Children’s Book Reviews by a Children’s Writer
Table of Contents
Welcome to the June edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
In writing news, I’ve started working on Shadow Apprentice with my editor and am busy writing a book design brief for my book designer. Oh, and I’m still working on the first draft of a LitRPG-influenced YA sci-fi fantasy that I started last November. Juggling multiple roles and projects in various stages of development is definitely taking some getting used to but I’m trying to divide the work up into writing-related, marketing-related and administrative tasks and making sure that I am doing all three every week (with writing-related tasks taking up the lion’s share of the work).
What does marketing look like for a writer who doesn’t have a book published yet? It largely consists of promoting this blog and building my mailing list. I participate in a couple of blog hops every month and write mini-reviews on Instagram to drive traffic to my website. I’ve read a lot about reader magnets, including the advice that writers should offer a free short story or novella that’s set in the same world as my book.
The problem is, the only stories I’ve got ‘ready’ are definitely not related to my book. Writing a new story while I’m up to my eyeballs in work is not an option, so my choice is to either release an unrelated story or do nothing at all. Any advice from the indie writers out there?
ALLI: The Alliance for Independent Authors has just completed three ground-breaking studies on indie authors. Among the gems: LGBTQ+ authors are outearning heterosexual writers by 19% (a much-needed piece of good news for us rainbow folks) and in a reverse gender gap, female self-published authors are outearning male self-published authors by 40.9% – almost the exact percentage in traditional publishing, where male authors outearn female authors by 41.4%. All three studies are available for download at ALLi’s website.
This month, we travel back to an abandoned farmhouse to re-imagine the lives of 12 kids who lived there, solve a mystery involving MMIW and the repatriation of indigenous ancestors, take a school trip to Paris and get enmeshed in a family curse.
So pick up your beach towel 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.
Farmhouse, by Sophie Blackall. (Little Brown, 2022.)
Writer and illustrator Sophie Blackall’s discovery of a dilapidated 19th Century farmhouse on her property is the inspiration behind this book. Exploring the ruins, she began to wonder about the people who’d once lived and being a visual artist, she gathered up various scraps and materials that caught her eye: wallpaper, composition books, newspapers, brown paper bags, clothing, handkerchiefs, curtains and string.
After conducting some research, she found out that the farmhouse had once belonged to a family with 12 children. Blackall used the various material she’d gathered, along with Chinese ink, watercolour , gouache, and coloured pencil to rebuild the farmhouse on paper, detail by detail, room by room. (I’ve enlarged the cover so you can see the wonderful interior details through the windows.)
The prose takes the form of a cumulative tale. In one memorable passage, the children:
“..painted the cat,
about which they lied,
for which they were scolded
and maybe they cried
and then were enfolded
in forgiving arms
in the serious room
(where the organ was played
and speeches were made)
but if they weren’t
even sorry at all,
they were sent to their rooms,
where they poured over books…”
The story takes on a wonderfully circular pattern, starting with the 12 children and their escapades through the years as they grow up and leave. The deserted farmhouse then becomes home to other kinds of families – a squirrel, birds and even a bear in the basement – until it is rediscovered by the author/illustrator and brought back to life in these pages. How the circle reaches out to loop readers in, I’ll leave for you to discover.
I absolutely loved this book and I would have loved it just as much as a kid. The illustrations function as a kind of two-dimensional dollhouse, with Blackall offering us tantalizing glimpses into each room as we follow the adventures of the children throughout the house. The feeling is very much like being welcomed into a chaotic but warm family. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that a toy company has already approached Blackall with a merchandising offer.
A great choice for more introspective readers (ages 4 and up). From a two-time Caldecott medal winner. Exquisite. (#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:
Warrior Girl Unearthed, by Angeline Boulley. (Henry Holt, 2023)
Author Angeline Boulley takes us back to magnificent Sugar Island in this sequel to Firekeeper’s Daughter.
When her ambitious, motivated twin sister Pauline is assigned to an internship at Sugar Island Tribal Council, Perry Firekeeper-Birch isn’t worried. She’s looking forward to a Summer of Slack, fishing and tooling around in the jeep Aunt Daunis has given to them. When she crashes the jeep while speeding, Perry gets assigned to an internship by her furious Aunt Daunis and all her plans for a relaxed summer go up in smoke. Perry won’t be able to drive or keep one cent of her wages until she pays back Aunt Daunis. She’s also got the worst assignment imaginable: working for Kooky Cooper Turtle at the Sugar Island Cultural Centre. Perry can’t imagine being cooped up with Cooper all summer, in a museum no less. She’d rather be working on the fishing boats. At least, she’d be outdoors.
