A Children’s Writer Reviews and Recommends a Monthly Selection of Children’s Books
Table of Contents:
Welcome to the April edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
This month, our picture book panel tackles a colourful trio of books from Jim Averbeck, the Fan Brothers and Jillian Tamaki. We visit a family trapline with David A. Robertson, go up against an evil astrologer with Mahtab Narsimhan and experience life in a refugee camp with Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed.
Last month, we reviewed Bartali’s Bicycle, by Megan Hoyt. After posting the review, I found out from Linda at TeacherDance that at least one historian disputes the factual accuracy of this story. Carlton Reid also wrote an article about the controversy in Forbes Magazine. Both articles are fascinating reads because they interrogate our notions of how history is made.
While I don’t usually review adult books, this month I break with ‘tradition’ to do just that. For one thing, March is the time of year when Canadian book lovers from coast, to coast, to coast come together to celebrate Canada Reads, the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s annual show to decide on a book that all of Canada should read. Over five days, five personalities debate and champion the merits of five different books. At the end of each day, one book is voted out until only the winning title remains.
There’s something indescribably wonderful about an entire country getting behind a reading contest. And in typical Canadian fashion, people are just as excited to read the books that don’t win. There’s even a Canada Reads American Style podcast and YouTube channel.
So pull up a chair, pour yourself a mug of something delicious and join us as we dive into this month’s picks.
A quick note to new readers: books that are available from the Toronto Public Library will be marked #TPL, because books don’t have to be new or owned in order to be loved.
A children’s writer, a literacy tutor and an early childhood educator meet up together once a month to talk about books and what makes them tick. Here are this month’s picks:
One Word from Sophia, by Jim Averbeck. Illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail. (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015)
Sophia is articulate, so articulate that she’s sure she can convince her family to get her a pet giraffe for her birthday. Sophia’s mother, father and even her strict grandmother point out the flaws in her arguments and plans, and keep on telling her to get to the point. What does that mean? Sophia doesn’t know but she’d better find out. Her pet giraffe is on the line!
Our panel thought this was a perfect book for teachers to use with their students and a great read-aloud choice for caregivers. Most kids will enjoy the ridiculousness of asking for a pet giraffe but the nuanced, humourous comebacks from a lawyer mother and business owner father are pitched more to older readers and adults.
Our literacy tutor found that the language-rich text was perfect for exploring the similar meanings of very different words (especially words that describe using too many words). Our early childhood educator thought this book was a perfect classroom book, a way to contextualize different ways of presenting math and financial literacy for young kids. Both felt that it was a great way to introduce numeracy (including graphs), and pointed out that books that portray families talking in a positive way about numbers are rare. Both agreed the book could easily be converted into a classroom play.
All of this plus a cracking good story!
The watercolour and coloured pencil illustrations convey an atmosphere of frenetic activity, as Sophia kicks her giraffe campaign into high gear. (#TPL)
The Barnabus Project, by Erin Fan, Terry Fan, Devin Fan. (Tundra, 2020)
Barnabus and his friends live in an underground lab that manufactures perfect pets for children to buy. Unfortunately, they never make it to the Perfect Pets store upstairs because all of them are classified as ‘failed projects.’ Pip the cockroach talks about the outside world with it’s green trees and mountains lit upwith their own stars, so much so that Barnabus wants to see this world for himself. He’s tired of living inside the confined space of a glass cloche. When the Green Rubber Suits decide to recycle him and all the other ‘failed projects,’ Barnabus decides to leave the lab for good along with his friends. Together, they set out to outwit the Green Rubber Suits and find a place where they can finally be themselves.
There’s something almost Velveteen Rabbit-ish about this book, not in terms of it’s story – which is wildly original – but in it’s mood, a slightly melancholic sense of the world as a sometimes harsh and difficult place. A group of creatures being consigned to the garbage bin just because they’re not ‘perfect,’ will provoke a deep sense of outrage and empathy in a child. Like The Velveteen Rabbit, The Barnabus Project will really speak to the 6-8 year old crowd and up. Its message about finding place and belonging is less subtle than the venerable Rabbit’s but it’s every bit as lovely in its own way. Although the text is short, the book itself is very long, perfect for older readers/scam artists who always want 14 books before bed. Barnabus’ friends are so numerous and have such interesting names, that kids may be inspired to invent some of their own.
