Bookcase Bizarro: Children’s Book Reviews May, 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 May edition of Bookcase Bizarro!

It’s been a busy month on the writing front. I’ve hired my first book cover designer and editor EVER..AND I HIRED THEM IN EXACTLY THE WRONG ORDER: designer first – editor after. An essential piece of information for a book cover designer is an exact page count so I shifted into high gear, hoping that one of the editors I’d researched was available.

They were.

And just like that, I had a production schedule. I have to finish the first draft of a new book, edit Shadow Apprentice, prepare a book design brief and still find time to write the Bookcase Bizarro blog. (I have a feeling that ‘learn as you go’ is the Prime Directive for indie author/publishers.)

The most unexpected part of this process so far has been the transition from feeling like Oliver Twist, holding out my query and manuscript sample like a supplicant, to being treated like a professional writer by other industry professionals. I’ve spent so much of my writing career trying to please the gatekeepers (query letters are a case in point) that it’s easy to forget that I’m actually in charge of my own career.

Writers who are considering independent publishing might want to check out ALLI: The Alliance for Independent Authors. They have a ton of resources, including a very informative blog and podcast, a list of vetted professionals to work with, as well as very helpful ebooks and guides (free with membership). I have found them invaluable in setting up my business and shifting my mindset (though I’m probably more critical of AI and its potential impact on writers than they are).

Utterly essential escape television for this month include Queen Charlotte and The Power. (I disagree with The Guardian’s review of The Power, BTW. It was SO GREAT to have a TV show slow down to the speed of reading and take time building the story in non-sound-bitey ways.)

This month, we escape the hot city for the seaside, mistakenly summon a demon to our small town who makes the local bully look like a saint, learn how to to navigate the ups and downs of middle school friendships, and persuade a grumpy witch to (maybe) take us in as her apprentice.

So pick up a spade and trowel 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.

Picture Books

Book cover showing a long-haried dachshund with a reddish-brown coat standing on a boardwalk before a beach, his long ears blowing in the breeze.

Hot Dog, by Doug Salati. (Knopf, 2022)

Just in time for summer, comes the story of an overheated and overwhelmed dachshund ( a ‘hot dog’ in both senses of the word), who escapes the city for a welcome respite at the beach.

Written as a prose poem, Doug Salati combines intense, compact rhythms and imagery with vibrant, multi-panel illustrations that unspool almost like a movie to create a sense of flow and movement, and a wonderfully evocative atmosphere. The pictures themselves have plenty of narrative resonance. Later scenes loop back to earlier ones to tie the story together in satisfying ways and to show a change of perspective. There is plenty of humour, like when Hot Dog nips at a curled up seal, mistaking it for a rock, or when the overwhelmed little dog has a ‘tantrum’ by lying down in the middle of a busy street, refusing to walk another step. Human-dog bonding moments soothe earlier ruffled feelings. My favourite? Hot Dog and their human companion snacking on watermelon together at the end of the day.

Cape Cod’s boardwalks are instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been there, so I’m guessing the steamy city in question is Boston, where it’s possible to travel to the ocean for the day by train and ferry. (Yes, I’m jealous.) Hot Dog’s relief at leaving the steamy city streets behind for cooling ocean breezes is almost palpable.

A great choice for dog lovers, especially in the 3-5 age group. A Caldecott medal winner (2023). Highly recommended. (#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 showing two kids casting a spell amidst a chaotic backdrop of red coloured branches and black shadows.

The Ojja-Wojja: A Horror Mystery, or Whatever, by Magdalene Visaggio. Illustrated by Jenn St-Onge. (Balzer and Bray, 2023)

Bolingbroke is a small town with a secret. On the surface, it’s like any other small town with it’s fair share of petty judgments against anyone who’s different, like Lanie, who’s queer and Val, who’s on the spectrum. Val doesn’t mind not fitting in, so long as Lanie’s by her side.

While Val likes to get lost inside imaginary worlds, Lanie’s recently become interested in magic – and not just inside the fan fiction they they write together. Val can’t relate, and is scared that she and her best friend are drifting apart.

