Children’s Book Reviews by a Children’s Writer
Table of Contents:
Welcome to the October edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
In author news this month, I’m gearing up for my first ever NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is a national novel writing challenge that takes place every November and it’s open to everyone. The official goal is to write 50,000 words in 1 month but writers also use it to move ahead on any project they are working on. Anyone can sign up at the official site. All you need is an idea and the determination to move ahead on a writing project. I’ll be pounding away at the first draft of a new YA-crossover SFF manuscript that I’ve just finished outlining.
In other author news, I’ve been getting some agent interest for my middle grade steampunk novel, Shadow Apprentice. (You can read the first chapter here.) This is all very exciting but I have learned that the best medicine for over-excited agent/query nerves is to shift my focus to a new writing project ASAP. Thank goodness for Bookcase Bizarro, my new WIP and NaNoWriMo!
I’m also very pleased to announce that Kate McQuiggan, a founding member of our picture book panel, will now be co-reviewing Bookcase Bizarro’s monthly middle grade picks. As a literacy tutor with many neurodiverse clients and a longtime KIDLIT afficianado, Kate brings a unique perspective to reviewing as well as a finely-honed skill for spotting why things work or don’t work in a given manuscript. Welcome, Kate!
This month, we plant a city garden in 1950s Brooklyn, NY, during The Great Migration, search for an aurora on a cold winter’s night and hide from the scary things that drift down from the ceiling when the lights go out. We re-discover the meaning of family and connection through the eyes of a girl who is possibly somewhere on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum, and the various people she touches with her very practical generosity. We fight racism with Superman and experience a whole different kind of heroics rowing alongside a working class athlete during the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. True to our ever-evolving format, Bookcase Bizarro is pleased to announce a new feature: Tween and Teen Non-Fiction, with a focus on narrative non-fiction for older readers.
So put your feet up and wrap yourself up in your favourite blanket 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:
Uncle John’s City Garden, by Bernadette G. Ford. Illustrated by Frank Morrison. (Holiday House, 2022.)
Okay, I admit it. I’m a sucker for any book that features gardens or has the word ‘garden’ in the title. A book about city gardens? I’m in.
The first summer L’il Sissy, Brother and Sister work in Uncle John’s garden in 1950’s Brooklyn, it’s little more than a giant square of freshly-raked dirt in the middle of a housing project. That is, until Brother plants three rows of corn and lima beans, Sister plants two rows of onions and tomatoes, and L’il Sissy plants one long row of okra: all the ingredients needed to make succotash – L’il Sissy’s favourite. Uncle John plants lots and lots of rows alongside theirs and soon, the brown dirt lot is filled with seedlings. The garden weathers everything from violent wind to rain, and produces so much food that the kids have a hard time keeping up with the harvest. When Uncle John organizes a family BBQ at the end of the summer, everyone gets to take home bags of freshly-grown food.
I haven’t come across picture books about the Great Migration before. Ford’s story, set in an urban garden, explores the sense of hope and community migrating Black people brought with them to the cities of the north…as well as their farming skills. Uncle John is a living embodiment of food security as he turns an empty lot into a thriving garden and passes his knowledge down to his nieces and nephew. In an Afterword, Ford mentions that her mother and uncle never stopped growing food, even after they moved to the projects. Stem concepts are introduced by L’il Sissy, who loves to measure and compare everything, and there is plenty of information on how plants grow embedded into the story.
The stunning illustrations mirror the gaze of an interested child viewer, perhaps tagging along with L’il Sissy, Sister, Brother and Uncle John to the garden and the perspectives shift from frame to frame, allowing us different views of the garden and the people at work in it. Uncle John, who L’iL Sissy describes as a ‘big man,’ looms ever larger in the pictures, his face creased with quiet smiles. Award-winning illustrator, Frank Morrison, has a background in graffiti art and uses a spray paint-like effect in his oil paintings to create a contrast between the brilliant colours of the growing garden and the bleak backdrop of the projects. This book is an urban celebration of all things growing, of kids and plants and minds. See if you can spot the Easter egg graffiti on the wall! A recipe for succotash is included at the end. (#TPL)
Seeking an Aurora, by Elizabeth Pulford. Illustrated by Anne Bannock. (Blue Dot, 2020)
A child is woken up late one night by her father, who takes her on a secret outdoor adventure one winter’s night to see the Northern Lights (aka the Aurora Borealis).
