Review: Saying Good-bye to London

by Julie Burtinshaw
Second Story Press, 2017

Saying Good-bye to London is a hard-hitting yet sensitively written novel about teen pregnancy, told primarily from the perspective of fifteen-year-old Francis, a quiet boy whose first romance leads to a baby, an adoption, and a rapid transition to the responsibilities of adult life.

The novel spans a little more than a year. Francis meets Sawyer, their relationship blooms, and within a few months they’ve broken up over the news of Sawyer’s pregnancy. When Francis first learns that Sawyer is pregnant, he reacts very, very badly. It is only through the persistent direction of his friends that he starts to change his attitude. As such, readers are invited to grow with Francis — and with Sawyer. Although most of the time readers experience the story through Francis’s eyes, now and then the author lets readers slip into Sawyer’s point of view, as well as that of various other characters, lending a much broader view to the unfolding events. The plot never drags; the narration is direct and matter of fact, and it communicates without becoming preachy, a tone books about teen pregnancy sometimes adopt.

At its core, however, Saying Good-bye to London is a novel about fathers. Sawyer’s best friend, Jack, is homeless because his abusive father has thrown him out for being gay. At the same time, Francis’s best friend, Kevin, is living through the death of his father, who has been an important figure in Francis’s life. Francis and Sawyer both have complex relationships with their own fathers. Though boys may be reluctant to read a book apparently about pregnancy, this one offers some deep thinking about what it means to be a good man, what it means to be a father (rather than just a “sperm donor,” as Sawyer crisply comments), what it means to be a good partner.

This novel is likely to evoke strong responses. It would make an excellent selection for a teen reading group or as an independent novel study in grade nine or ten. Readers are sure to have opinions about Sawyer’s choice to have the baby, the process of private adoption, the couple selected to adopt baby London, and Francis’s treatment of Sawyer. Layers of complexity in the text will encourage conversation and reflection, and there are numerous themes readers can evaluate against their own morals and ethics. Saying Good-bye to London is a rewarding book on many levels.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2017.

 

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Review: Kat and Meg Conquer the World

by Anna Priemaza
Harper Teen, 2017

Kat and Meg Conquer the World is a joyous, funny, endearing novel about an odd couple united by a science project and a Youtube video star. The story follows them, from alternating points of view, through their grade ten year. Kat, a transplant from Ontario, resents having to be a “freshman” again; Meg, bruised from previous relationships gone sour, is eager for a new school and a new start. As they navigate the perils of high school, boyfriends, and growing up, they learn to trust each other and themselves.

This novel surprised me: it’s so fresh and engaging! The author touches on highly topical, sensitive issues such as race, mental wellness, and family stress, but lightly, without engaging in the miserablism that has overtaken so much of YA writing recently. Although privileged in different ways, Kat and Meg are not naïve. They face situations involving drinking, drug use, and sexuality directly and intelligently (albeit reluctantly, in Kat’s case). They talk, they think, they sometimes brood (and call each other out for brooding), but in the end they act, informed by their own good sense. I applaud the author for drawing her still-maturing characters with such a complicated mix of agency and fallibility. Many girls will find either Meg or Kat someone to identify with, empathize with, learn from.

Both girls are anxious, but the expression of their anxieties is very different. Kat is aloof and silent, trying to be invisible. Meg is outgoing, loving, and impetuous, sometimes to a fault. It took me a few chapters to warm up to Kat; initially she reads more as prickly than as anxious. But I was won over immediately by Meg’s persistent friendliness and optimism, and was rooting for the girls’ friendship. Though Meg believes she and Kat are BFFs from the start, for Kat the friendship emerges slowly but solidly, as in the scene when Meg takes Kat to the hospital after Kat’s grandfather collapses in a grocery store. Not being a relative, Meg cannot go into the grandfather’s room in the ICU with Kat, who is paralyzed by fear, sadness, and guilt.

Meg unzips her coat, revealing her favorite black cardigan with the oversized purple plastic buttons. Out of nowhere, she grabs one of the buttons and pulls. There’s a snap, and then she’s pressing the button into my palm and folding my fingers around it.

