A Children’s Writer Reviews and Recommends a Monthly Selection of Children’s Books
Table of Contents:
Welcome to the May edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
This month, we attend a midnight fair with an unexpected cast of characters, process our feelings (rather badly), and take a deep dive into an apartment building’s recycling bins. We stitch a solar quilt, get a kid’s eye view to working the front desk of a motel, delve into a story about sibling rivalry that morphs into middle grade folk horror, and learn what it takes to prove that an incarcerated parent is innocent. We find out how hard it is to skate – and survive – on a roller derby track, and renew our commitment to read more poetry – especially poetry that reclaims lost history.
Canadian Children’s Book Week ran from May 1-7, too early for this blog post, but it’s never too late to head over to the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (yes, it’s spelled that way up here) for a searchable, online list of Canadian children’s books. (Be patient. This link takes a couple of minutes to load but it’s totally worth the wait.)
So come in from the rain and sit down (there’s an armchair for two of you to curl up in and a rocking chair for those of you who like to rock) as we dive 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.
A children’s writer, a literacy tutor and an early childhood educator meet up once a month to talk about picture books and what makes them tick. Here are this month’s picks:
Midnight Fair, by Gideon Sterer. Illustrated by Mariachiara Di Giorgio. (Candlewick, 2021)
A wordless picture book about a group of woodland animals (foxes, badgers, weasels, rabbits, bears, raccoons, deer) who break into and take over a fair ground one night, thanks to some pretty nifty fence cutting by the raccoons. Characters and story lines get developed with a fox who wins a goldfish for a prize, and how the animals pay for rides and food. Two illustrated double folds showing a meadow surrounded by trees effectively conveys shifting perspectives. At night, a row of animals fills the meadow, eyeing the fair grounds in excited anticipation. The puzzled grounds keeper, who finds the animals’ money the next morning, stares into that same empty meadow, unable to see the animals dancing off behind the trees.
Di Giorgio’s watercolour, guache and coloured pencil illustrations convey a carnival of light and movement as the joyful animals frolic through the fair. Plenty of humourous moments abound, like a porcupine with a fine collection of candy stuck to their quills and three weasels who carry a pretzel together by shoving their heads through the various twists in the dough.
We’re fans of wordless picture books because they’re so versatile. There’s so much to look at and talk about, that they’re a perfect way for kids to learn about story structure while giving caregivers a chance to practice talking about books with their kids. Caregivers with LDs as well as those who don’t know English might find this book and other wordless picture books a particularly welcome addition to their shelves. (#TPL)
Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild! by Mem Fox. Illustrated by Marla Frazee. (Harcourt, 2000)
Harriet is the kind of kid who gets into everything…literally. Harriet’s mother just wants to get things done. Harriet doesn’t mean to get into so many scrapes and Harriet’s mom tries not to get angry until Harriet gets into one scrape too many and Harriet’s mother completely loses it.
We had very different – and strong – opinions about this book. Overall, we felt that the book that spoke to the very specific cultural phenomenon of permissive, North American parenting. Those of us who were not raised in such permissive homes had trouble relating to what seemed to a complete lack of control as Harriet’s mother let her misbehave again and again. And again. (Surely, she would have headed Harriet off at the pass by the end of the second incident (where Harriet makes a mess by emptying out the kitchen cupboards), and WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND would let their kids do headstands at the kitchen table?!)
Disbelief and shock aside, the way that the mother couches her anger in sugary language betrays a tension that mounts and builds, page after page. Unfazed, Harriet continues to spread chaos and make messes wherever she goes. Harriet’s mother never plays with or redirects her irrepressible daughter, whose destructive behaviour escalates until the mother-volcano finally – and predictably – erupts. One of our panel members pointed out the value of a story about a parent who is pushed too far by their kid and loses it. She reported that her kids LOVED it when Harriet’s mother yelled, and yelled, and yelled!
Frazee’s drawing of a distraught, upset and bewildered Harriet is heartbreaking and acts as a re-set for the story and the equally distraught mother. Omniscient narration gives equal time to Harriet and her mother, but the end result is that the book feels less like a story about Harriet and more about a parent who doesn’t know how to make the time or space for a chaotic kid. While non-permissive households may have a difficult time relating to this book, it does offer a way for caregivers and their kids to talk about good – and bad – ways to process feelings, especially when both parties lose control. Sometimes, anger gets the best of everyone. It happens, just like that.
