship story about two young boys  who come to realize that their might be falling in love; 3) 2) a ‘now’ story, where Donovan’s mother protests the teaching of The Adventurers because the two characters (as we learn on the last page realize they deeply love each other .When out gay teacher, Mr. Howe  brings the novel The Adventurers into the classroom for all his students to read, troubles erupt in Donovan’s life  and the life of the school. Moreover,  learning unfolds as students, educators and families fight to stand up for their beliefs and fight for what’s right.  Kids might have many questions about , but they are sure to find some ‘answers to their questions, in the pages’ of David Levithan’s  important new book, worthy of a shout-out.  

excerpt from Answers on the Pages

“There is nothing about being queer that deserves censorship rather than expression. Nothing. This should not be a matter of debate because a person’s humanity should never be a matter of debate. Instead it is a matter of the highest principal we can aspire to, which is equality.”Years ago i attended a session Book Censorship in Children’s literature and Katherine Paterson was on a panel discussing the banning of her very special title Bridge to Terabithia.  Her concluding message has stayed with me: Do we want to prepare our children or protect our children. Now, more than ever, with complexities of racism, immigration, sexual identity, bullying etc. we need books that help students learn about themselves, learn about others, be compassionate of differences and take action to uphold tolerance. 

Further Reading: You Can’t Say That!: Writers for young people talk about censorship, free expression, and the stories they have to tell, compiled by Leonard S. Marcus. 

THE GOOD FIGHT by Ted Staunton; illus. Josh Rosen (graphic story) (CULTURAL DIVERSITY; ANTISEMITISM) (217 pages)

It is the blazing summer of Toronto in 1933 and times are tough, as the result of the depression, especially for immigrants who strive to make ends meet. Thirteen-year-old Sid (Jewish) and his friend Plug (Italian) try to get away with pickpocketing. But racial tensions mount and ultimately, Taunton takes his protagonists and his readers to the four hour Antisemitic Riot of Christie Pits on August 16, 1933, where people gathered to watch a baseball game of mostly Jewish players. but the Pit Gang unfurled swastikas to show their hatred and fear of ‘foreigners’. In Germany, Hitler was leading his Nazi Party to victory. Immigration, trade unions and everyday survival at home and on the streets played an important part of of turbulent times. Though facts and events are rather episodic and the narrative a somewhat confusing in graphic format to clearly explain what was happening, author and illustrator brings those times to life and provide readers entry into history, a connection to and to a time of immigrant pride and solidarity and to the blast that riots had – and continue to have – in society.

THE GREAT BEAR: Book Two of the Misewa Saga by David A. Robertson (INDIGENOUS IDENTITY) (225 pages)

Fans of The Barren Grounds by Cree author will not be disappointed in this sequel by Cree author, David A. Robertson. They will be pleased up to meet with foster kids Morgan and Eli and their adventure as they travel through a portal to reunite with their animal friend. This time, they journey to the past, and are challenged to help save the village from destruction and to save the animals of Misewa from the threat of The Great Bear. Morgan and Eli have troubles of their own: Eli is being harassed by bullies, mostly because of his long hair and Morgan is worried about reconnecting with her mother who once abandoned her. In this adventure series, the author has created a great blend of fantasy and reality, past and present, and human and animal connections.

JENNIFER CHAN IS NOT ALONE by Tae Keller (BULLYING) (265 pages)

Jennifer Chan is the new girl in school. Jennifer Chan is believes that Alien Creatures are real. When Jennifer Chan is ridiculed and mocked for her convictions  and for not trying hard to ‘fit in’, (‘Who do you think you are?) she runs away.  Mallory, the girl who lives across the street feels that she and her friends are to blame for Jennifer’s disappearance. They were, after all, responsible for a cruel bullying incident after trapping Jennifer in the washroom in the basement of the school. How do mean girls become so mean? Why would someone be so hateful to another? Can we ever right our wrongs? This is one of the strongest books about the drama of girl friendships and the turmoil of bullying – for both victim and bully.  The narrative alternates between NOW (the disappearance) and THEN (incidents that led up to the disappearance.)  Tae Keller, winner of the Newbery medal for her novel When You Trap a Tiger has written Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone because, like Jennifer, had been tormented by bullies in schools and as an adult author wants to help teenager readers come to an understanding. ‘What makes a bully?’ ‘What makes a person?’  Moreover, as Keller writes in the afterword, she hopes that readers come to acknowledge that truama’s happened and that they hurt and scare and  shatter beliefs taht ‘the world was safe and simple.’ 

THE PUFFIN KEEPER by Michael Morpurgo; illus. Benji Davies (KINDNESS) (91 pages)

Ever since seeing the play and reading the book War Horse by renowned British author, Michael Morpurgo, I have been collecting his books.  In this book, Allen relates the time a special relationship was built with Benjamin Postlethwaite, lighthouse keeper and artist. Allen and his mother were aboard a schooner when it crashed into rocks during a storm. Postlethwaite  too it upon himself to rescue all the passengers.  Allen leaves the island and ends (with a painting of a schooner signed ‘BEN’) and ends up living with mean grandparents, going to a boarding school with mean teachers, and going off to war. He never forgot Postlethwaite’s kindness and returns to visit him where the two develop a strong friendship and a commitment to saving the life of an injured puffin. The chapters are short, the illustrations add to the story and illuminate  the setting and the characters.  The Puffin Keeper is another fine example of Morpurgo’s remarkable storytelling engages readers with honouring nature and  describing warm relationships. 

THE SECRETS OF CRICKET KARLSSON by Kristina Sigunsdotter; illus. Ester Eriksson (MENTAL HEALTH) (106 pages)

There is a certain edge,  a certain fearlessness and feistiness to eleven-year old Cricket Karlsson, an only child,  who is dealing with the fact that her best friend, Noa,  has chosen to be with the ‘horse girls’ and coping with the mental breakdown of her favourite aunt.  Much of contemporary fiction  for middle-age readers deal are stories of fitting in and trying to understand the world of grown-ups but the author presents an original portrait of a pre-adolescent girl trying to figure things out whether she’s making lists (Cricket and Noa’s Ugliest Words: dude, prune, wife, puberty, furuncle, regurgitate, broth, moist meatloaf), hiding in the school washroom, avoiding flirtations from a boy named Mitten, or creating art sculptures out of bubblegum. This book, translated from Swedish, is the winner of the August Prize for children’s literature (2020). Black and white illustrations by Ester Eriksson take up as much territory as the verbal text in this slim (106 page b00k)  these drawings seem to authentically bring to  life the pages of a quirky teen.I love Cricket Karlsson for sharing her secrets and her truths and  for dealing with broken friendships and for thoughtfully dealing with mental health issues. I love her for her wisdom, humour and heart. I love this book. 

Cricket Karlsson tries to deal with her emotions: (3 excerpts)

“When I reached my locker it was as if I’d turned into an aquarium full of tears. I had to rush to the bathroom to empty out a bit.”

“I got such a pain in my heart I had to clutch a pinecone hard to make my hand hurt so I could forget my heart for a moment.”

“When I think of that contract it feels as if my heart is crushed to mashed potato.”

SINGING WITH ELEPHANTS by Margarita Engle (KINDNESS) (207 pages)

A novel in verse about the beauty of poetry and about taking care of elephants. Oriol is an 11 year old Cuban girl who is having troubles fitting in at school. What makes her happy is helping her parents who run a veterinary clinic with the care of injured animals. When an elephant gives birth to twins, Oriol is eager to ensure their safety, even when someone is threatening the life of one of the babies. The young girl befriends Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American winner of  a Nobel Prize in literature, who inspires Oriol to see the power of poems. “I wonder / if every person/ has a sound / a poem/ inside them too.” This book will particularly appeal to young readers who enjoy poems and are in-tune with the free verse fiction style Margarita Engle is a wonderful  wordsmith – and a fine storyteller. 

SUNNY DAYS INSIDE: And other Stories by Caroline Adderson/short stories (KINDNESS) (pages 166)

The setting: An apartment building, neighbour to the community hospital.  2020.2021, a time when families were forced into lockdown. Each of the  short stories deals with a family who must cope with new rules and forced time at home with parents and siblings It is significant to know that this book was published in 2021, in the midst of the Pandemic. In her author’s note,  Adderson writes: “I wrote this book early in the pandemic inspired by the stories I read in the newspaper or on social mdiea about the ingenuity and resilience of children during those frightening months. There are, and will be many examples of children’s literature that dig into the events of COVID-19 (Outside In by Deborah Underwood (picture book), Don’t Stand So Close to Me by Eric Walters, New From Here by Kelly Yang. (fiction). Sunny Days Inside with its linked short stories is a special collection that many students will identify with. Bravo!