When their history teacher lets Val pick a supernatural topic for her sixth grade project, Val thinks she’s found the perfect way to unite her interests with Lanie’s. While investigating a local ghost story, Val and Lanie have a supernatural encounter and Val tries to capture the moment on video, which she posts without checking the footage first. Nothing shows up on camera, making them even more of a target for the town bully, Andrea.

A very fed-up Lanie proposes raising the ghost again with a magic spell and directing it to go after Andrea in retaliation but the spell misfires, summoning a demon with ancient ties to the town. Val and Lanie suddenly have more to worry about than the state of their friendship and the school bully as the demon tries to take over Bolingbroke. Only Val, Lanie and their misfit friends remain unaffected. It is up to them to save the town from the demon and the fear and narrow-mindedness that it draws strength from.

The book opens with a star ship crashing into a planet. It takes a few panels before we realize that this scene actually represents a piece of fanfiction that Val’s been writing, and that Val uses imaginary scenarios as a way to understand and navigate the real world. Val’s perception of herself as a shipwreck survivor on an alien planet would have worked wonderfully throughout the story but the impact gets diluted by Val’s habit of changing characters – and worlds – every time she disappears inside her head. We get a dizzying array of Star Wars, Sherlock Holmes and anime sequences that are awkwardly placed alongside the story instead of dovetailing with it.

Likewise with the ghost story, which never really fits into the larger story of the monster and the town. The Lovecraftian trope of a small town raising and appeasing a demon is creepy enough on it’s own; the ghost story just gets in the way. The Ojja-Wojja begs for the full-on horror treatment (and St-Onge’s marvelously creepy and frenetic illustrations build an atmosphere of slow menace and evoke chaos at exactly the right moments) but it gets tangled in too many underdeveloped threads to be the wonderfully creepy tale it could be.

Kudos to Visaggio and St-Onge for for not making gender identity and autism the sole focus of the story, and for allowing Lanie and Val to be full people. The same can unfortunately not be said for the bully Andrea, though hints are dropped about her backstory and the growing disillusionment of her main acolytes. I wish these themes had been developed further, as they represented opportunities to turn the stereotypical bullying trope on its head and offer an interesting dimension to the demon story, too.

Lanie and Val’s gang of friends is only introduced later on in the story, yet they play a vital role in the book. I would have liked to have seen more evidence of their comradery and connection earlier on.

There is a definite Stranger Things vibe to this graphic novel that will appeal to fans, especially older MG readers. (#TPL)

Middle Grade Graphic Novel

Book cover showing a diverse cast of kids taking a ride on a roller coaster. All  the kids are laughing except for the main character (Shannon), whose mouth is stretched wide in terror. I can relate!

Best Friends (Real Friends #2), by Shannon Hale. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. (First Second, 2019)

It’s Sixth Grade, and Shannon feels like she’s got it made. Not only is she one of the oldest kids in the school but thanks to her best friend, Jen, she’s pegged a spot in the cool crowd. For the first time in her life, Shannon’s popular.

Or is she?

Jen, the leader of the group, is more into boys and the latest hits than the imaginary games she used to play with Shannon. Social cues are confusing and keeping up with the latest cool trends is exhausting. Sometimes, the only place Shannon feels at home is in her writing, until self-doubt threatens to sabotage that, too. What does being a friend really mean? Is it okay to have boys as friends without becoming someone’s ‘girlfriend?’ Is it possible to ‘grow yourout’ of a love of reading? Why do girls always cheer on boys instead of the other way around? And is being included really the same thing as being accepted?

Author Shannon Hale examines the transition from elementary school to middle school through the lens of the social anxiety experienced by Shannon Hale, the character. Navigating changing friendships, mean girl politics, not being interested in the same things as your friends becomes much more fraught – almost a kind of social terrorism for Shannon, whose inner voices roil in a constant dialogue of shame and confusion that leave her exhausted at the end of each day. Shannon’s turmoil is painfully illustrated in a memorable sequence by LuUyen Pham, where stark colours mirror the self-blame in Shannon’s head. Shannon’s anger confuses her mother until a poignant moment when Hale’s mother understands just how isolated her daughter is.