Marla Frazee’s illustrations were done in pencil and transparent drawing inks on Strathmore paper, hot press finish. They capture Harriet’s acts of escalating chaos as well as the slow burn of her mother’s frazzled nerves perfectly. As one of our panel members said: “That’s exactly what I looked like when my kids were young.” (#TPL)
48 Grasshopper Estates, by Sara de Waal. Illustrated by Erika Medina. (Annick Press, 2021)
A wonderfully urban story where an apartment building and city sidewalk take centre stage as a playground for two very imaginative children. Sicily Bridges can make almost anything from the discarded materials she finds around her apartment building, 48 Grasshopper Estates, like a trumpinette, a dragon with seven tails that can terrify the most fearsome closet monster or a getaway boat to sail across the ocean. She even creates some friends from found materials but none of them are quite the right fit for her. After talking it over with her daytime caregiver, Mrs. Rubenstein, Sicily decides to introduce her manufactured friends to her neighbours and starts making real friends in the process.
It’s interesting to contrast 48 Grasshopper Estates with Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild! Both involve highly active, involved and imaginative children who are out to explore and take over the world. Sicily could almost be an older version of Harriet, needing less supervision but still into absolutely everything her imagination can dream up. Whereas Harriet’s mom is on her own (and possibly overwhelmed), Sicily’s mom goes to work and leaves her daughter in the very capable hands of Mrs. Rubenstein, an older family friend and neighbour. Mrs. Rubenstein strikes the perfect balance between adult caregiver and playful companion, as she enters non-intrusively into Sicily’s adventures. In fact, the whole apartment building functions as a tight-knit community where people know and watch out for each other. It’s not unusual for urban kids to turn a sidewalk or hallway into a play space, as Sicily does. Garbage can be creative (remember all those cardboard box houses?) and Sicily cultivates creativity by recycling all the cool stuff she finds into new toys.
Erika Medina’s colourful panels give a child’s eye view of 48 Grasshopper Estates. She also very adroitly layers a second illustrated story alongside the text-based one, as we move through the apartment building landscape. Readers are invited to make connections and draw conclusions long before Sicily ever does. (#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 sometimes put books that were too hard for me to read in a special place on my bookshelf. They told me not to worry, that one day I would grow into them. They did this only a handful of times, but it made a great impression on me.
Each Book to Grow Into occupied an honoured position on the top left-hand corner of my bookshelf. All of the books were used and well-loved. I didn’t know where they came from (I now suspect that they were culled from my parents’ own shelves). Short story collections from Louisa May Alcott and The Little Black Hen by Eileen O’Faolain and the works of A.A. Milne all sat on my top shelf until the day I discovered that I could read them – a thrill all by itself. By fostering a love of used books and library books in me, my famously thrifty parents showed me how to enjoy books without spending much money. To this day, my library card is the most-used card in my wallet.
Each month, I select these books in honour of my parents, Doug and Sheila Browne. This month’s selection is:
She Stitched the Stars: A Story of Ellen Harding Baker’s Solar System Quilt , by Jennifer Harris. Illustrated by Louise Pigott. (Albert Whitman and Company, 2021)
A picture book biography of Ellen Harding Baker, who stitched a quilt of the solar system from 1876-1883, told from the point of view of her three daughters.
Girls aren’t supposed to climb trees, run or dare each other but the daughters of Ellen Harding Baker do all of these things and more, with their mother’s encouragement. As we follow them walking to town on errands, attending school, tending to the garden or putting up food, mama’s questions bloom in their mind like flowers: How far is the moon? Why do only bees make honey? What causes a comet? On summer nights, they spot the constellations and make their own pictures in the sky. They run to papa’s store to see if any of the books that mama ordered have come in: books about science and astronomy that uncover a world beyond the clouds. Mama reminds them of a woman professor in New England, who brought her female students to Iowa to witness an eclipse. The girls wonder if that be could them someday? While neighbouring women remind the girls that it’s a girl’s duty to sit quietly, cook, keep house and sew – all the things girls are expected to do, mama tells the girls that they will indeed do what is expected: they’ll sew a quilt of the entire solar system.