TROUBLEMAKER by John Cho (CULTURAL DIVERSITY; RACISM) (2o4 pages)

It is and Los Angeles, 1992 is in a crisis in the wake of the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King as well as the shooting of a young black teen, Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner. When Jordon learns that his father has headed out to board up the Korean liquor store that they own, the young boy heads out to pass on a gun that so that his father could be protect himself. Even though Jordon and Appa had a huge argument (Jordon is failing in school and hanging out with what his father thinks is the wrong crowd) Jordon is determined to help out in any way he can and prove to his father that he can be responsible. With the background of protests and riots, Jordon and his friend Mike are off on a dangerous journey. The narrative takes over the adventurous night that involves a break in, hitchhiking, an interaction with the police, an injured ankle, a karaoke bar, and perils of rising smoke from burning businesses during the protests in South Los Angeles.  This is a story of the immigrant experience, of racism, of family, of protests and guns. Hats off to actor John Cho for writing a fast-paced, action-packed story that helps young readers learn about a stark event of racism in American history and one that one that students can likely relate to in today’s turmoils.

TURTLE BOY by M. Evan Wolkenstein (PHYSICAL CHALLENGES, DEATH LOSS AND REMEMBRANCE, KINDNESS) (386)

Seventh-grader Will Levine has problems: He is teased by bullies because of his receding chin (he is called Turtle Boy); his best friend Shira is drifting away from him; his pet turtles need to be released back into the wild,his Bar Mitzvah is approaching and he is afraid of speaking in public; he is fearful of approaching surgery date for jaw reconstruction; his father died when Will was a youngster and Will felt that he never had a chance to grieve this loss.  The heart of this novel is centred on a community project where he is required to complete a community service project by paying visits to RH, an older boy struggling with an incurable disease. When RJ shares his bucket list with Will, he is afraid of tackling the requests (riding a roller coaster, attending a concert, and a school dance and going for a swim in the ocean. Like the turtle he collects, Will is satisfied with life lived in a shell, but his relationship with RJ forces Will to experience life outside his comfort zone.  Wolkenstein tells  a story told with heart and humour likely igniting compassion and empathy for many middle age readers. Jewish readers will likely identify with the rituals and customs that Will and his friends encounter. Non-Jewish readers will learn about the faith and customs of others. Those who rooted for August Pullman in RJ Palacio’s Wonder will find a new friend to cheer on in Turtle Boy. 

THE U-NIQUE LOU FOX by Jodi Carmichael (SPECIAL NEEDS: Dyslexia; ADHD) (230 pages)

Louisa Elizabeth Fitzhenry-O’Shaugnessy (LOU FOX) is unique. She is a talented artist. She dreams of being a playwright. She has dyslexia. She has ADHD. She has two very good friend and two loving parents.  She also has an annoying teacher, Mrs .Snyder (aka Shadow Phantom who Lou feels is out to ‘get her.’  Her teacher, however doesn’t have any strategies or enough information to deal with the uniqueness of Lou Fox, which causes the grade five girl a lot of stress. This is an engaging story with much for many  middle age readers to connect to .. and learn from.

WHAT CAN I SAY? by Catherine Newman; illustrated by Debbie Fong (graphic ‘How To..’) (KINDNESS) (159 pages)

This is a “Kids Guide to Super-Useful Social Skills to Help You Get Along and Express Yourself”. The subtitle of this book is an invitation for readers, tweens in particular, to pick up a book that offers advice on how to cope with the ups and downs of maintaining healthy relationships. Chapter Titles include: ‘How to Have a Conversation’; ‘How to Deal with Hard Things’; ‘How to be Supportive’; ‘How to Be an Ally’ and ‘How to Care for Your Community’. An example of how well this books answers questions that many readers will have about ‘How to Get Along With People’ (Chapter 3) is outlined in chapter topics: Compromise, Give Someone  the Benefit of the Doubt, Be Wrong,Be Right,Argue,Persuade Someone, Be Grateful.  This is an excellent resource that dips into the minds and concerns that many 11-13 year olds field as they think about their identities, their place of belonging, their friendships and wanna be friendships.  This “great guide to social skills” will be enjoyed and appreciated as an independent read. It inspires reflection (i.e., What Should You Do? What Would You Do? What Could You Do?) but moreover it should inspire conversations with friends – and adults – who can help validate and consider ways of getting along.  Definitely, a worthwhile purchase, an important guide. Also by the authors: How to Be A Person

GROWN-UP READS x 9 SPRING 2022

SHORT STORIES x 3

AUTOBIOGRAPHY/BIOGRAPHY x 3

FICTION x 3

 

ANIMAL PERSON by Alexander MacLeod

8 shorts stories, each about 30 pages by Canadian writer. The overriding theme seems to how our past , for better or worse infiltrates our current and future lives. MacLeod has an extraordinary eye for detail and paints vivid pictures characters caught in fraught situations (a young boy being seduced, a murderer in a hotel, the dismantling of a chandelier, the unexpected arrival of a shark, a funeral where not everyone is welcome, and a rabbit who knows a divorced man oh so well. Compelling!

THE BEST OF ME by David Sedaris

I am a huge David Sedaris fan and would have read these great stories in previous anthologies or in the New Yorker Magazine. It’s terrific to have ‘the best of Sedaris’s writing from the past twenty-five years. Absurd! Moving!  Funny! Funny! Funny! Readers will have to decide for themselves which stories they think are the best of the best from  anthologies: Calypso, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked and Barrel Fever.  I own all these books and of course  can’t wait  to reading new stories in his spring release Happy-Go-Lucky. 

LIFE WITHOUT CHILDREN by Roddy Doyle

Irish author Roddy Doyle has written ten stories set in Dublin in the time of ‘the Corona’.  These aren’t particularly stories of illnesses but  the author unpacks the relationships and loneliness of husbands and wives and of lives with (and without) children.  A  man walks the streets of Dublin, in search of his son whom he hasn’t seen in 4 years, a son is barred from his mother’s funeral, a woman chooses to walk out on her husband the day before the lockdown, The characters are ordinary folk, mostly in their sixties who are forced, through the pandemic,  to think about living and loving,  regrets and  interconnectedness. 

 

I WAS BETTER LAST NIGHT: A Memoir by Harvey Fierstein

Tony Award-winning author, stage, television and movie actor, voice-over character, drag-artist, picture book author, gay activist, Harvey Fierstein (Fire-steen)has had a rich career in the arts starting with appearances avant-garde off-off-Broadways and winning awards for appearing in and writing great successes such as Torch Song Trilogy La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots, Hairspray, Newsies. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen many of his performance including the original production of Torch Song Trilogy, Gently Down The Stream, Bella Bella. Fiddler on the Roof, Hairspray.  And yes, I even own his CD recording, This is Not Going to Be Pretty. Mr. Fierstein is a force to be reckoned with, a huge talent who has experienced the range of hit and misses that show-biz offers and a loud – and important – voice for gay rights.  He has had a life full of interesting stuff to write about including his school days at an Arts and Design High School, promiscuity,  love affairs, weight control,  trappings with drugs and alcohol,  family,  friendships. Mr Fierstein is famous for his raspy, scratchy, deep voice (due to damaged vocal cords)  and I am a fan. As I read this book I was fascinated by his life and often found myself just wanting to give this guy a big hug. “An actor can’t know too many words. An actor can’t access too many emotions. And there’s no such thing as having lived too much.” (p. 363). 

LEN & CUB: A Queer History by Meredith J. Batt and Dusty Green (biography)

Hats off to archivists  Meredith, J. Batt and Dusty Green for a thoroughly researched document of life in rural New Brunswick in the early  Century. When coming across a photographic album from the period, the two authors embarked on an investigation of Len and Cub, two queer citizens of Havelock, New Brunswick. It is the photographs that serve as evidence for their a homosexual relationship. The researchers were able to uncover as much information about the two men, their families, their work endeavours, their service in World War I and their estrangement (After being outed, Len moved to the United States, Cub got married). The book is abundant with photographs, mostly taken by Len and though the black and white images aren’t always crisp and clear they provide contemporary readers insights into lives of two Canadian gay men. Moreover, this book serves as an important piece of queer historiography that today’s youth – urban and rural – can wonder about. 