This is a book where the artwork really takes centre stage. It’s no surprise that The Barnabus Project won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Young People’s Illustration in 2020. I wish Tundra had included a description of the materials/techniques used in making the art (hint, hint) but kids will find plenty to look at on each page, as there’s much more there than appears in the text of the story. (#TPL)
Our Little Kitchen, by Jillian Tamaki. (Henry N. Abrams, 2020)
This wonderfully urban story takes us into the bustling, chaotic and warm world of a community kitchen, where everyone’s labour counts. Readers are drawn in by the noises, tastes and smells involved with prepping food, simultaneous speech bubbles from a crowd of helpers all talking at once and plenty of good-natured wrangling. There are always too many cooks and too many donated cans of beans but always, socializing over a meal together helps break down barriers and brings people close. “Is your body warm? Is your belly full?” the book asks.
Tamaki’s pen and nib illustrations and the colours (which were done on a computer) shine from sweat-soaked brows, steaming pots and food-filled tables. They change perspective, allowing the reader to position themselves as an observer, taking in the whole room at once or in bits and pieces, just as they choose.
Kids are introduced to the concept of making a meal out of whatever you’ve got on hand. Recipes for vegetable soup and apple crisp are included on the end papers.
This is another book I’ll be getting for my niece. I’ll have to wait until she’s a little older to add Tamaki’s Skim to her Books to Grow Into Shelf. For teenagers and adults who haven’t yet read it, run out to a library or bookstore immediately and get a copy. You’re welcome. (#TPL)
The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection
Books to Grow Into is a Browne family tradition. When I was young, my parents sometimes brought me books that were too hard for me to read and placed them on my bookshelf. They told me not to worry, that one day I would grow into them. They did this only a handful of times, but it made a great impression on me.
Each Book to Grow Into occupied an honoured position on the top left-hand corner of my bookshelf. All of the books were used and well-loved. I didn’t know where they came from (I now suspect that they were culled from my parents’ own shelves). Short story collections from Louisa May Alcott and The Little Black Hen by Eileen O’Faolain and the works of A.A. Milne all sat on my top shelf until the day I discovered that I could read them – a thrill all by itself. By fostering a love of used books and library books in me, my famously thrifty parents showed me how to enjoy books without spending much money. To this day, my library card is the most-used card in my wallet.
Each month, I select these books in honour of my parents, Doug and Sheila Browne. This month’s selection is:
On the Trapline, by David A. Robertson. Illustrated by Julie Flett. (Tundra, 2021)
An exquisite picture book about a boy’s visit to his moshom’s (grandfather’s) trapline in a remote northern community. I will definitely be buying a copy for my niece.
Robertson’s text is spare and powerfully poetic, evoking the family memories embedded in a northern landscape as Moshom takes his grandson around to all the places where his family used to camp, swim, hunt and fish. Along the way, Moshom tells stories that bring the trapline to life. Readers learn that working a family trapline is an interconnected set of skills and cultural traditions that allow people to live off the land and nurture community in deep relationship with the land itself. The young boy begins to imagine himself living inside a tent with Moshom, swimming from a rocky beach, becoming as good at catching fish as Moshom and wondering what life would be like if all his chores were outdoor ones? The book is perfect for older readers who are beginning to get a sense of the different currents that run through a story and younger readers will love the experience of being taken out onto the land with Moshom. Swampy Cree words are introduced on each page, and a glossary is included.
I am a huge fan of illustrator Julie Flett, and her drawings bring the northern landscape to life as well as the gentle, loving relationship between the boy and his moshom. Slightly muted colours evoke a wistful sense of memory and place. A two page spread shows Moshom as a young boy with two of his friends dressed in school uniforms playing in a log in the woods – the only place where it was safe for them to speak their own language. The next page shows the young boy, Moshom and one of his old school friends sitting quietly together on the same log, remembering and sharing. Flett emphasizes the importance of the cultural knowledge Moshom passes onto his grandson – exactly the pattern that was so brutally disrupted by residential schools. Yet, it is the old school building that crumbles just outside the frame. The book ends with a community feast and the young boy realizing that he is exactly like Moshom in the most important way.
