Children’s Book Reviews by a Children’s Writer
Table of Contents:
Welcome to the September edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
After a summer of swimming, canoeing, working on a new writing project (and of course, eating gelato), I am back to reading and reviewing children’s books (while still eating gelato).
If you’ve been with me for awhile, you’ll know that we’ve been trying out different approaches in our ‘Special Feature’ section. While I loved the exploration, it became clear to me that as a children’s book blogger, my readers might be better served with a tighter focus on children’s books. So we’ll be expanding our graphic novel reviews and we’ll venture into tween and teen non-fiction in upcoming issues.
This month, we move to the country and make friends with an artist, walk the paths of a lost community, get a first job, fight a few wars, and become a secret rebel with a band of underground artists as well as a lunch lady. We also shine a spotlight on graphic novelist Jarrett J. Krosoczka, whose tween/YA memoir shines it’s own light on family addiction.
If you’re looking for some targeted children’s book reading lists, you might want to head on over to Imagination Soup, where Melissa Taylor’s got a great selection of titles grouped according to ages, topics and learning activities, including my favourite, teaching writing skills to kids.
So whether you’re starting a new course, harvesting or planting autumn and winter crops in the garden, grab your notebook – and your trowel – as we dig 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:
Birdsong, by Julie Flett. (Greystone Kids, 2019.)
Julie Flett is one of our all-time favourite book creators, bar none. When we picked up Birdsong, we expected another subtle, deceptively simple and poignant story and she did not disappoint.
Katherena and her mother move to a new home in the country where Katherena meets her elderly neighbour, Agnes. The two of them become friends and, unusually for a picture book, strike up a relationship as working artists. Then Agnes gets sick and Katherena must draw on her inner strength and her own art to navigate still more changes ahead.
Flett manages to the defy expectations around the theme of moving to a new place. While Katherena finds her new home unfamiliar, the point of the story is how creativity can foster curiosity about a new place. It’s also a book about friendship. Katherena meets Agnes very early on in the story and as they share and explore their art together, a sense of belonging develops. Agnes never treats Katherena as anything less than the artist she is and Katherena in turn comes to realize her power to help Agnes during her illness.
Flett’s dialogue can sometimes feel clunky (“Why don’t you go and visit (Agnes,) Katherena?” my mom says. I nod. “Okay.”) Her descriptive prose however, sings (the new home ‘hums with peeps and whistles and ribbits and chirps’ and snowdrop bulbs look like tiny moons). The textured, collage-like illustrations do much to convey a sense of place as well as emotion. Space flows around Katherena and Agnes, evoking a sense of newness, possibility and discovery so necessary to them as artists. Space also conveys a sense of loss and uprootedness familiar to those who’ve moved to a new place. The illustrations move through the seasons with an exquisite restraint, which allows Flett to expand the very definition of art by foregrounding a carved bowl, a carpet of snowdrops, a wall of drawings or a flight of wild geese. Art is all around. The story starts in the spring and cycles back through the year to arrive back at spring, creating a circular story structure that also works as a metaphor for death and rebirth.
We’re not sure at the end of the book if Agnes has actually died or if Katherena is just saying good-bye to Agnes at the end of the day. Of course, framing death as a good-bye offers children a way to understand death as the final farewell. Gentle, poignant, powerful. (#TPL)
Africville, by Shauntay Grant. Illustrated by Eva Campbell. (Groundwood, 2018)
Africville was a vibrant community created by Black Loyalists who were given land grants in Nova Scotia during the American revolution in exchange for loyalty to the British crown. Unfortunately, these land grants violated the treaty the crown had negotiated with the Mi’kmaq People, who had never actually ceded their ancestral land. As time went on, the growing Just as the treaties with the Mi’kmaq were violated, so were the land grants given to the residents of Africville. As the City of Halifax grew, it refused to make any infrastructural improvements to Africville, instead condemning people’s homes and buildings and forcing the residents to ‘relocate’ into social housing.
