A Children’s Writer Reviews and Recommends a Monthly Selection of Children’s Books
Table of Contents:
Welcome to the June edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
We’re a little leaner (but not meaner) this month, as I’ve been buried up to my writer’s neck in revisions. I’ve entered my middle grade steampunk novel, Shadow Apprentice, into CANSCAIP’s Writing for Children Competition and The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Contest. If you’re an unpublished children’s writer, I’d urge you to check both of these out. (You can also check out an excerpt of Shadow Apprentice here.)
This month, we mourn the loss of a favourite river and readjust after moving to the city, and learn how to add up life’s ups and downs in new ways. We grow a walnut tree from a walnut gifted by an ailing grandfather, and go on a pilgrimage with a boy whose hunched back hides a beautiful secret. We oppose Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts during the Red Scare in 1950s America. We learn that the news can be influenced by political expediency, reclaim a magical destiny for all women and fight behind a shield wall in 9th century Briton.
June is also Pride Month for LGBTQ+ folks and our supporters. Since LGBTQ+ KIDLIT titles are routinely banned in schools, we at Bookcase Bizarro encourage you to read, read, read. The superhero librarians at the Toronto Public Library have (of course) curated several books lists in the Children’s, YA and Adult categories. Denise at Read Brightly has compiled a list of 30 LGBTQ+ KIDLIT books for all age ranges, and it’s been updated for 2022. Jeffrey Masters at The Advocate has also written a handy-dandy list of 18 titles to jump-start your summer reading.
So live your life out loud and proud, no matter what your orientation, gender or identity, 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 once a month to talk about picture books and what makes them tick. Here are this month’s picks:
Martin and the River, by Jon-Erik Lappano. Illustrated by Josée Bisaillon. (House of Anansi Press, 2022)
Martin loves his home in the country by the river. He especially loves the river, where he watches for herons and otters, lies in the tall grass and builds forts. One day, his parents announce they are moving to the city so that Martin’s mother can take a new job. In the city, Martin rides the subway, and visits the market and museum but it isn’t until his parents take him to a park with a stream running through it, that he finds what he needs to feel at home.
This poetic picture books tells the story of a transition familiar to many children (and one which they have no control over): moving to a new home. Rather than being an ode to rural life, where the city is described as a terrible place, both settings are portrayed with a loving attention to detail that showcases the unique beauty of each place. Martin’s parents validate his feelings with a minimum of melodrama. They are mindful of his sadness but they are straight forward with him about the reasons for the move (Mom’s got a new job) and after introducing him to the city, they take him to a stream that runs through a park, showing him that he can still connect to who he is in their new home.
Bisaillon’s gorgeous illustrations have a layered, almost paper cut-out effect and are an ode to nature, wherever it is found, that closely mirrors Martin’s shift of perspective. (#TPL)
This Plus That: Life’s Little Equations, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Jen Corace. (Harper Collins, 2011)
A book of unexpected and fanciful equations to spark kids’ imaginations…and plenty of caregiver-kid discussions. ‘1+1=us’ or ‘chores/everyone=family’ are charming, and ‘blaming+eye rolling≠sincere apology rings true. However, some of the other equations are more problematic, like ‘mumbling+toe staring≠polite.’ Especially when contrasted with: ‘handshake+”how are you”=polite.’
It’s time to put away the outdated notion that extroverted behaviours are the gold standard for social interaction. Introverted, or shy, or neurodiverse kids may be sensitive to other people invading their space and don’t need to be labeled as ‘impolite’ for being themselves. We felt this was an excellent opportunity to introduce kids to critical thinking: just because something’s written down, doesn’t mean that it’s true. Rather than accepting each equation at face value, caregivers can help children unpack the meaning for themselves and learn to ask questions, including whether the pieces add up or not.
Approached this way, the book becomes a gold mine. There is so much to unpack, so many interesting thoughts and so much great language to discuss. Kids can even be encouraged to write out their own equations.
‘good days+bad days=real life.’
‘once upon a time+happily ever after=pretend.’
Jen Corace’s illustrations bring each equation to busy life. (#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 put books that were too hard for me to read in a special place 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:
All From a Walnut, by Ammi-Joan Paquette. Illustrated by Felicita Sala. (Harry N. Abrams, 2022)
Emilia awakes one morning to find a walnut on her nightstand, placed there by her grandpa, who tells her the story of how he and his family traveled across the ocean with only one suitcase each…and a walnut Grandpa had tucked away inside his pocket. Grandpa planted the walnut in the yard of their new home and it grew into a tree. When her mother was Emilia’s age, Grandpa gave her a walnut to plant. Now, it is Emilia’s turn to plant her own walnut. As autumn turns to winter, Grandpa gets more and more tired. His hands are too wobbly to help Emilia re-pot her growing tree, so her mother helps. Emilia holds her grandpa close for as long as she can, then she says good-bye. Her walnut tree looks as sad as she feels but thanks to grandpa’s stories, Emilia knows exactly what to do.
I really love books that don’t sugar-coat death for children. Paquette does this by giving kids a way to frame death as a natural part of the life-cycle, using the metaphors of changing seasons to say good-bye and growing trees to convey a lasting connection to loved ones. Emilia finds a way to grieve and honour her grandpa’s spirit in a way that that re-affirms family ties and traditions that will remain with her for always. Felicita Sala’s water colour, gouache and coloured pencil illustrations are rich and lush, evoking the closeness of family amidst loss. The bookends feature a collection of suitcases, one open to reveal a tiny walnut inside to symbolize the hopes of an immigrant family. This lovely picture book would also make a great Early Reader. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Novel
The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. (Greenwillow, 2018)
With a hump on his back and an uncanny ability to talk to animals, Boy is an outcast until a chance encounter with the pilgrim, Secondus, sends him on an epic medieval adventure to retrieve the seven relics of St. Peter. Boy gradually becomes aware that that Secondus is stealing the relics for his own purposes but feels compelled to help him because he thinks that St. Peter may have the power to remove the hump on his back and transform his life.
