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.

 

 

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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.

Review: Whispers of Mermaids and Wonderful Things

by Sheree Fitch and Anne Hunt, eds.
Nimbus Publishing, 2017

Whispers of Mermaids and Wonderful Things is a fresh collection of children’s poetry from and about English Atlantic Canada. It includes more than one hundred poems, not all of them written specifically for children. The collection has considerable reach, spanning from late nineteenth-century poetry to poems written just a few years ago. It is particularly well organized for teaching. The poems are organized by theme, and the book includes short biographies of the contributors. There are poems here to complement many standard Language Arts units and to demonstrate a breadth of literary forms and techniques. All in all, it’s a smart, compact, versatile collection, wrapped in a delightful, appealingly designed package.

If you’re looking for a book that will be greatly enjoyed and cherished, check out Whispers of Mermaids and Wonderful Things. It’s an essential addition to public children’s libraries and a worthwhile extension to school and classroom libraries. It would also make a wonderful gift for any young reader who shows an aptitude or appreciation for writing and poetry.

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

 

Review: Slug Days

by Sara Leach
Pajama Press, 2017

Lauren has Autism Spectrum Disorder and experiences the world in her own way — a way that is not always compatible with the people around her or appropriate for the setting. She has tremendous support in the classroom and from her parents, and she regularly reaches for strategies to keep the slug days away, but sometimes a slug day happens anyway. How will Lauren turn slug days into butterfly days? Maybe a good friend is what she needs.

Slug Days is a sensitive, playful, lovingly told chapter book about school, friends, and days both good and bad, drawn from author Sara Leach’s real-life experiences in classrooms. Lauren is charming and frustrating; many readers will recognize her pattern of taking two steps forward and — sometimes — two steps back. Dan, Lauren’s persistent frenemy, is equally recognizable, and the big and small moments of Dan and Lauren’s dynamic are insightfully captured in both prose and illustration.

Although it’s written for readers making the transition to independent reading, Slug Days would make an outstanding read-aloud book for early elementary classrooms, particularly in schools where anti-bullying policies and programs aimed at fostering empathy and respect for others are priorities. This sweet, gentle book is rich with Aha! moments for everyone — including teachers. Readers may be familiar with the character of Sheldon, the super-intelligent centre of TV’s Big Bang Theory. Slug Days provides a more nuanced representation of a young person identified as neuro-atypical. (Older readers intrigued by Lauren’s story may enjoy Darren Groth’s 2015 YA novel Are You Seeing Me?, which also features a character on the autism spectrum. Both books encourage greater inclusivity and understanding of individual differences.)

Whether she’s making homes for insects, visiting her favourite tree, or playing with her baby sister, Lauren is a lovable character at the centre of a relevant story. I hope Slug Days reaches a wide audience of parents, teachers, librarians, and kids: it’s a winner.

 

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

 

Review: #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women

by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, eds.
Annick Press, 2017

#NotYourPrincess makes a strong, specific claim: that Indigenous women must assert their right to represent themselves on their own terms. This means rejecting imagery like “sexy Pocahontas” and narratives of helpless victimhood, without ignoring the complex reality of Indigenous girls’ and women’s lives. Canadian statistics, for instance, show that Indigenous women are some of the most economically and socially vulnerable people in Canada. The texts in #NotYourPrincess acknowledge that reality and speak back with empowerment, strength, and hope.

This colourful, spacious volume brings together illustrated art and photography, comic-style storytelling, personal commentary about current events such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry and the Dakota Access Pipeline, and a range of creative writing. Girls and women talk about dealing with and overcoming difficult childhoods, institutional discrimination, and casual racism. They identify and thank women who have led the fight for greater recognition and inclusion. Some imagery is drawn from social media and historical or contemporary photography. Readers encounter representations of strong, accomplished Indigenous women, but also eye-opening discussions of what it means to present oneself physically as an Indigenous woman. The presentation, while openly political, is finely balanced: readers are invited to find their own space in the discourse.

#NotYourPrincess is an important and valuable book. Transcending the colonially imposed border between the United States and Canada, the collection includes perspectives from north and south, west and east; contributors are identified by their Indigenous affiliation. Although the book is explicitly “a love letter to all young Indigenous women trying to find their way,” it is also important for non-Indigenous readers to understand how destructive stereotypical representation and cultural silencing can be and have been. This book needs to be widely read and discussed because the changing representation of Indigenous girls and women is a central and urgent element of reconciliation and healing. #NotYourPrincess can help readers find the resilience and courage to make positive changes. Librarians, teachers, parents: please put this book into girls’ and teens’ hands.

 

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

 

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.