Review: The Land of Yesterday

K.A. Reynolds
Harper, 2018

In children’s books, one of the most frightening plot points is the loss of family. In The Land of Yesterday, Cecelia loses her brother, Celadon, in a freak accident. Her heartbroken mother follows Celadon to the Land of Yesterday, and then Cecelia’s father is cruelly imprisoned. Cecelia determines to rescue them all and restore her family — and at the same time works through her grief.

The Land of Yesterday is a horror-tinged fantasy novel. It is also a deeply symbol-laden book about death. Almost every image, almost every action in the book is symbolic; at times I wondered what middle-grade readers would make of the profusion of patterns, symbols, and foreshadowing (I found it a little heavy handed, personally). Readers who like ghost stories and children’s horror may enjoy this novel (particularly the character of Widdendream, the loving home that becomes a monster), but its greater value is in demonstrating a path through mourning and one’s ability to come through loss without losing oneself. In this respect The Land of Yesterday could be a valuable resource for teaching emotional resilience. Relatively early in the book, one of the characters offers Cecelia a piece of advice: “The only way to leave the Sea of Tears is to truly want to be in Today. Focus on where you wish to go, picture it clearly in your mind, and when you’re ready to leave, trust the sea to show you the way.” Late in the novel, Cecelia reiterates this wisdom: “All we can do is our best, learn from our mistakes and also from those we love. Then, when we’re ready, we can finally move beyond Yesterday and return to living in today.” Whether a reader is dealing with grief, another trauma, or just the everyday bumps and bruises of living, the lessons of Cecelia’s quest are vital, and a book can provide a gentle, unobtrusive way to learn them.

The Land of Yesterday is a quirky novel with much to offer a range of readers. It’s certainly not for every taste, but many readers will be rapt by its blue-haired protagonist and her complicated adventure.

 

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

 

 

Advertisements

Review: Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein

Linda Bailey
Tundra Books, 2018

 “Here is Mary. She’s a dreamer.” So begins this glorious elementary-level biography of Mary Shelley. Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein is a delightful book that tells the story of Mary Shelley in a way that’s relatable for young people, emphasizing Mary’s youth, her difficult relationship with her family, and how receptive she is to the world around her. Linda Bailey’s prose is lilting, spacious: it makes room for readers and invites us to join the story. “How could a girl like [Mary] come up with such a story?” she asks rhetorically. “But you may know.”

Júlia Sardà‘s illustration style perfectly suits the story of the dreamy, sometimes troubled Mary Shelley and her creative spirit. The pictures are dark and broody, full of spooky shapes and gothic imagery. The backgrounds are muted greys, browns, and black, while bright but intense images appear in the foreground. The whole package is very appealing and apt.

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein makes a fine complement to Bloom (Kyo Maclear’s 2018 book about Modernist fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli), which also profiles a creative and “difficult” young woman. Both books reassure kids — especially girls — that it’s OK to see the world in ways that others don’t. As we move through a turbulent period in our culture, books like these offer a poised and forthright strategy for helping readers to develop confidence, resilience, and determination and to meet the future with strength and security.

Timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Shelley’s novel, Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein is an outstanding example of the thoughtful, beautiful nonfiction picture books being published today. It is sure to inspire would-be writers and other imaginative minds. I heartily recommend this book for any library, public or personal — adult readers will enjoy it, too!

 

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

 

Review: Hungry for Science

Kari-Lynn Winters and Lori Sherritt-Fleming
Illustrated by Peggy Collins
Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2018

As society recognizes that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields need to become more diverse and inclusive, and as creative people increasingly add “art” to STEM fields to produce STEAM (art-influenced science-based thinking), a volume like Hungry for Science represents a welcome addition to libraries and book shelves.

The poems in this short picture book speak to basic scientific concepts such as magnetism, chemistry, life cycles, and sustainability; they’re intended for pre-readers and beginning readers. The chunky, boldly coloured illustrations accompanying the poems are pleasant and inclusive. Some of the little scientists are girls. Some are people of colour. Some are people with disabilities. All playfully suggest that science is for everyone — an important idea, particularly for early learners (who, research shows, are likely to represent scientists as male and able-bodied). The bouncy, playful verses will encourage repeated reading aloud, and the scientific concepts introduced in the poems are supported by a brief back matter to point scientists-in-the-making to further topics for investigation.

Hungry for Science makes science fun and appealing. It’s a great addition to school and classroom libraries, with lots of potential contact points for extension in math, science, ecology, and health lessons. It would also make a strong addition to public libraries, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods where young readers may need encouragement to see themselves in creative, innovative futures.

 

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

 

Review: The Fashion Committee

Susan Juby
Penguin Teen, 2018

 I enjoyed The Fashion Committee so much! It has angst and moments of social realism, but also moments of wry humour and a quirky premise. Charlie and John are high school students pitted against each other, and several of their classmates, to win a highly desirable scholarship to a school of art and design. Charlie is fashion crazy: it’s where she puts the vigilance and anxiety that living with an addict causes. John couldn’t care less about fashion but yearns to go to art school; but coming from a home with a fixed income, he simply can’t afford such dreams. For a while Charlie and John operate on parallel tracks, but we know they’re destined to collide.

Several reviews of this novel point out some improbable plot points, and while I recognize these concerns, I’m not convinced fiction has to operate as a perfect mirror of this world. Similarly, some readers are likely to notice that the “journal” structure of the novel doesn’t hold consistently, but it’s still narratively satisfying. I was pleased that Juby didn’t pair Charlie and John romantically — which would have been an easy choice — and I felt the resolution of the scholarship plot was fittingly balanced.

The Fashion Committee offers readers something like watching a John Hughes movie — but without the saccharine aftertaste or the 1980s attitudes. It’s a strong, smart novel by a novelist who understands her craft and her audience well.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on July 15, 2018.

 

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.

Review: Miss Mink: Life Lessons for a Cat Countess

Janet Hill
Tundra Books, 2019

Miss Mink: Life Lessons for a Cat Countess is a charming book about cats and embracing your independence. Miss Mink, a Flapper-style New Woman, has been declared a cat countess. She and sixty-seven cat companions sail the world in a steamship enjoying days of play, rest, good dining, and camaraderie.

This is a sweet, fanciful picture book, executed in Modernist style with oil paint on canvas. The paintings are dreamy and rich. I’m not sure how much child readers will enjoy this book, apart from chasing and counting the various cats, but many adult readers will enjoy the illustration style (think the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries television series) and the cat-approved lessons for living your best life.

A great pick for picture-book collectors, and a nice addition to any home library complemented by cats.

 

This review was originally published on LibraryThing on February 17, 2019.

 

Review: Great

Glen Gretzky and Lauri Holomis
Illustrated by Kevin Sylvester
Puffin Canada, 2016

Great is a cute book about grit, determination, and staying focussed. When Taylor is recruited to a team by Coach Wally, he is intimidated by a blond-haired star called Wayne. But Coach Wally reminds Taylor that he is the star of his own game, with his own skills and talents that make him great.

Great offers a charming selection for any early reader who loves hockey, loves sports, or needs to remember that we are all great in our own ways. The illustrations are wonderful: comic-style yet thoughtful and rich in detail. And the book’s connection to hockey’s Great One, Wayne Gretzky, by way of the foreword, completes the package. GREAT is a smart seasonal pick.

 

This review was originally published on LibraryThing on November 19, 2018.