“There,” she says. “Now it’s like I’m with you.”

Meg’s apparent fearlessness teaches Kat to trust love; Kat’s careful, measured friendship later reflects the lesson back to Meg. Both grow stronger for it.

I liked this novel so much! It’s filled with lovely touches and good humour, and it underscores the importance of women’s friendships as a source of strength and resilience. I hope to read more from Anna Priemaza.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2017.

 

 

Review: Hit the Ground Running

by Alison Hughes
Orca Book Publishers, 2017

When a Children’s Services staffer rings the doorbell one morning, sixteen-year-old Dee Donnelly knows the game is up. Her father has been gone from home for six weeks, the money jar is almost empty, and Dee fears what happens to siblings apprehended by Children’s Services. She quickly assembles her resources and packs her brother, Eddie, in the car with food, water, bedding, and assorted keepsakes. She can’t legally drive and she may be an illegal alien, but she’s determined to get out of Arizona and up to the Canadian border before a state agency can tear her family apart.

What’s striking about this novel is how funny it is. Dee’s situation is desperate, no doubt, but her telling of the story is leavened by eye-rolling, sarcasm, silly jokes, and pratfall comedy. Whether she’s making an early-morning escape from a stranger’s yard in which she accidentally parked or charming a state trooper to avoid having to cough up a driver’s licence, Dee’s sardonic delivery is perfect. A brave, resourceful young woman, Dee is observant, quick thinking, and clearly mature for her age; but those qualities don’t stop her from playing in the pool with Eddie — or put a filter on her potty mouth. Dee is beautifully written, the kind of character that will stick with readers long after they finish the book.

Another striking element of this novel is its frankness about being poor. At least some readers will identify: in this decade, many households live precariously close to financial disaster. The disappearance of Dee’s father (who is clearly a fragile person) suggests how easily any domestic problem — a persistent illness, a mental health breakdown, the abrupt end of a relationship — could bring the façade of “doing just fine” tumbling down around a teenager like Dee. Dee is practical about her poverty; she works around it, but it’s always present, always threatening, and eventually it leads to a frightening scene in which Dee and Eddie are chased by a “creeper.” Alert readers may perceive how little control Dee has over her situation, despite her careful choices; here, the author raises an intriguing critique, inviting readers to ask bigger questions about an individual’s circumstances and outsiders’ judgements.

The novel ends hopefully, but not happily. The future for Dee and Eddie is far from certain, despite the timely arrival of their Auntie Pat. Alison Hughes leaves the novel ambiguously resolved, yet ambiguity is the more believable — and, frankly, more satisfying — ending.

Hit the Ground Running is an excellent choice for teen reading groups and for classroom libraries, as well as public and school libraries. Readers are sure to enjoy following Dee on her helter-skelter road trip to Canada. I certainly did!

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2017.

 

Review: Those Who Run in the Sky

by Aviaq Johnston
Inhabit Media, 2017

Those Who Run in the Sky is the haunting, lyrical story of Piturniq, a boy on the edge of manhood whose life is overturned when he learns his destiny is to be a shaman. A gifted hunter and a much-admired leader, Pitu finds himself stranded during a blizzard, his sled dogs, tools, and packed food gone. Can he survive the tests of the spirits? Will he ever see his beloved mother or his intended bride again?

It was such a pleasure to read this coming-of-age novel by young Inuk writer Aviaq Johnston. The story is captivatingly told, and the novel has an almost hypnotic voice; it was a book I read in a single sitting because it was so eerie and beautiful. Strands of the Inuit worldview are woven into the story, and people, objects, and ideas are referred to by Inuktitut names, immersing readers in Pitu’s reality from the first page (the glossary, including pronunciations, will help readers negotiate the language). Illustrations by Toma Feizo Gas add a further layer of drama and beauty to the text.

