In Which A Children’s Writer with Offbeat Tastes Reviews a Monthly Selection of Board Books, Picture Books and Middle Grade Novels
Table of Contents:
Welcome to the March edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
After taking a marketing seminar with author educator and publishing reporter Jane Friedman, I’m trying to get my head around the concept of branding. So we’re trying out a new Bookcase Bizarro header this month. Feel free to let us know what you think in the comments below.
As promised, we’ve got a special Jerry Craft graphic novel double feature as well as an extra girl-centric pick in honour of International Women’s Day. Pam Munoz Ryan has a new middle grade novel out, and we’ll share our constructively critical review with you. We’ve got a diverse selection of board and picture books and we’ll introduce you to an Italian cyclist who helped to save hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust…with his bicycle!
So without further ado, let’s dive into March’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.
One Patch of Blue, by Marthe Jocelyn. (Orca Books, 2019)
A seek-and-find adventure where a patch of blue escapes from a pair of trousers and morphs into many other square-shaped objects. Celebrated paper artist Marthe Jocelyn’s illustrations explore both the familiar and the surprising in this beautiful board book. (#TPL)
You See, I See in the City, by Michelle Sinclair Colman. Drawings by Paul Schmid. (Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018)
What can you see in the city? It depends on who you are! A father and daughter take a walk together, each pointing out the various things they see in a way that celebrates the power of different perspectives. Paul Schmid’s drawings are simple yet full of the joys of exploration. (#TPL)
A children’s writer, a literacy tutor and an early childhood educator meet up together once a month to talk about books and what makes them tick. Here are this month’s picks:
The Outlaw (Crow Stories), by Nancy Vo. (Groundwood, 2018)
The Outlaw is, at root, a story of forgiveness. In a village haunted by the dreadful deeds of an outlaw, train deliveries are anxiously monitored, shopkeepers close up early and children are warned to be good or the outlaw will get them. When the outlaw disappears, the entire village is relieved. One day, a stranger comes to town. After years of being terrorized, the village is sorely in need of repair. The stranger begins to fix things up and is befriended by a village boy. When the stranger’s true identity is revealed, the boy defends his new friend before the whole village.
This simple, spare story tackles the complexities of harm and forgiveness in a handful of pages. A child who often makes mistakes and needs forgiveness is in a perfect position to extend forgiveness to someone else. There are a lot of words and concepts for older students to work with in a classroom, to launch discussions about restorative justice, how to resolve fights and make amends. The text is a marvel of brevity, with not a word out of place and builds powerfully to a real-world ending. A very timely read that resonates strongly today.
The monochrome illustrations are a combination of ink, watercolour and newsprint transfer using clippings and fabric patterns from the 1850’s and 1860s, and are a perfect match for the story. (#TPL)
Sir Cassie to the Rescue, by Linda Smith. Illustrated by Karen Patkau. (Orca, 2003)
Cassie’s read a book about knights. Now, she wants to be one but her younger brother, Trevor, refuses to be the damsel. Or pretty much every other role Cassie assigns to him. Cassie wants to play the game, not fight about it, so she decides to negotiate. Nothing turns out quite the way that she’d planned but she hadn’t counted on Trevor’s imagination or her own ability to adapt.
This is a lovely portrait of collaborative play between a sister and brother with the expected amount of resistance that never becomes tedious or over-the-top. The art shows the living room gradually turning into a castle, complete with a queen mother, dragon dog and a feast as the game becomes more and more immersive and elaborate – a very real experience for children engaged in imaginative play. A fun read. (#TPL)
Soul Food Sunday (Audiobook), by Winsome Bingham. Illustrated by C.G Esperanza. Narrated by Sullivan Jones and Winsome Bingham. (Dreamscape Media, 2021)
In this ode to soul food and Sunday family get-togethers, a young boy is recruited by his grandmother into helping prepare the meal as she’s determined that he’s old enough to learn. Wonderful descriptions of food, a great soundtrack and a close camaraderie between grandson and grandmother are the hallmarks of this evocative audiobook. Includes an accompanying recipe for mac n’ cheese. (#TPL)
The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection
Books to Grow Into is a Browne family tradition. When I was a young writerlet, my parents gifted me Books for Now (books which were aimed at my age group) and Books to Grow Into (books which were aimed at older readers).