This is a lovely, quiet book about a father and his child bonding together through a shared outdoor experience. The delight of being up late is conveyed by the child tiptoeing past their sleeping mother and baby sister, too young to go on this secret excursion with Dad. A prolific writer, Pulford knows how to craft a poetic description: ‘The cows looked like prehistoric creatures, their noses streaming smoke,’ and ‘warm, buttery light’ spills from the kitchen window. One of the Picture Book panelists felt that the imagery became slightly self-conscious as the descriptions went on – something that I, as a writer, did not notice. I lingered on every detail.
We absolutely loved that the child’s gender is never disclosed, and that a father shows such sensitivity to his eldest child, who may be feeling displaced by the needs of a new baby. Anne Bannock brings the Aurora Borealis to vivid, colourful life and the outdoor scenes are particularly beautiful, evoking the awe-inspiring feel of the outing. The human figures are sometimes rendered in careful detail and at other times appear a bit roughed in. Bannock is an artist who creates in many different mediums, so we may unfamiliar with her use of technique. We would have loved to see the cat figure more prominently in the story, as such an inclusion is hinted at in the first pages but is never followed through. Included is a page titled ‘Everything Dad Knew About the Aurora.’ (#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:
What There is Before There is Anything There: a Scary Story, by Liniers. Translated by Elisa Amado. (Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2014)
I picked this book in honour of my parents precisely because they forbade to read or watch anything scary in an attempt to curtail my nightmares. (Sorry, guys. It didn’t work.)
Every night as soon as a young boy’s parents turn off the light, creatures float down from the ceiling to stand beside the boy’s bed, silently staring at him, until something even worse emerges from the dark.
The Argentinian cartoonist, Liniers, knows EXACTLY how to push the fear buttons in this scary bedtime story. As someone who was prone to nightmares (including lucid dreams) as a kid, I could totally relate to the way his young protagonist felt after being left alone in the dark. And I agree: the scariest monsters are definitely the ones who silently watch.
I’m not sure I would read this book to a 4 year old (this is a genuinely scary story) but for the 6-7 year old? Sure. The text is simple enough for beginning readers to tackle themselves but the concepts are more complex. Liniers understands why the dark is so scary for children (the anticipatory fear that exists in your mind before the monsters actually appear is the worst) and he is to be applauded for not being falsely reassuring or dismissing children’s fears about the dark. Instead, he climbs right into those fears with them. The cartoon-like art of the boy, his parents and even some of the monsters offers a playful counterbalance to the scariness. The ending is perfect. (#TPL)
You can read a Publisher’s Weekly interview with Liniers here.
Middle Grade Novel
Counting by 7’s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan. (Dial, 2013)
Willow Chance is twelve years old. She’s interested in botany and diagnosing medical conditions in the people she encounters. She’s also extremely straightforward, socially unskilled and ever since she first went up a teacher in kindergarten, she hates school. When she gets a perfect score on a test, Willow is accused of cheating and is sent to the school’s guidance counselor, Dell Duke – an inept jerk if there ever was one. There she meets Quang-ha, another ‘troublemaker’ who’s been sent to Dell Duke’s office, and his sister Mai, who isn’t afraid to stand up to – and blackmail – Dell Duke for leaving her brother alone for an entire counseling session. That captures Willow’s attention. She and Mai bond when they try to hunt down Dell Duke’s escaped cat, Cheddar, who the clueless guidance counselor has brought to school in an attempt to ‘connect’ with the students. For the first time in her life, Willow finds herself in the company of people who accept her and welcome her into their troop. It’s a sense of belonging Willow’s rarely felt before, certainly never at school. Mai’s and Willow’s friendship has barely begun to blossom when Willow loses both her parents in a terrible car accident – the only two people who understood and protected her in the world.
Not only must Willow cope with unbearable grief, she must try to make her way in a world that makes no sense to her. She does so with remarkable openness and a completely unconscious, utterly practical generosity that takes everyone by surprise, including Willow.