PERMANENT ASTONISHMENT by Tomson Highway

Cree Playwright, author, musician Tomson Highway has written a beautiful memoir, recounting the first 15 years of his life in the subarctic, land of ten thousand lake and islands. The 11th of 12 children, Highway was loved my mother and father and so loving of his younger brother Rene. Much of the book is centred on the atuhor’s experiences in Guy Hill Indian Residential School, a place that gave the author a place of learning, a place to which he writes “I give thanks from the bottom of my heart for all they have given me all these years – companionship, laughter and yes, love in all its richness.” (p. 279).  Each chapter in this book reads like a short story, particularly the remarkable scenes with far-north nature and animals: loons, arctic terns, garter snakes, sled dogs and trout  and uplifting school scenes: learning English, practicing the piano, Christmas concerts, playing hockey, a plague, and escapes to the washroom to read, read, read. What a remarkable life. What stunning portraits of Indigenous culture and family. This title, winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction is the the first of several titles of Tomson’s life as an artist, a life of permanent astonishments. 

 

THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC by Julie Otsuka

What a beautiful book, original in style and poignantly presented in clear narrative vignettes.  The book is arranged in eight sections, tracing the lives of young women brought to San Francisco from Japan at the turn of the 20th century.  The stories of are told in the collective first person plural voice ‘we’ to convey a rich tapestry of countless narratives that includes a tough boat journey, arrival in the new land, their first nights as new wives, aduous labour, the experience of raising children, to the arrival of war.  A sto. ry of fate, survival and hope. Otsuka’s research is astounding weaving a chorus of stories, illuminated in sharp, rather short sentences often using a repetitious pattern that creates a continuous list poem of sorts. Thanks to my friend Debbie for highly recommending this short book (129 pages) with countless narratives of Japanese immigrants: 

Excerpt

“One of us collapsed before before she had even finished weeding her first row. Some of us wept while we worked. Some of us cursed while we worked. All of us ached while we worked – our hands blistered and bld, our knees burned, our backs would never recover. One of us us was distracted by the handsome Hindu man cutting asparagus in the next furrow.” (p. 28)

THE MAGICIAN by Colm Toibin

Toibin has written a fictionalized biography of Thomas Mann, German author, philosopher Thomas Mann. The first World War has broken out and Mann is charged with Patriotism and a world of literature and music. He is a man filled with contradictions, a loyalty to  his country as Hitler comes to power, a devotion to his wife and six children and his secret homosexual desires. The author has undoubtedly done extensive research in fictionalizing the life of this Nobel Prize winner.  I admired the first 1/3 of the novel describing Mann’s growing up and marriage, but alas got less interested when it came to political arguments. Disclaimer: I didn’t finish the reading the bo0k.    Recent iwinner of the recent British Rathbones Folio Prize which recognizes the best English-language literary work of the year. 

SHOUT OUT

YOUNG MUNGO by Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart won the 2020 Booker Prize for his novel Shuggie Bain which was at the top of the list of Larry’s reading favourites last year. Young Mungo, his sophomore title will for sure be at the top of the list of 2022 favourites. What a writer, Mr. Stuart. is! What a great book Young Mungo is, raw, gutsy, heart-wrenching book. Once again, Stuart sets his book in the world of Glasgow housing estates. It is the 1990’s and Young (16 year-old Mungo) is trapped in a life of poverty, smothered by an alcoholic mother, Mo-Maw who has taken a leave from her family. Mungo’s wise sister, Jodie,  is determined to get a better life for herself, and an Mungo’s older brother, Hamish/ Ha-ha, dangerous gang leader  determined to make a man of his brother.  The narrative is interwoven with episodes set in a loch in western Scotland where two of Mo-Maw’ss drunken acquaintances take Mungo on a fishing trip and teach Mungo more than fishing and camping where, reader beware, violence and danger unfolds. At the heart of the novel, Protestant Mungo meets Catholic James  who finds sanctuary in a place where  built for his prize racing pigeons. The two boys fall in love and dream of escaping the darkness of the  city. On nearly each page of the book, I encountered words and dialect that were unfamiliar to me (e.g., lollop, smirr, gansey, doocot, stovies). On each page I found myself re-reading at least one sentence for its vivid images of character or setting. (“Mrs Campbell sucked thoughtfully at her dentures. She took her cracked hands and put them on his narrow ribs.” “They had wandered from timid tenderness to affection wrapped in insults. It was a lovely place for two boys to be: honest, exciting, immature.” “There had been a late frost and now the ploughed rows looked like stitched panels on a quilt each channel picked out by snow-white thread.”  I can’t wait for another Douglas Stuart novel. In the meanwhile, I have Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo to re-read and fill my reading soul with intense emotion. 

SPRING INTO FICTION: A DOZEN BOOKS ages 9- 12 / 2022

Twelve very appealing novels for Middle School Readers each with a focus on identity and culture, family and friendships.  Several titles could be considered appropriate text to text connections: Willodeen/Cress Watercress; Cress Watercress/Every Leaf a Hallelujah; Evert Leaf Hallelujah/Willodeen; New From Here/No Vacancy; No Vacancy/Hiding on the High Wire; New From Here/Iggie’s House; The Little Prince/Willodeen; Willowdeen/Beatghrice Croc Harry; Those Kids From Fawn Creek/A Song Called Home.

 

BEATRICE AND CROC HARRY by Lawrence Hill

Award-winning author, Lawrence Hill, (The Book of Negroes) has written a book for middle-age readers that is sure to appeal to those who join in the adventures of a fictional character. We first meet Beatrice in a forest-tree house and as it turns out she is the only human in the forest.  How did she get there? Who can she talk to? Will she be staying in the magical forest or Argilia and coexist with other animals who seem able to communicate with others. A wise lemur, a loyal tarantula, a feisty rabbit and especially  King Crocodile (Croc Harry) become Beatrice’s allies as she is on a quest to learn about her past and a  discover the truth about her family Lawrence Hill is a great storyteller and Beatrice and Croc Harry is filled with magical and dangerous adventures (maybe too many events). Beatrice and Croc Harry is a book about friendship, loyalty, courage and vocabulary. Moreover, Beatrice and Croc Harry turns out to be a story about a Black girl discovering the truth about her family as well as racial violence.  A wonder of a book!

COINKEEPER: THE AVERY CHRONICLES (4 books) Teresa Schapansky

Teresa Schapansky has met her goal of writing books that will appeal to readers, particularly reluctant readers, who are keen to read not-to-long books with fine story power. Avery has a strong bond with his grandpa and grandpa has great stories to tell about travelling into the past and taken part or being witness to legendary tales. Cleverly, the author presents the Coinkeeper narrative in short paragraphs with generous white space dividing each paragraph. Clever too, is the presentation of each story in four books, each no more than 32 pages. (Each book provides Extra Reading information connected to story components.) . This short length should motivate middle years readers. Moreover, the stories that Grandpa tells have great folklore appeal (the Ogopogo Monster, The Selkies, Billy the Kid, the legendary camel knows as the Red Ghost). Highly recommended.

CRESS WATERCRESS by Gregory Maguire; illus. David Litchfield

Cress’s father has disappeared from his family. Cress, her mother and brother are forced to move into a cramped basement apartment. Cress is a rather feisty girl, easy to anger (especially with her mother).  She has made some new friends, each with a quirky personality. More than anything, Cress wants to be reunited with her father and return to a happy family life. But dangers abound. Cress is a rabbit,  I’m often fond of anthropomorphic narratives and Gregory Maguire (Wicked; Egg & Spoon) is a terrific storyteller with a great sense of humour and a great inventor of characters. Here we have a nosy mouse superintendent, a rowdy family of squirrels, gossipy songbirds, a snooty skunk, a wise hen, a dangerous bear and the threat of the snake (Final Drainpipe). A book about adventure, grief, loyalty, kindness, family, the woods, honey-gathering, moth gathering and the cycle of the moon. David Litchfield’s paints with a vivid palette of stain-glass colours and create images where light shines brightly.   I loved this book. Highly recommend it as a read-aloud. 

