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.

 

Review: Downside Up

by Richard Scrimger
Tundra Books, 2016

downsideRichard Scrimger’s new novel opens with an intriguing premise: there’s a parallel world, just like this one, except the things we have lost remain there. Fred has recently lost his dog, Casey. When he finds an entryway to the Downside world, he begins spending much of his time there, playing with Casey, talking with his other-world self, Freddie, and observing his family and classmates from a new angle.

Downside Up is a fantasy novel embedded in a realistic novel about emotional trauma. We are well into it before we learn that the story is about much more than Fred and Casey, as this passage suggests:

“There’s lots we can’t control,” I said. “Bad things happen. Accidents, luck, whatever—these things are not our decision. But we can decide what we do about the bad luck, about the accidents. We can’t stop the dragon coming after us. But we can decide to get away.”

Although grief and depression are the dominant emotional themes, the book is really about resilience. (And dragons, by the way, are real in the Downside world.) Sensitive readers — especially readers who have experienced trauma or loss in their own lives — will appreciate the gentle unspooling of this narrative and the message of courage it conveys.

This tender, thoughtful novel is deeply moving. Its scenes and images will stay with me for a long time, and it’s a book that will reward reflection and re-reading. It is sweet and sad, and funny, and touching without being treacly. It deserves to be cherished. I hope adults will put Downside Up in the hands of younger readers who need it and will love it.

 

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

 

 

Review: Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles

by Shari Green
Pajama Press, 2016

rootbeerRoot Beer Candy and Other Miracles is a gentle verse novel for middle-grade readers. Bailey, the sensitive, perceptive narrator, is living on a West Coast island with her little brother and her estranged grandmother for the summer while her parents try to repair their marriage. She soon meets Jasper, a man who was once a village leader but is now an outsider, and Daniel, a boy with a camera and a secret. One day Jasper locks eyes with Bailey as he utters one of his prophecies. His words set the villagers gossiping and push Bailey to search for miracles.

Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles tackles some serious problems common among kids today. Its resolution is gentle and hopeful, but also realistic. When Bailey asks for help, people — even people she believes dislike her — come to her aid. From the climactic event Bailey discovers personal resilience and the value of expressing her feelings and her fears. Not everything can be fixed, but sharing a problem with someone who loves us makes it easier to bear. This is a message middle-graders cannot hear too often.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s an excellent choice for thoughtful middle-grade readers and would make a valuable addition to a school or classroom library. It’s also a fine complement to the verse novels of K.A. Holt, and a stepping stone to the work of authors like Sonya Sones, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Martine Leavitt. Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles is also a physically beautiful book, generously designed and appealing in the hand. Watch for this one!

 

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

 

 

Review: Weerdest Day Ever!

by Richard Scrimger
Orca Book Publishers, 2016

weerdestIn Weerdest Day Ever!, Bunny (his grandfather prefers Bernard), his brother Spencer, and their grandfather David McLean go on a weekend camping trip. Bunny discovers that a war is about to break out between Canada and America, and somehow the man who’s stolen Spencer’s cell phone has something to do with it. Can Bunny retrieve the phone and stop a war? Well, if anyone can, it’s Richard Scrimger’s Bunny, a fascinating, quirky character whose view of the world is unconventional but delightful.

I have to state up front that I deeply enjoy Richard Scrimger’s books and have been following his writing since The Nose from Jupiter (1998). So I was pleased to learn about the Seven Prequels. In this series, the writers of Seven (the Series) and the Seven Sequels reach back in time. The framing story of Weerdest Day Ever! introduces Bunny as a teenager writing down his story as an English assignment; in the story itself he is only twelve. The story is told in Bunny’s inimitable way, self-conscious spelling errors and all.

What makes Weerdest Day Ever! work is its sense of play. The book is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Scrimger has a great sense of comedy, amplified by Bunny’s wobbly spelling and unusual way of making sense. Bunny lurches from scene to scene in a chain of near-misses with Spencer, Grandpa, and the man Bunny is chasing. Along the way he meets Tyler and Beth, whose own issues add depth and poignancy to the plot. Everything turns out, of course. (Readers who want another take on the weekend can read Speed by Ted Staunton, which recounts the story from the perspective of Bunny’s brother Spencer.)

Weerdest Day Ever! invites readers inside a sly joke and tells an absurd tale of mystery, courage, and friendship. It’s wonderful fun.

 

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