Each Book to Grow Into occupied an honoured position on my bookshelf until I was ready for them. As I grew older, I decided when I was ready for these books – a thrill all by itself. These books were usually not new books. My famously thrifty parents fostered a love of used, hand-me-down and library books in me, which meant that I could enjoy lots of books without a correspondingly high price tag.
In honour of my parents, these recommendations are tagged: The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection. This month’s selection is:
Bartali’s Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy’s Secret Hero, by Megan Hoyt. Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. (Quill Tree Books, 2021)
This intriguing picture book biography of Gino Bartali, recognized by Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Israel) as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” tells the story of how Italy’s humble cycling champion saved more than 800 Jews from the Nazis during World War Two. (It turns out that hollow bicycle tubes are excellent for smuggling forged identity papers and documents.) Thanks to DALASEM (Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emmigrants and the organization that Bartali was a part of), Italy saved an astounding 80% of Jews living in Italy before World War II broke out.
Hoyt does a good job of bringing Bartali’s story to life, as well as his love of cycling, his humble nature and his determination to help rescue persecuted people. She also makes readers think about the nature of heroism by foregrounding Bartali’s own reluctance to adopt the label for himself: “Good is something you do, not something you talk about.” There were a couple of places where the message overtook the story but overall, readers will follow Bartali’s daily escapades in wartime Italy with excitement and interest.
Bruno’s pencil and digital colour illustrations explode from the page, bringing the events of the war home in larger-than-life detail.
This book would especially appeal to a beginning reader who’s fond of stories about real-life heroes, and provides an ‘in’ for discussions about the many possible meanings of that word. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Graphic Novels
New Kid (New Kid #1) and Class Act (New Kid#2) by Jerry Craft, (Quill Tree Books, 2019 and 2020)
In Jerry Craft’s New Kid, Jordan Banks, a budding cartoonist, wants nothing more than to go to art school but his parents enroll him in Riverdale Academy Day School (AKA RAD), a private school known for it’s academics…and nearly all-white student and teacher body. Starting at a new school is hard enough but when Jordan arrives on campus, he discovers he’s one of the only students of colour. Cringe-worthy ‘affirmative action’ platitudes from teachers don’t disguise the very real racism and micro aggressions Jordan and the other students of colour face on a daily basis. The longer he stays at the school, the more disconnected Jordan feels from his Washington Heights neighbourhood and friends until he wonders if he fits in anywhere. Jordan turns to comics to help him make sense of his experiences while he figures out how to navigate seventh grade while remaining true to himself.
Class Act is a much more complex story, involving eighth grader Drew Ellis, who’s beginning to suspect that he’ll never get the same opportunities as the privileged kids, no matter how hard he works. Jordan Banks arrives back at school only to find out that he’s the shortest kid in the class without the ‘big boy stink’ his friends all seem to have. After he and Jordan are invited over to their friend, Liam’s mansion, Drew finds himself at odds with Liam, resenting his privileged and ‘easy’ life. But Liam’s father is rarely at home, his mother is desperately lonely, and his sister has angrily retreated from the family. Liam needs his friends but Drew isn’t sure if he even wants to be Liam’s friend anymore, and Jordan isn’t sure how to hold their once tight-knit group together. As Drew finds himself the target of racism, including being unfairly corrected by a white teacher (who always calls him by another black student’s name), he isn’t sure if he even wants to stay at the school, let alone bridge the growing gap between himself and his friends.
