Bookcase Bizarro: Children’s Book Reviews March, 2023

Bookcase Bizarro Header, Kids Reading Books in a Line Along the Bottom Edge.

Children’s Book Reviews by a Children’s Writer

Table of Contents:
Picture Books
The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
Middle Grade Novel

Welcome to the March edition of Bookcase Bizarro!

I’ve officially taken the plunge and decided to go indie! This week, I registered my brand spanking new company, Crooked Mile Media, set up a separate bank account and created some new spreadsheets to help me keep track of income and expenses. I will also be using additional spreadsheets created by the amazing Creative Academy for Writers to keep track of all of Crooked Mile Media’s stats and data (because you can never have enough stats and data). I highly recommend their book, Full Time Author, for authors who are interested in creating a comprehensive business plan.

Crooked Mile Media will publish Shadow Apprentice as its inaugural title. When? I don’t know. I’m still working out my production schedule. I’m also still writing the first draft of my YA-crossover manuscript – 400 pages and counting (!), and I’m starting my final developmental edits for Shadow Apprentice. Next step? Hiring a good copy editor, proofreader and book cover designer.

Luckily Canada Reads, the annual ‘battle of the books’ competition hosted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), has just been released in podcast form. You can check out this year’s 5-day book war at the CBC’s Canada Reads page. Beware of spoilers though, especially in Episode 2. (Holy cannoli, contestants, what were you thinking?) You can also check out the wonderful podcast and YouTube channel Canada Reads: American Style, where an American and Canadian join forces to talk about Canadian books. This year’s nominees include a GRAPHIC NOVEL! (Kate Beaton’s Ducks, which I highly recommend.)

This month, we spend a hot summer’s day transforming into animals, go for a long, steamy soak at a Japanese bath house, travel through time in a remarkable way, see how internalized racism can turn people into their own worst enemies at exactly the time when they need to be their own best friends, and take to the Maine woods to search for a lost boy who can’t speak.

So shake the rain off your umbrella and pull up a dry chair (if you can find one) 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.

Picture Books

Book cover showing a light brown sloth hanging upside down from a tree.

I’m not Sydney, by Marie Louise Gay. (Groundwood, 2022.)

When Sydney climbs a tree on a hot summer’s day, he decides he is no longer Sydney but a sloth. His friend, Sami, doesn’t want to be a sloth – sloths are too slow – so she decides to become a spider money instead. As Sami swings from branch to branch and Sydney hangs upside down, Edward becomes an elephant, and Anamaria and Brigitte turn into an anteater and a bat. The day is very hot, so who can blame Edward when he fills up his trunk with water?

Marie-Louise Gay is one of Canada’s best-loved children’s author-illustrators. Her watercolour, 6B pencil and white ink illustrations capture the breezy whimsy of a summer afternoon spent immersed in imaginative play. And can you really blame a bat for wanting to stay up all night?

A perfect bedtime read. (#TPL)

Book cover showing a group of women and children soaking in a big tub. Most of the cover is taken up by a blue expanse of water.

The Big Bath House, by Kyo Maclear. Illustrated by Gracey Zhang. (Random House, 2021)

In this celebration of bodies in all shapes and sizes, Maclear and Zhang introduce us to the world of Japanese bath houses. Each year, a young girl visits her relatives in Japan and accompanies her baachan (grandmother) to the bath house. Aunties and cousins join in the fun. Even though the young girl doesn’t speak the same language as her relatives, love and understanding are conveyed through shared smiles, a fluffy towel held out like a hug, and a reassuring hand squeeze at exactly the right time.

Zhang’s illustrations accentuate the fun, playfulness and sublimely welcome respite that bath house bathing brings to all people across the generations.

A great, body-positive read-aloud for younger children that will make everyone want to step through the pages for a good, long soak in the big tub. (#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:

Book cover. Black backdrop showing the cut-out shape of a house enclosing a forest scene, with a shadowed girl about to walk into it.

Remarkables, by Margaret Peterson Haddix. (Katherine Tegan Books, 2019)

10-year old Marin is relieved when her mother’s new job forces them to relocate to Pennsylvania from Illinois for Mom’s new job. She no longer has to worry about why Ashlyn, her former best friend, deserted Marin to hang with mean girl Kenner and she doesn’t have to think about what she said to them just before she left. Here in the woods behind her house, Marin is free make a fresh start.

