Children’s Book Reviews by a Children’s Writer
Table of Contents:
Welcome to the January edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
I didn’t write 50,000 words by the end of NaNoWriMo this year, but I am more than happy with the results. On November 1, 2022 I came to NaNoWriMo armed only with an outline. At the end of January 2023, I’m closing in on 70,000 words of a new YA manuscript. I anticipate having a first draft completed by the end of February, which is the fastest I’ve EVER completed a first draft before.
In March, I’ll turn my attention to finding an editor for my finished MG novel, Shadow Apprentice. Although my manuscript is currently with an agent for evaluation, I’m not sure I’ll be happy in the traditional publishing world. I value the freedom to write what I want, control over my intellectual property and a timely publication schedule – all the things that traditional publishing doesn’t typically offer writers. Plus, I’m really excited by the idea of running my own small – okay, micro – press. Given that I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my life, building an indie publishing business isn’t a huge stretch for me although it will involve almost constant learning and lots of hard work. Good thing I love both!
Kate and I have come to the sad realization that reading children’s non-fiction is not for us. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of great non-fiction titles out there, only that fiction nerds like ourselves are probably not the best reviewers. So it’s back to a fiction-only format for us.
This month, we roll our eyes at clueless dads, stand up to a bullying troll, face down racist microagressions, learn to listen to the horses, and travel back in time through a forbidden apartment.
So take shelter from any winter storms that may blow your way and join us 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.
Mina, by Matthew Forsythe. Illustrated by Leo Espinosa. (Simon & Schuster, 2022.)
Mina lives in her own little world and wants it to stay that way. Mina’s father is the exact opposite. He loves to explore the world and often invites people into their home to visit and stay, like the stick insects he teaches to read and who then steal all of Mina’s books. “Everything will turn out fine,” he’s fond of saying but Mina has her doubts, especially when her father brings home a very large ‘squirrel’ with very large fangs and razor-sharp claws.
Mina is a treasure. It combines the narrative depth of a book like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (which in my humble opinion, belongs on every child’s TBR list) with a wry humour that’s all its own. Forsythe’s storytelling is top-notch, and features the long-suffering Mina as the third-person narrator. Readers will enjoy the various escapades that Mina’s father drags her into as well as Mina’s attempts to cope with his boundless enthusiasms. Forsythe’s watercolour, gouache and coloured pencil drawings are big and bright, emphasizing the wondrous world seen by Mina’s father as well as the the cocoons Mina creates for herself inside their cozy house. The relationship between father and daughter is funny, wry and touching and Mina finally comes to appreciate the value of her father’s perspective.
Highly recommended, especially for kids (and adults) who appreciate offbeat humour. (#TPL)
The Three Billy Goats Gruff, by Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. (Orchard Books, 2022)
A hungry troll waits beneath his bridge for unwary travelers. When a small goat crosses the bridge, the troll is overjoyed. He’s had nothing to eat for days except for ear wax and an old leather boot. The wily little goat appeals to the troll’s sense of greed in order to save himself, and convinces the troll to wait for his bigger, fatter brother. The troll readily agrees, unaware that he’s just sown the seeds of his own destruction.
Speaking of wry humour, no Billy Goats Gruff re-telling comes close to this version by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. Barnett manages to create a hesitant empathy for the starving troll in the opening pages (no mean feat), and Klassen’s sepia-coloured drawings completely capture the troll’s dreary world. However, the troll’s greedy, self-congratulatory nature soon takes over for the rest of the story. As he cavorts about in eager anticipation of an ever larger meal, the troll makes up delicious-sounding rhymes to accompany his dances. The poetry will make everybody salivate, while the repeated rhymes cue readers in on what to expect next. Together, Barnett and Klassen create a rare form of humour that won’t slide over the heads of their young audience. The conclusion is smart and funny, and dares the reader to be as cunning and as brave as the three billy goats who’ve crossed the bridge.
A super fun read.(#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:
Abuelita and Me, by Leonarda Carranza. Illustrated by Raphael Mayani. (Annick Press, 2022)
A girl and her abuelita spend a lot of time together, jumping in puddles, cooking pancakes, painting their nails and exploring the city. Sometimes when they go out, people look down on Abuelita, getting up from a park bench when she sits down beside them. They grow impatient with Abuelita when she tries to speak, claiming not to understand her. Abuelita may not speak English well but the girl understands her meaning. Why can’t any of the adults?
One day, a bus driver accuses Abuelita of refusing to pay her fare even when she’s searching in her bag for the right change. “You people are always trying to get away with something!” He shouts. The girl doesn’t understand why he is so angry or why she suddenly feels as if they’ve done something wrong? At home, Abuelita explains that they did nothing wrong but the girl doesn’t believe her. She feels the wrongness of what was said to them so acutely, that she no longer wants to leave the house.
Abuelita is wonderful and knows exactly what to do. After reassuring and comforting the girl, she gives her space. She puts no pressure on the girl to go out, letting her take the lead and set the pace. And she does. Eventually, the two begin to go out again. The girl draws pictures of the bus driver as a monster and tears it up to vanquish her fears but is bewildered when Abuelita won’t tear up her own monster picture. Abuelita eyes it sadly, knowing that tearing up all the pictures in the world won’t be enough to protect her granddaughter from the next racist incident. It is the sight of her Abuelita’s sadness that allows the girl to transition from fear to anger and action, fueling a satisfying conclusion that flies over the head of the racist bus driver but not the reader.
