Review: Drawn Away

by Holly Bennett
Orca Book Publishers, 2017

Drawn Away by Holly Bennett is something of an urban ghost story novel, something of a literary mash-up. It draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s heart-rending tale of the Little Match Girl to tell a contemporary story about mothers’ love, romantic obsession, and cooperative problem solving.

Jack is an ordinary guy living a fairly ordinary life when he is pulled into a shadowy, misty space where he meets a thin, intense girl. Then zap, he’s back in the real world and flirting with Lucy, his soon-to-be girlfriend. When Lucy and Jack discover they’ve both encountered the thin girl, Klara (who turns out to be the ghost of the real-life inspiration for the Little Match Girl), they must work together to keep Klara from luring Jack back to the shadow world forever.

I liked this novel; it has a brisk-moving plot and raises issues of both historical and contemporary significance. The Klara subplot invites readers to consider domestic violence, the consequences of poverty, and the plight of women in a morally punitive society. The plot thread of Jack’s diabetes turns his insulin pump into a character and normalizes the process of managing the disease. The figure of Hans Christian Andersen introduces themes of authorship and responsibility, and also allows the novel to represent a very difficult, and frankly harsh era, in an intriguing manner. That said, the Andersen subplot is something of a tangent; it is resolved a bit too tidily through Lucy and her mother. I also found the relationship between Jack and Lucy unusually pitched. Although they are seventeen and eighteen years old, and do engage in some behaviours of older teens (such as drinking alcohol and smoking pot), their romantic relationship is very restrained. But perhaps this decision reflects more about the sensibilities of classrooms and public librarians than it does about modern teens.

In short, Drawn Away is an energetic, accessible novel for grades eight and up. It’s likely to appeal to readers interested in the recent revival of fairy tales through popular texts like Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time, and Beauty and the Beast (as well as the junior retellings of the Whatever After series). Drawn Away could also provide a stepping-stone to more sophisticated retellings like Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper and The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge.

Originally published on LibraryThing on April 11, 2017.

 

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Girls and STEM

Earlier this year I was invited to write an article for T8N magazine about girls, women, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. I’m really pleased with how it turned out, and it’s such an important topic. If you’re interested in reading it, here’s the link.

 

Review: Queen of the Crows

by Harmony Wagner
Acorn Press, 2016

queencrowsHungry and afraid when her mother fails to come home yet again, Elsa finds comfort in a crow that seems to be following her — until that crow talks to her. As Elsa tries to hold her precarious life together, she is drawn into a life-or-death battle for dominance among the local crows. Watching the crows resolve their crisis, Elsa learns that birds and people aren’t so different after all.

Eleven-year-old Elsa is incredibly resourceful. She knows she’s growing up too quickly because of her mother’s illness, but loyalty and fear prevent her from reaching out for help. She’s fairly nimble at deflecting attention from herself in the adult world, but at school she is the target of bullying by mean girls, as well as by a teacher who misrecognizes Elsa’s struggle to hold her tiny family together as either stupidity or an indifference to schooling. (I was impressed the author included this point in the narrative, because it’s a topic rarely acknowledged by teachers or even in teacher training.) Elsa is remarkably warm-hearted for a young person in such dire circumstances, as readers will observe through a subplot that involves the integration of Karen refugees into Canadian society; and while her life isn’t going to improve immediately, at the story’s end Elsa is stronger and wiser.

The crow story centres around Cracks, who introduces himself as a jester; this plot provides an imaginative counter-narrative to Elsa’s bleak experiences. The Queen of the Crows has disappeared, and the rest of the crows, including the Queen’s court, are unsettled. When a power vacuum appears, an older, scheming crow called Lustre attempts to exploit the flock’s distress. The reason for the Queen’s absence, however, underlines how the resolve of a supposed outsider can mask something valuable and rare.

This closely observed realistic fiction is nicely balanced with animal fantasy for middle-grade readers. Queen of the Crows is Harmony Wagner’s first novel (it’s based on a film), so there are admittedly a few rough spots, but the larger story is compelling enough to keep readers going. That said, this is a tough plot that doesn’t pull back from the harsh reality of Elsa’s circumstances, so it’s best suited to readers who will give Elsa a chance. Adults should also be prepared to answer questions readers may have about Elsa’s situation.

