Review: Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines

by Angela Hovak Johnston
Inhabit Media, 2017

Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines describes the process a group of women in the Canadian Arctic followed to revive the tradition of women’s tattoos. Historically, Inuit women wore tattoos on their hands, arms, and faces to represent a range of personal and social messages. After contact with European missionaries, women stopped being tattooed and the cultural knowledge of traditional tattooing was nearly lost. Thanks to Angela Hovak Johnson, however, the practice is being reclaimed with striking results.

This resolutely woman-positive project turns on its photography. The photos present both the tattooing process and a portfolio of an emerging generation of tattooed women, from teens to elders. The editorial photography is clear and straightforward, accompanied by explanatory text and the women’s individual stories of their tattoos’ meanings. The portrait photography captures the women in strong poses as they display their tattoos, often in northern landscapes. For non-Inuit readers, the book offers a powerful (and sometimes playful) way to understand elements of Inuit culture. For Inuit readers, the book represents the pride and resilience of women and culture.

I would underscore, however, the book’s stern warning that these tattoos, no matter how appealing they may be for non-Inuit women and men, are the cultural property of Inuit women, who are struggling to retain and reclaim their traditional knowledge and practices. Non-Inuit should emphatically not consider seeking similar tattoos but rather learn to appreciate the beauty and significance of these tattoos for the women who wear them today.

Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines is a glorious book that documents important work of cultural reclamation. It belongs in libraries across Canada, and I hope it will find a broad audience. It is a proud declaration of women’s strength and beauty and a profound testament to cultural recovery.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, June 2018.

 

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Review: Racing Manhattan

by Terence Blacker
Candlewick, 2018

Racing Manhattan offers a fresh twist on the fish-out-of-water trope. Jay loves horses and has been riding successfully in “unofficial” (that is, illegal) pony races when her situation changes abruptly. She finds herself in Newmarket working as a “lad” for a stable that’s down on its luck. There she meets Manhattan, a moody mare who has reached her last chance. When Jay connects with Manhattan, their fortunes seem to change. But there’s not much room in racing for a young female jockey, and Jay’s rivals are only too happy to squeeze her out. Can Jay save Manhattan — and her own future?

I was not a girl who adored books about horses when I was growing up, so I am happily surprised by Racing Manhattan. This novel features great storytelling that kept me reading eagerly. Some of the characters around Jay are thinly drawn, but Jay herself is well developed and intriguing — I wanted to know who she would grow up to be. Some of Jay’s male antagonists are thoroughly menacing, and the novel moves briskly between well-told passages of Jay’s work with Manhattan and the obstacles Jay must overcome to reach her goals.

Racing Manhattan won’t suit every taste, but I can see it working well with athletic teens and readers who identify as “square pegs.” It’s a long book for YA, but it’s nicely paced and rewarding. I recommend this book enthusiastically.

Originally published on LibraryThing on January 7, 2018.

 

 

Review: Ramadan: The Holy Month of Fasting

by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Orca Book Publishers, 2018

Ramadan is the holy month of fasting observed by Muslims to teach and uphold key beliefs. It is a period for reflection, empathy, and renewal; it is also a time for family and community — particularly at the arrival of Eid-al-Fitr, the end of the fast.

Ramadan provides a clear, accessible introduction to Ramadan and Islamic beliefs generally. The author explains the stages of Ramadan and the practices associated with the holy month. Her presentation includes a survey of Ramadan traditions from diverse societies around the world, as well as her personal reminiscences and short profiles of young Muslims’ individual choices and needs during a month-long fast. The text also includes quotations from young people explaining what Ramadan means to them, an excellent extension of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s own story. The text is supported by a glossary and a short list of references. There are even a few recipes for readers who want to sample the flavours of other cultures. Throughout, the author’s voice is warm and friendly, but also respectful — nicely balanced.

Ramadan is a new volume in the Orca Origins series, which has been uniformly well researched and attractively presented. The colour palette of this book is soft and appealing, while the bright full-colour images add interest to every page. This series has been insightfully planned and carried out: books like Khan’s Ramadan make intercultural discovery and understanding fascinating and fun. I particularly like how prominent girls and women are in this text. And while the book is intended for kids, there are many adults who would benefit from reading it to dispel their misunderstandings. I emphatically recommend Ramadan: The Holy Month of Fasting to any class or community interested in reading for multicultural understanding.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, February 2018.

 

Review: Optimists Die First

by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books, 2017

Petula wants her life to be as safe, quiet, and unremarkable as possible. Since the tragic death of her little sister, Petula has cut unnecessary social ties, turned inside herself, and become an expert at identifying — and avoiding — risk. Then she meets a boy she dubs the Bionic Man; soon she’s questioning her ideas about safety and security. With friendships, relationships, and her own mental wellness hanging in the balance, Petula must decide whether to take a chance on a boy who gives her so much, but could hurt her very badly.