Educators and librarians looking to bring more Indigenous texts into classrooms and collections should include Those Who Run in the Sky. The book offers all readers a wise, identifiable protagonist and provides a brilliant way, as the author suggests, to “continue the tradition of sharing and teaching.” I hope this book is read and recognized widely; though very different from much of what teens are reading today, it has relevant and timely themes and ideas to share.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2017.

 

Rooted in curriculum and policy

At the end of May 2017 I gave an academic presentation in Toronto in a session about education for reconciliation. I felt I was something of an odd duck in this session, but the feedback I received from the presentation was strongly positive. At some point I may publish a longer version of the presentation, but for now I would be happy for a few more people to encounter my thoughts about Alberta’s curriculum revision process. So here is the text of my presentation as spoken.

The NDP, the TRC,
and Why We Might Make the Same Mistakes Again

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
— T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion”

“In a dark time, what is the work of a syllabus? What is the function of a classroom? What does it mean to teach students about the values of close reading and critical thinking?”
— Jehanne Dubrow

On June 15, 2016, Alberta Education Minister David Eggen announced a complete overhaul of Alberta’s K–12 curriculum. This announcement, coming just a year after Alberta’s New Democratic Party “made history” in May 2015 by toppling a Progressive Conservative dynasty of more than forty years’ duration, was not a new initiative, but rather a follow-through on a process already in motion. Curriculum renewal had been instigated in May 2013 by the former minister, Jeff Johnson. But David Eggen made a point of observing that “Support for First Nations, Métis and Inuit student learning, as well as the inclusion of Education for Reconciliation … will be reflected in future K-12 curriculum” (Government of Alberta, “Updating”), recognizing the significance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which were made public around the same time as the NDP came to power in Alberta.

With the announcement of the curriculum review process, Alberta has an opportunity to create something new and important, something that changes Alberta’s relationship with Indigenous Canadians, something that reflects progressive ideals and improves life outcomes for all Albertans. For nowhere do people feel the consequences of history more than in schools, where cultures transmit valued and valuable knowledge, norms and ideologies. And no subject has greater reach into students’ hearts and minds than language arts, a near-universal discipline that accomplishes much more work than simply teaching reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and representing. Language arts underpins other subject areas by teaching efferent literacy and transmits a culture’s norms and values explicitly by representing them in texts of all kinds.1

Because this subject area is so important, before we embark on a blithe remaking of what already exists, we need a fuller understanding of the current (2003) English Language Arts curriculum for senior high and how it produces particular social outcomes. In reviewing the existing ELA curriculum, I argue that unless the curriculum adopts a dramatically different framework, this wide-reaching aspect of schooling will — despite appeals to technological competencies and Indigenous sensitivity — continue to exploit the interests of power and retrench the material problems of Canada’s history. That’s because the main outcome of the existing curriculum is sanctioned stratification. What we need instead is critical, resistant thinking.

Before I start, I want to make clear that I do not have an Indigenous background. I am not attempting to speak for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, and am certainly not speaking at them. As someone who wishes to be an Indigenous ally in whatever ways I can, I offer my insight into this very specific and important area in the interests of greater social justice for all.


As it is elsewhere, English language arts is the underpinning requirement for graduation and postsecondary study in Alberta. It is central to achievement in other academic subjects, too, because expressive and receptive language skills underpin learning in all disciplines. The language arts encompass skills vital for success in the modern world, particularly in the knowledge economy, in which service jobs dominate and economic growth depends on the exploitation of research and intellectual property.

Alberta’s current high school ELA curriculum is a curriculum of stratification, rooted in individualism and competition and organized into two streams (actually three, as I will explain in a moment) “to accommodate a diverse range of student needs, interests and aspirations” (Alberta Learning, Senior High 5): 10/20/30-1 and 10/20/30-2 (or “dash one” and “dash two” as I will refer to them). These streams are underpinned by a rationalist tradition that sorts and selects students for particular futures. The curriculum document comments repeatedly that the streams are similar, while in fact they may be easily distinguished by content. Distinct content implies there is knowledge that certain students must know and that others simply do not need; the reason for unequal distribution is inherently political.