I must admit, I had no idea what to make of this book when I first started reading it but this may be more to do with my own neurodiversity than anything else.
Goldberg Sloan switches from Willow as a First Person narrator to Third Person Omniscient for all the other characters in a way that I initially found very jarring, so much so that I had to put the book down to consider why Goldberg Sloan had done this.
Willow is at root an unreliable narrator, so much inside her own head that the reader needs these outside perspectives to paint a larger picture of the world beyond what Willow herself can see. As Willow develops, she realizes things that the reader has already realized or suspected for themselves, adding to the story’s sense of growth. I understand the rationale but it was touch and go for me in the first 5 chapters. While I was snagged by the active scene-building of the opening chapters and captivated by Willow’s extremely frank and engaging dialogue, I was taken right out of the story by a entire chapter devoted to telling Dell Duke’s backstory and describing his tedious, messed-up thoughts. No, no, no, no, NO! (To be fair, Goldberg Sloan weaves backstory and interiority much more seamlessly into the fabric of the story as it develops while shifting between multiple POV’s – an extremely difficult piece of craft to pull off.)
Kate was so engrossed in the story that she didn’t notice the shift at all, and she had a totally different reaction to being introduced to Dell Duke. Encountering a completely inept teacher is an experience that most kids have at one point or another in their educational careers, so seeing a fictional representation of a dud like Duke is actually affirming. Adults don’t always give a crap about kids, and kids know it. Kate also found it hilarious that Duke’s unkind way of categorizing the students exactly mirrored the way that kids talk about each other – an irony that won’t be lost on many readers.
It was fascinating to us that Willow becomes a more reliable narrator when she’s forced to move out of her own head and interact with the world to survive. Nobody’s lives are working out until they become involved with each other, through Willow. It’s a crash course in feelings and social nuances for Willow as she struggles to find a place for emotion in her life and a place for Mei, Quang-ha, their mother, Patti, Jairo Hernandez, an over-qualified taxi driver she befriends, and even Dell Duke. Willow doesn’t understand just how much her practical help matters to the others but they – and the readers – do. The moment when Willow finally realizes that she can’t live without them is both heart-stopping and utterly true to the story. There is a beautiful irony in how the disconnected lives of the various characters are brought together by a girl who’s not only on the spectrum but has also lost her parents.
We’re always on the lookout for books that portray class differences in straightforward and convincing ways, and Counting By 7’s succeeds here in spades. Highly recommended. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
Superman Smashes the Klan, by Gene Luen Yang. Illustrations by Gurihiru. (DC Graphic Novels for Young Adults, 2020)
Superman was invented during the 1930’s by Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigal, two young men from Jewish immigrant families. It’s not surprising that they crafted an immigrant backstory for their superhero and imbued him with a thirst for justice. In 1946, Superman featured in a 16-part radio serial called ‘The Clan of the Fiery Cross,’ where an Asian-American family moves into Metropolis and is terrorized by an organized group of bigots. Superman helps them fight back. Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang has both adapted and deepened this story in Superman Smashes the Klan, to explore the complexities of racial discrimination and to trace a direct line between 1940s Klan activity and the rise of anti-Asian racism that persists in the present day.
Tommy and Roberta Lee have different reactions when their parents leave Chinatown to buy a new home in Metropolis. Outgoing Tommy joins a baseball team and finds new friends right away while quiet, thoughtful Roberta feels self-conscious and different, and worries about not fitting in. When Tommy and Roberta’s father, Dr. Lee, accepts a new job, the Lee family is targeted by the Klan of the Fiery Cross, who preach a hateful message of ‘One Race! One Colour! One Religion!’ As Superman helps the Lees – especially Tommy and Roberta – fight back against the Klan, he unearths suppressed memories of his own immigrant experience as a being from another planet and relives the discrimination and hatred he faced as a young child for being different. When exposure to a mysterious green rock weakens Superman, Roberta struggles to find the courage to face down her fears in time to save her family from destruction – and maybe Superman, too.