Jerry Craft’s New Kid and Class Act are meant to be read together. I am famous for reading books out of sequence but readers who do so with this series will miss the way the story builds over the two books. Readers get a strong sense of the way that racism and class privilege play out inside and outside the classroom of an exclusive private school, and the ways in which well-intentioned (but ultimately clueless) white teachers perpetuate the very stereotypes their curriculum claims to challenge. A very striking example is when a group of students from a far less privileged school are invited to view what RAD has to offer, leave them feeling angered after being shown all the state-of-the-art equipment and facilities their own school is missing. Clueless white teacher, Mr. Roche, has chosen Drew and another RAD student to show the visiting kids around but reveals he’s chosen them based on their skin tone, thinking that would create a better sense of ‘community’ among the kids.
Craft doesn’t stop there. The story forces Drew to deal with his own prejudice against Liam and Liam to deal with his uneasiness about visiting Jordan’s and Drew’s Washington Heights neighbourhood. Jordan’s comics weave humourous and biting social commentary throughout both books, as he sketches out what happens to his friends as well as his worries. Largely silent in seventh grade except when confronting a nasty classmate, the students start to speak up and call out the behaviour of privileged teachers and students alike. Readers can feel the exhaustion of these confrontations on top of the racism, micro aggressions and very demanding academic pressures the students already face. Such is Craft’s art that readers are also aware of the networks of support the students build among each other before Jordan, Drew or Liam clue into it. It makes us root for them all the more. We become, in a way, part of their circle of support.
Helpful adults do exist, largely in the form of Jordan’s parents, Drew’s grandmother and a driver for Liam’s family, who acts more like a father to Liam than Liam’s own father does. They gently encourage the boys to consider each others’ perspectives while they work through their differences, mend their friendships with each other and navigate through the craziness that is middle school. Jordan, Drew, Liam, their friends and families will resonate strongly with readers long after they put the books down precisely because they are so strong, interesting and fully-realized. Read together, the two books are…well, a class act! (#TPL)
Sorceline, by Sylvia Douyé. Illustrated by Paola Antista. (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2022)
Professor Archibald Balzar. a renowned cryptozoologist on the Isle of Vorn, is offering a summer apprenticeship for his best student, and Sorceline hopes to be chosen. Only she’s competing with every other student in the class for the coveted position. Learning how to heal hurt mythical creatures (including pixies, a gorgon and a dragon) is challenging enough but Sorceline soon discovers that she possesses strange abilities that cause her to question her very identity. When her classmates start disappearing, Sorceline wonders if she’s responsible, since each disappearance occurs after one of her angry outbursts. Is she unknowingly cursing her classmates? Will she get kicked out of school before she has a chance to discover what’s happened to the students or finds out who she really is?
I have a soft spot for boarding school books, so I thoroughly enjoyed this take on a cryptozoology academy. The kids are well-differentiated and diverse, and each one has their own story.
Sorceline’s struggles with her identity are convincing without being self-absorbed, as she cares deeply about how her actions might be affecting others. This empathy – combined with her struggles – makes her relatable and likeable. Many middle graders will recognize (and identify with) Sorceline’s sudden fits of bad temper.
For me, one of the most interesting characters is Tara, a student who fiercely competes with Sorceline to win the apprenticeship. Tara confides in her friend, Arlene, that she needs to win it because life is so much better for her at the school than it is at home. She takes an instant dislike to Sorceline, who always gives the right answers in class and seems to be Professor Balzar’s favourite. And who can blame her? A character this prickly and empathetic cries out for further development in later books.
This is a portal fantasy but for me, the mechanics of how the students got to Vorn needed further development. None of the students have any memory of how they arrived at the school. Wouldn’t they have been shocked to discover themselves in a strange place, with no idea of how they got there? Cell service is non-existent on Vorn, yet Sorceline is somehow able to use her phone to communicate with her mother. Wouldn’t Sorceline’s mother be a bit freaked out to find her daughter missing, not to mention that she’s ended up at a strange school that the mother can’t visit? Portal mechanics are finally explained near the end but without being more fully integrated into the plot, they feel tacked on. The disorienting experience of arriving on Vorn and Sorceline’s discovery of the portal could have been used to amplify her self-doubts throughout the book, making for a stronger story.
Paola Antista’s black and white art is both beautiful and eerie, conveying that all is not what it seems on the Isle of Vorn.