It’s unusual for a children’s book to incorporate so much religion into its pages but Murdock is able to do so convincingly because Christian beliefs are the dominant beliefs of Boy’s time, his village and even Boy himself, and it is a central thread to her plot line. It’s also worth noting that Murdock digs deeper into these beliefs through Boy, who indulges in a fair amount of healthy questioning during his journey. I am not even remotely Christian, yet I was powerfully moved by this book. Themes of faith, transformation and self-acceptance are explored in new and unique ways that encourage readers to question what they ‘know’ more deeply. The person that Boy grows into as a result of his journey bears little resemblance to who he once was, and his transformation is as much of a surprise to him as it is to others. To reveal more, would be to spoil the story. Murdock has written a compelling spiritual book for young readers with plenty of action, thanks to a thief pretending to be a pilgrim, a hilarious cast of animals and an ever more doubtful and resourceful Boy. (#TPL)
*Both these titles borrow from Christian theology, Duane more loosely than Bedard.
Middle Grade Recommendation: Short Review
Red Menace, by Lois Ruby. (Lerner/Carolrhoda Books, 2020)
Short Review: Marty wants nothing more than to play baseball, follow the world series and be part of a regular family that thinks a little less about politics than his own left-leaning parents do. That’s easier said than done in 1950s America during the Red Scare. With FBI agents watching their house and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg about to be executed for being suspected communists, it’s hard for Marty to concentrate on baseball, especially when he’s expelled from his own team because of his parents’ beliefs. When a shell-shocked neighbour arrives home from the Korean War, Marty is forced to ask himself what patriotism really means and if standing up to unfair treatment is the act of disloyalty the government says it is. As a kid who grew up in a politically active household, I could totally relate to Marty’s frustration with his parents’ devotion to The Cause. Marty’s barbed insights were at turns hilarious and moving, as was his dawning awareness of how the Red Scare affected all families, not just his own. His practice of writing heartfelt memos to baseball hero, Mickey Mantle, were priceless. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
NewsPrints, by Ru Xu. (Graphix/Scholastic, 2017)
Lavender Blue (or Blue for short) is an orphan who disguises herself as a boy in order to sell newspapers for The Bugle, the only newspaper that ever tells the truth. She lives in constant fear of being discovered and losing the only family she’s ever known until she meets Crow, a mysterious boy with a love for birds and a fear of people. As she begins to uncover the truth behind Crow’s identity, Blue is drawn into a war that threatens Crow, the safety of her assumed identity and shakes her trust in the printed word.
As a debut graphic novelist, Xu delivers a gripping plot with high stakes and convincingly explores themes of identity and trust amidst the backdrop of war. I felt that some of the characters were drawn more in service of the plot than developed in their own right to add depth and texture to the story, although the relationships between Blue and Crow and Blue her mentor, Hector, are particularly strong and affecting. The manga-style drawings add to the story’s fast pace and the blending of a 1920s-1930s North American setting with a fictional world is original. (#TPL)
Special Feature: Adult Fantasy and Historical Fiction
The Midnight Bargain, by C.L Polk. (Erewhon, 2020)
Although a gifted sorceress, Beatrice Claybourne is forced to practice her magic in secret since magical studies are forbidden to women. Her family expects her to enter the marriage market and make a lucrative match in order to save them from the debts incurred by Beatrice’s gambling-addict father. Doing so, means accepting a marital collar that severs a woman from her magic, ostensibly to protect her unborn children. Smart readers will guess that Beatrice doesn’t go along for the ride, and they’d be right. C.L. Polk takes a deep dive into the social expectations women are burdened with, including the high cost of of defiance and non-compliance.
Another book that explores the theme of women who choose to follow their own ambitions despite the social costs, is Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane. (#TPL) I first read this as a teenager and it’s still one of my favourite books of all time. (Terrible cover, though.)
The Midnight Bargain was a Canada Reads Pick in 2021. (#TPL)
The Last Kingdom Book 1), by Bernard Cornwell. Narrated by Jonathan Keeble. (W.F. Howes, 2016)
The first book in Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series (rebranded as The Last Kingdom series) follows the story of Uhtred, son of Uhtred, a saxon noble who’s usurped by his uncle after his father dies and is adopted by the Danes. While Uhtred longs to reclaim the kingdom of Northumbria, he gets sidetracked by Alfred the Great, who’s intent on recapturing England’s four kingdoms from the Danes and uniting them under Saxon – and Christian – rule. Apparently, it’s based on the historical records of Cornwell’s own ancestors.
Full confession: I got hooked on the Netflix series, The Last Kingdom, when I was revising my novel. My brain was simply too tired at the end of the day to handle any more words. When the end of Season 5 approached, I couldn’t bear to let go of Uhtred and his world so I checked the first audiobook in Cornwell’s series out of the library. Am I ever glad I did!
For once, I didn’t think that the book was better than the Netflix series of the same name. They were just different. The writing in both was excellent (although the Netflix series was occasionally a bit too Hollywood-ish for my liking).
Destiny is all! (#TPL)
(I don’t really believe this, BTW.)
Thanks for dropping by. See you next time!
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