EVERY LEAF A HALLELUJAH by Ben Okri; illus. Diana Ejaita

Mangoshi,  a young girl in Africa needs to head off into the woods to find a special flower that will save her mother’s life, as well as the village. Mangoshi encounters a magical world of trees, each with its own story and personality,  that speak to her. When the great baobab takes the young girl into a dream travel of trees around the world, knowing that she might be the one to protect the trees from vanishing.  Glorious illustrations that dance, float and crawl on the pages (with Henri Matisse smiling down on Ejaita). Novella?  picture book? short story? Every Leaf a Hallelujah (sublime title) is highly recommended as a classroom read aloud. “Once read we will know never to take trees or leaves for granted again.” (Michael Morpurgo)

HIDING ON THE HIGH WIRE by Kathy Kacer

I was given an advanced reading copy by Kathy Kacer, the most important author of children’s literature to help young people understand the importance of the Holocaust and keeping its memory alive. Once again, Kathy has found a particular story to engage and inform readers building compassion for a young Jewish person trapped by the power of Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. Irene Lorch’s family has run a family circles for many years until one day a hateful boo is shouted as Irene performs daring feats on the high wire. The circus is forced to shut down when Irene’s father (not Jewish) is sent off to serve in Hitler’s army. Irene and her mother are terrified of being taken away to a concentration camp but a sympathetic circus owner, Adolf Althoff, helps mother and daughter find refuge and a place of belonging in his circus family where their talents are put on display.  Thank you Kathy Kacer for another a powerful story that has readers walking a high wire, along with Irene as she fights antisemitism and the horrors the Holocaust. 

IGGIE’s HOUSE by Judy Blume (1970)

Winnie is desolate when her friend Iggie Garber has moved away to Tokyo. When a new family with three kids moves into Iggie’s house, Winnie is optimistic that she can make new friends but the Garber family is black and the Grove Street neighbourhood has always been white. When a petition is sent around by a domineering street resident to get rid of the Garber family because they don’t belong, Winnie, her family and the Garber’s learn about prejudice and racism. Judy Blume wrote this book in 1970 and it obviously resonates with Black Lives Matter issues and the need for tolerance and acceptance in every neighbourhood.  This title was recently given a shout out by Jason Reynolds in a New York Times interview. Thank you Mr. Reynolds for re-acquainting me with this wonderful – and important – story.  Thank you, Judy Blume, or your books that engage and resonate with millions of young readers.  Thank you, too, for Iggie’s House. 

THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine De Saint-Exupery (1943)

I can’t go on an airplane without a book in hand and empty-handed I went into the small airport book stall and chose The Little Prince, a book I’ve read quite a few times (not as a kid).  I’m scheduled to see a performance of this later in the spring in New York so I decided that I’d re-read this iconic classic.  Sometimes it’s  good to re-read books we’ve encountered earlier in life.  I have to say, I didn’t love it then and I don’t love it now.  Every little paragraph seem to take my reading brain into a non-narrative, esoteric direction. Even with illustrations spread throughout, the writing does seem to inspire visualization..  But I guess i’ll still have to guess at the meaning of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, the curiosity of yawning,  a king, a drunkard who drinks to forget that he’s ashamed, a street lamp and a lamplighter on a planet without any people, an ephemeral flower, an untamed fox, sunsets, stars and the mysterious radiance of the sands. Mystifying. (Perhaps I’ll find a child to talk to who cherished this book. 

NEW FROM HERE by Kelly Yang

In January 2020, author Kelley Yang packed up her three children  to leave Hong Kong and move to San Francisco trying to escape the coronavirus.. Her husband who had to stay for work, stayed behind. and leaving her husband behind in Hong Kong. In  New From Here, a mother packs up her three children and moves from Hong Kong to San Francisco when COVID-19 hits, leaving Dad behind because he has to stay for work. The central character of this novel is ten-year-old Knox, who settles into his new school even though Anti-Asian racism abounds (Coronavirus tag is played on the playground; his best friend’s family is losing business because people are afraid to go to a Chinese restaurant).  Life is full of struggles as Knox’s mother strives to get a job and the children desperately try to find ways reunite with their father. Yang’s story takes readers through the early stages of the pandemic when victims of the disease and deaths were quickly on the rise. Kelly Yang is a terrific author, particularly for capturing Asian American life (The Front Desk; Three Keys; Room to Dream).  Drawing on her own lived experiences, Kelly Yang’s writes stories of courage, and resilience  where “ultimately, love is the only vaccine for hate. Its love that gets us through the hard times. And it’s love that will bind us back together as a community, nation and world”. (Author’s notes, page 357)

NO VACANCY by Tziporah Cohen

Miriam, an eleven-year-old Jewish  has moved with her mother and father and little brother Sammy to the Town of Greenvale, population 510. Life will be very different for Miriam from what she is used to in New York, especially with the challenge of making a worthwhile living with the Jewel Motel which her father just purchased. It is summertime and Miriam makes friends with the maid, with Kate and with the owners of the diner next to the hotel. It is the summer of helping out her family, of taking care of overcoming a fear of swimming, of making grape pies.  Miriam and Kate devise a plot to bring people to the community and when they create a vision of the Virgin Mary in the abandoned community drive-in, motel business does indeed boom. Problems arise, however, when the motel is vandalized with a hate message against the Jewish family. Eventually comes to learn that religion can bring out the good in all of us and as the rabbi in the story says “It’s not what happens to us, it’s what we do with what happens to us.” Winner of the CCBC Jean Little First Novel Award, 2021.

A SONG CALLED HOME by Sara Zarr

11 year-old Lou (Louisa, Lu, Belle)’s family is going through changes. Her mother is about to remarry and Lou and her sister, Casey are now being forced to move into a new home in an area different from the one that they grew up in.  For Lu, life is a ‘catalog of bad things floating around her and bumping into her, and if she could figure out how they were her fault, she could organize them and put them away.” Lu is slow to warm up to her new family situation, but Casey is even more reluctant to settle into new changes. There is a cloud of guilt hanging over Lu’s head, for stealing things, for not treating her stepdad better and  particularly for the fact that her birth father is a drunk and maybe it’s her fault. When Lu discovers a surprise gift of a guitar which she assumes is her father, she is determined to learn how to play it and enter the talent show at her new school.  Zarr has written a moving novel about broken families and about working towards a place of healing. Many middle years readers will identify with this story about loyalty to friends and family. A wonderful book!

THOSE KIDS FROM FAWN CREEK by Erin Entrada Kelly

Fawn Creek, Louisana is a small town, like many small towns that many young people live in. Every day seems the exact same. Those kids from Fawn Creek have been together throughout their school years and when the spirited Orchid Mason becomes a new member of the seventh grade class, things are about to change, or are they?  Erin Entrada Kelly’s creates terrific characterizations in all her novels. The relationships amongst her characters are easily recognizable for many pre-teen readers.  Orchid’s arrival into the community and the stories she shares of having exciting adventures in New York and Paris capture the attention (and envy) of those kids from Fawn Creek. (Assumptions: Those kids are all white kids.. racial is not an issue)  Most of all, Orchid’s story shifts the balance of friendships and personalities, particularly for shy Dorothy (Didi ) Doucet and outsider Greyson Broussard who dreams of being a part of a world of fashion design and a living the life beyond the confines of a small town. 

WILLODEEN by Katherine Applegate

The setting: The village of Perchance. The heroine, Willodeen who adores creatures of all kinds. Willodeen’s friends: strange beasts known as screechers (detested by the villagers, not least because they really really stink). The problem: a village has a) been cursed with fires and mudslides, and suffered from the decline of the annual migration of the hummingbears (their shimmering bubble nests would draw tourists from far and wide. Perchance, screechers, hummingbears and a clever eleven-year-old Willodeen combine to make this novel another magical, fantasy gem from Katherine Applegate that ultimately offers a message that everything in nature has a role and is connected (and that humans need to take responsibility for destruction of animals).  Applegate’s dedication is “For Mother Earth. Thanks for putting up with us.”  

PICTURE BOOKS: SPRING 2022

The  ten picture book titles featured here are, for the most part, published in 2022. The Shout-Out titles deserve ‘shout-out’ recognition even though publication dates are not from this year.  Before each brief annotation, I’ve included the opening words of the picture book, each providing a bridge to a fine story journey. 

 

BEAR WANTS TO SING by Cary Fagan; Dena Seiferling (2021)

When bear finds a ukulele, he picks it up. When he discovers the nice sounds it makes, he is excited about composing songs and is soon learns that he is not the only musician in the forest. Crow, Snake, Tortoise, Fox,  let their own songs burst forth, each accompanying an instrument. 