From high atop a tree she’s been climbing, Marin realizes she can see down into a yard where a group of teenagers are gathering for a party. Hidden by the leaves, Marin remains invisible as she continues to watch and listen, spying on the party-goers until up to the second when they vanish before her eyes.

What happened to them? Why did they disappear? Are they ghosts? Is Marin the only one who can see them?

At least one person can see the ‘Remarkables’: Charley, Marin’s 10-year old neighbour. This shared discovery doesn’t bring them together, though. Charley warns Marin to stay away from the Remarkables and from him. But Marin can’t keep away. She’s captivated by the happy, easy camaraderie of The Remarkables, so different from her own fractured friendship with Ashlyn. Charley, with an unhappy secret of his own, is drawn like a moth to the Remarkables’ brightness. Why are Marin and Charley the only ones who can see the Remarkables, and why do they gather in the backyard of a house where no one seems to live? Why do they vanish whenever Marin and Charley get too close? For Charley, the answers seem to be wrapped up in a tragic fire involving his own father but Marin isn’t so sure. Will Charley be able to break through his distrust long enough for them to unearth the answers they both need?

The Remarkables combines the fascination-bordering-on-obsession that two lonely children direct at a tight-knit group of friends, with the irresistible pull of a time travel mystery. Marin’s new home in Pennsylvania is far from idyllic. It’s full of families who endure loss, struggle to find jobs and battle with addictions. Peterson Haddix never sugar-coats the very real difficulties faced by Marin and Charley while also situating them inside loving families. While Marin can see this, Charley often can’t. The adults are three-dimensional characters in their own right, especially Marin’s father, and as Marin comes to terms with her own struggles, she becomes much more aware of the uneasy uncertainties in both her own and Charley’s families.

A quiet and layered story buried inside an intriguing, time travel mystery that won’t let you go. (#TPL)

Middle Grade Graphic Novel

Light gold book cover showing a backdrop of mountains. To the left, stands a young, Asian boy with short, black hair. Half of his face visible. He is holding onto a transformer toy.

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang. (First Second, 2006.)

When Jin Wang’s family moves to a new neighbourhood, he discovers that he’s the only Asian American kid in his new school, where every teacher mispronounces his name and the cool kids relentlessly bully him. Jin tries to distance himself from his Asian identity by changing his hair to fit in, but when he falls in love with a white, popular girl, things go from bad to worse.

The Monkey King is a kung fu master who is loved and revered by all his subjects, making him the most powerful monkey on earth, but he yearns to be more than a ruler of monkeys. He wants to take his place among the gods. Ridiculed for his efforts, he becomes angry and vengeful and uses his power to beat the gods into submission.

Danny dreads the yearly visits from his cousin, Chin-kee. (Yes, Yang does go there.) It’s bad enough that Chin-kee is a walking cluster of stereotypes but he’s loud and completely oblivious of how much of an embarrassment he is to Danny. Things are so bad, that Danny has to change schools every year after his visits.

These three tales are supposed to come together with a surprise twist but at first, I couldn’t understand how Danny’s story linked to the others. Danny presents as one of the white popular kids at school while Chin-Kee is drawn as a horrifically racist caricature that Yang uses to make a point about self-hatred. (This is a clue, but that’s all I’m going to say.) I had no idea what to make of this. Was Danny part of a biracial family? And what about the cringe-worthy Chin-kee, a cartoon nightmare who’s not even remotely real?

At school, Danny does his best to distance himself from his totally unreal cousin, until Chin-kee performs a vicious recreation of William Hung’s much-mocked ‘She Bang’ American Idol audition on top of a table in the school’s library. Danny’s subsequent explosion reveals why he has been so personally affected by Chin-kee’s antics and the reasons go far beyond embarrassment. But who – or what – is the real object of all this anger? Is it Chin-kee or is he an exaggerated embodiment of the white students’ racist views? Is it Danny, who beats up Chin-kee in an effort to kill any attachment he might have to his stereotypical cousin? Or is it Jin, who’s been trying to fit in at school to the point of self-erasure? Or the Monkey King, who spends 500 years trapped under a stone mountain because he refuses to accept his true identity? Or is it the internalized prejudice that denies people the ability to accept and value themselves in the first place?

I admit that I had to read American Born Chinese twice to understand (maybe?) the ways that Yang weaves these story strands together. (From the comments at Goodreads, I wasn’t the only one who found the story confusing.) The ending provided just enough resolution to be both satisfying and moving without appearing to solve every problem.

