Review: Optimists Die First

by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books, 2017

Petula wants her life to be as safe, quiet, and unremarkable as possible. Since the tragic death of her little sister, Petula has cut unnecessary social ties, turned inside herself, and become an expert at identifying — and avoiding — risk. Then she meets a boy she dubs the Bionic Man; soon she’s questioning her ideas about safety and security. With friendships, relationships, and her own mental wellness hanging in the balance, Petula must decide whether to take a chance on a boy who gives her so much, but could hurt her very badly.

I loved Optimists Die First. I enjoyed it much more than Nielsen’s 2016 book We Are All Made of Molecules. Although the plot sounds like a romance (and there is a romantic relationship at the centre of the plot), the novel engages much bigger issues than simply girl meets boy. A twist revelation late in the book adds depth and dimension to the story; I appreciated that the author didn’t let her characters take the easy way out.

Optimists Die First is likely to become a favourite with YA readers. With all her anxieties, Petula is initially tough to like, but she’s worth getting to know.

Originally published on LibraryThing on July 24, 2017.

 

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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: 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.

 

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.

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.