Van Ho and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Pajama Press, 2018
On a May morning, four-year-old Van wakes up to discover her family is gone — a nightmare for any child. But this is a nightmare from which Van cannot awake. After a day of confusion and misdirection, she learns the truth: her mother and siblings have followed her father and her sister to Canada to escape from the Communist government in Vietnam. Because Van is so young, she has been left behind, in care of her grandmother, until the family can afford to send for both of them.
From this terrifying moment, the story unfolds chronologically. Van is a guest in her aunt and uncle’s home and must work every day before and after school to help keep the household solvent. She is harassed by a bullying boy whose father is a member of the military police. She is ill and must take medicine regularly, but medicine is costly and so Van often has little to eat and no new clothes. All she can do is wait until she is old enough to leave the country and rejoin her family — and if that day ever comes, will she be able to forgive her mother for leaving her behind?
Too Young to Escape is a compelling story about the aftermath of war for children. Van is not the only child abandoned by her family, she discovers, nor is she the only one who has suffered. The fact that this book is memoir, not fiction, leaves tantalizing gaps in the story, only partly filled by interviews with Van Ho’s mother and father in the back matter. (The pictures of Van and her family will add immediacy to the reading experience.) Sensitive readers will be moved, and possibly shocked, by the challenges Van faces — but also reassured by her resilience and compassion.
Too Young to Escape offers a piercing firsthand account of the conflict in Vietnam, which continues to resonate in popular culture decades later. The book’s plucky young protagonist adds a diverse voice to a literature that continues, regrettably, to be necessary for today’s readers.
This review was originally published in Resource Links, December 2018.
by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Orca Book Publishers, 2018
Ramadan is the holy month of fasting observed by Muslims to teach and uphold key beliefs. It is a period for reflection, empathy, and renewal; it is also a time for family and community — particularly at the arrival of Eid-al-Fitr, the end of the fast.
Ramadan provides a clear, accessible introduction to Ramadan and Islamic beliefs generally. The author explains the stages of Ramadan and the practices associated with the holy month. Her presentation includes a survey of Ramadan traditions from diverse societies around the world, as well as her personal reminiscences and short profiles of young Muslims’ individual choices and needs during a month-long fast. The text also includes quotations from young people explaining what Ramadan means to them, an excellent extension of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s own story. The text is supported by a glossary and a short list of references. There are even a few recipes for readers who want to sample the flavours of other cultures. Throughout, the author’s voice is warm and friendly, but also respectful — nicely balanced.
Ramadan is a new volume in the Orca Origins series, which has been uniformly well researched and attractively presented. The colour palette of this book is soft and appealing, while the bright full-colour images add interest to every page. This series has been insightfully planned and carried out: books like Khan’s Ramadan make intercultural discovery and understanding fascinating and fun. I particularly like how prominent girls and women are in this text. And while the book is intended for kids, there are many adults who would benefit from reading it to dispel their misunderstandings. I emphatically recommend Ramadan: The Holy Month of Fasting to any class or community interested in reading for multicultural understanding.
This review was originally published in Resource Links, February 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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.