When Cooper Turtle takes Perry to Mackinac State College, she is introduced to Warrior Girl, an ancient ancestor the college is keeping in a collection along with other indigenous ancestors and belongings. Cooper is working on a repatriation deal with the university so he can bring Warrior Girl and the other ancestors back to Sugar Island where they belong, but the college is resistant. Perry is taken with Warrior Girl and is appalled that white anthropologists collect and display ancestral remains, which have been stolen from her community. Maybe Cooper Turtle isn’t so kooky after all. When Cooper arranges for Perry to hold a knife that once belonged to Warrior Girl, she knows that she has to do something.
Back in the parking lot, Cooper instructs Perry to resign from the internship if she can’t promise to help him get all the ancestors back to Sugar Island. Perry’s all in, a commitment that deepens as women from the community start to disappear. The links between the colonial appropriation of indigenous ancestors and their belongings, and missing and murdered indigenous women are unmistakable, and the connection takes a more sinister turn when Perry’s family becomes embroiled in a high-profile murder investigation. That’s when Perry decides to take matters into her own hands.
The impact of colonial racism is felt and experienced by Sugar Island’s inhabitants but it’s also resisted because of the strong cultural practices and ceremonies the community has reclaimed in the post-residential school era, which makes repatriation all the more poignant – and urgent. The legacy is still there but it must not be allowed to have the final word.
The world of Sugar Island is utterly immersive. The community is a complex one but its people go to the ends of the earth to help and protect one another, and their sense of humour is irreverent without ever being intentionally harmful. Boulley also doesn’t shy away from taking on tribal politics, calling out leaders who take advantage of their power to manipulate, abuse or control others.
Perry Firekeeper-Birch is a flawed and convincing teenager, unwilling at first to take responsibility for her actions or her big mouth until heartbreaking consequences force her to start considering other people’s feelings and perspectives. Her tendency to mouth off matures into an ability to speak truth to power as she starts seeking justice for her community and the missing women. Boulley excels in portrayals of multi-layered female characters who use their ingenuity and agency to solve mysteries and refuse to let themselves be victimized. It’s refreshing and uplifting to meet women who don’t doubt their power.
It took Boulley 36 years to write her first book, Firekeeper’s Daughter, which is a masterpiece. (You can read my short review here.) She took maybe a year (?) to write this one. Warrior Girl Unearthed is a fantastic book but it is not as richly layered or tightly woven as her debut novel. I wish that Boulley could have taken more time with this story though I can imagine the many reasons why she could not. Still, Warrior Girl Unearthed has very successfully avoided the Curse of the Second Book – no mean feat – and she is definitely a writer to watch.
While Firekeeper’s Daughter and Warrior Girl Unearthed are categorized as YA, both titles would be perfect for tweens who are ready to move onto more complex stories. Recommended. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
School Trip (New Kid #3), by Jerry Craft. (Quill Tree, 2023)
It’s time for the end of school trip at Riverdale Academy and Jordan, Drew and Liam are all off to Paris. Jordan, an aspiring artist, can’t wait to visit all the museums and galleries and see all the amazing art he’s heard so much about. He’s also scared of feeling like the ‘new kid’ all over again in an unfamiliar place with a different culture. None of the kids are pleased to discover that Andy, their arch nemesis, is going on the trip, as well.
When a computer mix up replaces their teachers at the last minute, the kids end up with the clueless Mr. Roche and the beleaguered Mr. Garner, who have had no time to prepare for the trip because of the last minute switch, and are not exactly the best of friends. Trying to navigate around Paris becomes a group effort, with Jordan and his friends revisiting unpleasant emotional territory with Andy. At first, the kids fall back into the same arguments but leaving the closed culture of Riverdale Academy behind for Paris – a place they never imagined they would go – allows them to shift old dynamics. This school trip might be life changing in more ways than one.
I was looking forward to the continuing story of Jordan, Drew and Liam and their ever-evolving friendship, including their ongoing war with arch nemesis Andy, who becomes an important secondary character in this book. I found that the book introduced too many new characters and side stories that took the focus away from the three main characters that fans like me are the most connected to. The plot was more scattered than I would have liked.
There are exceptions. Maury is more strongly developed in School Trip in a way that enhances the story. His family is even wealthier than Liam’s but Maury is very aware of his advantages. He and Liam are the only kids in the group who’ve been to Paris before but it’s Maury who becomes the school’s guide, taking over this role from his overwhelmed and under-resourced teachers. It’s a nice touch that the teachers let themselves be led by one of their students.