The vibrant colours and shapes of Miyani’s illustrations emphasize the joyful and loving relationship between Abuelita and the girl at every turn, which makes their triumph so much more complete. Abuelita can’t protect her granddaughter from racist microagressions but through her own example, she teaches her how to refuse to be defined by them. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
Ride On, by Faith Erin Hicks. (First Second Books, 2022)
More than anything else, Victoria loves to ride horses but taking lessons at the expensive Waverly Stables is no picnic. Victoria has to pay for the lessons herself, which means working every minute of every day for the entire summer. Victoria’s best friend, Taylor, loves competing and can’t understand why Victoria wants to take a break. Taylor never has to worry about money and her parents can even afford to buy her a horse. She’s angry at Victoria’s apparent desertion and even denies Victoria a chance to ride her new horse, King, saying that Victoria’s not skilled enough to handle him.
Hurt and angry, Victoria escapes the stresses and dramas of Waverly for Edgewood Stables, where she doesn’t know anybody – and aims to keep it that way. She doesn’t want to be rejected for not being a serious rider ever again but is a ‘no friends’ policy really the best way to protect herself?
We’re not (and never have been) horse crazy, so we were a little hesitant to try this book. Are we ever glad we did! Hicks’ book takes a deep dive into friendship in all it’s forms, both animal and human, and the results are wonderfully messy and complicated. As Victoria grapples with her discomfort around friendship, readers get a glimpse of all the fun she’s missing out on and are really, REALLY invested in her as a character. It’s very fitting that a skittish horse named Winter teaches Victoria the lesson she most needs to learn, which is not to let her fears dictate her actions, and to see others for who they really are. Trust flourishes when we listen to others and respect their needs, instead of trying to force them to fit inside our preconceived notions of who they ‘ought’ to be.
Ride On boasts a convincing and diverse cast. Each character is presented as a three-dimensional person with flaws, complex lives and struggles of their own. The ways that they relate to each other are sometimes confused as they untangle themselves from the mistakes they’ve made but that only enhances their believability. Victoria’s Edgewood rival, Norrie, even has her own character arc, which adds considerably to the depth of the story and allows readers to gather insights that are unavailable to Victoria – and vice versa. Hicks also tackles class issues at Waverly stables by clearly showing the price Victoria has to pay for membership – a price that the more privileged Taylor is unwilling or unable to acknowledge.
The one strained note here is Norrie, the unofficial assistant barn manager and resident drama queen, who’s entirely too much, too much of the time. She’s forced to look at her own behaviour after a timely comeuppance that’s entirely of her own making, and starts to develop after that point but the caricature-like portrait at the beginning seriously grated on our nerves to the point where we dreaded every scene she was in. However, it’s a sign of Hicks’ talent that we came to empathize with Norrie’s prickly, self-centred loudness and understand that it’s rooted in an insecurity at being constantly compared to her high-achieving brother. Hicks has one more surprise in store for Victoria, when she encounters her former best friend, Taylor, at a riding competition. Victoria is able to put Winter’s lessons to good use with Taylor but will Taylor be able to reciprocate?
Hicks’ drawings of horses are so realistic, you can almost feel them nuzzling into the palm of your hand and her young women are refreshingly at ease in their bodies, no matter what size or shape they are.
Warm, richly detailed and realistic. Horse-crazy or not, kids will enjoy reading and re-reading this one, for sure. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Novel
Apartment 713, by Kevin Sylvester. (HarperCollins, 2022)
Jake Simmons hates the run-down apartment building he and his mother move into when his mother loses her job. Gone is the suburban house with the suburban lifestyle. Jake’s new bedroom is a crumbling mess, and the rest of the building, named The Regency – isn’t much better. Angry and resentful, Jake sets out to explore the building when some escaped kittens lead him to the apartment of an old lady who’s even worse off than he is. There, he meets Larry the custodian, who offers him a job.
Jake soon gets into a routine of delivering mail, helping to feed cats and generally looking out for the residents, all of whom are hurt and vulnerable in some way. Jake gets to know every apartment in The Regency except for apartment 713, which has been bricked off.
Their fortunes take a collective turn for the worse when the city reveals its plans to demolish The Regency. A down-in-the-dumps Jake wanders down to the custodian’s office in the bowels of the basement, where a rusty bell summons him to apartment 713. When he unlocks door to the apartment, it swings open to a time when The Regency was new and elegant, and introduces a new friend, Beth, into the story. A mystery lies at the heart of The Regency. As Beth and Jake work together to uncover it. Jake wonders whether the key to saving The Regency in his own time is buried somewhere in it’s past?
This was one of our favourite MG reads of the past few months. Neither of us foretold all of the twists and turns or even knew where the story was going at times, so the surprise factor stayed high. We loved the idea of a whole house disguised as a treasure hunt. We loved even more that it was built by two child-like (not childish) adults, for a very adult purpose: providing a home for people who need a safe haven for as long as they need it. This idea of home is central to the book and it takes root in us through Jake, as he begins to realize exactly what The Regency means to them all.
The Regency’s architect, Mr. Williams, was one of our favourite characters – an adult who’s not afraid to take direction from kids, because he enjoys their company and values their opinions. (Any child should be so lucky to have a Mr. Williams in their lives.) The relationship is not one-sided, however. Jake and Beth pull Mr. Williams out of a grief-induced depression and help him to restore his sense of curiosity, hope, purpose and belief in The Regency. Famous baseball players, musicians and artists show up in lively cameos but the research Sylvester obviously did is largely invisible, coming to life inside the story itself.
The ending works and not everything is perfect – which is pretty much the perfect ending, as far as we’re concerned. (#TPL)
TeachingBooks has a great Kevin Sylvester page where you can check out his books, watch several author interviews and view other resources.
Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! We’ll be back with more great reads next month. See you then!