On the Trapline won the Governor General’s Award for Young People’s Illustration in 2021. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Novel
Warned: The Astrologer’s Prophecy, by Mahtab Narsimhan. (ebook, 2022)
Up for SCBWI’s 2022 Crystal Kite Award, Mahtab Narsimhan’s Warned: The Astrologer’s Prophecy is a gripping, action-packed adventure story with depth and heart.
Avi is angry with his parents for ripping him away from Delhi, taking him instead to his Nana’s (grandfather’s) estate in Tolagunj, a rural village in northern India. No phone or internet for an entire summer seems like torture to Avi, and the rotting elegance of the crumbling estate is downright spooky, especially after the village astrologer predicts Avi’s certain death unless he leaves Tolagunj at once. Avi wants nothing more than to go back to Delhi and spend the summer with his friend, Lee. He hopes that the astrologer’s warning will sway his parents but they abandon him at his grandfather’s estate despite his protests. To Avi, the old house seems threaded with danger. He is locked into his room at night. Nana seems obsessed with the memory of his dead wife, and endlessly listens to her favourite radio station in hopes that he can somehow connect with her. Avi fears for Nana’s safety at the hands of his servant, Das, whom Avi suspects is responsible for his near brush with death and a fire at his friend, Lalita’s farm. Both events were prophesied by the astrologer, which seems like more than a coincidence to Avi and Lalita. Together, they decide to take a closer look at the astrologer and his possible connection to Das and find themselves embroiled in a mystery that threatens the estate, the village and most of all themselves.
Narsimhan is not only a skilled storyteller who knows how to move the action along, she also has a love of language that allows her to bring a scene or character to life in a few vivid strokes. I love this combination, especially in an action-adventure story where pacing and plot take centre stage. Avi is totally relatable, from his disgust with his parents’ plans for his summer, to his growing fear of Das and his friendship with Lalita. The book explores ancient, unjust beliefs about social caste and forces Avi to confront his own privilege. Instead of retreating into guilt, he addresses both injustice and privilege head on. Brave! Power and privilege are turned on their heads in an inventive ending that makes the injustice of social caste clear in a way that’s not preachy, but true to the story itself. The wrap-up is a bit too neat for all the wrongdoing that has been committed throughout the story.
An Author’s Note discusses the history of the caste system and provides a list of further reading.
I received this ebook from the author in exchange for an honest review.
Middle Grade Recommendations: Short Reviews
Those Kids from Fawn Creek, by Erin Entrada Kelly. (Greenwillow, 2022)
Short Review: What made this book memorable for me, was the way it explored the theme of bullying. Every outcast kid knows what it’s like to be victimized by the popular kids at school but Entrada Kelly pushes the story further to ask: what would happen if the silent majority that gives bullies their power (AKA the bystanders) recognized their strength and took a stand? (#TPL)
Starfish, by Lisa Fipps. (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, 2021)
Short Review: This free-verse novel tackles the toxic fat-shaming that mothers with unresolved body issues unleash upon their daughters and doesn’t shy away from the pain it causes entire families, either. Watching the protagonist, Ellie, gather the strength and courage to finally confront her family and her mother, is breathtaking. (#TPL)
A Tip O’ the Hat to Max at Completely Full Bookshelf for the recommendation.
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020)
Jamieson and Mohamed pull no punches in this complex and moving memoir of life in the UN refugee camp of Dadaab, located in Kenya. Omar and his brother, Hassan, end up at the camp after they’re separated from their mother while fleeing the civil war in Somalia. Hassan is so traumatized by the experience, he suffers from seizures and can only speak one word: ‘hooyo,’ the Somalian word for ‘mama.’ As the older brother, Omar takes care of Hassan while they struggle with poverty and starvation and try to keep alive the hope of one day being reunited with their mother.
Luckily, they’ve been adopted by Fatuma, a women who lost both of her sons in the war. When Omar wins a chance to go to school, Fatuma pushes him to attend despite his worries about Hassan. Omar wonders how Hassan will manage without him and blames himself when Hassan is badly injured after being jumped by a gang. He stops attending school out of guilt, seeing his efforts and his dream of becoming a social worker as futile when he’s caught up in an endless cycle of waiting like the other refugees – waiting for a chance to be resettled in another country, waiting for home, waiting for a future that seems like it will never come.