Some of the most powerful scenes in the book involve kids finding the courage to finally stand up to Andy. He is challenged on his behaviour throughout the trip and is called out one night by the entire group. For the first time, Andy finds himself completely surrounded by the very kids he’s picked on. To Craft’s credit, he doesn’t make this scene easy for readers. Andy’s clearly hurt but when one of the kids tries to stop the confrontation, Ramon, the kid who’s been most terrorized by Andy, asks his classmates why they’re so focused on protecting Andy, when they did nothing to protect Ramon from Andy’s teasing? This is Craft at his best, drawing out a nuanced truth with hard questions.
Drew also has it out with Andy for his tendency to generalize from his own experiences, refusing to see how different Drew’s experiences (and the experiences of other students of colour) are to his own. Andy is uncomfortable and reacts defensively. He ends up telling Drew that he doesn’t want to feel guilty because Drew’s life sucks (Andy’s words, not mine), and that he’d prefer not to hear about the effects of systemic racism on Drew at all. (How Drew handles this and turns the tables on Andy is priceless and only serves to prove Drew’s point.)
It is here that Craft misses an opportunity to connect Andy’s defensiveness more deeply to the subject of book banning, which he introduces in a tangential way in School Trip. Andy’s denial of systemic racism mirrors the attitudes of people who wish to ban books in schools and libraries. (Craft’s own books have been banned for this very reason.) I would have liked to have seen this parallel more clearly developed throughout the book, rather than simply having Miss Brickner, the school librarian, champion banned books at the end to Jordan and his friends.
The ability to travel is still determined by class and colour. Maury is greeted with white outrage when he boards the plane as a first class ticket holder. Back at home, Jordan gives his friend, Kirk, 10 Euros and makes him promise that he’ll take a trip to Paris one day to spend it. A bemused Kirk agrees. Jordan’s very aware of how his neighbourhood friends don’t have any future goals for themselves because they don’t even know they’re allowed to dream (for me, the saddest line in the book). Book bans attempt to deny the systemic discrimination that underpins this reality for so many people.
I don’t know if this will be the last book in the series or not. I feel like there is unfinished business between Jordan and his mother, a high achieving parent who wants her son to excel at a career that will make him a lot more money than his dream of being an artist. Liam has grown even angrier with his family, and has noticed the way that Maury’s parents spend time with their kids. Maury is such a richly realized character, that he deserves his own story. I’d like to see more of Samira. What are Drew’s dreams for the future?
Craft wrote the book to show kids of colour that they too, could travel the world and dare to dream bigger, while acknowledging the systemic conditions that hold them back. All fans of the New Kid series will be eager to read this book but new readers should probably begin with Books 1 and 2, New Kid and Class Act, to get the full impact of the series. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Novel
The Carrefour Curse, by Dianne K. Salerni. (Holiday House, 2023)
Garnet Carrefour has always wanted to visit her cousins at Crossroads House, the legendary, magical estate where her mother grew up. Garnet’s mother hasn’t set foot in the house since before Garnet was born, and she aims to keep it that way. But when Garnet starts spitting up frogs, her mother’s forced to seek help from the rest of her family in order to break the spell.
Crossroads House is nothing like the stories Garnet’s heard. The estate is depressingly shabby, and a fire has burned down one entire wing to ruins. Everyone seems to be afraid of Jasper, the ruling magical patriarch of the clan, who keeps himself alive by stealing power from the other family members. The house itself is a malignant presence, arranging the accidents, unexpected illnesses and unexplained disappearances that help to keep Jasper in power. Then Garnet uncovers the roots of an ancient curse that is somehow wrapped up in her destiny as a Carrefour. Did it summon her to Crossroads House so that she could be devoured by Jasper? Or is she the one who will finally break the curse’s hold over her family?
First off, I have to thank Valinora Troy for introducing me to this title. She is right – the book is excellent.
I was delighted by the appearance of a supernaturally cursed house, a family with complex magical gifts, and a grandfather who is both toxic patriarch and psychic vampire. A spot of time travel is the icing on this already deliciously dark cake. The gothic tropes are as enjoyable as they are scarily convincing. The Carrefour family is warmly drawn and Garnet’s growing friendship with her cousins provides a much-needed respite from the family trauma. Salerni isn’t afraid to let her characters make desperate mistakes or show adults as sometimes flawed, downright creepy or dangerous. There’s a wonderful moment when Garnet’s mother recognizes just how strong her daughter is, and how wrong she was to shelter her. Readers may find themselves flipping back and forth to the family tree to keep the various family members straight.
On an interesting side note, The Carrefour Curse is Salerni’s homage to the gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows. I can relate. As a tween, I was mesmerized by a Canadian Dark Shadows spinoff, Strange Paradise. (You can watch all 195 episodes on YouTube. Torontonians will instantly recognize Casa Loma, which doubles as Desmond Hall.)
A top pick for MG horror fans. (#TPL)
Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! We’re taking a break for July but we’ll be back in August with more great reads. See you then!