Archived Children’s Book Reviews

Book Reviews by Beverley Brenna for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix (Postmedia Network)

Index by TitleIndex by Author
Index by AuthorIndex by Title

Brenna Book Reviews, 2013

September Review, 2013 – Thoughtful Books Speak to Readers
  • The Hypnotists: Gordon Korman
  • The Sewing Basket: Susan White
  • Objects in the Mirror: Tudor Robins

In the flurry of new books out this year, writers at various stages in their careers offer page-turning encouragement for young readers.

With a publication history that spans over thirty years and seventy-titles, Montreal-born author Gordon Korman is a master at providing high-interest, plot-driven reading for middle-grade students and their teachers, with many of his titles making great classroom read-alouds. Jackson Opus, the twelve-year-old hero of The Hypnotists, a first book in Korman’s new series (Scholastic hard cover, $18.99), has special abilities that eventually draw him into a clever conspiracy from which he must escape. The lives of his best friend and his parents, as well as the future of the entire United States, hang in the balance as Jax races against time and a power greater than his own.

Not only is Korman’s body of work motivating to readers, but his career trajectory can offer encouragement to writers, as well. Korman wrote his first book, This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall, when he himself was twelve years old, penning it as an English assignment for a coach who suddenly found himself in the classroom. Korman later took the experience into the Sixth Grade Nickname Game, where the character of Mr. Huge is based on that memorable teacher. Kids might learn many lessons from this hard-working author, now living in New York, with details available on his website: The Hypnotists is intended for ages nine to twelve.

Susan White, a retired elementary school teacher from New Brunswick, skilfully invokes the past in her third novel, The Sewing Basket (Acorn Press paperback, $12.95). The twelve-year-old protagonist here is Ruth Iverson, whose world in 1967 revolves around friends, a boy she likes, the Monkees, and spending time with her dad. While her mother spirals into the devastating symptoms of Huntington’s disease, the summer seems to progress fairly smoothly for Ruth until the day her father leaves the family. Then, with a resilience she didn’t know she had, Ruth manages to pick up the pieces of their broken home life and, with supports from family and friends, explore the possibility of living with disability and building a happy future at the same time. Not an easy book to read, for the details of the progression of Mrs. Iverson’s illness are not sugar coated, but honest writing that will find a niche with readers who appreciate stories that mirror reality. For ages eleven to fifteen.

Tudor Robins is a freelance writer from Ottawa whose first book Objects in the Mirror (Red Deer Press paperback, $12.95) promises fine things to come from this beginning author. Fifteen-year-old Grace is spending the summer working with horses at the nearby stables, contributing to the care of spirited and damaged animals as best she can until an eating disorder almost prevents her from doing a job she loves.

The careful weaving of Grace’s challenges into a complex family situation, a new love-interest, and aspects of riding that only a seasoned rider could present, demonstrate the author’s strong storytelling abilities as well as a healthy respect for portraying familiar subjects. Writing teachers often suggest, “Write what you know,” and it is clear that Robins has done just that, with great success. For ages twelve and up.

Back to Index

August Review, 2013 – Summer Perfect to Fall into Reading
  • The Throne: Beth Goobie
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe: Benjamin Sáenz
  • Dying to Go Viral: Sylvia McNicoll
  • The Way Home: Becky Citra

These dog days of August are perfect for checking out library books or spending that gift coupon at the bookstore, especially if not much reading has happened over the holidays so far. Kids who read over the summer tend to keep the reading skills they gained in the previous year, as ongoing reading cements new vocabulary and continues to reinforce comprehension strategies. Reading helps writers, as well—supporting grammar and the organization of ideas, among other things. Rain or shine, it’s not too late—pick up a book that’s not too difficult, on a topic that interests you, or find something digital that works where you are. Thanks to family members who help out, as just-right books are sometimes hard to find. And of course, family read-alouds are great ways to offer material that’s just a little too hard for kids to navigate on their own!

Saskatoon author Beth Goobie’s new novel The Throne (Red Deer Press paperback, $12.95) follows Meredith Polk through a grade ten year in which themes of resilience and bullying frame a story about how one seemingly small act of personal courage can ignite a series of destructive attacks. Told with Goobie’s distinct flair for authentic characters and sharp dialogue, this intelligent story is buoyed by the kind of humour that will catch and keep teen readers. Highly recommended for ages 12 and up.