Yang is an exquisite storyteller, who pulls no punches as he delves into the complexities of how racism poisons people. When Tommy tries to fit in by making fun of Asians, Roberta challenges him for being ‘fake.’ Tommy accuses Roberta of being too stuck up about being different to make any friends. Meanwhile, Roberta suffers from an almost constant anxiety about not fitting in that makes her feel like a constant target. Even her old friends from Chinatown don’t want to have anything to do with her since she moved away. When Tommy fights with an enemy-turned-friend over a comment he makes, we witness the difficulties faced by this boy, who is trying to unlearn racist views by asking questions that re-victimize Tommy. Tommy has no choice but to angrily confront his new friend but in doing so, he misses the other boy’s attempt at understanding. The painful rawness as both boys struggle to connect is palpable and Yang portrays both sides of that struggle with unflinching accuracy. It’s important to note that the Lees are presented as an average American family comprised of two first generation immigrant parents who are raising American-born kids – a brilliant way of normalizing rather than othering this common American experience.
Yang manages to pack in Superman’s adoption story in a way that emphasizes love and connection across differences and moved me (an adopted kid) to tears. He also manages to include a lovely ‘mentor moment’ of young Roberta by Lois Lane. I absolutely loved how Roberta challenges Superman by telling him he’s hiding too much of himself to fit in while encouraging him to break free of his self-imposed constraints. This book will find a home with tween readers, who will be prompted to ask themselves if superhuman strength belongs to superheros alone, and ask what the very human cost of that strength may be.
Gurihiru’s illustrations evoke the comics of the era while supporting a story that pushes us to look beyond what we think we know. Characters are drawn with an anime-like technique combined with 1940’s comic-strip tropes, giving the book an updated feel while visually embedding cross-cultural references and traditions into the story. Highly recommended. (#TPL)
Introducing: Tween and Teen Non-Fiction
The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics (Young Readers Edition), adapted by Gregory Mone from the original book by Daniel James Brown. (Viking, 2015)
For our first foray into non-fiction, we picked the story of how a scrappy, nine-member team of working-class rowers from the University of Washington beat the elite East Coast teams to qualify for the 1936 Olympics.
The story is anchored by Joe Gantz, a scrappy, working class teenager who has always found comfort in outdoor physical activity, which provides a much-needed release for the grief and anxiety that accompanies him everywhere. While Joe works hard to beat back more privileged students for a place on the team, he can’t out row the sadness of his mother’s death or the memory of being abandoned by his father shortly afterwards. As a twelve-year old, Joe learned that he was the only person he could trust to take care of himself. Unfortunately, this is exactly the wrong mindset for success on a rowing team. Joe’s got plenty of passion and guts and he knows how to work harder than almost anybody else, but it’s still not enough. Not until a rowing coach takes him aside and tells him that he’ll never get anywhere until he opens himself up to trusting the other boys in the boat. Joe must learn how to row with them, as if his own ambitions and desires don’t matter, only the team’s. It is this ethos that Joe and the other boys struggle to take to heart as they compete for a place in the Olympic boat.
The 1936 Olympics functioned as a piece of state propaganda, designed to convince the rest of the world that Hitler had no interest in world domination despite his conviction that a racially ‘pure’ Germany was innately superior to all other nations. The athletes who arrived in Berlin were presented with a sanitized version of Nazi Germany that concealed every bit of evidence of Jewish persecution as well as Hitler’s very real preparations for the Final Solution. Walking though a clean and fake-friendly Berlin (citizens were coached by the Nazis on what to say to the visitors), none of the athletes had any idea that many of the women pushing baby carriages, kids playing in the parks or old people they passed would soon be dispossessed, imprisoned and killed. One member of the crew learns that he’s Jewish before going to compete at the games, and wonders why his father had chosen to hide this from him? I wondered what his German family members said to him, and what happened to them after the Olympics?
As the boys in the boat push for Olympic victory, Joe learns to trust and connect with others in ways that allow him to put his individual ego aside and become part of something larger. In a very real way, rowing shows Joe how to build a life that is no longer defined by trauma, even beyond the boat. This is a gripping and powerful story that will appeal to both sports fans and people who know nothing about sports. (#TPL)
Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! We’ll be back with more great reads next month. See you then!
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