“A bear was taking a walk. He saw something in the grass. He sniffed it. He licked it.” 

 

FINDING MOOSE by Sue Farell Holler; illus. Jennifer Faria

A little boy and his grandfather tred “quiet as mice and rabbits and deer” in the forest until they come upon moose droppings. They both become determined to find the moose. In this discovery story, Grandpa introduces forest plants and animals in English and Ojibwemowin.

“We must be quiet, quiet when we go into the woods.”


MARTIN AND THE RIVER by Jon-Erik Lappano; illus. Josee Bisaillon

Martin is so enamoured and caring about the river that flows past his house. One day, Martin’s  parents tell their son  that they will be moving from the country to the city. It is time for Martin to say goodbye to his herons and crayfish and otters and other river friends. It is time to learn about nature within a city environment.

“Martin loved to play by the river that ran through the fields behind his house.”

RAINY DAYS by Deborah Kerbel; illus. Miki Sato

Deborah Kerbel has written a series of books celebrating the joys of weather (Windy Days; Sunny Days; Snow Days). In this new title young children discover the joys of a rainy day through bouncy rhyming couplets and bright collage illustrations. 

“Steady rain, garden swamp

Rubber boots, puddle stomp!”


THIS IS A SCHOOL By John Schu; Illus. Veronica Miller Jamison

Through simple poetic text, John Schu helps readers to think about a place called school,  which is more than just a building. It is a place of students, and teachers and staff and librarians coming together.  School is a place of discovery.  School is a community, a place for sharing and helping.  School is a place for creating and cheering,healing and growing, changing. and failing and trying;  trusting. Veronica Miller Jamison (All Are Welcome) shines a light on scenes of young people working and playing and learning together. (Bonus: The book jacket becomes a poster (“Happy Happy Reading” sure to be displayed in classrooms everywhere.

“This is a kid.  This is a kid in a class. This is a class in a hall. This is a hall in a school – WELCOME!”


TUG: A Log Boom’s Journey by Scot Ritchie

A father and child join together on a workday on. West Coast tug. This is a fine example of narrative nonfiction helping readers to learn about log books, sawmills, deadheads, river travel and encounters with stormy weather. 

“I’m helping Dad on the tugboat. We’re going to tow a log boom to the sawmill on the river.”

 
WHISTLING FOR ANGELA by Robin Heald: Peggy Collins

A young boy is excited about meeting his newly adopted sister, Angela. What is the perfect gift he can offer? e and He decides that sharing his love of birds is the perfect tribute and is determined to learn how to whistle, like a chickadee for her. 

“I’m going to learn to whistle for the new baby,” said Daniel.


“It’ll be my present to her. I’ll whistle like a bird.”

 

SHOUT OUT

I was working on a little project investigating children’s literature from Australia to support the teaching of tough topics. The Feather and The Mediterranean are two titles that I wanted for my collection and now own. These are two astonishing titles of picture hooks that I need to share with students. 

THE FEATHER by Margaret Wild; illus. Fraya Blackwood (2018)

When a soft and silky feather arrives in the backyard of two young girls, they decide that it needs to taken to the village so it won’t get dirty. What will the people do to preserve the treasure? What is the feather’s fate when a muddy stain creeps along the feather discolouring little by little and becomes dull and dingy? A minimal text accompanied by evocative art images The Feather give readers  something to think about as they contemplate the symbol of this fragile artifact. 

“In the darkness of the day, the feather falls. It used to be part of a wing that was serene and joyous.” 

T

THE MEDITERRANEAN by Armin Greder (2017)

Australian author and illustrator (The Island; The City) offers a powerful picture book to help us consider our  feelings and understandings about to the plight of refugees. This story is representative or the thousands who were forced to flee war, torture and persecution. It is also the story of those, hoping to seek refuge who became part or the mass grave of the sea, The Mediterranean. It is also a political story of those who remain as silent witnesses. This is a wordless picture book with staggering monochromatic illustrations which ignite in-the-head narrative and questioning and moral understanding. It warrants repeated visits to its pages. It demands ‘turn and talk’ responses to learn what others think and feel. There are only 17 words that serve as preface to this story.

“After he had finished drowning, his body sank slowly to the bottom where the fish were waiting.” 

 

SHOUT OUT

THE DOLL by Nhung N. Tran-Davies (2021); illus. Ravy Puth

A young girl and her family have travelled across the world to find safety. Greeted by strangers, one of them presents the young girl in the family with the gift of a doll. Decades pass and the little girl, now grown up welcomes a group of newly arrived refugees. Knowing it will make her feel welcome, the woman passes the doll that was once given to her over to the youngest girl in the migrant family. This story is based on the author’s experience of arriving in Edmonton after travelling at sea with 300 ‘boat people’.  Watching today’s news of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee their country I was reminded of The Doll story especially when seeing young children carrying dolls,  stuffed animals, even live pets to given them some comfort in times of war. NOTE: Nhung’s doll is now on display at the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax. 

“Long ago, in a nearby land, there was a young girl whose eyes were deep ocean-blue, whose dimples twinkled like bright mischievous stars. She was waiting.” 

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>       <<<<<<<<<<<

 

SPECIAL SHOUT OUT

THE GROUNDWOOD NEWSLETTERS: New book resource

Any resource that encourages 
the use of Canadian children’s books 
by educators and librarians is good. 
 
Most publishers provide teaching resources based on their books 
(do check out their websites) 
but Groundwood Books is setting up something a little different 
and I wanted to share that here.
 

Groundwood Books

has teamed up with 

educator, author and children’s book advocate

Larry Swartz

 

 

for a series of newsletters for teachers and librarians

The Groundwood Newsletters are designed to provide educators, librarians and parents with strategies, tips and information about their fiction and non-fiction books. Each newsletter centres on a single topic, theme or genre with a list of recommended titles to encourage young readers to explore. The series will include lots of great resources such as reading, writing, arts and media responses; a spotlight feature on a Groundwood author/illustrator; a curated book list with annotations; and additional links to the website for more book information and/or teacher guides.
 
for the Groundwood Newsletters
Groundwoodbooks.com
 
Groundwood Newsletter #1;
FINDING FRIENDSHIPS, BUILDING BELONGING and CREATING COMMUNITY THROUGH PICTURE BOOKS
 
Groundwood Newsletter #2:
LEARNING FROM ANIMALS AND NATURE
 
Groundwood Newsletter #3:
MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Groundwood Newsletter #4 (spring 2022)
FICTION TO EXPLORE IDENTITY AND RELATIONSHIpS
 
Groundwood Newsletter #5 (spring 2022)
We’ll weather the Weather: Considering Climate Issues and The Environment
 
Groundwood Newsletter #6 (date TBD)
NATURE AND ANIMALS In ANISHINAABE CULTURE
 

YOUNG ADULT BOOKS: Hate, Discrimination and Justice

Many of the books I’m digging into these days deal with HATE and ANTI-DISCRIMINATION.  Some readers may find some of these books unsettling, but upon reflection, the fictional world can help them to think about their own moral values, assumptions and understandings of equity and justice. Many of the titles listed below might inspire readers to examine their principles and fight for what’ right.  

 

THE ASSIGNMENT by Liza Wiemer

Mr. Bartley is a beloved high school teacher  but when he gives hi history class the assignment to argue for the Final Solution, a euphemism for the Nazi plan of genocide of the Jewish . The teacher seems to have good intentions thinking that it well help students to dig into the real meaning of intolerance and discrimination but the school administration, the student body, the community are caught in the web of the  assignment. Two students, Logan and Cade decide that they must take a stand which explodes into a dangerous fight for justice. That this is based on a true story is frightening but the fictional account lures readers into thinking about history, discrimination and antisemitism and questions,  “What could you do?’ ‘ What would you do?’.  The author addresses students who need to the formidable task of speak out against hate and injustice by saying: In darkness, yours be one that illuminates the world, guided by an unwavering moral compass, courage, compassion, and love.  Make your home, your schooo, your community a place where humanKIND is welcome.'(a note from the author, page 309)

#BLACKINSCHOOL by Habiba Cooper Diallo)

#BlackinSchool is Habibab Cooper Diallo’s high school journal, in which she documents, processes and resists the systemic racism, microagressions, stereotypes and outright racism she experienced in Canada’s educational system.” (from the back cover blurb).  Many Black students will connect strongly to the author’s lived experiences and all readers will consider ways to take action towards an equitable education system, an equitable society for all.  Anything from the original journal “comprises the thoughts of a young student, going through a difficult few years, choosing not to give up, but instead to document, process and resist the constant abrasions of systemic racism as they rasped against her young body.” (from the Introduction, , p. xix)

CONCRETE ROSE by Angie Thomas

About seventeen year-old Maverick Carter: he is the son of former gang legend who is now in prison; He is a father and the mother  dumped the baby on Maverick who must now take full responsibility for raising the infant; he needs to work two jobs (at the local store and as a landscaper; he is in his final year of school but is flunking out; his relationship with his girlfriend Lisa has challenges and  throws him a huge curve,; he held the body of his beloved cousin Dre who was murdered in a fly-by shooting; his loving mother gives Mav pressure about the choices he makes in life;  there is a devil on his shoulder challenging him to take revenge, return to the life of dealing drugs; and give up on his education. Angie Thomas takes revisits Garden Heights and the world of gang wars seventeen years before the events of The Hate U Give in this powerful exploration of Black boyhood and manhood. 

