Children’s Book Reviews by a Children’s Writer
Table of Contents:
Welcome to the February edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
On the writing front, February was all about the Messy Middle of my current WIP (work-in-progress). The middle is all about the characters, and they never let you forget it. They’re starting to wake up and push the story in new directions. These folks have things to say and they’ve got ideas about where they want to go. My job is to follow along and change the outline as needed. It’s frustrating and exciting work with lots of stops and starts…and at times it feels a lot like getting stuck in the mud. If your WIP has stalled in the Messy Middle, this article with tips from Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA might help.
February is Black History Month! We’re profiling books by two Black authors who write YA and MG that featuring Black protagonists. If you’re looking for more Black middle grade books, blogger Afoma Umesi has compiled an awesome list of 75 titles at her website, Reading Middle Grade. She acknowledges that the list is overly heavy on historical fiction but comments that finding Black middle-grade books at all is a rarity. Afoma’s been careful to include only Black authors writing about Black protagonists.
This month, we get a cautionary lesson on efficiency and quiet quit, go jigging for halibut, try – and fail – to outrun ourselves, create a cardboard kingdom and freeze time in order to get one more day of summer, which turns into a nightmare. We’ve also got a couple of terrific YA recommendations for those of you who are into superhero re-tellings or dystopic horror.
So kick off your ice skates and curl up on a cozy couch 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.
Fox and Bear, by Miriam Körner. (Red Deer Press, 2022.)
Fox and Bear is a cautionary tale about the perils of constantly trying to maximize efficiency and what gets lost in the process. (Yes, all of this in a picture book.)
Fox and Bear are happy and busy with their lives in the forest, gathering what they can gather and catching what they can catch. Every day after foraging for food, Bear has time to nap on a tree branch while Fox hunts for treasures. In the evening, Fox buries his treasures and Bear watches the sunsets. Bear thinks it’s a good life until Fox suggests that they grow their own berries and catch birds to supply them with eggs so they don’t have to work so hard hunting for food. Planting crops and tending birds is hard work. There is no time leftover for naps, treasure hunts or sunsets. Then Fox suggests that they automate all their chores to make their too-busy lives easier. (You can see where all this is going.)
Körner’s detailed collages give children a lot to look and humourously convey the claustrophobic chaos of Fox’s continuous ‘improvement’ schemes…until bear finally puts down his paw.
Wonderful. Older kids could read this book aloud to all-too-busy adults in need of a reset. (#TPL)
Jigging for Halibut with Tsinii, by Sara Florence Davidson and Robert Davidson. Illustrated by Janine Gibbons. (HighWater Press, 2021)
In this ode to traditional, inter-generational learning, the Davidsons bring to life artist Robert Davidson’s memories of fishing with his tsinii (grandfather) off the coast of Haida Gwaii. From the time Tsinii decides that the time is right for jigging to the boat’s return to the beach, readers are caught up in a powerfully immersive experience of a day spent at sea with Tsinii, who teaches his grandson the right way to respectfully catch fish.
Sara Florence Davidson’s prose is direct and poetic at the same time: “The clouds are soft and blurred. It looks like their jagged edges have been worn away by the tides.”
Gibbons’ illustrations at times resemble woodcuts with a stunning sense of immediacy achieved through close ups of the small details that make up a day spent fishing. Gibbons’ works are inspired by the “waters and lands of the Pacific” and she looks to spark connections with her creations. Does she ever! The pull of the sea is so visceral in this book, that I never wanted to come back to shore.
A beautiful, powerful story with absolutely stunning art. Highly recommended. (#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 upper left-hand corner 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:
Ghost, by Jason Reynolds (Track Series #1). (Atheneum, 2016)
Ghost (Castle Cranshaw) has been running for as long as he can remember. His speed has saved him more than once, both on and off the basketball court. Basketball is his favourite sport until the day he impulsively challenges a kid in a race and wins, attracting the attention of a former Olympic medalist coach. Ghost has a lot of natural talent but he also has a temper that explodes without warning and a past he’s trying to outrun. To make the team, Ghost will have to face up to his hardest challenge yet: himself.
He Reynolds paints a realistic portrait of a traumatized kid about to go off the rails. Ghost is haunted by memories of his father shooting at him and his mother while they are fleeing their home. Ghost can’t stand to be in a confined space and can’t even sleep in his room, preferring a pile of blankets on the floor of the living room. While Reynolds makes sure we know where Ghost is coming from, he’s not an easy character to root for. To the rest of the world, he comes across as a swaggering show off. He’s rude, argumentative and confrontational. His impulsivity leads to poor decisions and creates a self-destructive cycle he refuses to acknowledge, compounded by a bad temper that threatens to blow his life apart. Everything is always somebody else’s fault…until Coach steps in on the day of the race and offers Ghost a place on the team.