Three tales of summer, for different age groups, offer audiences a particularly timely context for reading material. Benjamin Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon & Schuster hardcover, $19.99) follows a friendship that begins with the camaraderie of a swimming lesson and extends, over time, into something deeper. Winner of a 2013 Printz Honour Award, this is a sweet story, set in Texas in the late 1980s, about two characters underrepresented in young adult fiction: gay Latinos. A coming-of-age tale that is subtly handled through evocative first-person prose, this title is highly recommended for ages 14 and up.

Sylvia McNicoll’s new title Dying to Go Viral (Fitzhenry & Whiteside paperback, $12.95) offers a healthy message about safety in extreme sports while at the same time exploring a subject not often dealt with in young adult fiction: life after death. In the first chapter, fourteen-year-old Jade dies in a skateboarding accident, while being filmed for a YouTube channel, and is then granted the opportunity to relive the last week of her life. Jade’s character fairly leaps off the page, and readers will be instantly captivated by her warm heart and selfless goals. Highly recommended for ages 12 and up.

Becky Citra’s junior fiction novel The Way Home (Second Story Press paperback, $$8.95) follows nine-year-old Tory as she navigates in and out of a new foster home. Reminiscent of an earlier Beth Goobie title, Jason’s Why, this story works to fill in a gap about kids with untraditional family lives.

Tory’s friendship with a shaggy pony named Lucky is the one thing that makes life at the ranch worthwhile, but her personal challenges threaten to make her stay here—or anywhere—impossible. How Tory navigates through this period in her life is captivating, but what makes this title even more interesting for readers is that alternating chapters are told through Lucky’s eyes as he offers his own perspective on how the impending forest fire, and his brief experiences with freedom, have affected him. This page turner is highly recommended for ages 7 and up.

In addition to the brand new books available on the shelves, a short-list of old favourites includes the following:

Top Twelve for Ages 4 – 7

  • Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
  • A Screaming Kind of Day by Rachna Gilmore
  • Binky the Space Cat by Ashley Spires
  • Bye, Bye, Butterflies by Andrew Larson
  • Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
  • Frederick by Leo Lionni
  • Giraffe and Bird by Rebecca Bender
  • Max’s Chocolate Chicken by Rosemary Wells
  • Mortimer by Robert Munsch
  • Noisy Poems for a Busy Day by Robert Heidbreder
  • Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

Top Twelve for Ages 7 – 11

  • Bugs Up Close by Diane Swanson
  • The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter
  • Julie by Cora Taylor
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
  • Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World by Susan Hughes
  • Relatives With Roots: A Story About Metis Women’s Connection to the Land by Leah Dorion
  • Robert Munsch by Frank Edwards
  • The Spiral Maze by Patricia Bow
  • The Tale of Despereaux: The Graphic Novel by Matt Smith and David Tilton (original story by Kate Di Camillo)
  • The Tiger Rising by Kate Di Camillo
  • Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
  • Walter: The Story of a Rat by Barbara Wersba

Top Twelve for Ages 11 – 14

  • Dust by Arthur Slade
  • Love that Dog by Sharon Creech
  • The Owl Service by Alan Garner
  • Plain Kate by Erin Bow
  • The Pigman by Paul Zindel
  • Redwall by Brian Jacques
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
  • Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel
  • The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan
  • Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede
  • This Land is My Land by George Littlechild
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Top Twelve for Ages 14 – 17

  • Above by Leah Bobet
  • Borderline by Alan Stratton
  • Cheeseburger Subversive by Richard Scarsbrook
  • the curious incident of the dog in the night time by Mark Haddon
  • Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox
  • egghead by Caroline Pignat
  • Karma by Cathy Ostlere
  • Lunch with Lenin and Other Short Stories by Deborah Ellis
  • Reality Rules II: A Guide to Teen Nonfiction Reading Interests by Elizabeth Fraser
  • Search of the Moon King’s Daughter by Linda Holeman
  • Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
  • the worst thing she ever did by Alice Kuipers
  • Yellow Mini by Lori Weber

Back to Index

July Review, 2013 – Teens’ Takes on Loss and Friendship
  • The Color of Silence: Liane Shaw
  • An Infidel in Paradise: S. J. Laidlaw
  • Zoe’s Room (No Sisters Allowed): Bethanie Murguia

Two young adult novels that follow resilient characters in the aftermath of traumatic events are highly readable page-turners as well as literary achievements. Liane Shaw’s The Color of Silence (Second Story Press paperback, $11.95) explores the perspectives of characters not often found in teen fiction. Seventeen-year-old Alex, involved in a car accident that killed her best friend, withdraws into selective mutism, using her voice for only the most necessary exchanges. A court order connecting her to community service is at first just another situation in which she feels powerless. Yet coming to know Joanie, a teenager whose genetic condition has left her with minimal control of her body and no speech, is revelatory for Alex. She begins to see outside her own circumstances and into Joanie’s reality in a way that produces healing. Both characters learn and grow through their relationship.