I loved Optimists Die First. I enjoyed it much more than Nielsen’s 2016 book We Are All Made of Molecules. Although the plot sounds like a romance (and there is a romantic relationship at the centre of the plot), the novel engages much bigger issues than simply girl meets boy. A twist revelation late in the book adds depth and dimension to the story; I appreciated that the author didn’t let her characters take the easy way out.

Optimists Die First is likely to become a favourite with YA readers. With all her anxieties, Petula is initially tough to like, but she’s worth getting to know.

Originally published on LibraryThing on July 24, 2017.

 

Review: The Journey of Little Charlie

Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic Canada, 2018

Twelve-year-old Charlie has a hard life growing up in South Carolina in the mid-nineteenth century, but it’s bearable because Pa is beside him tending the fields, teaching him to shoot, and showing him how to live in an oversize body. When Pa dies under mysterious circumstances, Cap’n Buck, the neighbouring overseer, comes to claim a debt he says Pa had failed to honour. Charlie and Ma are destitute; Cap’n Buck says he’ll take Charlie’s labour in lieu of the money. And so Charlie begins a journey of unimaginable violence, cruelty, and desperation to retrieve a pair of runaway slaves.

I just loved The Journey of Little Charlie. It took me a few pages to adjust to Charlie’s dialect, but I liked his character immediately, and his story was gripping. The voice and plotting combine to let readers’ understanding of events emerge with Charlie’s. With elements of adventure, mystery, personal peril, and family saga, the novel is hard to put down and will appeal to a wide range of readers — and will stand up to repeated reading.

Some readers may need to discuss troubling plot points with an adult. Much of the violence in the story happens offstage, but some elements — for instance, cat-hauling and Ma’s disappearance – occur in Charlie’s narration and provide disturbing examples of Cap’n Buck’s despicableness. Christopher Paul Curtis (author of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, among other novels) depicts pre-Civil War rural life realistically but pulls back appropriately for his audience — and offers a hopeful ending for Charlie in Canada (and ties Charlie to the world of Curtis’ Buxton series).

The book would make an excellent pick for a novel study: it’s eminently readable and sure to provoke discussion. It’s a must for school and classroom libraries. One of my favourite books so far this year, The Journey of Little Charlie is a winner.

This review was originally published in Resource Links, June 2018.

 

 

Review: Bloom

by Kyo Maclear; illustrated by Julie Morstad
Tundra Books, 2018

Bloom is an utterly gorgeous book about art and imagination. Young Elsa suffers in her strict conformist family; she dreams of flowers, colours, beauty. As a young woman, an opportunity takes her to Paris, where she finds her passion: making clothes for women. Today we recognize Elsa Schiaparelli as a leading Modernist fashion designer and an inspiration for artistic girls everywhere; Bloom takes readers on the journey of how Elsa got there.

I just loved this book. One of Canada’s strongest writers of picture books, Maclear tells this story with compassion and insight, reminding readers that “To be an artist is to dream big and risk failure.” The story is generously complemented by Morstad’s illustrations. The pictures are whimsical, detailed, and breathtaking — and of course they feature Schiaparelli’s famous Shocking Pink.

This book is a treat. It’s a physically beautiful object that tells a delightful and inspiring story, perfect for anyone who has big dreams or encourages others to follow their own dreams — those who “want to DREAM and DO bold things.”

Originally published on LibraryThing on April 29, 2018.

 

Review: 42 Is Not Just a Number

by Doreen Rappaport
Candlewick Press, 2017

42 Is Not Just a Number is a compelling sports biography for upper elementary and junior high readers. Drawing on a range of sources, it recounts the life of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues of baseball. The text deals with Robinson’s childhood quickly, setting a context for the discrimination Robinson experienced, and then concentrates on his years playing ball and the struggles he faced despite his obvious gifts. Robinson’s story wraps up with a brief denouement: his induction into the Major League Hall of Fame, his death in 1972, and a celebration in 1997 that acknowledged his courage in daring to play ball in an openly racist setting.

This book doesn’t pull punches. It includes examples of the language Robinson encountered (although offensive, what’s captured in the book is much milder than what Robinson would have lived with virtually every day of his life), and describes the violence and hatred that characterized the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. Many adults would like to think things are better now, and in some respects they are; but many students — particularly black students — will recognize the complex racism that persists today. This book is, sadly, still timely and relevant, but it arrives at a moment when it may perform valuable work for young readers of all backgrounds.

The book is thoughtfully constructed for a range of readers. The chapters are short and cleanly presented, the author has provided notes and a bibliography, and the text is supported by an index. All in all, this compact biography is a smart, accessible resource for both research and independent reading.

Many young people today have a hunger for social justice, and 42 Is Not Just A Number speaks with hope to the human potential for change. This vital book should be in every school and public library, especially in areas where librarians believe their patrons won’t read a book about race issues. This is exactly the kind of strong book for a trusted adult to recommend to make a positive difference in a reader’s life.

This review was originally published in Resource Links, February 2018.