JUST LIKE THAT by Gary D. Schmidt

Gary D. Schmidt (The Wednesday Wars, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy) is a wonderful author who offers readers characters to care about (and learn from) and provides a vivid sense of time and place that play an important part in his narratives. Just Like That takes into the lives of two characters whose worlds eventually interweave (about midway into the novel)> Meryl Lee Kowalski has been devastated by the loss of her dear friend and to deal and is sent to a girl’s boarding school where she is on a journey to being “Accomplished”.  At a young age, Matt Coffin has been a street kid who is under the thumb of who manipulates wandering boys to do steal for him (Oliver Twist). Meryl Lee is a wise and strong and handles friendships, jealousy’s, school responsibilities (including writing poetry and dissection and struggling to be a great keeping) and has no problem fighting for justice when she thinks rules can be changed. Matt is always looking over his shoulder fearful, evading the violent criminal who is evil, revengeful and after a pillow case full of money.  The story is set in the late 1960’s and The Vietnam War looms in the background of these character’s lives.  The teachers, either compassionate or strict, the friendships, either mean or devoted, the setting, either school rooms or seaside are vividly portrayed by this great storyteller who has readers care about his characters. A great read for ages 11+ who want a story about making choices, fighting demons, and growing into what it means to be ‘accomplished’. 

LAST NIGHT AT THE TELEGRAPH CLUB by Malinda Lo

It is the mid-1950’s. Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, daughter of immigrants  is a ‘good Chinese girl who does well in school and dreams of entering the feel of aeronautics. Living in Chinatown, San Francisco in 1954 is layered with a risk of deportation for Lily and other families  during Red-Scare McCarthyism paranoia. For Lily, a bigger risk is being caught  for her lesbian desires as she a becomes entranced with the world of the Telegraph Club where women meet women and a male impersonator named Terry Andrews presides as ia symbol of the  alternate lifestyle of homosexuality which Lily needs to come terms with. Lily becomes further confused and trapped when she falls in love with her school friend Kath and  her loyalty with her friendship with Shirley, her duty to her family and her culture provides challenges to coming out and being true to herself. The narrative is broken up with flashbacks about Lily’s family and historical events from China’s history in first half of the 20th Century. A beautiful piece of historical fiction and queer love  worthy of the 2021 National Book Award, Asian-Pacific American award for literature and the Stonewall Book Award, 2022.

NOTHING by Jann Teller

This book was given a shout out by Jason Reynolds in a New York Times interview so any shout out by Mr. Reynolds is worth investigating. Nothing, translated from the Danish, was written in 2000. Thirteen-year-old leaves school and decides to sit in a plum tree and become part of ‘nothing’. His classmates set on quest for the meaning of life and one by one gather artifacts, each meaningful to their lives. As the project unfolds each item becomes more and more profound, moving from a pair of sandals, a telescope, a yellow neon bike, to a dead pet, a desecrated Jesus statue, a cut off-finger. Make no-mistake this is a stark gruesome tale about peer pressure, about torment, about cruelty and about a quest to bring meaning to life. It is not a book for 13 year olds. Though it has been a multiple award-winner overseas and has been explored in European classrooms, this book isn’t really for classroom study, although it is has been compared to Lord of the Flies. Existential. Gut-wrenching. Provocative. Challenging. Reader beware: Nothing is a haunting read. .

from the opening

Nothing matters.
I have known that fora long time.
So nothing is worth doing.
I just realized that.

ON THE LINE by Paul Coccia and Eric Walters

Eighth-grader Jordan Ryker is a basketball star and with his parents’ constant fighting – and eventually separation – he finds comfort in the world of teamwork and competition. Problems surmount when he learns that his father, who has moved out of the house, is gay.  Jordan is angry and doesn’t readily accept support from his school counsellor, his best friend, Junior or his new girlfriend, Tammy. Accepting change is hard for Jordan and blaming others whom he feels don’t understand adds to his conflict. A well-written, fast-paced narrative that many teenagers will identify with and many will understand tensions of friendships, relationships, family and tolerance. 

RIVER MERMAID by Christy Goerzen 

Teenager, Mercedes Stonewall is trying to balance school life, family life and her artistic life in this free-verse novel by Canadian author Christy Goerzen. Mercedes is a talented young sculptor who feels that she is living under the shadow of her world-famous sculptor.  Early in the story, we learn that Mercedes has been rejected from entering the art program of her dreams. Will she abandon her dreams? Mercedes is also lusting after the handsome Ellis and never having dated, Mercedes and Ellis’s relationship is slow to grow. When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, Mercedes struggles to find deeper purpose in life her strong relationship with her friend Sandra,  her romantic feelings for Ellis and her creativity.  Goerzen tells a good story and invites readers into the mind and heart of a teenage spirit. \

THE MEDITERRANEAN by Armin Greder (2017) / Picture book for older readers

Australian author and illustrator (The Island, The City) offers a powerful picture book to help us consider our  feelings and understandings about to the plight of refugees. This story is representative or the thousands who were forced to flee war, torture and persecution. It is also the story of those, hoping to seek refuge who became part or the mass grave of the sea, The Mediterranean. It is also a political story of those who remain as silent witnesses. This is a wordless picture book with staggering monochromatic illustrations which ignite in-the-head narrative and questioning and moral understanding. It warrants repeated visits to its pages. It demands ‘turn and talk’ responses to learn what others think and feel. There are only 17 words that serve as preface to this book: 

After he had finished drowning, his body sank slowly to the bottom where the fish were waiting. 

 

SHOUT OUT

AIN’T BURNED ALL THE BRIGHT by Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin

Jason Reynolds is a popular – important – author of books for young people. I always look forward to a new title by this award-winning author. Ain’t Burned All the Bright is targeted for teens. but it is a book for those inside and beyond adolesence.  From the book jacket: “this fierce-vulnerable-brilliant-terrifying-whaiswrongwithhumans-hopefilled, hopeful-tender-heartbreaking-heartmaking manifesto on what it means not to be able to  breathe, and how the people and things at your fingertips are actually the oxygen you most need.” I stand on the line to say that this is the best book produced this year, YA, or not. It is a marriage of two artists creating a ‘manifesto’ of Black Lives Matter, of the Pandemic, of Climate Change. For me the book is  is about the need to take a deep breath in times of trouble. The book is divided into three Sections: Breath One; Breath Two; Breath Three and each section is one sentence written by the brilliant Mr. Reynolds. The multi-media art work is fiery and explosive and evocative of the words. There is art in Jason Reynold’s poetry. There is poetry in Mr. Griffin’s art (I would love to own any one of these illustrations).The formatting and production value deserves special kudos. 

If I had buckets of money, i would make sure that every black teenager owned a copy of this exquisite book Heck, make that ALL teenagers. They may not immediately ‘get it’ but let the book sit on a shelf, let them return to it in a week, in a decade ahead. Let them turn to a friend and share what they did get out of it, how they connected to the book, and how the book raised questions for them about their identity, race, climate,. The book invites them pay attention to what they see/ hear on the news,  to slow down and consider what is going on in the minds of their family and friends and to think about what is happening in their today world. The book is dedicated: “For everyone we lost and everything we learned in the strangest year of our lives – 2020.” it is a book for yesterday, today and tomorrow. 