Students arrive at high school having already been sorted and selected. Although schools ostensibly operate according to meritocracy (also known as equality of opportunity), students do not arrive at school having experienced equality of condition: some students enjoy structural advantages from their earliest days while others face structural disadvantages. What this point means in practice is that only some students have access to high-status knowledge, by which I mean the knowledge that leads to university and potentially to well-paid, secure employment and relatively high social status. Post-graduation success is regulated by achievement in the K–12 system and so is necessarily competitive; as a society we believe there can be only so many “smart” kids and only so many top marks to go around. Competition for the benefits of schooling works hand in hand with biases built into the system through race, gender, class, and other markers of difference to produce stratification.

The curriculum document says, “In general, differences between the two course sequences correspond to differences in student needs, interests and aspirations” (Alberta Learning, Senior High 6). But the real difference in the streams is that they produce markedly unequal paths for student futures. Again, the document says, “Since the [dash two] course sequence provides for the study of text at a variety of different levels of sophistication, to meet the needs of a more diverse student population in terms of student aspirations and abilities, students who aspire to post-secondary education, but not necessarily to careers related to the English language arts, may register in this course sequence” (Alberta Learning, Senior High 7).

Diversity sounds good!2 But the fact is that relatively few students take the dash-two stream, and those who do are choosing a very restrictive path. No Alberta university program, and a limited number of diploma and certificate programs, accepts ELA 30-2 for admission. Some students recognize that the dash-two stream closes doors; but students don’t all come to school with the same preparation, so regardless, without understanding the longer-term consequences of this “choice,” some end up in the dash-two stream, in which the expectations for their learning are lower, their expected level of accomplishment is lower, and their options for next steps are sharply limited.

The issue is even more acute for Indigenous students, who may find themselves in a little-known third stream: English Language Arts 10/20/30-4 (what I’ll call the “dash-four” stream). Dash four was introduced in 2006 for students experiencing extraordinary difficulties with language and literacy. These courses have as their “core responsibility … to foster and strengthen the development of language” (Alberta Education, Knowledge 3). Superficially, this program of study appears structurally similar to that for the dash-one and dash-two streams, and the general outcomes echo those in the other streams. On closer inspection, however, the subpoints under the general outcomes are fewer and much more basic than those in the other streams (Alberta Education, Knowledge 9–36). More importantly, these courses do not qualify a student to leave high school with a diploma: only ELA 30-1 or ELA 30-2 may be presented for diploma credit.

Relatively few students are enrolled in the dash-four stream, and many of those who are require further academic intervention for a variety of behavioural, intellectual, and medical reasons; but significantly, Indigenous students are singled out in the curriculum preamble with the explanation “Knowledge and Employability courses serve to facilitate positive experiences that will help Aboriginal students better see themselves in the curriculum” (Alberta Education, Knowledge 9), a statement that certainly says something about how Alberta Education viewed the Aboriginal community in 2006. Given that the graduation rate for First Nations students hovers around 36 percent (Assembly of First Nations), encouraging Indigenous students to take a dead-end course seems disingenuous, at best.

To put it another way, the curriculum offers excellent, good, and poor paths suited to excellent, good, and poor students. My argument is that the labels excellent, good, and poor are not natural as applied to students but rather are artifacts of the structures of a capitalist society. Students may arrive at these descriptors having been already constructed as excellent, good, and poor on the basis of evaluations that have little to do with their intellectual abilities or readiness to read literature. Students who cannot or do not choose the most advantageous stream of high school English Language Arts may have been constructed as dash-two or dash-four students since their earliest days of primary school on the basis of their home or first language, their lack of early exposure to text, their classroom behaviour and lack of self-management, and other factors that have a great deal to do with the norms of socioeconomic status — the hidden curriculum. It is only in high school, where streaming becomes explicit, that such construction becomes visible. Those who understand and enjoy the benefits of full literacy continue to succeed; and those whose literacy is partial, functional, and vulnerable to manipulation are at risk for failure — many Indigenous students, for instance, particularly students from backgrounds of poverty, as well as new Canadians, racialized students, and other students who experience systemic oppression. Again, because students do not enjoy equality of condition, many do not benefit from equality of opportunity.

