Children’s Book Reviews by a Children’s Writer
Table of Contents:
Welcome to the November edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
In author news, I can report that my first ever NaNoWriMo has been a success. I’m on track to complete 30,000 words by the end of November – a triumph for a formerly ‘slow’ writer who used to dread writing first drafts. I’m also pleased to announce that a writing colleague of mine, Michelle Marcotte, has just launched a new children’s book review channel on YouTube. I’ve just subscribed to the channel and you can, too.
I’m celebrating a return to gardening after a summer and autumn hiatus. I’ve just planted an indoor food garden, which I’m profiling over at Instagram. If too you, are tired of overpriced lettuce, join me there to learn how to plant your own.
This month, we compare ourselves to excavators, tin cans and mushrooms, attempt to take over the world, await the birth of a new Ojibwe horse, confront scheduling challenges with Spider-man, fight ghosts with a ghost-zapping light, learn the difference between being in a street gang and becoming a baker’s apprentice, and revisit an historical pandemic.
So put on the kettle, grab a cookie (or three) 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.
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:
Like, by Annie Barrows. Illustrated by Leo Espinosa. (Chronicle Books, 2022.)
Like is a cunning and exquisite picture book that emphasizes the similarities between people by using objects like tin cans, a swimming pool, a hyena and an excavator to illustrate what real difference looks like. A child narrator assumed the role of teacher and tries – with great success – to explore these opposing concepts. Barrows’ humour is both wry and captivating but never snarky, always welcoming readers into the jokes. We loved that the child could be many different genders and colours, adding to the theme that there is more that unites than divides us.
Leo Espinosa wisely chooses a large, colourful format for an immersive and immediate feel. A very necessary book for these divisive times. Highly recommended. (#TPL)
My Lala, by Thomas King. Illustrated by Charlene Chua. (Tundra, 2022)
One day when Lala wakes up, she decides that the world is hers. Literally. She spends the day sticking red paper dots on everything to show that they belong to her and when she runs out, she makes more, fully intending to take over the world the next day.
King captures that ‘need to claim’ tendency of young children and builds it to humourous effect – exactly as you’d expect this wry, master humourist to do. Chua’s illustrations are so rich in detail, that readers will delight in claiming objects for themselves. Lala wears her cat pajamas all day, and the cat-suit effect makes her seems like a pint-sized superhero. The book is written in rhyme, not a storytelling device that we particularly like, but we’re also not the intended audience for this book. King makes it work and the jaunty rhythms add to the outrageous claims of Lala, who (of course) ends up sitting atop a red, paper dot world. (#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:
Runs With The Stars, by Darcy Whitecrow and Heather M. O’Connor. Illustrated by Lenny Lishchenko. (Second Story Press, 2022)
A young child eagerly awaits the birth of a new foal from their favourite horse, Star, one of 8 Ojibwe horses who were raised by Mishoomis (Grandfather). Mishoomis helps his noozhis (grandchild) to wait by involving them in the chores and telling the story of how the Ojibwe horses that used to run wild in the forests of Northwestern Ontario, were saved from extinction.
We loved the non-gendered inclusiveness of ‘noozhis’ to describe the child and found the story of the Ojibwe horses and their rescue fascinating. (In 1977, the government mislabeled them a ‘health hazard’ and planned to destroy them but Indigenous activists rescued the horses and began breeding them.) We wished we could have spent more time in Mishoomis’ story, as he witnessed the actual rescue of the horses.
Lishchenko uses two types of illustrations throughout the book in order to visually separate past from present: an almost cartoon-like style as Mishoomis and his noozhis wait for the birth of Star’s foal and a more conceptual art to tell the story of the horses’ rescue. (The picture of a snow machine casting long, horse-shaped shadows to show how Indigenous lives have changed, is a real stunner.)
Educators will find plenty to discuss with their students in this book, from Indigenous history to Truth and Reconciliation. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Graphic Novel
Miles Morales: Shock Waves(A Spider-Man Graphic Novel), by Justin A. Reynolds. Illustrated by Pablo Leon. (Graphix, 2021)
Miles Morales is a typical middle school student trying to survive the rigors of Brooklyn Visions Academy, the expensive private school he attends, but his schedule is somewhat complicated by his crime-fighting obligations as Spider-man.
To make matters worse, Miles’ mother’s expectations of him are blown sky high after an earthquake strikes her birthplace of Puerto Rico, and Miles volunteers to organize an earthquake relief fundraiser. If that isn’t enough, the father of one of Miles’ classmates disappears, right after his corporation agrees to be a major sponsor for the fundraiser. (And you thought that YOUR kid was over-programmed!)
Miles suspects that the three events are somehow related but can he figure it out before he’s buried under a mountain of school and volunteer work?
