Children’s Book Reviews From a Children’s Writer
Table of Contents:
Welcome to the July edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
This is our last newsletter for the summer. I’ll be taking August off to work on a new writing project, go swimming, eat lots of gelato and read George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Never fear, we’ll be back in Mid-September with a brand new crop of picture books, middle grade novels and graphic novels, and perhaps an ADULT book or two – gasp!
This month, we celebrate carnival and the birth of a new baby, run wild through the summer streets of Brooklyn, remember a beloved grandfather, are sorely tempted by a website that grants wishes, go down a very different kind of rabbit hole, watch art come to life, and fight the power with a band of magically-deprived ‘troubled’ girls. We also ask the question: what is solarpunk?
If you’re looking for more summer reads, the Toronto Public Library has compiled a list of great books by Indigenous writers from 2018-2022. All titles were selected by the Indigenous Advisory Council.
Speaking of libraries…how cool is it that the Oakland Public Library in California runs a free seed library?
So whether you’re by a lake or a public pool, pull up your beach towel 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:
Malaika’s Surprise, by Nadia L. Hohn. Illustrated by Irene Luxbacher. (Groundwood, 2021.)
It’s summer, a perfect time for playing carnival. As Malaika and Adèle dress up in bright costumes, their mother announces that she’s going to have a baby. Adèle is ecstatic but Malaika is worried. What if her mother forgets about her amidst all the excitement over the new baby? When the baby interrupts Malaika’s birthday plans and her mother can’t be there for her party, Malaika is despondent until an unexpected surprise (that has nothing to do with the baby) helps to restore her sense of belonging and shows her just how much she is loved.
Nadia L. Hohn is a gifted writer, whose words almost dance off the page. She can evoke character in just a few brushstrokes and has a strong sense of pacing, knowing exactly how much to say while giving the illustrations room to reveal more. Each character’s voice is strong and distinct, and that’s saying something, since Malaika’s also the narrator. French words are integrated into the story, which as Canadians, we had no trouble understanding though we wonder if the same would be true for readers who are more unfamiliar with French. Malaika’s interracial family is warmly portrayed and bolstered by a rich cast of characters. While the celebration of family love is beautiful, we didn’t think that feisty Malaika would be so easily convinced into accepting the new baby and would have liked to see her hesitation and resistance play out a bit more. There are two previous books in the Malaika series: Malaika’s Costume and Malaika’s Winter Carnival.
Irene Luxbacher’s collage illustrations burst with drama and colour. (#TPL)
The World Belonged to Us, by Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrated by Leo Espinosa. (Nancy Paulsen, 2022)
OMG, those plaid pants! Those knee-socks! And don’t even get me started on bell bottoms.
This lively snapshot of a Brooklyn neighbourhood in the late 1960s – early 70s starts on the last day of school, when kids tumble out of their classrooms into the streets, free to play stick ball, tag or hide-and-seek, run through spraying fire hydrants, draw on the sidewalks and skip double dutch for the whole summer. Each day is packed full of activity from morning until evening, with the omniscient narrator looking back on memories so vivid, they pull readers right into the busy action of those summer streets and a blissful experience of complete freedom from adult supervision that is rare in today’s world.
We. Loved. This. Book. (You can blame this on nostalgia but only partly.)
Woodson and Espinosa not only capture the flavour and feel of a place – Brooklyn – during a recent historical period, they also nail that time in childhood where everything seems possible: you can go anywhere, do anything and be anybody. To emphasize this point, the narrator recalls a baseball star, writer and singer, who all grew up in the neighbourhood. The unbridled freedom of unsupervised play in the streets all day is beautifully illustrated in both text and pictures, and is movingly bookended by a scene of mothers sticking their heads out of apartment windows to call their children home.
Warning: anyone who grew up in the late 60s – early 70s may feel compelled to don their wide-wale cords with two-tone pockets and pull on a pair of North Star running shoes before making a dash for the ice cream truck. (#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:
The Sour Cherry Tree, by Naseem Hrab. Illustrated by Nahid Kazemi. (Owlkids, 2021)
After the death of her beloved grandfather, baba bozorg, a young girl drifts through the rooms of his house, where the empty bed she used to jump on, the curtains she used to hide behind, the fig cookies he used to give her evoke stark reminders of how much everything has changed. Told from an Iranian/Persian perspective, the theme of loss is universal, making this both a ‘mirror’ and a ‘window’ book.