Perhaps this information is not shocking to you. After all, Davies and Guppy observe, “Education systems long have channelled students into different types of schools and programs based on a belief that not all students can benefit from the same curriculum” (91). For many people in this room, the question may not be whether stratification should exist as a curricular outcome, but to what degree it should exist. For me, any degree of intentional stratification as an explicit or implicit curricular outcome is simply wrong; that is the reason I’m speaking here today. For me, a curriculum that deliberately produces stratified outcomes is a curriculum that perpetuates social injustice. Alberta’s current curriculum is structured to produce stratification but also mystifies its actions with the rhetoric of choice to suggest that such this outcome is natural, expected, and even desirable. Stratification begets further stratification, and in Alberta, our most vulnerable students are the children of single Aboriginal mothers. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine how a curriculum organized around stratification could hurt children, families, and communities.

So let me now explain how Alberta came to have this curriculum and why it is at risk of perpetuating stratification, regardless of the best intentions of the new NDP government or the Calls to Action by the TRC.


For a long time, Alberta has been “a right-wing corporatist state in which the interests of the state align with those of private corporations” (Harrison 80). The reason stems from Alberta’s dependency on oil and gas. According to the discourse of petro-politics, the quality of democracy, personal freedom, and political integrity is eroded as the price of oil rises (see Ross 2001; Oskarsson and Ottosen, 2010; Smith 2015). In Alberta, the well-being of transnational investors and the maintenance of a business-friendly environment are critical to a robust economy: threats to this economy have informed profoundly angry and sometimes violent responses to Alberta’s NDP government and its policies. This political economy developed over several decades, after the discovery of oil in Leduc in 1947, and found its apotheosis in neoliberalism under Ralph Klein beginning in late 1993, marked by a clear diminution of democratic participation and a shift to governmental authoritarianism (see Lisac, 1995; Laxer and Harrison, eds., 1995; Taft, 1997; Harrison, ed., 2005). Petro-wealth means the government can draw on oil and gas royalties instead of taxes to fund the provincial budget, making government less accountable to its citizens. The precariousness of this wealth, however, which depends on global economics and is controlled far from the Alberta capital, has also conditioned Albertans to be defensive about their provincial wealth and fiercely protective against criticism of the oil sands and the province’s environmental record (Takach 136–38). The practicality of political survival has found even Alberta’s NDP government making numerous compromises, including Premier Notley’s stating she intends to work cooperatively with oil companies regarding issues like the oil sands and transnational pipelines (Smith 105).

I don’t believe the writers of the 2003 English Language Arts curriculum set out to write a document that perpetuates inequality. That curriculum was, however, a product of neoliberalism. Throughout the document we find references to neoliberal keywords: choice, preference, aspiration, individual interest. Framing a student’s experience of high school Language Arts as a matter of choice and interest shifts the production of structural inequality to a matter of rational, individual decision-making rather than a matter of government policy, and naturalizes the stratifying effects of schooling. If we seek to accomplish true reconciliation — not to mention address other urgent social traumas — we must recognize that the “what” of the curriculum is neither innocent nor disinterested: indeed, it is consequential and sharply interested. The 2003 curriculum made clear that it produces some graduates of high status and some of low status, as befits an economy that depends on disposable, docile labour.

Education policy is state policy. It is written by those who hold power and serves the interests of power. In neoliberalism, curriculum cannot be severed from economic outcomes, and we can see traces of this yoking even in the Guiding Framework the current Education Ministry has developed to inform its curriculum revision process. This document says, “Alberta’s provincial curriculum helps students create a positive future for themselves, their communities and society. It provides students with pathways to the world of work and post-secondary education related to their career interests” (Framework 12). Education is one of the TRC’s most emphatic calls to action. But what we know from history is that those who have most tend to rig the game to ensure their continued success, and those who have least rarely get ahead. As long as Alberta remains in thrall to petro-wealth, the shortchanging of democracy and the capitulation to international interests are real risks, even though Alberta’s governing party has changed. A practical outcome is that curriculum will be written to educate workers, not citizens.

