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.



Review: Those Who Run in the Sky

by Aviaq Johnston
Inhabit Media, 2017

Those Who Run in the Sky is the haunting, lyrical story of Piturniq, a boy on the edge of manhood whose life is overturned when he learns his destiny is to be a shaman. A gifted hunter and a much-admired leader, Pitu finds himself stranded during a blizzard, his sled dogs, tools, and packed food gone. Can he survive the tests of the spirits? Will he ever see his beloved mother or his intended bride again?

It was such a pleasure to read this coming-of-age novel by young Inuk writer Aviaq Johnston. The story is captivatingly told, and the novel has an almost hypnotic voice; it was a book I read in a single sitting because it was so eerie and beautiful. Strands of the Inuit worldview are woven into the story, and people, objects, and ideas are referred to by Inuktitut names, immersing readers in Pitu’s reality from the first page (the glossary, including pronunciations, will help readers negotiate the language). Illustrations by Toma Feizo Gas add a further layer of drama and beauty to the text.

Educators and librarians looking to bring more Indigenous texts into classrooms and collections should include Those Who Run in the Sky. The book offers all readers a wise, identifiable protagonist and provides a brilliant way, as the author suggests, to “continue the tradition of sharing and teaching.” I hope this book is read and recognized widely; though very different from much of what teens are reading today, it has relevant and timely themes and ideas to share.


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


Review: Drawn Away

by Holly Bennett
Orca Book Publishers, 2017

Drawn Away by Holly Bennett is something of an urban ghost story novel, something of a literary mash-up. It draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s heart-rending tale of the Little Match Girl to tell a contemporary story about mothers’ love, romantic obsession, and cooperative problem solving.

Jack is an ordinary guy living a fairly ordinary life when he is pulled into a shadowy, misty space where he meets a thin, intense girl. Then zap, he’s back in the real world and flirting with Lucy, his soon-to-be girlfriend. When Lucy and Jack discover they’ve both encountered the thin girl, Klara (who turns out to be the ghost of the real-life inspiration for the Little Match Girl), they must work together to keep Klara from luring Jack back to the shadow world forever.

I liked this novel; it has a brisk-moving plot and raises issues of both historical and contemporary significance. The Klara subplot invites readers to consider domestic violence, the consequences of poverty, and the plight of women in a morally punitive society. The plot thread of Jack’s diabetes turns his insulin pump into a character and normalizes the process of managing the disease. The figure of Hans Christian Andersen introduces themes of authorship and responsibility, and also allows the novel to represent a very difficult, and frankly harsh era, in an intriguing manner. That said, the Andersen subplot is something of a tangent; it is resolved a bit too tidily through Lucy and her mother. I also found the relationship between Jack and Lucy unusually pitched. Although they are seventeen and eighteen years old, and do engage in some behaviours of older teens (such as drinking alcohol and smoking pot), their romantic relationship is very restrained. But perhaps this decision reflects more about the sensibilities of classrooms and public librarians than it does about modern teens.

In short, Drawn Away is an energetic, accessible novel for grades eight and up. It’s likely to appeal to readers interested in the recent revival of fairy tales through popular texts like Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time, and Beauty and the Beast (as well as the junior retellings of the Whatever After series). Drawn Away could also provide a stepping-stone to more sophisticated retellings like Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper and The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge.

Originally published on LibraryThing on April 11, 2017.


Review: Dark Side

by John Choi
Lorimer, 2016

darksideEmerson Yeung has reached his breaking point. He told his highly demanding parents that he left his mobile phone at school, but in fact it was stolen and the thief’s actions have caused Emerson trouble with the police. Between his parents’ bullying, his feelings of isolation, and his struggle with stress and depression, Emerson is ready to let go. On the night he decides to hang himself, however, a chance meeting gives him a reason to re-evaluate his decision.

A new title from SideStreets, a series for low-literacy readers, Dark Side tells a story about depression and suicide, but also much more. Author John Choi has packed a great deal into this small novel, and that’s a benefit for slower readers, who will closely experience each moment of Emerson’s desperation and recovery (unlike quicker readers, who may skim along the plot effortlessly and miss the emotional punches).

As the title suggests, the novel explores many dark places, but few that many teens aren’t already familiar with. It’s one of the qualities I admire about this series: these books generally offer a more realistic depiction of teen life without going over the top or moralizing. Writing about suicidal thoughts is challenging, but Choi manages the task well. Emerson is subdued and sometimes self-pitying, but his troubles are real and identifiable. When he slowly begins to recognize his own agency, he takes steps toward emotional resilience, a strength every young person needs to develop. The novel ends hopefully, although perhaps a little quickly and optimistically. Emerson realizes he’s not really alone and can determine his own actions and make his own choices — including the choice to stay alive and to change his communication with his parents.

Many adults are wary of discussing suicide and depression with teenagers out of fear of encouraging teens to consider suicide. I myself believe that talking about issues demystifies them, and for that reason would suggest this book be put in the hands of any teen who’s struggling with depression, academic pressure, or family violence. I also admire that Emerson is Chinese–Canadian, adding a little more diversity to YA literature and chipping away at some persistent stereotypes about Asian characters in books for teens.

Dark Side is a strong novel for reluctant readers. I look forward to more sensitive, empowering books from John Choi.


This review was originally published in Resource Links, December 2016.