This is a wonderful celebration of scientific curiosity, specifically a woman’s love of science, which she shares with her daughters at a time when girls and women were not trained for a future beyond home-making. Not a word is wasted in a lyrical narrative that reads like a series of small, linked poems. Mama’s subterfuge teaches a coded rebellion that marginalized people have used throughout history. In illustrator Louise Piggot’s capable hands, the girls’ daily life of chores expands into a world of wonders as they dream, ask questions, explore the outdoors and together, sew a quilt of the solar system that their mother once viewed through a telescope in Chicago. (#TPL)
You can read an author interview with Jennifer Harris here.
Middle Grade Novel
Front Desk (Front Desk Series #1), by Kelly Yang. (Arthur A. Levine, 2018)
Ten-year old Mia Tang lives in a motel with her parents. Her nearest neighbours are the Weeklies, a group of long-term renters who make living at the Calivista bearable. Thanks to the owner, Mr. Yao, Mia can’t even swim in the pool. When she’s not at school, she’s busy staffing the motel’s front desk while her parents clean rooms from dawn until dusk. Mia and her parents are furious that Mr. Yao cheated them out of money they thought they’d get from running the motel. They don’t have enough money to start over and if they leave, who will help the immigrants hiding in its rooms? Mia feels as if she and her family are on a roller coaster ride that will never end until she comes across a sweepstakes with a chance at winning a motel – if she can write a convincing essay. Mia loves to write but how will she master English enough to win the contest – especially when her mother keeps forcing her to focus on math?
Mia is impetuous and feisty, and does not hold back on giving her opinion or taking action – sometimes with disastrous results. She’s particularly outraged by injustice, like many ten-year olds, and wants the world to be a fair place. Working behind the front desk of the Calivista isn’t easy. A couple of dangerous encounters with customers prove that Mr. Yao’s primary concern is money rather than his employees’ safety, something that the Yangs seem powerless to change. Or are they? While Mia brushes up on her English for the contest, she finds a way to wield her pen in unexpected ways to help help the motel’s guests. The adults in this book are fully realized, not side props or inconvenient obstacles. When her mother makes a harsh and hurtful comment to Mia that diminishes her self-confidence, her father is there to re-ignite it. The story also allows Mia to uncover the reasons behind her mother’s comment, allowing Yang to artfully weave in a child-to-parent moment of empathy that deliciously deepens the narrative. Hank, one of the Weeklies, has his own sub plot that ties into Mia’s determination to win the contest and get off the roller coaster keeping the Yangs trapped in a cycle of exploitation and poverty. The immigrants who seek shelter at the Calivista each have their own stories, and Mia takes note of them all. It’s hard to find middle grade books that skillfully discuss class differences, let alone the difficulties and challenges of running a business, and Kelly nails both – though I wonder whether she’s worked out the mechanics of her supremely satisfying ending, which does seem a bit unworkable from a business stance. (#TPL)
Front Desk made Scholastic’s ‘Gold’ list.
Middle Grade Recommendations: Short Reviews
The Keeper, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. (Harper Audio, 2022)
Short Review: I listened to this audiobook twice – it was that gripping. James and his sister, Ava, love playing pranks on each other but sometimes they carry things too far, especially after the death of their beloved grandmother and their move to a new town. Being on the receiving end of a series of creepy letters is no joke. James and Ava must put their constant pranking aside and work together to find out which of their new neighbours is the secret letter writer. Narrator Gary Tiedemann strikes the right balance between brother and sister snark, and James and Ava’s growing terror as they uncover the evil at the heart of their perfect town. The horror builds slowly beneath the plotline of moving to a new home, grieving the loss of a grandmother and escalating revenge pranks. Bookshelves of Doom calls this one ‘Middle! Grade. Folk! Horror!’ Scary stuff! (#TPL)
From the Desk of Zoe Washington, by Janae Marks. (Katherine Tegen Books, 2020)
Short Review: An up-and-coming young baker who wants to is hopeful of competing in a renowned baking show receives a letter from her birth father, who is in prison for murder. The realities of working in a bakery plus delicious descriptions of cakes are baked into a story about how Black men are unfairly treated by the justice system and and how their families – especially children – ‘do time’ alongside their incarcerated parent. A loving grandmother, a warm family, growing pains with a best friend round out this thoughtful middle grade mystery. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson. (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015)
I think it’s official…I’m on a Victoria Jamieson kick. In Roller Girl, Jamieson explores the complexities of middle grade BFF friendships in devastatingly honest detail in this loving tribute to roller derby.
