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.



Review: Bloom

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.


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: Shadow Girl

by Patricia Morrison
Tundra Books, 2013


shadowgirlShadow Girl is a haunting book about alcoholism, poverty, and their social consequences. The cover copy describes this novel as heartbreaking, and I agree. I found Shadow Girl very affecting and sad, but it’s a powerful realistic novel that offers strong observations on how immediately family problems and social problems affect children’s lives.

When the text opens in December 1963, Jules is an eleven-year-old girl carrying heavy burdens. She is hungry, her father hasn’t bought groceries for a while, and there is nothing but a small amount of spoiled food left in the fridge. Except for Patsy, her best friend, Jules has few friends at school and is sometimes the object of bullying. She spends much of her out-of-school time at the Six Points Plaza, hanging around the Zellers toy department and pining after a doll she hopes to get for Christmas. Jules is resourceful and responsible, however; she keeps herself quietly amused, stays out of her father’s way when he’s drunk, and takes care of the house and herself as best she can.

One night, however, her father’s rage gets out of control, and he abandons Jules, leaving her by herself for several days. Eventually, a caring adult intervenes and Jules is taken into custody of social services. All she wants is for her father to come back to her, for things to be the way they once were. Slowly, Jules learns that that’s simply not possible. The book follows Jules as she comes to terms with life in foster care and the choices her father has made.

This is in many ways a difficult, unflinching book. Jules’ father, Joe, is an unlikeable character, and the adults he associates with are also negative and unattractive. One social worker is kind but ineffectual; another is bureaucratic and cold. The members of the first foster family Jules joins range from indifferent to hostile, and it’s only when Jules’ situation reaches a crisis that another solution is considered. I deeply appreciated the integrity with which the author examined the entwined issues of alcoholism, poverty, neglect, and forms of bias and prejudice. I also admire the author’s courage in producing such a bleak and unsparing study of her characters’ lives.

There are a few weaknesses in the text. The balance of showing versus telling is sometimes off, so at times the novel feels somewhat stilted. The narrative style — though not the content — emulates that of books from the early 1960s, and the exposition can feel somewhat didactic, particularly when Jules reflects on poverty and on religion. The conclusion also arrives very quickly, with limited resolution; to me, it felt truncated and not entirely believable.

Still, this is fiction for children, so the ending is modestly happy. Jules is clearly still deeply troubled, but readers see that she now has the potential for real hope in a genuinely caring foster situation. It’s muted hope, but still hope, and readers are left with the idea that positive change is possible no matter one’s circumstances.

Shadow Girl is certainly not for every reader, but thoughtful readers who seek out realistic fiction will likely enjoy this book. It’s sensitively and authentically written and very emotionally moving.


This review was originally published in Resource Links, April 2013.

Review: The Highest Number in the World

by Roy MacGregor
Tundra Books, 2014

thehighestnumberIn his latest book, Roy MacGregor, already well known to middle-grade readers for his Screech Owls series, finds a new readership. The Highest Number in the World is a short, sweet story about hockey, dreams, and the people who inspire us.

Gabe’s jersey is number 22, just like her idol Hayley Wickenheiser’s. But her new team’s jerseys number only up to 20, and Gabe gets number 9. How will she ever be able to play again without her lucky number? And what can her grandmother Gabriella possibly do to help?

The Highest Number in the World is a delightful book. Hockey player or not, any reader will identify with Gabe’s struggle with uncertainty in the face of change. The story ends happily, of course, but the telling is balanced and modern. I’m pleased to see MacGregor continuing to represent hockey as a welcoming, inclusive sport for girls — and also glad he doesn’t flinch from acknowledging the male-only history of the game.

Another delight of this book is the illustrations, which make an homage to the traditional NHL and the larger culture of hockey. Look carefully at the colours and the details in the images: they’re very clever!

It’s not quite Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, but the story of Gabe and Gabriella is highly identifiable and lovable. A great choice for pre-readers, early readers, and anyone who enjoys the game. I give it 4.5/5.


Originally published on LibraryThing on March 16, 2014.

Review: Adventures with Barefoot Critters

by Teagan White
Tundra Books, 2014

BarefootcoverAdventures With Barefoot Critters is a dreamy new ABC book that includes enough twists to keep both children and adults engaged through multiple readings. It was written and illustrated by Teagan White, a designer, illustrator, and blogger whose non-book work is striking and appealing. This playful, artful book, with its gentle touches and lilting rhymes, could easily become a favourite at naptime or bedtime for pre-readers and early readers alike.

The book follows a group of friendly anthropomorphized animals through the cycle of a year, following changes of seasons and various celebrations. The characters include some that readers might expect, such as a fox and a mouse, as well as some surprising and charming choices. Every opening features thoughtful details that allow readers to explore and extend the characters and the story of their year.

AdventuresZOne feature that I appreciated was that rather than concentrating strictly on nouns (as many alphabet books do), this text encompasses descriptions and actions: “We make messes with mud when it rains in July. But we take nice long naps in the grass once it’s dry.” Young readers are likely to identify with many of the featured activities and may even be inclined to follow the narrative suggestions for year-round adventures.

Adventures With Barefoot Critters presents a fresh approach to a standard form. It would make a lovely gift for a new family and would also be a good asset in a daycare library. Highly enjoyable!


Originally published on LibraryThing on July 6, 2014.