A graphic novel that pulls no punches in addressing the destructive self-hatred and self-erasure caused by internalized racism. (#TPL)

Pikes Peak District Library posted a 2015 talk with Gene Luen Yang on YouTube, where he discusses American Born Chinese in more depth.

Middle Grade Novel

Book cover framed by two large, leafy trees, showing a young white girl walking on a path through the woods. A piebald deer watches her from a nearby field.

Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? By Leslie Connor. (Katherine Tegan Books, 2022)

Nobody ever would have expected hyper-talkative, active Aurora Petrequin to become best friends with non-verbal Frenchie Livernois, but that’s exactly what happened when Frenchie silently chose Aurora back in third grade and she chose him back. The two friends share a love of nature, and like nothing better than to ramble through the woods near their home in Maine.

When they encounter a rare, piebald deer during one of their walks, Aurora feels compelled to follow. She doesn’t worry about getting lost because Frenchie can always find his way home. But she feels lost when she finds out that she and Frenchie will no longer share a classroom at school. How will the teacher interact with Frenchie without Aurora there to advise and help? Aurora’s loud and blurty, and Frenchie is her only friend. During a back-to-school shopping expedition, Aurora meets two new girls and is thrilled by the possibility of making new friends but Frenchie is disturbed by the disruption to their usual routines. When Frenchie goes missing one day at school, the whole town organizes a search for him with Aurora in the lead but Aurora knows that all the yelling in the world won’t help her find Frenchie, not when he can’t answer back.

Book cover showing a large tree, it's trunk and lower branches framed by a sunset. A ladder propped up against its trunk leads to a treehouse. A white boy with a small white dog stands beside the ladder, looking up.

I was thrilled to find this book about two kids on the autism spectrum whose neurodiversities are not the main point of the story. First and foremost, this is a story about friendship. We are drawn into a warm community and an even warmer friendship between two kids who are polar opposites. Neither Frenchie nor Aurora face any bullying at school, a nice reprieve from the usual neurodiverse-kid-as-ridiculed-outsider trope. Aurora, who blurts things out, struggles a bit more to get along with others (especially her teachers) and her enthusiasm at finally making two new friends is almost visceral. Connor imaginatively tackles the emotional tug-of-war that occurs when Aurora wants to broaden her social life and Frenchie wants things to stay the same.

Although the story is mostly told from Aurora’s POV, Connor switches it up to include chapters from Frenchie and Aurora’s baby brother. Connor’s wordsmith mastery is on full display in Frenchie’s chapters, which read almost like prose-poems and provide us an inside view of Frenchie when he is lost. She also includes chapters narrated by various adults in the town, all of whom have been touched by Frenchie Livernois in some way. Taken together, these voices create a wonderful portrait of the ways that the entire town pulls together for Frankie and Aurora. Kudos to Connor for honestly portraying the challenges and struggles of families trying to relate to each other across neurodiversities. (#TPL)

You can read an interview with Leslie Connor over at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, Cynsations. And did I mention that Connor’s The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle is one of my all-time favourite MG reads? (Also #TPL)

Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! We’ll be back with more great reads next month. See you then!

#IMWAYR is a weekly blog hop hosted by Unleashing Readers and Teach Mentor Texts. Its focus is to share the love of KIDLIT and recommend KIDLIT books to readers of all ages.

Greg Pattridge also hosts weekly MG blog hop MMGM every Monday at his website, Always in the Middle.

Professional Reader

6 thoughts on “Bookcase Bizarro: Children’s Book Reviews March, 2023

  1. Thanks for the reviews, books sound great, I’m particularly intrigued by ‘Remarkables’! Congratulations on Crooked Mile Media – I love the name, and it sounds like you have a solid plan, I look forward to hearing how it goes! 🙂

    • Thanks, Valinora! I continue to be haunted by The Remarkables. It’s a high concept MG book that executes well on its premise because we are so deeply invested in the characters, Marin and Charley. I will definitely be reading it again.

      Thank you so much for your encouragement on all things indie! I’m trying not to get overwhelmed by planning things out in 3-month segments. So I have a pretty good idea of what I will be doing from now until June. I don’t know how long everything is going to take the first time out, so I’m hoping that I will get a better idea as I go along.

  2. Congrats on going Indie. Anybody Hear Seen Frenchie sounds like a great story I’d enjoy. We need more books with characters who have autism since so many kids must cope with it.

  3. Thanks for featuring another great compilation of books. I have read all of the middle grade entries and your reviews brought back many fond memories. I hope you are having a Happy MMGM!

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