It will take not so very minutes to go through this book, page by page. It will invite re-reading immediately and in days ahead. It will foster reflection as readers make meaning and think about what is happening in their head and heart.  Thank you , thank you J&J for this  special work of ART. 

A masterpiece. 

Excerpt (opening)

I’m sitting here wondering shy

my mother wont’ change the channel

and why the news won’t 

change the story

and why the story won’t change into something new

instead of the every-hour rerrun

about how we won’t change the world

or the way we treat the world

SHINING A LIGHT ON CANADIAN FICTION (ages 10- 14)

ALINA IN A PINCH by Shenaaz Nanji 

Alina has moved to a new school and is teased because of the lunches she brings.  When Alina’s parents are forced to travel to Africa, her grandmother comes to take care of her and the two enjoy cooking Afro-Indian meals together. From her Nani, Alina learns that ‘we are all the same, yet different: ‘different colored balloons flying under one sky… Each of us has hopes, fears., and dreams. We all want to be love and to be accepted.” Alina is determined to find the cruel bully culprit who makes fun of her. She is also determined to audition for the Junior Chef competition by creating a healthy treat. This chapter book will guide readers into diversity and equity and acceptance… and not just because of the food we eat. 

THE BARREN GROUNDS: BOOK ONE of THE MISEWA SAGA by David A. Robertson

Publisher’s synopsis: Narnia meets traditional Indigenous stories of the sky and constellations in an epic middle-grade fantasy series from award-winning author David Robertson.

Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children forced away from their families and communities, are brought together in a foster home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They each feel disconnected, from their culture and each other, and struggle to fit in at school and at their new home — until they find a secret place, walled off in an unfinished attic bedroom. A portal opens to another reality, Askí, bringing them onto frozen, barren grounds, where they meet Ochek (Fisher). The only hunter supporting his starving community, Misewa, Ochek welcomes the human children, teaching them traditional ways to survive. But as the need for food becomes desperate, they embark on a dangerous mission. Accompanied by Arik, a sassy Squirrel they catch stealing from the trapline, they try to save Misewa before the icy grip of winter freezes everything — including them. Book 2: The Great Bear; Book 3: The Stone Child. 

BEATRICE AND CROC HARRY by Lawrence Hill

Award-winning author, Lawrence Hill, (The Book of Negroes) has written a book for middle-age readers that is sure to appeal to those who join in the adventures of a fictional character. We first meet Beatrice in a forest-tree house and as it turns out she is the only human in the forest.  How did she get there? Who can she talk to? Will she be staying in the magical forest or Argilia and coexist with other animals who seem able to communicate with others. A wise lemur, a loyal tarantula, a feisty rabbit and especially  King Crocodile (Croc Harry) become Beatrice’s allies as she is on a quest to learn about her past and a  discover the truth about her family Lawrence Hill is a great storyteller and Beatrice and Croc Harry is filled with magical and dangerous adventures (maybe too many events). Beatrice and Croc Harry is a book about friendship, loyalty, courage and vocabulary. Moreover, Beatrice and Croc Harry turns out to be a story about the quest of a Black girl discovering the truth about her family as well as racial violence.  A wonder of a book!

BORDERS by Thomas King; illus. Natasha Donovan 

This book presents Thomas King’s short story “Borders” (1993) as a graphic novel. When his older sister moves from Alberta to Salt Lake City, a boy and his mother decide to visit her. The border guards asks a simple question: Are you Canadian or American and the mother answers “Blackfoot”. After being detained in both border patrols, the mother refuses to change her answer. This is a story powerfully extols the truth of identity and belonging from an Indigenous perspective.

BURYING THE MOON by Andree Poulin; illus. Sonali Zohra

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” ~ Buddha

Narrative? Nonfiction? Poetry? This wonderful free-verse novel is a beautiful – and powerful – work of art both verbally and visually. The story is set in Rural India and events are seen through the eyes of pre-puberty Latika who wants to bury the light of the moon that shines brightly on the field of Shame where women have to ‘do their business’. With no toilets in the village, many girls are taken out of school once they reach puberty. When a government representative visits her village, she bravely meets up with him, hoping to arouse compassion and change for girls. Poulin, through a series of titled poems, shines a light on the lack of access sanitation facilities that affects over 4 billion people worldwide (one in five schools in the world don’t have toilets). I certainly wasn’t aware that World Toilet Day Takes place every year on November 19th to raise awareness of this significant public health issue.  Thank you Ms Poulin for this important , heartfelt story. Thank you Sonali Zohra for your lively spot-art and full-page illustrations that convey a sense of place, people and events in one small Indian community. This is certain to be at the top of list of favourite children’s literature reads for 2021.

THE CASE OF THE BURGLED BUNDLE by Michael Hutchinson

This is the third book in the Mighty Muskrats Mystery Series by Cree author, Michael Hutchinson. A bundle ceremony is an Indigenous ritual in which the oral histories and philosophy of a nation are passed down through generations. “It is the experience that is the message”. In this novel, the author once again creates the fictional Windy Lake First Nation. The National Assembly of Cree Peoples has gathered together for a four-day-long ceremony and when the treaty bundle is stolen, the Might Muskrats, cousins Chickadee, Atim, Otter, and Sam set out to find the culprit(s). Hutchinson not only gives readers with an intriguing whodunnit, but provides rich detail and information of the Cree nation. B00k Four: The Case of the Rigged Race

COINKEEPER: THE AVERY CHRONICLES (4 books) Teresa Schapansky

Teresa Schapansky has met her goal of writing books that will appeal to readers, particularly reluctant readers, who are keen to read not-to-long books with fine story power. Avery has a strong bond with his grandpa and grandpa has great stories to tell about travelling into the past and taken part or being witness to legendary tales.. Cleverly, the author presents the Coinkeeper narrative in short paragraphs with generous white space dividing each paragraph. Clever too, is the presentation of each story in four books, each no more than 32 pages. (Each book provides Extra Reading information connected to story components.) . This short length should motivate middle years readers. Moreover, the stories that Grandpa tells have great folklore appeal (the Ogopogo Monster, The Selkies, Billy the Kid, the legendary camel knows as the Red Ghost). Highly recommended.

FIREFLY by Philippa Dowding 

When Firefly’s drug-loving, baseball-bat-wielding mother has been taking to rehab, the young teenager is sent to her Aunt Gayle’s house which is certainly a better home than the park she’s been forced to live in. Aunt Gayle’s shop with seven million costumes adds a variety and colour to Firefly’s life as she strives to cope with a new school, a new home, and some new friends.   Firefly is a great character and one that readers will absolutely root for – and learn about resilience from. Winner of the 2021 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature.

THE FLOODED EARTH by Mardi McConnochie

Twins Annalie and Will cross the ocean to find their missing father. Within this adventure story that includes a sailboat, pirates, secret storms, cannibals and a technologically enhanced parrot, the author explores current world issues that includes climate change and the refugee crisis. Winner of the Green Earth Book Award. Also in the “Flooded Earth Trilogy: The Castle in the Sea; The Skeleton Coast.

MY NAME IS KONISOLA by Alisa Siegel

Nine-year0old Konisola and her mother have moved to Canada since live in Nigeria is no longer safe for them. In Canada, Konisola’s mother falls ill and mother and daughter are separated. A refugee in a strange country with no family or friends,  Konisola is forced to fend for herself until she meets a kind Canadian nurse who takes care of her. 

NO VACANCY by Tziporah Cohen

Miriam, an eleven-year-old Jewish  has moved with her mother and father and little brother Sammy to the Town of Greenvale, population 510. Life will be very different for Miriam from what she is used to in New York, especially with the challenge of making a worthwhile living with the Jewel Motel which her father just purchased. It is summertime and Miriam makes friends with the maid, with Kate and with the owners of the diner next to the hotel. It is the summer of helping out her family, of taking care of overcoming a fear of swimming, of making grape pies.  Miriam and Kate devise a plot to bring people to the community and when they create a vision of the Virgin Mary in the abandoned community drive-in, motel business does indeed boom. Problems arise, however, when the motel is vandalized with a hate message against the Jewish family. Eventually comes to learn that religion can bring out the good in all of us and as the rabbi in the story says “It’s not what happens to us, it’s what we do with what happens to us.” Winner of the CCBC Jean LIttle First Novel Award, 2021.

