Review: Ebb and Flow

Heather Smith
Kids Can Press, 2018

Twelve-year-old Jett has had a difficult year. A series of bad decisions has led to serious consequences, and Jett is spending the summer with his grandmother while his mother figures out what to do. A summer of reflection, however, with a good listener and a healing ocean leads Jett to an admission of his actions and a will to change.

It’s unusual to read a book told from the perspective of a bully — especially when the bully himself is a victim of another, bigger bully. What I especially admired about this verse novel is the way it uses stories as a form of both teaching and healing. Grandma tells stories about herself to create a safe space, and Jett in turn uses storytelling to reveal — slowly, carefully — what happened with Junior (his friend/enemy) and Alf (a mentally challenged man Jett has befriended). His grandmother’s unconditional love and empathy help Jett wrestle with his uncomfortable emotions and make a plan to atone for his actions. The free verse has some lovely musical lines, and readers who enjoy poetry will find numerous symbols and motifs to trace, enhancing the narrative.

Ebb & Flow is a warmhearted, compassionately observed novel that demonstrates that redemption is a quality we can achieve for ourselves. As our culture grows more aware of difference and vulnerability, this book offers readers a rewarding perspective on simple kindness.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

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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: 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.