What we need in the new curriculum is a clear movement away from the expectation that student life-outcomes are solely the responsibility of the student and her/his family, and toward the recognition that student life-outcomes are strongly and explicitly shaped through the experience of schooling: that is, a shift away from meritocracy and toward social justice. But any new curriculum has the potential to reinforce the neoliberal agenda if it does not address the larger questions of what a curriculum is for — if it does not respond to the reality that the existing curriculum functions instrumentally in the interests of power and privilege, to identify, reward, and discipline students and workers.


In speaking to you today I have outlined the negative consequences of the existing curriculum and suggested the potential for ongoing stratification if the writers of the future curriculum continue to yoke education policy to economic policy. But there is an alternative. We can change the outcomes of the language arts curriculum if we change our expectations around the purpose for studying language arts in the first place. This means changing not only the content but also the framework: we urgently need critical thinking and an end to streaming.

I cannot tell you what the ultimate curriculum document will say; its creation is happening now, and it will not be piloted for several more years. I can tell you, however, that regardless of what the document may say, unless we fundamentally interrupt the traditional purpose of English Language Arts, then the new curriculum will perpetuate the inequality and injustice we know all too well.


Notes

1 Francophone students, of course, study French language and literature rather than English. The stratifying quality of literature study also pertains in a French context, despite that in Alberta Francophone students often struggle to assert their language rights. Simply to keep my argument manageable, I will confine my discussion to English Language Arts; my recommendations for the change in the teaching and learning of language and literature pertain equally to English and French.

2 Actually, the corollary of stating that the dash-two stream suits “a more diverse student population in terms of student aspirations and abilities” is that the dash-one stream suits a less diverse — or more exclusive — student population. So not so good, really.

Review: The Liszts

by Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Julia Sarda
Tundra Books, 2016

lisztsThe Liszts is a lovely story about fitting in in your own way. The Liszt family are list makers. One day, a stranger arrives at the Liszt home only to be rejected by everyone but Edward, the middle child who makes “Lists to quiet the swirl of his midnight mind.” The stranger is a questioner. Turns out, so is Edward.

This is a slightly off-kilter story. As with most of Kyo Maclear’s books, the text may read very differently for adults than for children, but it is lovely and sweet and touching. And the illustrations should be a joy for any reader. They’re quirky and rich with unexpected details, both humorous and eerie.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s well patterned for younger readers, and its story is so nuanced that the book should grow in its appeal as young readers age.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on November 16, 2016.

Review: Cammie Takes Flight

by Laura Best
Nimbus Publishing, 2016

In Cammie Takes Flight, readers find Cammie Turple at the Halifax School for the Blind in the early 1950s. Having left a pile of trouble behind, Cammie is meeting new people and making new friends, but she hasn’t forgotten her best friend, Evelyn Merry, and she can’t seem to shake her overbearing Aunt Millie. But now she’s also free to find her long-lost mother and solve the mystery of her origins. What kind of trouble could that possibly lead to?

This middle-grade novel is the sequel to 2014’s Flying with a Broken Wing, but stands alone just fine. Cammie is a plucky, refreshing heroine who will charm her way into readers’ hearts. She has a quizzical way with a simile, and her command of mid-century “tough” talk is endearing. Even more endearing is Cammie herself, though. Cammie is one of those rare characters a reader might like to have as a friend in real life. A poignant blend of loyalty, vulnerability, bluster, and plain good sense, Cammie doesn’t allow her limited eyesight — or anything else — to hold her back. Her quest to find her mother may not turn out the way she expected, but we know that Cammie will be okay.

Readers who like historical fiction will enjoy this novel, as will readers who like character-driven stories. Cammie Takes Flight is a funny and touching book about friends, family, and making the best of what you have. It deserves to be widely read and celebrated.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, June 2017.