The developing bond between the two girls is narrated through their alternating first person voices. In addition, flashbacks take readers through what really happened to Cali, Alex’s friend, in the accident that took her life. This is a psychologically complex read, highly character driven, and told with the utmost care. Highly recommended for ages 12 and up.

S. J. Laidlaw’s first book An Infidel in Paradise (Tundra hardcover, $21.99) also explores themes of loss and friendship. The novel focuses on a time in sixteen-year-old Emma’s life when the Canadian girl, her diplomat mother, and her siblings, move without her father from the Philippines to Pakistan. As Emma reels from her father’s choice to start a new family elsewhere, she struggles to find her place in yet another new country. A budding but impossible romance, combined with political tensions and the bombing of several American embassies around the world, start a chain of events that catches Emma unawares and puts her life at risk.

Laidlaw has deftly captured the fictional essence of this girl. Emma’s quick wit and ironical sense of humour are set against the clear vulnerability of being a stranger in a new land. Emma’s clumsy navigation of coming-of-age in this setting is entirely believable, and, coupled with strikingly authentic dialogue, makes for a gripping story about identity and the importance of community. Even the minor characters are thoughtfully developed, giving the theme regarding the importance of friendships a healthy credibility.

The characterization of Emma’s younger sister Mandy is handled particularly well, and one of the interesting things in this novel is the strengthening of the relationship between the girls. Highly recommended for ages 12 and up.

A picture book for younger children that also follows a developing relationship between sisters is Bethanie Murguia’s Zoe’s Room (No Sisters Allowed) (Scholastic hardcover, $18.99). Zoe has a comfortable routine until it’s time for Addie to move out of Mama and Papa’s room and into Zoe’s kingdom. At first, Zoe is underhandedly against her sister’s presence, but on the night of a storm, Addie provides surprising comfort. Zoe rethinks her world and her sister’s place in it. Highly recommended for ages 4 – 7.

Back to Index

June Review, 2013 – Childhood abuse through victim’s eyes
  • On Fire: Dianne Linden
  • The Silent Summer of Kyle McGinley: Jan Andrews

Two new young adult novels by Canadian authors explore parallel journeys by older teen boys who have been abused as children. Dianne Linden’s On Fire (Thistledown paperback, $15.95) and Jan Andrews’ The Silent Summer of Kyle McGinley (Great Plains paperback, $14.95) are intended for ages 14 and up, and offer unique formats through which two original realistic fiction stories are told.

In On Fire, fourteen-year-old Matilda (Mattie) Iverly discovers an amnesic young man wandering out of the heart of wildfire country who remembers nothing about his life. Over the course of time, as his mental illness is treated, his past returns—first in flashbacks, and finally in full chronology—and it isn’t a happy one. We see him in alternating chapters told through Mattie’s first-person narrative, and then from Dan’s own third person perspective.

Mattie’s character is an interesting one, and she is one of the few protagonists in young adult literature to have Tourette’s Syndrome (T.S.). While T.S. is evident in many of her interactions with others, it is not used as a single defining character trait, and for this reason her characterization is a dynamic and fresh. Readers unfamiliar with the condition will get an authentic sense of how T.S. feels from the inside through Mattie’s descriptions—inclusions that are useful and not overdone. For example, she suggests that a tic feels like a sneeze that can be delayed, but that ultimately must eventually be released. She also suggests the variations that can be found in how individuals respond to their T.S.

“A tic,” I said, “is like a twitch or a spasm. Some people with T.S. show it in their muscles. I mostly have vocal tics…”

“As long as you don’t start swearing,” Mrs. Stoa said. “I draw the line there.”

“Most people with Tourette’s don’t burst out with four-letter words,” I told her. “If you don’t know any better than that, you should start reading hardcover books that are more educational.”

Here Mattie is remarking on Mrs. Stoa’s immersion in what we soon learn is a paperback copy of Dante Alighieri’s classic title The Divine Comedy. Impressed by the older woman’s discussion of Dante’s travels through the underworld to save his soul, Mattie remembers this author when trying to find a name for the compelling stranger who is covered with blood and dirt. Dante thus becomes Dan, while the book remains as an allegory for the journey Dan himself is making back to health. It is notable that Linden chooses to reference adult literature in a book for young adults—encouraging ‘reading up’ through intertextual references that might inspire.