Readers who have enjoyed books like Brian Jacques’s Redwall series and who are ready for plots based in realism, diversity, and social justice should enjoy this novel. The themes of loyalty and independence will resonate, and regrettably the issue of bullying is still relevant in classrooms across the country. Queen of the Crows is a poignant story of poverty, hardship, and resilience that will reward attentive, sensitive readers.

 

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

 

Review: The Goat

by Anne Fleming
Groundwood Books, 2017

thegoatIn this delightfully absurd book, appropriately named Kid finds herself in New York City searching for an elusive roof-top goat that she hopes will bring her mother luck on the opening of her Off Broadway play. Kid’s quest brings her into contact with several unusual neighbours, each of whom — including the goat — is in pursuit of his or her own personal challenge.

The Goat is told from multiple perspectives beyond Kid’s, though, pulling together a cast of characters drawn in light but sure strokes. Joff Vanderlinden is a blind skateboarder-turned-novelist who meets a mysterious woman with a striking way with words. Jonathan and Doris are an aging couple navigating the aftermath of a stroke. And Kenneth P. Gill is the apparently reclusive man who has inexplicably brought a mountain goat to the city. These apparently disparate people and situations are nimbly braided into the story of the goat, providing symbolic and thematic depth and resonance.

Despite the absurd plot, the story strikes many serious, even sombre notes. Kid’s accomplice in her search for the goat is Will, whose parents died when the Twin Towers fell; now Will lives with his grandmother and has developed nearly paralyzing rituals as a coping strategy. Will’s help when Kid needs it most, however, allows the other characters to realize their own goals and helps Kid confront the shyness that has held her back. At the centre of the relationship between Kid and Will is a well of empathy, emotional resilience, and compassion, qualities mirrored in the novel’s various subplots.

I admire this book so much for its deft layering, its playfulness, and its poignancy. The book is beautifully patterned, and as the adjacent plot lines come together, readers may perceive several subtle but important lessons. In short, The Goat is a delightful reading experience.

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

Review: A Day of Signs and Wonders

by Kit Pearson
Harper Trophy, 2016

aday-of-signsA Day of Signs and Wonders imagines a meeting between two Victorian daughters: Kitty, who grew up to be Kathleen O’Reilly, best remembered today for her home, the Point Ellice House historical site; and Emily, who grew up to be Emily Carr, one of Canada’s most identifiable painters. On the day of their fictional meeting in 1881, Kitty is a sad thirteen-year-old, devastated by the loss of her younger sister. Nine-year-old Emily runs into Kitty while Emily is making an early-morning escape from her crabby guardian. The juxtaposition of Emily’s energy against Kitty’s reserve produces a beautiful play of contrasts in a complex, richly woven text that will appeal to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

From the first moment readers meet Emily, she is portrayed as earthy and unconventional. This passage, from the third page of the book, captures both the author’s style and one of the book’s key themes:

     A spider’s web stretched from the gatepost to a lavender bush. The droplets on its fragile strands made a perfect pattern of shimmering beads. The day was brand new, like a piece of clean paper waiting for someone to draw on. Despite the bright sun the air was chilly, but Emily didn’t care. She had escaped!

She began stamping along the road, her feet raising clouds of dust. She wasn’t wearing shoes, a hat, or her petticoat … she wasn’t even wearing undergarments! …

I’m free! gloated Emily. Free of stern Mrs. Crane, free of failing miserably to behave.

Emily despises the restrictive clothing she wears as a young girl, particularly her pinafore (which becomes an element of the plot). She also enjoys food and responds strongly to beauty and sensuousness. She feels her emotions unreservedly and speaks her mind freely — indeed much too freely for the uptight Mrs Crane, who is watching Emily and her sister Alice while their mother recovers from a serious illness.

Kitty, on the other hand, reads as dreamy and ethereal, but is desperately sad. Yet something about Emily’s wildness appeals to Kitty, and she invites Emily to spend the day with her. Kitty has largely internalized her lot as a Victorian female, but she’s struggling: with her sister’s loss, with her own imminent departure for boarding school, and especially with a future that will pull her away from the home she loves. As the girls play and get to know each other, they reveal more about themselves and their fears, creating a gently literary experience for young readers and offering moments for readerly reflection and insight.

