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.


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.