Reynold’s graphic novel tackles the tensions between first-generation immigrant parents and their American-born kids, and the challenges faced by racialized kids attending mostly-white, private schools – all in the format of a superhero comic. While we found the ideas interesting, we had trouble following the action of the story and it took us awhile to figure out what exactly was going on. The book could have been more well-structured in terms of plot, and the abrupt shifts between times could have been made clearer by using timestamps. We loved that Reynolds portrays the theme of a poor kid going to rich school as a common, normative experience to avoid othering his characters. The relationship between Miles and his best friend, Ganke, is both relatable and nuanced (i.e. Ganke nails Miles for not being a considerate roommate when he leaves his clothes spread out all over their room). And of course, we love love LOVED the strong and capable female super villains!
Miles’ mother demands a lot from her teenage kid and imposes her emotional connections onto him, which is also a common experience for kids who growing up in a different country from their parents. This is a situation ripe with conflict, tension and misunderstandings but Reynolds misses out on exploring Miles’ anger at being pushed so hard to be someone he’s not, and his mother’s lack of acceptance of the fact that Miles is growing up with a hybrid heritage that she can’t entirely understand. Miles’ character arc feels sparse as a result and the resolution, a bit too pat.
Eisner-Award nominated artist Pablo Leon playfully weaves Marvel poses and tropes into his portrait of an overloaded, middle grader. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Novel
Ghostlight, by Kenneth Oppel. (Puffin Canada, 2022)
When Gabe takes a summer job leading historical tours at the Gibralter Point lighthouse on the Toronto Islands, he has no idea he’s about to meet a real ghost.
Rebecca Strand died at the lighthouse in 1839 while combating the embittered, hungry ghost of ex-soldier Nicholas Viker alongside her father, the lighthouse keeper and member of the Order, a secret society dedicated to protecting the world from the wakeful and wicked dead.
Now, Viker’s back, looking to lead an army of hungry ghosts to take over Toronto, unless Gabe, Rebecca and their friends – both living and ghostly – can stop him.
Kenneth Oppel is one of my all-time favourite authors and I had high hopes for Ghostlight.
The book starts on a promising note, taking us back to that fatal night in 1839. Rebecca’s frustrated with her father, who won’t show her how the lighthouse works or treat her desire to be a lighthouse keeper seriously. Unexpectedly, Mr. Strand breaks his silence to explain the work of the Order to Rebecca and shows her how to operate the ghostlight, their secret weapon for incinerating malevolent ghosts. It isn’t long before ghosts start turning up and Rebecca and Mr. Strand are fighting for their lives. When Viker storms the beach, we are right in the thick of the fight with them. It’s a vintage Oppel scene that’s so real, you’re breathless by the end.
In Chapter Two, time shifts to the present day. We are once again inside the lighthouse, where Gabe is leading an historical tour. This would be a difficult enough scene to pull off after the spectacular battle scene. What makes it harder is that Oppel incorporates almost no setting to let us orient and immerse ourselves in Gabe’s world or present day Toronto.
There are no visual descriptions of the lighthouse, the tourists, no impressions of the cafe that Gabe and his friends often frequent (including the waiter they are so friendly with), nothing to illustrate the look and feel of the Toronto Islands.
There are no descriptions of the waterfront condo Gabe and his mother moved into after his father’s death, or the neighbourhood it’s situated in. The furniture from their old home is mentioned but home itself – specifically, how it’s changed for Gabe – is never feelingly rendered. We also discover that Gabe’s parents were divorced, and Gabe is still angry at his father for leaving and starting a new family. As a consequence, he’s suppressed all emotion about his father’s death. The trouble is that Gabe’s so shut off from himself and his own surroundings that it’s hard to find a way into his story, and the crucial details that would have allowed us to do so as readers are missing.
The two most fully-realized characters are Rebecca and Gabe’s best friend, Yuri, a mechanical genius with a very literal mind and a quirky sense of humour. They bring richness and life to every scene they appear in. Oppel’s invented a clever way for ghosts to communicate with the living called ‘clasping,’ where a ghost touches a living person in order to generate a connection. Rebecca chooses to clasp exclusively with Gabe, which leads to budding feelings between living boy and ghost girl (a nice twist on MG romance) and comedic misunderstandings ensue when the other characters realize they can only hear Gabe’s side of the conversation. That is, until he translates or Rebecca texts them through Gabe’s phone. (This is not a technophobic ghost.)
‘Clasping’ has a sinister side, as well. It allows hungry ghosts to feed off the energy of a living host both to gain strength and experience the various sensations they themselves have lost. When Rebecca clasps with Gabe, she’s also draining him. Ghosts can become so addicted to clasping that they can completely drain and kill their hosts. Indeed, this is exactly what Viker plans: to lead a ghostly army through Toronto, drain it’s living residents then devour their ghosts to give them more strength. He’s already done this to Rebecca’s father and threatens to do it to the ghost of Gabe’s father, too.
This ghostly temptation to drain combined with Rebecca’s anger at being mistreated, robbed of her life, and her sorrow at losing her father makes her dangerous, a theme that could have been more powerfully aligned with Gabe’s grief and anger at his own father, who he also feels mistreated by. This would have provided a much needed emotional connection to Gabe’s story and would have strengthened his character, allowing us to experience events with him instead of feeling like outside observers. Gabe himself never feels completely real – kind of like a ghost in his own story.
