Review: Slip Jig Summer

by Elizabeth J.M. Walker
Orca Books Publishers, 2018

Natalie usually studies ballet with Amber and Yumi, but summer vacation pulls the girls apart. Given the chance to join her cousins’ dance class, Natalie can either turn up her nose or take part to maintain her fitness and skills. But when her best friends seem not to miss her — even seem to be glad she’s away — Natalie’s confidence collapses. Can Natalie be a dancer if she’s not practising ballet?

Slip Jig Summer offers a fun twist on the fish-out-of-water story by putting a ballerina in an Irish dance class. It’s a short book with a fast-moving plot, so there’s limited space for character development. Natalie reads as a somewhat flat character, and the stakes in her conflict don’t feel terribly high. Similarly, Amber’s turn to “frenemy” seems unmotivated and is predictably resolved. That said, familiar interpersonal issues, portrayed in an accessible storyline, will help lower-literacy readers move through the text easily.

Slip Jig Summer is a new volume in Orca’s Limelights series for students interested in the performing arts. I enjoyed the fresh focus on dance and predict the novel will lead its readers to other dance novels (of which there are many). It’s an energetic selection for high/low readers.

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

 

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Review: Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines

by Angela Hovak Johnston
Inhabit Media, 2017

Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines describes the process a group of women in the Canadian Arctic followed to revive the tradition of women’s tattoos. Historically, Inuit women wore tattoos on their hands, arms, and faces to represent a range of personal and social messages. After contact with European missionaries, women stopped being tattooed and the cultural knowledge of traditional tattooing was nearly lost. Thanks to Angela Hovak Johnson, however, the practice is being reclaimed with striking results.

This resolutely woman-positive project turns on its photography. The photos present both the tattooing process and a portfolio of an emerging generation of tattooed women, from teens to elders. The editorial photography is clear and straightforward, accompanied by explanatory text and the women’s individual stories of their tattoos’ meanings. The portrait photography captures the women in strong poses as they display their tattoos, often in northern landscapes. For non-Inuit readers, the book offers a powerful (and sometimes playful) way to understand elements of Inuit culture. For Inuit readers, the book represents the pride and resilience of women and culture.

I would underscore, however, the book’s stern warning that these tattoos, no matter how appealing they may be for non-Inuit women and men, are the cultural property of Inuit women, who are struggling to retain and reclaim their traditional knowledge and practices. Non-Inuit should emphatically not consider seeking similar tattoos but rather learn to appreciate the beauty and significance of these tattoos for the women who wear them today.

Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines is a glorious book that documents important work of cultural reclamation. It belongs in libraries across Canada, and I hope it will find a broad audience. It is a proud declaration of women’s strength and beauty and a profound testament to cultural recovery.

 

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

 

Review: Racing Manhattan

by Terence Blacker
Candlewick, 2018

Racing Manhattan offers a fresh twist on the fish-out-of-water trope. Jay loves horses and has been riding successfully in “unofficial” (that is, illegal) pony races when her situation changes abruptly. She finds herself in Newmarket working as a “lad” for a stable that’s down on its luck. There she meets Manhattan, a moody mare who has reached her last chance. When Jay connects with Manhattan, their fortunes seem to change. But there’s not much room in racing for a young female jockey, and Jay’s rivals are only too happy to squeeze her out. Can Jay save Manhattan — and her own future?

I was not a girl who adored books about horses when I was growing up, so I am happily surprised by Racing Manhattan. This novel features great storytelling that kept me reading eagerly. Some of the characters around Jay are thinly drawn, but Jay herself is well developed and intriguing — I wanted to know who she would grow up to be. Some of Jay’s male antagonists are thoroughly menacing, and the novel moves briskly between well-told passages of Jay’s work with Manhattan and the obstacles Jay must overcome to reach her goals.

Racing Manhattan won’t suit every taste, but I can see it working well with athletic teens and readers who identify as “square pegs.” It’s a long book for YA, but it’s nicely paced and rewarding. I recommend this book enthusiastically.

Originally published on LibraryThing on January 7, 2018.

 

 

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: #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women

by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, eds.
Annick Press, 2017

#NotYourPrincess makes a strong, specific claim: that Indigenous women must assert their right to represent themselves on their own terms. This means rejecting imagery like “sexy Pocahontas” and narratives of helpless victimhood, without ignoring the complex reality of Indigenous girls’ and women’s lives. Canadian statistics, for instance, show that Indigenous women are some of the most economically and socially vulnerable people in Canada. The texts in #NotYourPrincess acknowledge that reality and speak back with empowerment, strength, and hope.

This colourful, spacious volume brings together illustrated art and photography, comic-style storytelling, personal commentary about current events such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry and the Dakota Access Pipeline, and a range of creative writing. Girls and women talk about dealing with and overcoming difficult childhoods, institutional discrimination, and casual racism. They identify and thank women who have led the fight for greater recognition and inclusion. Some imagery is drawn from social media and historical or contemporary photography. Readers encounter representations of strong, accomplished Indigenous women, but also eye-opening discussions of what it means to present oneself physically as an Indigenous woman. The presentation, while openly political, is finely balanced: readers are invited to find their own space in the discourse.