Hale’s story is also the story of a budding writer coming into her own gifts. Her portrayal of a world where imaginative play never ends but is redirected into words on a page echoes Jo’s journey in Little Women and L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon. Hale includes pages from an actual manuscript that she wrote in grade six as well as the supportive comments she received from her teacher. Young writers will recognize their own efforts in Hale’s sixth grade excerpts, which may encourage them to believe that one day, their writing could be as good as hers.

Any reader who’s ever experienced social anxiety will find a strong mirror book here, and bystander kids in popular groups may gain perspective into what their socially-different friends might be feeling. Also a wonderful coming-of-age story for any budding writer. (#TPL)

Middle Grade Novel

Blue-toned book cover showing a young girl walking towards a whitewashed cottage while a menacing black-silhouetted figure stands in the doorway.

The Grace of Wild Things, by Heather Fawcett. (Balzer and Bray, 2023)

After being returned to the orphanage by her adoptive family (who are frightened of her magic), Grace runs away to the woods with her talking crow, Windweaver, and soon finds herself at the witch’s house. She knows better than to enter but the enticing smells wafting out of the house are too much for a hungry girl to resist, and Grace soon finds herself imprisoned.

The witch intends to roast Grace in her oven so that her bones can be reused in spells but Grace manages to convince the witch that she’ll be much more useful as an apprentice. She offers the witch a bargain: if she learns how to successfully cast all 100 spells in the witch’s grimoire, the witch will make Grace her apprentice. The witch agrees but adds an amendment to her own. If Grace is not successful, the witch will steal all of her magic, leaving Grace alone and powerless. And she will give Grace no help. The witch starts to develop an affection for her chatty, would-be apprentice while Grace learns that she may have to sacrifice more than her magic in order to save the place she’s come to think of as her home.

In this Anne of Green Gables retelling, Heather Fawcett asks what would happen if Anne had magical powers and persuaded an evil witch to take her in? Answer: plenty!

Marilla-as-witch is particularly fitting, as that’s exactly what I originally thought of her when I first read Anne of Green Gables at the tender age of 8. Matthew is cast as Patrick, a rather sulky cloud who storms around raining on everybody. Just how he became a cloud is known only to the witch. Gilbert Blythe is Rum, a fairy prince with a crush on Grace and Sareena Khalil is an ingenious Diana Berry. Her determination to help Grace learn all the spells in the grimoire is exactly the sort of steadfastness one would hope to find in a best friend and kindred spirit. Whereas Anne finds an almost anthropomorphic solace in the rural landscape of Prince Edward Island, Grace forges an actual connection with one of the forest’s wild creatures – a crow. Grace’s friendship with Windweaver is is one of the most poignant in the book.

Grace’s ultimate sacrifice is both heartbreaking and fitting, stretching MG readers’ perceptions of what it means to love – and not in the romantic way, either. My only criticism is that the ending felt a bit too rushed.

An imaginative retelling that will appeal to tween readers and Anne of Green Gables fans of every age. (#TPL)

Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! We’ll be back with more great reads in June before we take a break in July for the summer. See you soon!

#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

21 thoughts on “Bookcase Bizarro: Children’s Book Reviews May, 2023

  1. Thanks for the round up! Sounds like you have been busy! I agree with you about ALLI (on both accounts!). The Grace of Wild Things sounds interesting, thanks for sharing and especially for keeping up up to date on your publishing journey!

  2. It sounds like there’s a lot going on for your writing right now, Linda—I’m rooting for you, and I hope the excitement of all these possibilities outweighs the stress of having a timeline!

    As for books, Hot Dog is now on my list (and it really should have been as soon as the Caldecott was stamped on the front cover!). I really appreciate your thoughtful critique of The Ojja-Wojja, since it was on my list, but I suspect now there are books that might be a better use of my scarce reading time. And I made note of Best Friends—I have book 1 (I think), and perhaps I’ll move that up on my reading schedule! And I do love the cover of The Grace of Wild Things.

    Thanks so much for the wonderful post, Linda!

    • Thanks, Max! My prediction? You will love Hot Dog. It is right up your alley and has a kind of graphic novel-type feel. (Hey, you can never start them reading graphic novels too young!)

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