One of Linden’s earlier books, Shimmerdogs, was a silver medallist for the 2008 Governor General's Award for Children's Literature. It, along with her first title, Peacekeepers, mirror the strong skills in characterization and sensory-rich narrative found in On Fire; this new book is a solid literary product predictive of further awards.

In The Silent Summer of Kyle McGinley, Andrews creates a character who remembers all too well the abuses in his past. The first person narrative emerges as a compelling stream of consciousness, with the inventive inclusion of two imaginary other voices in addition to Kyle’s own—the first is a character in Kyle’s head who gives him good advice, and the second provides a barrage of constant negative feedback. The latter, included in bold italicized print, is soon attributed to Kyle’s father—a man who abandoned the boy when Kyle was young, but not before cementing his assaults, both verbal and physical, on the child’s consciousness.

What is so captivating about this book is that the reader quickly gets the sensation of how it feels to have competing messages in one’s head as well as a reason for why a fifteen-year-old boy would sentence himself to silence. Silence is how Kyle has decided to respond to the world that has treated him so badly—through elective mutism.

In Kyle’s favour, he is a nice guy and an artist, and one who quickly endears himself to Scott and Jill—the couple who provide a new foster home in the string of homes Kyle has had to endure. In similar fashion, he endears himself to readers, and from early in the book we share his story and remarkable insight, hoping against odds that he will find a way to triumph over the cards he’s been dealt. And we are not disappointed.

Andrews has achieved a masterful dialogue here between Kyle, his imaginary self, and his re-creation of his abuser’s voice, a dialogue that is serviceable to the book in that it clearly advances the plot. For its ingenuity of format and masterful characterization, as well as a poignant storyline, this title is highly recommended.

Back to Index

May Review, 2013 – Non-fiction holds plenty of intrigue
  • Looking Closely Around the Pond: Frank Serafini
  • Buzz About Bees: Kari-Lynn Winters
  • Games of Survival: Traditional Inuit Games for Elementary Students: Johnny Issaluk
  • No Borders: Bridging Communities and Generations: Darla Evyagotailak and Mindy Willett
  • Reporter in Disguise: The Intrepid Vic Steinberg: Christine Welldon

The power of non-fiction in motivating kids to read has often been overlooked in settings where access to non-fiction titles has been limited to research projects. A traditional view of children’s reading is that early experiences with books facilitate “learning to read” and then, later, other experiences support “reading to learn.” Some new non-fiction resources bolster a different view. From young ages, children can gain interesting and useful information as they are read to, as they explore pictures, and as they begin to decode text that matters to them. Fluent readers can find plenty to enjoy in non-fiction titles chosen for aesthetic reading as well as reading for information.

For the youngest age group, Frank Serafini’s Looking Closely Around the Pond, (Kids Can Press hardcover, $16.95) is a visual delight. With sections of pictures enlarged and offered as “mysteries,” readers are invited to guess what the item actually is and then turn the page to find out. “Look very closely. What do you see? Seashells? Butterfly wings? What could it be?” Highly recommended for shared reading with ages 4 and up.

Kari-Lynn Winters’ Buzz About Bees (Fitzhenry & Whiteside hardcover, $19.95) demonstrates mastery in design and formatting, with text boxes, layered photographs, and colour used capably to enhance meaning. Instead of facing large sections of difficult text, a tradition in less contemporary titles, this book offers bits of information in manageable pieces, smartly employing titles and captions as well as passages of various lengths.

In addition to its surface appeal, Buzz About Bees virtually hums with interesting facts. For example, did you know that bees have five eyes? Or that a desert biologist named Justin Schmidt has taken on the job of getting stung by bees around the world so that he can create a pain index? Or that some bees feed their babies bee bread—a mixture of nectar, pollen, and saliva? Highly recommended for ages 7 and up (the book, not the bee bread!).

Johnny Issaluk’s activity book Games of Survival: Traditional Inuit Games for Elementary Students (Inhabit Media paperback, $12.95) is a simply written illustrated collection of ten games geared towards developing agility, strength, and endurance. A competitive athlete, Issaluk lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut, where he volunteers as a coach and trainer when not performing arctic sports at home and abroad. Highly recommended for ages 7 to 12.