#NotYourPrincess is an important and valuable book. Transcending the colonially imposed border between the United States and Canada, the collection includes perspectives from north and south, west and east; contributors are identified by their Indigenous affiliation. Although the book is explicitly “a love letter to all young Indigenous women trying to find their way,” it is also important for non-Indigenous readers to understand how destructive stereotypical representation and cultural silencing can be and have been. This book needs to be widely read and discussed because the changing representation of Indigenous girls and women is a central and urgent element of reconciliation and healing. #NotYourPrincess can help readers find the resilience and courage to make positive changes. Librarians, teachers, parents: please put this book into girls’ and teens’ hands.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, December 2017.

 

Review: Saying Good-bye to London

by Julie Burtinshaw
Second Story Press, 2017

Saying Good-bye to London is a hard-hitting yet sensitively written novel about teen pregnancy, told primarily from the perspective of fifteen-year-old Francis, a quiet boy whose first romance leads to a baby, an adoption, and a rapid transition to the responsibilities of adult life.

The novel spans a little more than a year. Francis meets Sawyer, their relationship blooms, and within a few months they’ve broken up over the news of Sawyer’s pregnancy. When Francis first learns that Sawyer is pregnant, he reacts very, very badly. It is only through the persistent direction of his friends that he starts to change his attitude. As such, readers are invited to grow with Francis — and with Sawyer. Although most of the time readers experience the story through Francis’s eyes, now and then the author lets readers slip into Sawyer’s point of view, as well as that of various other characters, lending a much broader view to the unfolding events. The plot never drags; the narration is direct and matter of fact, and it communicates without becoming preachy, a tone books about teen pregnancy sometimes adopt.

At its core, however, Saying Good-bye to London is a novel about fathers. Sawyer’s best friend, Jack, is homeless because his abusive father has thrown him out for being gay. At the same time, Francis’s best friend, Kevin, is living through the death of his father, who has been an important figure in Francis’s life. Francis and Sawyer both have complex relationships with their own fathers. Though boys may be reluctant to read a book apparently about pregnancy, this one offers some deep thinking about what it means to be a good man, what it means to be a father (rather than just a “sperm donor,” as Sawyer crisply comments), what it means to be a good partner.

This novel is likely to evoke strong responses. It would make an excellent selection for a teen reading group or as an independent novel study in grade nine or ten. Readers are sure to have opinions about Sawyer’s choice to have the baby, the process of private adoption, the couple selected to adopt baby London, and Francis’s treatment of Sawyer. Layers of complexity in the text will encourage conversation and reflection, and there are numerous themes readers can evaluate against their own morals and ethics. Saying Good-bye to London is a rewarding book on many levels.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2017.

 

Review: Kat and Meg Conquer the World

by Anna Priemaza
Harper Teen, 2017

Kat and Meg Conquer the World is a joyous, funny, endearing novel about an odd couple united by a science project and a Youtube video star. The story follows them, from alternating points of view, through their grade ten year. Kat, a transplant from Ontario, resents having to be a “freshman” again; Meg, bruised from previous relationships gone sour, is eager for a new school and a new start. As they navigate the perils of high school, boyfriends, and growing up, they learn to trust each other and themselves.

This novel surprised me: it’s so fresh and engaging! The author touches on highly topical, sensitive issues such as race, mental wellness, and family stress, but lightly, without engaging in the miserablism that has overtaken so much of YA writing recently. Although privileged in different ways, Kat and Meg are not naïve. They face situations involving drinking, drug use, and sexuality directly and intelligently (albeit reluctantly, in Kat’s case). They talk, they think, they sometimes brood (and call each other out for brooding), but in the end they act, informed by their own good sense. I applaud the author for drawing her still-maturing characters with such a complicated mix of agency and fallibility. Many girls will find either Meg or Kat someone to identify with, empathize with, learn from.

Both girls are anxious, but the expression of their anxieties is very different. Kat is aloof and silent, trying to be invisible. Meg is outgoing, loving, and impetuous, sometimes to a fault. It took me a few chapters to warm up to Kat; initially she reads more as prickly than as anxious. But I was won over immediately by Meg’s persistent friendliness and optimism, and was rooting for the girls’ friendship. Though Meg believes she and Kat are BFFs from the start, for Kat the friendship emerges slowly but solidly, as in the scene when Meg takes Kat to the hospital after Kat’s grandfather collapses in a grocery store. Not being a relative, Meg cannot go into the grandfather’s room in the ICU with Kat, who is paralyzed by fear, sadness, and guilt.

Meg unzips her coat, revealing her favorite black cardigan with the oversized purple plastic buttons. Out of nowhere, she grabs one of the buttons and pulls. There’s a snap, and then she’s pressing the button into my palm and folding my fingers around it.
“There,” she says. “Now it’s like I’m with you.”

Meg’s apparent fearlessness teaches Kat to trust love; Kat’s careful, measured friendship later reflects the lesson back to Meg. Both grow stronger for it.

I liked this novel so much! It’s filled with lovely touches and good humour, and it underscores the importance of women’s friendships as a source of strength and resilience. I hope to read more from Anna Priemaza.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2017.