Africville the book is a haunting ode to a vanished time and place. ‘Take me to the end of the ocean,’ the book opens, as a young girl from the present walks through the memorial site that the City of Halifax erected to commemorate the razed village. It is not the contemporary memorial however that we see but Africville as it once was, a place where ‘home smells like sweet apple pie and blueberry duff,’ a place where ‘the pavement ends and family begins.’ We accompany the girl as she follows the paths made by children long ago and visits the places that were important to them: the berry patch on the hill, the Caterpillar Tree, the Back of Field for football and Tibby’s pond for rafting. Grant’s language is deeply poetic, both a celebration and a remembrance of Africville that recreates the story of this community in vivid, immediate detail.The story circles forward to the present day at the Africville reunion festival, where former residents, their families and supporters gather together every year. The girl in the present who visits the past emphasizes the living history that is passed on through the generations and celebrated at the reunions. Africville might have been razed but its people are still here.
Eva Campbell’s vibrant illustrations pull us into the lives of the children who lived in Africville, and each picture tells a story about who they were. We feel as if we’re running around Africville with the kids. Teachers could easily use this book as a unit on Africville and what happened to it. (The author includes a historical note at the end, with photos.) It also can be read as a picture book about country life set during a time when this tightly-knit Black community had something of its own. (#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 put books that were too hard for me to read in a special place on my bookshelf. These books occupied an honoured position on the top left-hand corner of the shelf until the day came when I discovered that I could read them – a thrill all by itself.
Each month, I select a Book to Grow Into in honour of my parents, Doug and Sheila Browne. This month’s selection is:
Guttersnipe, by Jane Cutler. Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)
Besides being illustrated by one of my favourite artists, Guttersnipe is also an historical picture book – easily one of my favourite genres.
After the death of Ben’s father, money is tight. Ben’s brother, Max, must leave school to work in a bowling alley and his sister, Rose, works as a ticket seller at the theatre. Mama is a pieceworker at the local factory. When Mr. Green, the hat maker, advertises for a boy to run errands, Ben decides to try for the job and convinces Mr. Green to hire him. Instead of delivering the silk hat linings Mr. Green has given him, Ben dawdles, riding the company bicycle all over town to check in on his family at their various jobs. When Ben finally makes up his mind to deliver the hat linings, a steep hill looms before him. Ben grabs onto the trolley to catch a ride up the hill but lets go a second too late and crashes. He’s left to deal with the consequences of his carelessness and the possible loss of his job.
Ben’s story unfolds in a satisfying way and his tendency to dawdle and make rash decisions is very much in line with what a kid of his age would do. Who wouldn’t try to catch a ride on a trolley to avoid a long, weary pedal uphill? Cutler’s prose is mostly deft until Ben’s comeuppance, where it grows a little forced and clumsy as she hammers home a lesson about hope and perseverance. Cutler should have trusted in her story to make the point for her. Readers could have easily drawn their own conclusions about Ben’s predicament for themselves. Emily Arnold McCully’s colourful line drawings render early Canadian Jewish life in loving and realistic detail. They uplift readers – as well as Ben – when disaster strikes.
An Author’s Note explains a bit more about anti-semitic prejudice in Canada and makes it clear that the book is based on a family story. Like Cutler, I remember stories of Jewish Torontonians going to local beaches and being greeted by signs that said: ‘No Jews or Dogs Allowed.’ I also remember stories of persistence and resilience, like the one Cutler has written. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Novel
The War that Saved my Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. (Dial, 2015)
Ada isn’t sure just how old she is because she’s never had a birthday. Neither has her little brother, Jamie. At least, Jamie is allowed to leave their tenement flat and go to school. Mam has kept Ada barricaded inside, blaming her for bringing shame to the family for being disabled. Ada, who has a clubfoot, has been secretly teaching herself to walk while Mam is away at work. When the children of London are evacuated because of the threat of German bombing, Mam won’t give Ada permission to leave the flat, so Ada and Jamie sneak out together. Slowly and painfully, Ada makes her way with Jamie to the train station where they are taken to a village to keep them safe. However, all the other kids are soon snapped up, leaving Ada and Jamie alone on the platform.