This is a more subtle take on the death of a grandparent than All From a Walnut, which we reviewed in June. I would argue that it’s equally powerful for being so, as it captures how grief can be experienced by a child as a blur of events that happen around them and envelop them, with the haze punctuated every now and then by a poignant reminder of a loved one’s absence. The young girl’s grief is deeply rooted in Baba bozorg’s belongings and the memories they evoke of all the things she can no longer do with him. The publisher’s blurb called this book both ‘whimsical and matter-of-fact’ in it’s portrayal of death, and it’s a good description. Nahid Kazemi’s illustrations seem to fade off the page, evoking a graphic portrayal of loss, memory and change. I loved that the young girl shares her grandfather’s strong features, another reminder of how much he lives on in her. This one’s a keeper. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Novel
Careful What You Wish For, by Mahtab Narsimhan. (Orca Books, 2022)
When socially-awkward Eshana is targeted by online bullies, she wishes she could rewind the day to prevent the shot of her tripping in the lunchroom from ending up on social media. Back home, she types the words ‘I -WISH’ into the search bar on her computer and is directed to a website with the power to make her wishes come true. At least, that is what the site’s avatar, Wise One, says. Although Eshana is savvy enough to be wary of strange websites, Wise One’s promise is too good to pass up. She wishes to be popular. The next day at school, everyone talks to her, including one of the most popular boys in her class. Buoyed by her initial success, Eshana wishes for the girl who bullies her to leave her alone…and maybe disappear for good measure. Wise One assures Eshana that her second wish has been granted but when she arrives back at school, she discovers that the bully is in the hospital after a serious car accident. Is Wise One really granting Eshana’s wishes for free or are they exacting some unknown price from her – a price she may be unwilling to pay?
Careful What You Wish For is published under the Orca Anchor imprint, a line of “short, high-interest novels with contemporary themes written specifically for teens reading below a grade 2.0 level.” Good, because there’s a huge demand for well-written, accessible books for teens. Narsimhan’s a talented storyteller and this one really hits it out of the park. Eshana is totally believable as a contemporary teen who initially goes along for the ride and ends up as the hero of her own story. One of the ‘twists’ in the novel is that Eshana must speak the truth in exchange for the wishes she’s received. She starts blurting out whatever she’s really thinking, something that teens are prone to do but something that’s also pushed to comedic/horrific effect by Narsimhan, who uses it to highlight Eshana’s growing awareness that Wise One’s wishes have consequences. Eshana’s embarrassment and and pain are equally felt by readers. One of Narsimhan’s particular strengths is her ability to draw fully-rounded, diverse characters without ever making their diversity the focus of the book. Eshana’s mom uses a wheel chair and a classmate, Tito, is nonbinary AND both are fully developed people in their own right. For 75 pages, the story is surprisingly rich with a smart and satisfying ending. Hopefully, this one will be picked up by #TPL (hint, hint).
You can find an interview with Mahtab Narsimhan at MG Book Village, where she talks about her book Valley of the Rats.
Full Disclosure: The author sent me an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.
Middle Grade Recommendation: Short Review
The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, by Anne Ursu. (Walden Pond Press, 2021)
Short Review: Last month, we reviewed The Midnight Bargain, by C.L Polk, which explores the theme of women who choose to follow their own ambitions despite the social costs. Anne Ursu gives that theme an equally fantastic, middle grade treatment in a boarding school setting, where ‘troubled’ girls are sent. (I leave it up to you, dear reader, to figure out what ‘troubled’ really means.) I love it when authors create multi-generational characters, particularly ones who band together to disrupt the social order. Writer Michael Bedard does this exceptionally well and so does Anne Ursu, who gives our expectations an extra twist at the end. Highly recommended. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
Rabbit Chase, by Elizabeth LaPensée. Illustrated by KC Oster. (Annick Press, 2022)
Rabbit Chase is billed as “Anishinaabe culture and storytelling meet Alice in Wonderland” in a middle grade graphic novel. From the blurb on Goodreads:
“Aimée, a non-binary Anishinaabe middle-schooler, is on a class trip to offer gifts to Paayehnsag, the water spirits known to protect the land. While stories are told about the water spirits and the threat of the land being taken over for development, Aimée zones out, distracting themselves from the bullying and isolation they’ve experienced since expressing their non-binary identity. When Aimée accidentally wanders off, they are transported to an alternate dimension populated by traditional Anishinaabe figures in a story inspired by Alice in Wonderland.