Reader alert: the book ends on an unexpected cliffhanger, which may or may not work for some readers. (#TPL)
I received this book in exchange for an honest review from NetGalley and Andrews McMeel Publishers.
Middle Grade Novel
Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs, by Pam Munoz Ryan. (Disney Hyperion, 2022)
Solimar Guadalupe, princess-to-be of San Gregorio, wants nothing more than to accompany her father, the king, to the annual mercado in Puerto Rivera down the hill from San Gregorio but she’s not permitted to go. In fact, she’d like to be made king after her father but that role belongs to her brother, the reluctant Prince Campeón. Solimar’s main duty is getting ready for her quinceañera, a coming-of-age celebration that will occur on her fifteenth birthday. Fortunately, she’s got the annual arrival of the monarch butterflies to distract her.
Eager to greet the migrating swarm, Solimar disobeys her family’s warning not to go out alone or cross the river to the monarch’s sacred island. The swirling butterflies bestow upon her a gift of being able to foretell the future as well as the burden of caring for a clutch of unborn butterflies that have become trapped in her rebozo (shawl). When a scheming king invades San Gregorio and takes the royal family hostage, only Solimar escapes. Her visit to the mercado has just been granted, but not in the way that she expected. She must find a way to warn her father while taking care of the still-unhatched butterflies entrusted to her care and guarding the secret of their gift.
I’ve read two other books by Pam Munoz Ryan: Esperanza Rising and Echo, two superb upper middle grade novels. (I think that Echo is a masterpiece.) But Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs, reads a bit more like a book still in the making: fascinating for me as a writer but a bit frustrating for me as a reader.
Although the book is pitched to an 8-12 middle grade audience, Solimar is nearly 15 years old. Her voice also sounds much younger than a fourteen-soon-to-be-fifteen year old.
The first half of the book is the strongest, and introduces us to Solimar, a girl who’s torn between tradition and rebellion. (In other words, a perfect upper middle grade hero.) The kingdom of San Gregorio, Solimar’s home and family are all drawn with the same rich, warm detail I’ve come to expect from Munoz Ryan’s work, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Solimar’s relationship with her Abuela. Munoz Ryan excels in portraying supportive relationships between women, especially ones that span generations. She also plays with fairy tale conventions and in this story we’ve got a curandera (healer/medicine woman) in the woods with a clutch of talking dolls, and a wise guardian bird, who manufactures a hilarious distraction later on in the book.
But the story falters midway. Solimar’s torn between her sense of duty to the kingdom and the kind of disobedience that can lead to innovation, but her inner journey becomes strangely detached from the outer journey she takes to the mercado to warn the king. I would have expected Solimar, who’s already proven she can think for herself but still feels attached to her family, to struggle more with her decisions. The bird, her talking doll companion and the river engineer she meets could all have challenged her perspective in the way that friends do and sown some much-needed seeds of self-doubt.
Solimar’s never tempted to use the butterfly’s gift of foretelling at dangerous junctures for herself – a weakness that may have led her to a more full realization of the dangers her magical gift has bestowed and may have made her more determined to complete the journey on her own. Instead, she gets through each hurdle with minimal reflection – or regret – and makes none of the wrong decisions that would force her to grapple with and grow into herself.
There’s not even a confrontation with her father, the king – a man who’s forbidden Solimar to make the journey she’s just completed. Without having to fight for her vision for San Gregorio and her right to make a forbidden journey, Solimar’s transformation from dutiful daughter to would-be-ruler feels unconvincing and incomplete.
I love Pam Munoz Ryan’s writing but I felt that Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs needed more development. The page count is too short to allow Munoz Ryan to excel at the things she’s so good at: complex character development, a unique re-working of fairy tale conventions and a strong sense of landscape, place and family all interwoven into an impeccable plot. It’s confusing to me why Solimar wasn’t allowed to be the wonderful upper middle grade hero she so clearly is.
I received this book in exchange for an honest review from NetGalley and Disney Hyperion. (#TPL)
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