They are placed with Susan, a woman who’s become the village recluse since her best friend, Becky, died. She doesn’t want the children either and warns them that she’s not a nice person. This ‘not-nice’ person gives them more food than they’ve ever eaten in their lives, brand new clothes and shoes and even takes Ada to the doctor, where she learns that she could have had a very different life if Mam had let the doctors operate on her foot when she was a baby. Nobody seems to want Ada but she soon finds someone she wants – a neglected horse named Butter, who was given to Susan by Becky. With the same determination she used to master walking, Ada teaches herself how to ride and with Butter’s help, slowly begins to trust the other villagers and Susan. Susan meanwhile, begins to emerge from her depression by caring for Ada and Jamie. She and the children begin to weave together a new sense of family and belonging…until Mam shows up.
This is an astonishingly layered and nuanced upper middle grade read, but it’s not an easy one. Brubaker Bradley doesn’t sugar coat the abuse that Ada suffers at the hands of her mother during an historical moment when disability was either seen as shameful or a ‘mark of the devil.’ Since the story is so firmly rooted in Ada’s POV, readers can see very clearly just how wrong such portrayals are and will cheer Ada on while she plots her escape. Ada turns from victim to hero in the first chapter, a clever device that has readers rooting for Ada when she can’t believe in herself. The trauma that Ada carries with her is not foregrounded but is seamlessly woven into the plot, and the love that she feels for Jamie (they are welded together like steel) is what gives her the strength to survive Mam, make a place for herself and Jamie with Susan, save Butter from neglect and claim him as her own. Like Susan, prickly Ada is not nice but she gets things done time and time again in the midst of profound insecurity. World War II is a backdrop for the wars she is fighting against herself, Mam, Susan, and sometimes Jamie – even when she’s fighting for him at the same time.
Kids with less-than-perfect families will understand better than anyone how it’s possible for Ada and Jamie to still feel love for Mam and how hard it is for them to adjust to a new and happier living situation with Susan. Mam is not a one-dimensional villain, either. Her cruelty stems from a combination of being overwhelmed and stuck in a life as a single mother that wasn’t of her own choosing. She ‘copes’ by using her children – especially Ada – as targets for her rage and frustration. Her anger against Ada and Jamie re-kindles when she’s forced to take them back because she cannot pay for them to stay with Susan. We’ll never like Mam but we’re not allowed to get away with simply hating her.
That Becky was Susan’s partner is hinted at by Susan’s estrangement from her father and her feeling of not fitting in with the other village women. We get that LGBTQ+ folks were closeted in this particular historical setting, but we wish that Brubaker Bradley had found a way of making this relationship clear to the readers even if Susan couldn’t. We did love Susan’s shaky but heartfelt evolution as a mother, despite not ‘fitting in’ with women’s roles at the time.
Ada is not the only one who surprises readers – and herself – at the end. Highly recommended. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Recommendation: Short Review
The List, by Patricia Forde. (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2017)
Short Review: After a flood that’s destroyed most of the world (and maybe her parents), Letta finds work as an apprentice to Benjamin the Wordsmith in a settlement called Ark, which is ruled by a fanatic environmentalist dedicated to constricting language as a way to save the world. People in Ark are only allowed to use a list of acceptable words, which Benjamin and Letta print out for distribution. Art is outlawed in Ark, as is free thought of any kind. In exchange, people have access to clean water and rationed food. When Ark’s ruler makes plans to shrink the list still further and Benjamin mysteriously dies, Letta is left to make sense of her new role and discovers there is more to Ark and the List than she’d previously suspected.
This is definitely a plot-driven book, without a lot of attention given to descriptive settings or internal character development. We come to know Letta as a character mostly through her actions rather than through interior dialogue. The language is spare, very much like the List spoken in Ark.
That Ark is ruled by an environmental totalitatarian is a nice twist, suggesting that a blind adherence to power and authority is just as dangerous on the left side of the political spectrum, especially when leaders dodge accountability by claiming to be right. A good choice especially for readers who like a fast-paced book. For readers who’d prefer their dystopia to be more character-driven, I’d recommend The Fog Diver, by Joel Ross. (Both available at #TPL)
Middle Grade Graphic Novel: Spotlight on Jarrett J. Krosoczka.
Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost my Mother, Found my Father and Dealt with Family Addiction, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. (Graphix, 2018)
‘For every reader who recognizes this experience. I see you.’ Jarrett J. Krosoczka writes in his dedication.
One of the most powerful experiences for readers is being able to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the pages of a book. Hey, Kiddo is an important ‘mirror’ book that will resonate strongly with tween and YA readers living through family addiction. It’s also an important ‘window’ book that offers a nuanced and compassionate portrayal of family addiction. And it’s a terrific, heartfelt story of a resilient kid and his mother, whose addiction to heroin prevents her from showing up for him even though she loves him.
The ‘kiddo’ referred to in the book is Krosoczka himself, and the graphic novel takes us through the first 16 or so years of his life. It opens to a scene of the 16 year old Jarrett taking driving lessons from his grandfather, Joe, in a cemetery. At the end of the lesson, Joe stops to spend time with his parents at the family plot. Jarrett is stricken by the difference between himself and Joe, which leads him to tell the full Krosoczka family story, from the time his grandparents met to the painful moment when he learned that his mother, Leslie, was an addict, to how he found his father and became an artist. In Hey, Kiddo, Krosoczka, through Jarrett, makes art out of life.
In a Ted Talk, Krosoczka described what it’s like to live with an addicted parent: “When your parent is a drug addict, It’s kind of like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, because as much as you want to love on that person, as much as you want to receive love by them, every time you open your heart, you end up on your back.” This pretty much sums up what Jarrett’s life was like with his mother. The woman who threw him the most amazing birthday party as a young kid was also the woman who helped two murderers clean up evidence while young Jarrett was asleep in the next room, which caused her to lose custody of him. She enters rehab and gets clean, only to move in with a fellow recovering addict and misses Jarrett’s high school graduation due to ‘health problems.’
While Krosoczka’s pain and anger are chronicled throughout the story, so too are his mother’s many fractured attempts to show love. The painful truth that Jarrett has to confront and finally accept is that the addiction always wins out but that doesn’t mean that his mother doesn’t love him. This is emphasized in his mother’s letters, which are interspersed throughout the narrative. Jarrett also delves into his grandparents’ addiction to alcohol and loud, dramatic fights but what is central is the love and support they give him. They notice his love of art and send him to classes at a nearby museum. Teachers also notice his talent and encourage him. Jarrett’s experiences could have made him bitter but the love of his grandparents, support from his teachers as well as his own love of art nurture an empathy that leads him to a summer job at a camp for critically ill kids. When Jarrett finally tracks down his father, he learns another painful truth: that his father wasn’t up to raising him and felt it was better not to be in touch. Jarrett’s father also has two more kids but instead of rejecting his brother and sister, Jarrett asks to meet them, showing how much he’s grown and changed.
While family addiction is the central theme of this book, there are plenty of typical child and teenage moments throughout Hey, Kiddo.It also tells the fascinating story of how Jarrett became an artist. A good choice for tween or YA readers, especially those who are dealing with family addiction, incarcerated parents or being raised by grandparents. A National Book Award Finalist. Highly recommended. (#TPL)
Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2009)
It’s a lunch tray…no, it’s a secret computer. It’s a spatula…no, it’s a flying device. It’s a lunch lady…well, no.
When Dee, Terrence and Hector decide to follow their school lunch lady one day, they unwittingly uncover a cyborg menace at their school and discover that their lunch lady is actually…a superhero.
I completely loved this first volume in the Lunch Lady series. The basic plot is a spoof on the superhero comic genre with a twist…the superhero is a humble lunch lady with a cave in the boiler room. Krosoczka confessed his love for batman in his memoir, Hey, Kiddo (above). He’s inventively adapted the idea of the mysterious superhero with no superpowers but plenty of cool gadgets to hilarious effect. A great choice for younger middle grade readers and beginning readers alike. Literacy tutors might want to check this one out, as well. (#TPL)
You can find a great, in-depth interview with Jarrett J. Krosoczka on PBS Books.
Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! We’ll be back with more great reads in October. See you then!
Check it out every Monday and get your reading fix on!