No Borders: Bridging Communities and Generations (Fifth House hardcover, $19.95) is the unique story of an Inuk teenager from Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Written by Darla Evyagotailak and educator Mindy Willett, Darla describes her family, the history around her community, and cultural traditions. She also shares her sadness at the loss of an older brother to suicide. Striking photographs by Tessa Macintosh complete this photo-journal, and short sections of italicized text provide helpful captions to accompany the visuals. Highly recommended for ages 10 and up.

Christine Welldon’s Reporter in Disguise: The Intrepid Vic Steinberg (Fitzhenry & Whiteside hardcover, $19.95) offers a tremendously intriguing biography of a nineteenth century Toronto journalist. Revealing the challenges of being a working woman in the 1890s, this text is a delightful read, offering snippets from the popular column in the Toronto News that kept everyone guessing.

When finally “Vic’s” publications ceased in 1895, there was only speculation about who this writer was, and how she managed to conceal herself to explore the contexts she wanted to write about. From disguising herself as a man who enjoyed a pint of beer at a rugby match, to a seamstress in a sweatshop, Vic left no stone unturned in her quest for the real story.

In her column “Bachelor Girl,” Vic elucidates on a shopping trip with a friend. “To keep on my dignity for one whole afternoon, to indulge in an amount of small talk and say a number of pretty things which mean nothing, is not wholly agreeable to my nature.”

The term “Bachelor Girl” was fast coming into use for the unmarried woman, and Vic was quick to use it as another name for the “New Woman,” –someone who had chosen to turn her back on becoming a wife and mother for the time being. Photographs and fonts give this title a Victorian feel while retaining a thoroughly modern format—short sections of easily accessible text interspersed with longer narrative chapters. Highly recommended for capable readers ages 11 and up.

Back to Index

April Review, 2013 – Hidden learning for readers of all ages
  • Where Do You Look?: Marthe and Nell Jocelyn
  • Mäko: Julien Béziat
  • Truths I Learned from Sam: Kristin Butcher

Three books with unpredictable endings top the basket of new titles this spring. For the youngest set, Where Do You Look? by Canadian mother/daughter team Marthe and Nell Jocelyn (Tundra, hardcover, $17.99) playfully introduces homonyms. Where do you look for a cap? On a tube of toothpaste? Or on your head? Where do you look for a button ? On a shirt? Or on a telephone? Brightly illustrated with vivid collage, this is a fun title for shared reading with kids ages 2 – 5, and its closing plug for bedtime reading is simply delightful.

Julien Béziat’s Mäko (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, paperback, $9.95) is a clever tale about a walrus whose ice sculptures prove to be more important than anyone at first realizes. On the one hand, this is a playful animal fantasy; on the other hand, it’s a deeply sensitive tale about the value of the fine arts. Mäko resonates with other well-told classic picture books such as Leo Lionni’s Frederick, and will no doubt carve a place for itself among the books that endure in the field of children’s literature. For ages 5 and up.

Kristin Butcher’s new title Truths I Learned from Sam (Dundurn, paperback, $12.99) is a fast-paced read for ages 11 to 15. Deftly combining a character study with light romance, the book will appeal to readers who are looking for a title that is thought-provoking but not troubling, and a main character in Dani that is resilient and positive.

When Dani’s mother gets married for the sixth time and jets away on honeymoon, seventeen-year-old Dani is swept from her typical summer plans into Cariboo country where she stays with an uncle she never knew she had. Told with a teen’s characteristically exaggerated narrative, the story—while certainly not “happy ever after”—offers much to smile over. Truths I Learned from Sam will also be a good introduction to this Canadian author’s worthy list of over 20 titles for young people.

Back to Index

March Review, 2013 – Thoughtful reads tailored to kids
  • What Kind of Goodbye?: Darlene Klassen
  • The Granddaughter Necklace: Sharon Dennis Wyeth
  • Ribbon's Way: Sarah E. Turner

What Kind of Goodbye? (paperback, $9.95) is a children's picture book about death and loss, self-published by a local first-time author-illustrator team: Darlene Klassen and Samantha McRorie. Evocative free verse and soft, prairie landscape paintings are a captivating duo in this gentle reminder that while a loved one is gone, he or she can be remembered. With spaces left open for the inclusion of personal photographs and reflections, this small, empathetic book is sensitively crafted to offer encouragement to children who are grieving. Both its poetry, and its gallery-class watercolours, are inviting to all ages. Available through

Another picture book that emphasizes family connections as well as the passage of time is The Granddaughter Necklace by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, illustrated in acryl-gouache by Bagram Ibatoulline (Arthur A. Levine, hardcover, $18.99). The clever premise that a glass necklace is passed down through seven generations, from mother to daughter, produces an evocative tale about identity and family history. This is a title that may inspire other family stories, and its simple framework can be easily adapted for original projects by young writers. For ages six to ten.