To gain the way back home, Aimée is called on to help Trickster by hunting down dark water spirits with guidance from Paayehnsag. On their journey, Aimée faces off with the land-grabbing Queen and her robotic guards and fights the dark water spirits against increasingly stacked odds. Illustrated by KC Oster with a modern take on their own Ojibwe style and cultural representation, Rabbit Chase is a story of self-discovery, community, and finding one’s place in the world.”
Why did I quote this blurb? Because even after reading the story two times, I still couldn’t figure out what it was about. My co-reviewer had the exact same problem. The trouble starts early on. While the blurb identifies the Paayehnsag as water spirits who are known to protect the land, there is nothing in the actual text that identifies them in this way, leading to a sense of disconnection that winds its way throughout the entire novel. We had no sense that a ceremony presented at the beginning of the book had anything to do with land protection, which would have made a real difference later on when we meet the Red Queen and her gang of techno-bots who want to take over Wonderland. (It’s important to note that readers familiar with Anishinaabe culture might not have needed this clarification.) Using the Red Queen to explore the history of colonial land grabs is inspired, and it neatly dovetails with Aimée’s resistance in school to the idea that Columbus ‘discovered’ America. However, without the links between ceremony and teachings about the land being made more explicit, a non-Anishinaabe reader may experience the story as a series of disconnected chapters, lacking a unifying narrative thread. We also felt that the Anishinaabe words would have been better placed in the footnotes, as readers not familiar with the language can end up flipping back and forth between the glossary and the story, interrupting the flow of the reading.
In the original Alice books, Alice’s thinking is continuously challenged through disruption and chaos – a perfect fit for Trickster. While Trickster takes the shape of a White Rabbit, he behaves more like an Elder than a disrupter. I thought that a Cheshire Cat-like character, disappearing and reappearing at will to dispense advice that may or may not be entirely true, might have been a better fit. A more chaotic Trickster would have forced Aimée to think for themselves, which could have resulted in a stronger climax when they finally do battle with their self-doubts as well as their adversary. As they’ve been socially isolated and bullied at school over their indentity and outspokeness, the story needed to show the various experiences that transform Aimée into a fighter, and let them use what they’ve learned to stand up for themselves and escape Wonderland. Without this, the story’s resolution felt forced.
Rabbit Chase has many intriguing ideas but for it to function as an alternate Alice retelling, the story needed more development and a tighter narrative structure to make the parallels work. If the book had been pitched to a YA audience, there might have been additional scope to explore the themes of land claims and identity more fully.
Oster’s illustrations border on the playful and sinister, and Red Queen and her techno-bots are super creepy. (#TPL)
Doodleville, by Chad Sell. (Knopf, 2020)
Doodleville is a wonderfully layered graphic novel that can be read as an action story, a middle grade exploration of artistic process, or both.
Drew loves to doodle. The characters she draws are her best friends. She’s even drawn an entire city for them, which is a good thing since they tend to be a little…active. When Drew accompanies her art club to the museum, she takes her doodles with her – something that her mother has warned against – and for good reason. Once inside, the doodles escape their notebook and go on a rampage. Fortunately, Drew is able to re-capture them but not without incident. While she’s busy gathering up her doodles, at the museum, her classmates use their time to study the art and get ideas for their own work. Drew is intimidated by how detailed and sophisticated everyone else’s drawings are compared to hers. When her doodles escape her notebook and create havoc with everybody else’s drawings, her classmates have had enough. Determined to prove herself, Drew goes home and draws the biggest thing she can think of: a leviathan called Levi. Only trouble is, funny, playful Levi is criticized by Drew’s classmates for not being more like a monster, triggering Drew’s insecurities. When Levi enters their drawings, he becomes the monster he was never meant to be.
