Me and You and the Red Canoe by Jean E. Pendziwol, illustrated by Phil (9781554988471, Amazon)
In this incredible poetic picture book, two children wake up in their tents on the shore of a Canadian lake. Quietly, after drinking some hot chocolate, they head out onto the water with their fishing tackle and rods in a red canoe. Paddling quietly through the water, they see a moose in the shallows, a beaver repairing its home, and hear a chattering squirrel. As the sun rises the light changes and they see an eagle flying and an eagle’s nest. The children start to fish, battling and landing a trout before heading back to the campsite. The morning continued with fish for breakfast for everyone.
Pendziwol is a gifted writer. Her verse bring the Canadian wilderness to life with all of the creatures going about their morning business, the silence of the lake and the wonder of it all. The fishing is a dynamic contrast to the quiet of the morning, the battle with the trout and the final win. It punctuates the book much like the appearance of the animals do, in little bits of delight. Her poetry flows much like the water on the lake, clean and clear, quiet but not ever dull. It invites readers into exploration of their own in canoes and on lakes.
The illustrations by Phil are rough and rustic. They are painted on wood with nail holes and cracks running straight through the pictures. These illustrations suit the entire book perfectly, creating a feeling of natural warmth and timelessness.
A winning picture book for those spending their summers on lakes or those who only dream of it. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland (InfoSoup)
Based on the true story of the author’s grandmother, this picture book captures the experience of First Nations people in Canada being sent to boarding schools. Under threat of fines and jail time, First Nation parents were forced to give their children up to the government. When Irene is taken to her new home, she tries to never forget her real home, her parents and their way of life. Irene is called only by a number at the school and told to scrub the brown off of her skin. Her hair is cut off. She is punished when she speaks her native language by a nun burning her hands. Irene is eventually allowed to return home for the summer, where she continues to have nightmares of her time at school. Finally, her parents decide to hide the children rather than sending them back.
This is not a picture book for preschoolers, rather it is ideal for elementary-aged children closer in age to 8-year-old Irene in the story. The horrific treatment of First Nation children is shown with real clarity. The use of Irene’s own voice to tell the story makes it personal and much more painful. While there is a lot of text on the pages, the book reads well and the text is straightforward and necessary to explain the loss of culture and the darkness of the boarding schools.
The illustrations by Newland are almost like painted photographs. They show the family losing their children, the stern nuns, and the punishment scene is carefully captured afterwards in terms of pain and emotion rather than depicting the punishment itself. There is a feeling of constraint and loss in the images of the boarding school and then freedom when the children return home.
A powerful look at Canadian history and First Nation children, this book would work well paired with When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston (InfoSoup)
Hermione is headed into her senior year as the co-captain of her school’s cheerleading team. At her school, cheering is more important and more prestigious than the sports themselves. She’s dating one of the boys on the squad and they are all at summer cheerleading camp getting ready for the competitions coming up, knowing that they are probably heading for nationals again. The safety of Hermione’s world is shattered when she is drugged at the camp’s dance party and then raped near the lake. She is found unconscious on the lake shore, half in the water. Hermione must now face being the victim rather than the queen bee, a label that does not sit well for her. She must also wait for a pregnancy test and the decisions that that will bring with it. Hermione fights not to be defined by what has happened to her and to find her footing again so that she can still fly.
Johnston, author of The Story of Owen, once again sets a teen novel firmly in Canada, though this time not in a fictional Canada at all. Instead this book is richly real, a book for teens about a rape where it does not consume the victim or define her life. It’s a book where Hermione’s family and friends come forward to support her, never to question her own role in the attack, never to push her feelings and emotions aside, but to support her completely. A mention must be made of Polly, Hermione’s best friend who is a zingy mix of support and healthy attitude, exactly the friend you want at your side. This novel is a guidebook to how we should be treating assault survivors, not as victims but as survivors who should have our support not our pity.
Johnston takes it one step further and also has Hermione get an abortion. It was at this point in the novel that I found myself entirely overcome. Johnston writes about a Canadian abortion system, one that Americans will have problems relating to due to its ease. Still, there are emotions here, ones that are not questioning Hermione’s decision or situation at all. The emotions are large because here is another sisterhood that Hermione is a part of. It’s not dramatic for any effect or statement, it’s dramatic simply because it is. Because it’s necessary. Because it’s a choice being made. And that is so beautiful and moving.
Immensely powerful and empowering, this novel has so much to say to teens in our world. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from library book.
Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (InfoSoup)
Told by the great-granddaughter of Captain Harry Colebourn, this is the true story of the real bear who inspired Winnie-the Pooh. The book takes the format of a mother telling a bedtime story to her young son. It is the story of his great-great-grandfather, after whom he was named. Harry was a veterinarian sent from his home in Winnipeg to care for the soldier’s horses in World War I. On the train in Canada, he saw a little bear cub at a station and purchased the bear, even though he was headed into war. Winnie soon charmed all of the soldiers and got her own post to climb in the tent city. Winnie stayed with Harry when they were posted in England, but he had to make a difficult decision and put her in The London Zoo when he was headed to the war zone. It was at The London Zoo that a little boy named Christopher Robin Milne met Winnie and inspired his father to write the beloved stories of Winnie-the-Pooh.
Lindsay Mattick has shared the story of her great-grandfather in different formats through the years, including a radio documentary and an exhibition. In this very personal story, she shows real pride in the great heart that her grandfather showed by seeing something special in a small bear cub. It is clear that it is his dedication and care for Winnie that helped her become the loving and approachable bear that could inspire a series of stories. Mattick’s writing contains just the right amount of detail to keep children fascinated.
Blackall is an incredible illustrator and here she shows a beautiful touch for recreating historical scenes. From the expanse of Canada to the big city of London, she offers just enough visual detail to anchor the scenes in those distinct places. She also shows again and again the bond between Harry and Winnie, from sleeping together to sharing food. The historical photos at the end of the book add to the story, letting readers see the real Winnie.
A wonderful read, this book is an inspiring look at what small choices in our lives can lead to if we only follow our hearts. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event by Rebecca Bond (InfoSoup)
Inspired by a true story, this picture book tells of the author’s grandfather’s life in Ontario, Canada in 1914. Antonio lived with his family in a hotel run by his mother. He spent his time with the hotel workers since there were no children around. He helped the cooks, the maids, and watched as others hauled wood and repaired buildings. The hotel had three stories with a space to feed crowds of people, individual rooms for travelers and then a large open dormitory space for others. He loved spending time in the forest around the hotel too. Then one year when Antonio was almost five, it was dry as could be. When smoke was spotted in the distance, everyone knew they were in real trouble. All of the people fled the building and stood in the lake watching the fire come closer. Then something amazing happened and the animals too left the forest and entered the water, standing near the humans and close to one another, predator and prey alike. When the fire ended, the hotel was still standing and the animals returned to the burned forest, but Antonio never forgot what he witnessed that day.
Bond captures the time period, allowing readers to really explore the hotel that Antonio lived in, showing us all of the floors and the hard-working men that the hotel served. The text offers details such as describing Antonio’s room as a place that was off the kitchen and had once been a pantry. Even small things are noted like the travel bags men carried and the fact that they sometimes had guns along too. Through these details, the entire hotel comes alive on the page.
The illustrations in the book also add to the details from the long distance view of the hotel on the lake to the finely drawn images showing the interior. Small details are captured in sepia tones and fine ink lines, allowing us to get a glimpse into the past and a way of life. The same details continue even as the fire rages and the animals come into the water. Realistic and lovely, the animals’ body language shows how wary they are and yet how desperate too.
A true story brought to life through details and wonder. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston
Released March 1, 2015.
This sequel to The Story of Owen continues the dragon-slaying adventures of Siobhan and Owen. Upon graduating from high school, Owen joins the Oil Watch, the international organization that trains dragon slayers and their support teams to fight a variety of different dragons. Despite the damage to her hands, Siobhan manages to qualify to join the Oil Watch too, the first bard in a long time to do so. They must first survive basic training, designed to get them working as a team and Siobhan has the added problem of figuring out a role for a bard in a situation where it is about killing dragons, putting out fires, and tending medical emergencies. As their basic training ends, the dragon slayers are sent all over the world to where they are needed most. But the Canadian government has not forgiven Owen for what happened and their posting is not one that will forge a new dragon slaying hero. That is unless Siobhan can create the songs and stories that tell a different story.
With writing just as fresh and engaging as the first book, this new novel is superb. It builds upon the first novel, returning us to that wonderful world of alternate history with a modern Canada and North America awash in dragon fire. Johnston continues to show her prowess is rewriting history and filling it with dragons as well as creating a new Canada and United States with boundaries that shift and politics that are complexly drawn.
At its heart always though is the intense friendship of Siobhan and Owen, a bard and her dragon slayer, a musician and her muse. Johnston continues as she did in the first book to create a story that is not about romance but instead two complicated people who care deeply for one another as friends. Again, there is no kissing between the two and no longing glances either. It makes for a refreshing change.