The book does feature a fast-paced plot and a take on ghosts that is satisfyingly twisty. Instead of luring Gabe and his friends back to the past, Rebecca joins them in the present to help them stave off Viker’s threat. She is amazed and delighted by computers and phones and even rides a train to Montreal. The kids visit various historical landmarks in Toronto, including the Gibralter Point Lighthouse, Campbell House, the Grange, the Necropolis (Toronto’s City of the Dead) and the former site of the Fever Sheds at the corner of King and John streets, making this book a goldmine for educators.
Oppel doesn’t default to white either in his cast of characters or Toronto’s history. Indigenous ghosts appear at various points to help fight off Viker, led by Joseph Halfday, a friend of George Brown (who makes his own ghostly appearance). Joseph makes it clear that his people had no say in Confederation, a fact that Brown acknowledges, admitting that death has given him plenty of time to reconsider his former views. While some of the settler ghosts are restless and hungry for the lives they’ve missed, the same cannot be said for the Mississaugas, who still hunt and fish by the lake and speak Anishinaabemowin. These scenes are both moving and mournful, as they recall an intact, thriving culture before Indigenous kids were forced en masse into residential schools by the Canadian government.
Ghostlight is very much worth a read but we felt like it was a draft or two away from being as good as some of Oppel’s other books, like Boundless or the Silverwings series. (#TPL)
The Patron Thief of Bread (Audiobook), by Lindsay Eager. Narrated by Moira Quirk. (Listening Library, 2022)
A story told in alternating voices by an old church gargoyle and the child he’s sworn to protect.
Eight-year-old Duck is the youngest member of of the Crowns, a street gang whose members fished her from the river when she was just an infant. Used to being called ‘Garbage’ by the gang’s leader, Gnat, Duck is eager to prove herself.
When Gnat decides to apprentice her to a blind baker using forged papers, Duck agrees, even when it means stealing bread and coin from under the baker’s nose to support the gang. Duck is a Crown through and through until she starts discovers a love for baking, and the baker herself. Torn in two different directions, Duck doesn’t know who she is anymore, a baker or a Crown? As Gnat’s ambitions for the gang grow increasingly dangerous, Duck has to decide who she really is and what she really wants before she loses everything. Her choices prod a very jaded gargoyle into finally fulfilling his destiny not only to watch, but to protect.
An absolutely stunning read, with a rich, satisfying plot, interesting characters and an immersive setting. Although there is plenty of mystery, this is not a fast-paced book. Best for upper middle grade readers who’d enjoy a more literary book. (#TPL)
Tween and Teen Non-Fiction
Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, by Peg Kehret. (Albert Whitman and Co., 2006)
Author Peg Kehret was 12 years old in 1949 when she got polio. Small Steps is a memoir of that time, aimed at middle grade readers. Peg takes us through the alarming onset of the disease when her legs collapse under her one day at school, to her time spent at hospitals with other children suffering from the disease and her eventual recovery, albeit in a changed body.
We were very excited to find a meaty, substantive MG nonfiction title about a historic pandemic that also resonates with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Kehret pulls no punches as she details the devastating effects of polio but she does so with a journalistic eye, avoiding histrionics or sentimentality. She traces her own evolution from a sheltered, indulged child to a self-aware young young woman with the same, unflinching gaze. She understands that her old life is over during a disastrous home visit where the environment is not set up to accommodate her wheelchair and her dawning realization that the hospital has become a safe place for her, instead of her beloved home. At the hospital, the friends she’s made understand her. At home, her Grandfather cries to see her. Peg’s friends are realistically rendered, especially the feisty Alice, who tries to shock Peg with her world-weary cynicism when she she’s first admitted to hospital and who demands to know why Peg’s parents are being so nice to her?
‘Clueless parents’ moments are captured equally well. When Peg’s mother prods Peg to give away her old toys to some younger children on the ward, Peg is understandably reluctant. Peg’s mother wants her to consider how lucky she is but Peg already knows this from comparing her own situation to those of the other kids on a daily basis. Her mother can’t see that Peg doesn’t need the lesson, or that Peg is not in a place to give away the pieces of her old life without building herself a new one. It’s as if she doesn’t realize or can’t admit that it’s not the same old Peg who’ll be coming home, even as readers and Peg herself know how much things have changed.
Small Steps is also very much the story of how science beat back an epidemic, through vaccines and physio exercises that allowed patients to recover the use of their bodies. These were the brainchild of a frontline worker who was caring for patients at the time and used the scientific method to devise techniques that worked best for them. Educators can use this book to open up discussions about the importance of understanding science when it comes to disease, and approach the current COVID pandemic from an historical perspective.
Small Steps is easy to read, impactful and engaging. A good pick for inquisitive kids, especially those for whom reading is not a favourite activity. (#TPL)
Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! We’ll be back with more great reads next month. See you then!