We loved this book, which offered a graphic portrayal of the open-mindedness and egotism of creativity. Telling the story from Drew’s POV is absolutely the right move, as it allows a deep, inner exploration of what it means to be an artist, a question which is never fully answered or resolved, which is as it should be. Drew’s struggle to understand her own art is complicated by her refusal to listen to others, or think about the possible impact of her actions. She knows she shouldn’t bring her doodles to the museum, but she does anyway. Publicly, she agrees to work with her classmates to bring down Levi but secretly, she feeds him, hoping to regain his trust and restore his sweet, playful nature. Drew’s doodles are exactly the same: they won’t listen to her and the way they invade and take over other people’s art mirrors Drew’s self-involvement and penchant for melodrama, all typical tween behaviours. (It’s also a dangerous rabbit hole for any artist to go down.)
Drew feels as misunderstood, misjudged and restricted as her leviathan. As a result, Levi surges back, angry at being suppressed and more powerful than ever. Despite Drew’s pleas for understanding, that Levi’s not really the monster they make him out to be, the other students refuse to listen. They want him gone for good. Drew knows Levi better than anyone but she’s burned too many bridges with her doodles for them to listen to her. Readers know that Drew is right not to give up on Levi, even when she goes behind her classmates’ backs to protect him. Self-assertion and artistic integrity means standing up for yourself but Drew has to learn how to balance that impulse with friendship, which includes being able to field disagreements without lying, and learning how to take up space without invading everyone else’s. Ultimately, Drew has to become comfortable with the fact that her art is her own. It doesn’t fit into anyone else’s definitions. It’s her responsibility to advocate for it without destroying other people’s art in the process.
A complex, satisfying, action-packed book that will leave readers with plenty to talk about. (#TPL)
Special Feature: Solarpunk
I’m constantly amazed by the proliferating genres spawned by the makers and practitioners of SFF. LitRPG, gamelit and…solarpunk.
Bookriot defines it as a sub-genre of science fiction which is closely related to steampunk, but one which offers a more hopeful take about the future. While steampunk often showcases the corruption and decay that accompanies technological advancement, solarpunk asks what would society look like if that same technology was harnessed to solve our greatest problems?
Bookriot’s column really struck a chord for me, so I began to read as much as I can about the genre. That’s when I came across:
Remnant Population, by Elizabeth Moon. (Del Ray, 2003)
When the Sims Bancorp Company decides to pull up stakes in their failed colony and shunt the settlers off to a new location. Knowing that Sims Bancorp considers her ‘useless’ because of her age and that her boorish son and his wife will have to pay a hefty price to transport her, Ofelia decides to stay behind. So when her name is called, Ofelia hides in the woods until the last shuttle has gone.
Alone on an abandoned colony, Ofelia must figure out how to run the equipment and machinery, grow enough food to feed herself, salvage materials and supplies from abandoned houses and single-handedly manage repairs after the numerous tropical storms that blow through the area. (Sounds a lot like a modern-day small farmer.)
Ofelia relishes her newfound freedom and embraces a spirit of gutsy self-sufficiency amidst abandonment, much like the older women of present-day Chernobyl. When a reconnaissance ship returns to the planet, Ofelia is terrified of being discovered and having her idyllic world shattered. Then the crew is unexpectedly killed. Ofelia is forced to conclude that she’s not really alone on the planet, and has no idea what first contact will mean, or how much it will change her life.
This book is over 600 pages long on my ereader and I’m only half-way through. I did a quick skim of the second half (including the ending) and it’s good. Moon does a superb job with Ofelia, showing not just the relief of finally escaping from societal expectations and judgments but how those judgments cling to her psyche, even when no one is there to voice them. Joy alternates with terror, and beneath it, a growing confidence as Ofelia masters the skills that enable her to create a life from the land and the remnants of the old colony. Moon cleverly alternates perspectives between Ofelia and the land’s original inhabitants so readers experience two very different pictures of the planet and its ‘monsters.’ An moving portrait of aging and resistance that offers a refreshing take on the first contact trope. (#TPL)
Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! We’ll be back with more great reads in September. See you then!
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