A riveting read with a powerful ending that I am working hard not to spoil in the least. This novel is beautifully written, bravely done and purely epic. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Carolrhoda Books.
The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis
This companion novel to Elijah of Buxton continues the story of the town of Buxton and the people who live there. This book, which takes place forty years after the first book, is the story of two boys, Benji and Red. Benji, who lives in Buxton, dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter. He has two pesky younger siblings who also happen to be gifted builders with wood. That doesn’t mean though that Benji doesn’t try to put them in their place when they need it. Benji also has a way with the forest, spending hours walking the trails and exploring. He is one of the first to see the Madman of Piney Woods. Red is a scientist. He’s been raised by his father and maternal grandmother, who hates anyone who isn’t Irish like she is. She is strict with Red, smacking him regularly with her cane hard enough to raise a lump. When the two boys meet, they immediately become friends even though their backgrounds are so different. But can their friendship withstand the brimming hatred of some people in their communities?
I loved Elijah of Buxton so much and I started this book rather gingerly, hoping that it would be just as special as the original. Happily, it certainly is. It has a wonderful feeling to it, a rich storytelling that hearkens back to Mark Twain and other classic boyhood friendship books. Curtis makes sure that we know how different these two boys are: one with a large family, the other small, different races, different points of view. Yet it feels so right when the two boys are immediate friends, readers will have known all along that they suit one another.
Curtis explores deep themes in this novel, offering relief in the form of the exploits of the two boys as they figure out ways to mess with their siblings and escape domineering grandmothers. There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny. Other scenes though are gut-wrenching and powerful. They explore themes like the damage done to the psyche during wars, racism, ambition, responsibility and family ties. It is a testament to the writing of Curtis that both the humor and the drama come together into an exquisite mix of laughter and tears.
A great novel worthy of following the award-winning original, this book will be met with cheers by teachers and young readers alike. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.
From There to Here by Laurel Croza, illustrated by Matt James
This sequel to the award-winning I Know Here continues the story of a little girl who has moved from Saskatchewan to Toronto. She now contrasts their life in the rural woods with that in a new city. So much of her days are different now. Her father no longer comes home for lunch. They live on a city street instead of a quiet gravel road. Here they lock their doors, there everyone kept their homes open. There you could see the stars in the sky at night, here there are only the lamps shining. There the children played all together and there wasn’t anyone her age. Here there is!
Croza deftly shows the differences between two places, drawing them each with an eye to the positive. Even as the little girl misses and even yearns for her nature-filled home, she starts to see what is good about the new place she lives. Any child who has undergone a move will see themselves in this book, yet Croza has also written a very personal story of one little girl.
James’ art is rich and layered. He uses sweeps of colors on the page to convey motion and change. At the same time, he also uses parallel images that show the similarities of the places at the same time examining the differences.
Another triumph of a picture book, children will enjoy this as a sequel but it also stands nicely on its own. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston
When the world saw Lottie Thorskard fall from a girder, everyone wondered what she would do next. No one expected her to move to the tiny town of Trondheim and start slaying dragons there with her wife, her brother and his son. But that is how Owen started attending the same school as Siobhan. Siobhan is not a popular student, but she gets good grades and loves to play and write music. None of this should have made her even noticeable by Owen, whom everyone wanted to know better. Somehow though Siobhan with her biting wit gets invited over to Owen’s home for dinner and Owen’s family including the famous Lottie have a plan that involves Siobhan. They want her to be Owen’s bard. Which will involve being nearby when they fight dragons. So Siobhan must train to defend herself with a sword, learn more about different types of dragons, and she becomes an important piece of Owen’s story herself.
This is one of those books that surprises right from the beginning. Somehow I didn’t realize that this is a modern-day dragon tale set in Canada. In this book, the world has always had dragons and they form the heart of literature and song going back into history. Johnston takes the time to rewrite the lives of famous people for the reader, building her world so successfully that it all makes perfect sense that dragons are here and have always been.
The juxtaposition between the two main characters is brilliantly done. But perhaps the very best part is that this is not a romance. Yes, a male and female main character but no sparks, no kissing, no sex. Instead they are busy trying to save their community together. Siobhan and Owen are both vibrant and intelligent. They have the sort of brilliant dialogue that one would expect from a John Green book. Except they do it while fighting dragons! Amazing.
A completely incredible debut book, this takes fantasy and turns it on its head with a thoroughly modern take on battling dragons and extraordinarily deep world building. This is one of the best and most unique fantasy novels I’ve read in years.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Carolrhoda Books.