A Day of Signs and Wonders is an accomplished book by a talented author. It should be a high-priority acquisition for school and public libraries, and will make an excellent addition to classroom libraries. It could easily be taught as a novel study, or used as an independent novel with a strong upper-elementary reader, particularly one who is ready to leap beyond the Little House series and into Anne of Green Gables or similar books. The novel will stand up well to re-reading, and its layers of imagery and patterning will reward the attentive reader.

It is also, incidentally, a physically lovely book; the cover is delicate, almost airy, and the French flaps evoke an older style of publishing, a book that is special, even precious (although some boys may not respond well to it). The map at the front of the book is a great artifact for readers who have visited present-day Victoria. They can try to map their own visit on Emily’s Victoria; key landmarks will help with orientation.

A Day of Signs and Wonders is one of my favourite middlegrade books of 2016. I strongly recommend it.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, December 2016.

 

Review: Dark Side

by John Choi
Lorimer, 2016

darksideEmerson Yeung has reached his breaking point. He told his highly demanding parents that he left his mobile phone at school, but in fact it was stolen and the thief’s actions have caused Emerson trouble with the police. Between his parents’ bullying, his feelings of isolation, and his struggle with stress and depression, Emerson is ready to let go. On the night he decides to hang himself, however, a chance meeting gives him a reason to re-evaluate his decision.

A new title from SideStreets, a series for low-literacy readers, Dark Side tells a story about depression and suicide, but also much more. Author John Choi has packed a great deal into this small novel, and that’s a benefit for slower readers, who will closely experience each moment of Emerson’s desperation and recovery (unlike quicker readers, who may skim along the plot effortlessly and miss the emotional punches).

As the title suggests, the novel explores many dark places, but few that many teens aren’t already familiar with. It’s one of the qualities I admire about this series: these books generally offer a more realistic depiction of teen life without going over the top or moralizing. Writing about suicidal thoughts is challenging, but Choi manages the task well. Emerson is subdued and sometimes self-pitying, but his troubles are real and identifiable. When he slowly begins to recognize his own agency, he takes steps toward emotional resilience, a strength every young person needs to develop. The novel ends hopefully, although perhaps a little quickly and optimistically. Emerson realizes he’s not really alone and can determine his own actions and make his own choices — including the choice to stay alive and to change his communication with his parents.

Many adults are wary of discussing suicide and depression with teenagers out of fear of encouraging teens to consider suicide. I myself believe that talking about issues demystifies them, and for that reason would suggest this book be put in the hands of any teen who’s struggling with depression, academic pressure, or family violence. I also admire that Emerson is Chinese–Canadian, adding a little more diversity to YA literature and chipping away at some persistent stereotypes about Asian characters in books for teens.

Dark Side is a strong novel for reluctant readers. I look forward to more sensitive, empowering books from John Choi.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, December 2016.

 

Review: Wonder Women

by Sam Maggs
Quirk Books, 2016

wonderwomanSam Maggs is a Canadian writer and editor. You may be familiar with her 2015 book The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Girl Geeks or with her work on various websites and newspapers. Her new book is called Wonder Women, a breezy survey of twenty-five women who have excelled in science- and math-related disciplines as well as other areas of endeavour. It’s a fun, fact-filled volume intended to inspire girls and young women.

Wonder Women is a well-built book. It represents a range of cultures and eras, with a strong emphasis on women’s accomplishment in STEM fields. It also includes short interviews with contemporary women working in science, research, and communications, exactly the kinds of role models teens and young women need today as they encounter sometimes destructive pressure to conform to narrow social roles and behaviours. I liked the inclusion of the section “Women of Adventure,” featuring a mountaineer, an explorer, a pilot, and several women who pursued interests once believed to be restricted to men.

My major concern with this book is that it underestimates teen girls. Girls reading to learn about feminism don’t need to be lured by slang and anti-male mudslinging. They can handle serious prose; they read it elsewhere in their lives, and if they are serious about understanding feminism, they’ll be motivated to read seriously. I’m not in any way saying feminism can’t be fun, funny, or even silly; I am saying that we don’t need to write as if teens are incapable of reading standard prose. One could read this book cynically to suggest that stories of accomplished women must be made super catchy and accessible to be read, despite that this is clearly not Maggs’s intention.

Wonder Women is a smart, accessible book that should be part of junior and senior high school libraries and would make a lively addition to any public library with a strong teen program. But do anticipate that readers will likely find its references and phrasing out of date fairly quickly.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, December 2016.