Astrid is used to doing everything with her best friend, Nicole. Nicole is such a good friend that she accompanies Astrid and her mother on ‘Evenings of Cultural Entertainment’ – excursions that strike fear and dread into Astrid’s heart until her mother takes the two girls to a roller derby tournament. Astrid is instantly hooked and decides to sign up for roller derby summer camp. She’s sure that Nicole will go too, since they always do everything together. Nicole reveals that she’s signed up for dance camp with Astrid’s arch-nemesis, Rachel. Astrid has to contend with being the most inexperienced skater at camp while she worries about Rachel taking Nicole away from her forever.
As an adult, I sometimes forget just how intense middle school can be for girls and how hard it is on best friends. Changing interests, watching your BFF connect with new people and feeling rejected, being alienated from a friend’s sudden interest in boys or make up, navigating jealousy, learning how to be a good friend while honouring yourself…it’s all there, faced by Astrid during one difficult, life-changing summer.
Jamieson sidesteps the typical misfit’s story by creating a flawed character in Astrid: she’s self-absorbed, expects Nicole to follow her lead, wants life to be easy and resists doing the work when things get hard, opting to retreat into self-pity instead. Astrid isn’t always likeable but she’s very relatable. She might think the story’s all about her but Jamieson creates characters who think quite differently. Nicole is more than a sidekick or push-over and lets Astrid know it. Readers see the ways in which both girls hurt each other by refusing to consider the other person’s point of view – a social skill that they’re still very much developing and practicing amidst freak-outs and emotional turmoil. By portraying Astrid’s increasing alienation from Nicole while showing that Nicole is not the one-dimensional shallow popular girl that Astrid believes, Jamieson nudges readers not to take sides with but to consider the complexities that Astrid misses. Astrid is also much tougher than she thinks. As she puts her heart and soul into roller derby, she learns how putting in the work can lead to greater self-confidence amidst disappointments, and that being part of a team means being able to think of others – even when she’s hurting. Astrid has to learn that it’s not always all about her, that there’s a whole world out there to explore and that gutsy moves matter as much off the track as on it. (#TPL)
Special Feature: Poetry
April was poetry month in the USA. Once again, I was reminded that poetry is an amazing art form for any word smith and that middle grade fiction isn’t everything. (Okay, it is, but I still need to read more poetry.) I don’t see why we shouldn’t continue to celebrate poetry all year around, so here’s a link to poets.org, which gives us 30 ways to do just that.
Crow Gulch, by Douglas Walbourne-Gough. (Goose Lane, 2019)
Walbourne-Gough explores a forgotten place and a forgotten history in Crow Gulch, his debut poetry collection about a community of French Canadian and Mi’kmaq migrant workers near Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Forcibly dismantled and abandoned in the 1970s, Crow Gulch is reconstructed by Walbourne-Gough, who combines archived conversations and family memories with poetry to re-establish the importance of its historical and cultural legacy. (#TPL)
The Place of Scraps, by Jordan Abel. (Talon Books, 2013)
Jordan Abel uses concrete poetry to re-arrange text from Totem Poles, a canonical book by early 20th-Century ethnographer Marius Barbeau, who wanted to preserve totem poles and potlatch items by buying them from struggling indigenous communities and selling them to museums. By weaving Barbeau’s words into new patterns, Abel excavates the colonialism behind Barbeau’s intentions and explores the repercussions of his actions on indigenous communities. (#TPL)
This one’s a recommendation from my partner, Allison Cameron.
That’s all for this month. See you next time!
Check it out every Monday and get your reading fix on!