Jamieson and Mohamed portray Dadaab in realistic detail while showing how Omar is able to create a sense of family among the close-knit community of his camp block. The kids who live in Dadaab have hopes and dreams just like middle grade kids everywhere. However, they have to contend with the terrible sorrow of lost hopes and the opportunities to achieve their dreams because their refugee status keeps them in limbo. Some of Omar’s friends never get a chance to realize their gifts – a fact that they use to challenge Omar’s pessimism about his own situation throughout the book. The realization that his friends have difficult lives of their own helps to keep Omar from sinking into self-pity or despair.
While Omar fusses and hovers over Hassan, readers are made aware of Hassan’s capabilities: he is friendly, kind and loving to everyone he meets and makes friends easily. When Fatuma gets a goat, it’s Hassan who takes care of it. Whenever Omar sinks into a dark mood, it is Hassan who takes care of Omar. The brothers’ roles are reversed. Omar gradually realizes he’s underestimated Hassan all along.
There are plenty of hard times: a friend who must marry a much older man instead of going to school, a father who chews khat leaves all day and abuses his family, jealousy that boils over when friends get chosen to resettle in Canada and America. When Omar is finally selected for an interview, the harrowing experience of applying for refugee status is brought home in a series of panels where he’s forced to relive the worst events of his life by telling the story how he and his brother escaped Somalia. Fatuma helps Omar through the difficult interview and pushes him to take his first steps toward a new life, just like the loving mother she is.
An excellent choice for tween, YA and adult readers alike. (#TPL)
EVENT ALERT: The Stanley Center for peace and Security is hosting a free, online Inclusive Dialogue with Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed on May 23, 2022.
Special Feature: Canada Reads 2022
Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good. (Harper Perennial, 2020)
Interviewer Shelagh Rogers said it best: the characters in Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians will stay with you long after you close the book.
In Five Little Indians, Good focuses on how the legacy of cultural genocide spreads through the generations by telling the stories of five survivors of the fictional Mission residential school. Thrown out of school as soon as they turn 18, Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie end up on Vancouver’s East Side, where they try to piece together a life for themselves. Their stories intersect throughout the book. Kenny tries to reconnect with his mother but the two have become strangers during his 10-year absence, and Kenny’s mother tries to bury her pain in alcohol. Kenny ends up drifting from one location and job to another, unable to put down roots or to father the child he has with Lucy. Lucy develops OCD, which acts up whenever she’s anxious, and raises Clara on her own, alternating between love and anger until she reaches an uneasy acceptance of Kenny and herself. Maisie disappears down a rabbit hole of destructive choices and alternate identities. Clara joins the American Indian movement and finds healing through rediscovering her culture. Howie kills his abuser during a chance encounter, goes to prison then tries to reclaim his life when he comes out.
Good is very careful not to sensationalize the abuse that occurred at the school in any way. Rather, she purposely situates the story in the aftermath, when the characters are all adults. As we follow the stories of Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie, we come to understand the many different ways each of them wrestles with the poisoned of this legacy of the Mission school. Taken together, they form a collection of individual responses to a collective trauma. Each character tries to understand what happened to them or tries to forget about it. They struggle to understand who they are. Sometimes, they stay lost to themselves and others.
Hope and agency take many forms in this book, some of it startling, all of it brave. I found my perspectives on each character shifting as I read – one of Michelle Good’s gifts as a writer and a measure of how deeply she immerses us in the story. Reclaiming a life is hard and sometimes temporary. We accompany each character who decides to undertake this difficult and sometimes perilous journey every step of the way. That is why we’ll remember them long after we put the book down. We’ll remember as well those who were not able to – a painful truth that Good does not dodge.
Good’s words sing with power. Her prose cuts with a clean and sharp precision, meeting people right where they live. She creates characters so real, you’ll swear you’ve met them.
An absolutely stunning debut novel from a masterful storyteller. (#TPL)
The CBC has a wonderful page profiling Five Little Indians, complete with video and audio interviews. (The Next Chapter interview with Shelagh Rogers is particularly good.)
That’s all for this month. See you next time!
Check it out every Monday and get your reading fix on!