Coach has no time for Ghost’s excuses. Time and time again, he makes Ghost take responsibility for his screw-ups, telling him that there is no room for this kind of behaviour on his team. But the past is hard to leave behind. Ghost keeps on screwing up until he’s in danger of losing his place on the team altogether. Ghost needs to learn to step up to Coach’s expectations because track not only provides him with a much-needed outlet but also a glimpse of a different future. As Coach says: “You can’t run away from who you are but you can run to who you want to become.” Track is the only place that offers Ghost a chance to do exactly that, but will he be able to take it?
I’m a big fan of Jason Reynolds YA novel, Miles Morales: Spider-Man, and I initially found Ghost a bit thin in comparison, especially in terms of plot. Ghost is a much more character-driven, interior novel. Reynolds uses first-person narration to immerse us in the world according to Ghost, whose voice is all-encompassing because he thinks that his voice is the only voice worth listening to…until other people start getting through to him.
Ghost’s adolescent male swagger is off-putting and hard to take, and Reynolds knows it. He punctures Ghost’s inflated sense of importance by painstakingly laying out the details of his many screw-ups, so that readers see the consequences of his actions long before he does. Reynolds dismantles Ghost’s stubborn, self-destructive narrative piece by piece, keeping you wondering how long you’re going to put up with his foolishness while rendering you incapable of walking away. For 5th or 6th grade readers who can handle a slow burn of a read. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
The Cardboard Kingdom, by Chad Sell et al. (Knopf, 2018)
The Cardboard Kingdom profiles a group of neighbourhood kids, who spend their summer making an entire imaginary world out of cardboard. The book is divided into a series of stories, each one detailing how a specific kid creates their own superhero character to add to the kingdom. The subtext here is that each kid’s choices reflect a battle with their inner demon. Sell also partners with a co-author for each story in the collection.
One of my favourites is ‘Big Banshee,’ a superhero created by Sophie after she’s been harshly criticized by her Meemaw (Grandmother) for being too loud, too big and too unladylike. Sophie’s mother tells her that Meemaw said the same things to her when she was Sophie’s age, and tells Sophie that Meemaw was wrong. After chasing off a bully with her loud voice, Sophie reclaims her identity as a big, loud girl and invents the biggest, loudest superhero in the kingdom.
The short format trips up some writers who don’t focus strongly enough around a singular event in the kid’s life that explains why they adopt their particular persona. In ‘The Mad Scientist,’ Amanda loves to experiment on her friends’ costumes to improve their designs, which upsets her father. He asks her why she’s trying to ‘fix’ her friends instead of accepting their differences. When her father finds out that Amanda’s own costume includes a mustache, he freaks out, completely nullifying his earlier message. What will the neighbours think? What will the people back home think? The abrupt metamorphosis of a seemingly supportive father from mentor to a sexist bully is confusing and unconvincing, and provides no origin story for Amanda’s Mad Scientist persona. I felt that the father-daughter relationship needed to be developed more, with the contentious mustache taking centre stage.
The strongest story by far is the story of Seth, who takes on the guise of The Gargoyle to protect his mother from his abusive father. Sells and co-author, Michael Cole, make enough room for the father to show a hint of regret for the harm he’s caused without pretending that his remorse makes everything alright.
An intriguing idea with some strong stories. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Novel
The Last Last-Day-of-Summer: A Legendary Alston Boys Adventure #1, by Lamar Giles. Illustrated by Dapo Adeola. (Versify, 2019)
Cousins Otto and Rasheed (Sheed) are legendary detectives in their home town of Fry, Virginia, and they have the case files to prove it. Like many cousins, they are often at odds with one another and Otto, for his part, grows impatient with his cousin when he refuses to get out of bed on the last day of summer before school. If only there was some way of making this day last so that Otto and Sheed could have more adventures! Weird things happen in the town of Fry but even Otto and Sheed are surprised when a strange man called Mr. Flux appears and freezes time with his camera. The entire town of Fry is frozen in place on the last day of summer. Otto and Sheed must put aside their differences and work together to save their town before they’re frozen out of it for good.
This is Lamar Giles’ first attempt at writing MG fiction and he’s still getting used to the form. The humour in the book sometimes feels forced to the point of slapstick, which might not be a problem for it’s intended audience. However, he could forgo much of the zaniness and focus in on the banter between Otto and Sheed, their interactions with the townspeople and their grandmother’s no-nonsense observations. This is where the real humour lies and Giles, who excels at character and voice, can pull it off. The competitive relationship between Otto and Sheed is at the heart of the story, and is explored alongside themes of bullying and lost chances. Otto, who usually wants to run the show, has a serious moment of self-reckoning that is not often found in plot-driven novels. I’ll be watching Giles with interest as he hones his MG chops and develops his voice in this genre. (#TPL)
If you’re in the mood for some YA dystopic horror, I recommend The Getaway, by Lamar Giles. (#TPL)
Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! We’ll be back with more great reads next month. See you then!