STEP by Deborah Ellis

This short story collection features characters from around the world who on the occasion of turning 11 years old who are each connected to family, friends or community and consider how their 11th birthday marks the first day of the rest of their lives as they STEP forward into a life of independence and change. A boy walks a dog, a girl takes a camping trip on her own, a boy volunteers in a soup kitchen, a boy learns that his father is a Neo Nazi, a girl is hopeful of survival while sailing on a rubber raft with other refugees. Remarkable stories, each with a one word title (e.g., Smash, Alone, Rock, Rubber, Shoes) guaranteed to inspire compassion and connection, reflection and hope for middle years readers.

All royalties from the sale of STEP will be donated to the United Nations High Commissioner or Refugees (UNHCR) which works to aid and protect people forced to flee their homes due to violence, conflict and persecution.

RED WOLF by Jennifer Dance 

At a very young age, Red Wolf is forced to attend a residential school far from the life he knows.  The author paints a stark and unsettling/ brutal portrait of life for Indigenous children taken away from their families under the Indian Act of 1876. The fear alienation and powerlessness of thousands of First Nation children. The story is balanced by the narrative of Crooked Ear, a wolf being forced from the land who throughout the story helps Red Wolf to survive. The author has a passion for equality and justice and as a non-native has dedicated her writing and research to presents a vivid and informative portrait of Anishnaabe, language, beliefs and culture. Other titles in the ‘White Feather’ Collection:  Paint; Hawk.

UNDER THE IRON BRIDGE by Kathy Kacer

Kathy Kacer is a very special author who brings Holocaust history to today’s middle-age+ readers. She does her research. She is an expert storyteller. Kathy Kacer is a model author of historical fiction.  The setting of this book is Dusseldorf, Germany 1938. The story is centred on Paul who is under pressure to join the Hitler Youth which challenges his ethical beliefs and leads to some decisions that has an impact on those who are important to him including school friends, parents and Jews. Kacer presents the true story of the rebel group known as the Edelweiss Pirates  who were set out to undermine Nazi t power. Kacer has written over 20 books that focus on stories of the Holocaust ( The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, The Brave Princess and Me, The Brushmaker’s Daughter, Broken Strings (with Eric Walters). I’m so fond of this new book, not only because it emotionally took me into the history and cruelty of Nazi threats but it was a story of taking the courage to stand up and fight for what you believe in, a theme that resonates for today’s and tomorrow’s generation.  “I am a passionate advocate for stories about the Holocaust. I think the lesson we can learn – lessons about hatred and power, but also lessons about compassion, strength, and selflessness – are lessons for the ages?” (from Teaching Tough Topics, 2020, page 69). 

 

SHOUT OUT: SHORT STORIES

SIT by Deborah Ellis

STEP by Deborah Ellis

SUNNY DAYS INSIDE: and other stories by Caroline Anderson

WAR AT THE SNOW WHITE HOTEL and Other Stories by Tim Wynne-Jones

 

 

 

PROFESSIONAL READING: Some recent titles

The eleven titles listed here are professional titles that I’ve recently acquired that provided insights into effective literacy practice as well as social justice diversity and equity teaching. NOTE: The descriptions accompanying each title are mostly drawn from the blurbs on the back covers of the books. 

 

BEYOND THE ORANGE SHIRT SATORY by Phyllis Webstad

Medicine Wheel Education, 2021

This is a collection of stories from family and friends of Phyllis Webstad before, during and after their Residential School experiences. Survivors and Intergenerational Survivors share their stories authentically in their own words. 

#BLACKINSCHOOL by Habiba Cooper Diallo

University of Regina Press, 2021

This book is Habiba Cooper Diallo’s high school journal, in which she documents, processes and resists the systemic racism, microagrressions, stereotypes and outright racism she experienced as a Black girl attending high school in Canada.  Her words will resonate with some but should shock, appall, and animate a great many more into action towards a society that is truly equitable for all. 

CLASSROOM TEACHING IN THE 21ST CENTURY: Directions, Principles and Strategies by Clive Beck and Clare Kosnik, Open University Press, 2022

As technology becomes more widespread and the world continues to change in many other ways, teachers have adapted to allow education to evolve with the 21st Century.  This book provides theoretical foundations and highly practical strategies drawing on the ideas and experiences of practicing teachers. Beck and Kosnik highlight how crucial education is for equipping future generations with the skills for individual, societal and planetary wellbeing, while still considering the pressures of ‘teaching to the test’. 

HOW MUCH DOES A SCHOOL COST?: School Economies and school values  by Barbara J. Smith

Rowman & Littlefield, 2021

I can’t imagine any school leader/ administrator or those aspiring to step into administrator’s role, not reading, learning or growing from this book. Master educator, Barbara J. Smith provides readers with bold ideas for imagining and teaching with a forward-thinking light. Concrete examples, research citations, speculations, stories guide educators to 1. Define greatness 2. Clarify parameters and conditions for best practices 3. Examine the nature of school budgets 4. Dream of a new ideal school 5. Contrasting ideal with traditional schools. This book is an invitation – and a challenge – to educators to reflect, prioritize, negotiate and put their cards on the table to create programming, staffing, professional development – and budgeting that works towards an innovative, GREATER education for schools, today and tomorrow. The book is divided into 20 short chapters, each ending with a component the component “Grappling with iIdeas” where Smith poses questions of concern that demand attention. It’s time to get into groups and discuss!!!

#I WISH MY TEACHER KNEW: How one question can change everything for our kids by Kyle Schwartz

Hatchett Books, 2016

One day, third grade teacher Kyle Schwartz asked her students to fill in the blank in this sentence: “I WISH MY TEACHER KNEW_____”. Some of the results were humorous, some heartbreaking. Many answers were moving, all were enlightening. The student answers opened Schwart’z eyes to the need for educators to understand the unique realities their students face in order to create an open, safe, and supporting classroom environment. When the author shared her experiences online, teachers around the glob began sharing their own contributions to #IWishMyTeacherKnew. The book provides a look at systemic problems that affect students nationwide (e.g., poverty, mobility, trauma, relationships). Reading the stories and strategies can help educators, family members and students consider how we can help students to tackle challenges and grow as individuals. 

TEACHERS THESE DAYS: Stories and Strategies for Reconnection by Jody Carrington and Laure Mcintosh

IMPress books.org, 2021

Teaching is literacy and numeracy but most importantly, it’s showing up with your whole heart. As we work to piece together our education system in the fallout of the global pandemic, the focus must be on the teachers. If the people in charge – th0se teachers n- aren’t OK, the students don’t stand a chance. The authors weave the science of human development with real-life stories and tangible strategies told by teachers. 

TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION IN CANADIAN SCHOOLS by Pamela Rose Toulouse

Portage & Main Press, 2018

This book offers valuable practical suggestions, useful background information, and a way forward for addressing the topics of Indigenous cultures, residential schools, and reconciliation in the K-12 classroom. Dr. Toulouse provides accessible information and ready-to-use lesson  and how-to suggestions to incorporate Indigenous teachings in science, social studies, health, physical education and the arts. 

YOU CAN’T SAY THAT! compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus

Candlewick Press, 2021

Writers for young people talk about censorship, free expression, and the stories they have to tell (voices include David Levithan, Katherine Paterson, Dav Pilkey, R.L. Stine, Angie Thomas

 

PEMBROKE PUBLISHERS

DEEPENING IN-CLASS AND ONLINE LEARNING: 60 step-by-step strategies to encourage interaction, foster inclusion and spark imagination by Larry Swartz, Debbie Nyman and Magdalin Livingston, 2021

This resource shows teachers how to make learning joyful as they translate successful calssroom strategies to virtual learning and back again as the need arises. Each of the 60 step-by-step activities is ready-to-use in-class and/or for distance learning.  The book offers ways for students to play, communicate, collaborate , create and present. 

POWERFUL POETRY: Read, Write, Rejoice, Recite Poetry All Year Long by Adrienne Gear, 2021

In this book, the author explains how the ‘experience’ of a poem is both visual and auditory; emotional and cognitive. Gear provides a comprehensive approach to reading and writing poetry offering the background and activities teachers may need to bring poetry to life for their students.  The resource is organized around discovery, experiencing, learning, and creating poetry through practical lessons. 

SOMETIMES READING IS HARD: Using decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies to inspire fluent, passionate, lifelong readers by Robin Bright, 2021

This book explores he science of reading and shows teachers how to balance decoding, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency skills with a love of reading. A wide range of ready to use instructional strategies demonstrate fresh ways to build student confidence, curiosity, and empathy.