Sarah E. Turner's new narrative non-fiction picture book Ribbon's Way (Sono Nis Press, paperback, $9.95) explores mothering from a monkey's perspective while at the same time crafting a parable about the possibilities that disability offers. When baby Ribbon arrives, the visitors at Japan's Awaji Island Monkey Center wonder how she is going to manage with no hands and with malformed feet. How will she hang on to her mother? How will she keep up with the other monkeys? How will she someday look after her own baby? The answers to these questions unfold one by one as Ribbon finds a new way to do things—Ribbon's way. Her condition is not unusual in the context of this zoo, as one in six monkeys are born with anomalies, but whether genetics, pesticides, or a combination of these are to blame, scientists remain perplexed.

Turner's monkeys—Japanese macaques—were part of her master's and PhD work and an earlier book—The Littlest Monkey—chronicles the story of another primate. Striking original photographs complement each of Turner's two books. For ages five to ten.

Back to Index

February Review, 2013 – Fantasy and feathers fill these epics
  • The Piper of Shadonia: Linda Smith
  • Shade & Sorceress: Catherine Egan
  • Nighthawk: Jamie Bastedo

Linda Smith’s fantasy novel The Piper of Shadonia (Coteau paperback, $14.95), published posthumously, is a strong character-driven read that resonates with universal themes. Two cultures inhabit the same living space, each bidding for power in a relationship that is crafted to show how individuals choose different ethical stances towards their enemy. The audience is left with an understanding that war is made up of multiple points of view—a complex message but deftly drawn.

Tobin, the son of a mayor answering to the dominant class of Forenzians, cares more about the ancient and supressed world of Shadonia. As he discovers his own Shadonian gifts, he is persuaded to side with the rebels against his own family, until, at the last, he makes a decision that offers sanctuary, if only temporary, for both sides.

Where fantasy offers readers a chance to explore contemporary themes through the safe distance of story, this title is a stellar example. Linda Smith was a children’s librarian who authored picture books, poetry and short fiction in addition to a number of other fantasy titles including The Broken Thread and the Tales of Three Lands trilogy as well as the Freyan Trilogy. Her death in 2007 was a blow to the literary world and it is commendable that the editors at Coteau Books worked to bring this latest manuscript to light. For ages twelve to fourteen.

A debut fantasy author newly published by Coteau Books is Catherine Egan, whose fantasy trilogy The Last Days of Tian Di begins with Shade & Sorceress (Coteau Books paperback, $12.95). Although the use of an original dialect may be difficult to some readers in the interpretation of Eliza Tok, the spunky main character who carries this title, patience is rewarded as the book is finely plotted and worth the effort. For ages ten to fourteen.

The question that drives Jamie Bastedo’s fantasy Nighthawk (Red Deer Press paperback, $12.95) is simply this: what happens when a nighthawk is unable to read the stars? For Wisp, the juvenile nighthawk anthropomorphized in this book, it means trouble navigating and being fenced in by his starving colony. Escaping on a forbidden migratory journey, Wisp exemplifies the independent spirit of any young teen with challenges as he struggles to use unexpected gifts and find his own path.

Bastedo—a biologist turned storyteller—has a clear rationale for selecting the nighthawk as a protagonist. A threatened species, the nighthawk is an intriguing bird worth saving, a fact made clear in this evocative narrative that cameos gripping landscapes from the Amazon to the Arctic. Other animal fantasies that will make good companion reads include Oppel’s Darkwing and Martini’s Feather and Bone crow chronicles. For ages ten and up.

Back to Index

January Review, 2013 – A series of inspiring reads offer hope
  • Jason’s Why: Beth Goobie
  • Counting Back from Nine: Valerie Sherrard
  • The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larson: Susin Nielsen

A new year means new books ahead, but a few titles from 2012 are well worth hanging onto.

Saskatoon author Beth Goobie’s Jason’s Why (Red Deer paperback, $8.95) tells the story of a nine-year-old boy transitioning into a group home when his mother can’t cope.

I am at our living-room window. I’m waiting. I can hear my mom. She moves around our house. She goes up and down our stairs. She carries green garbage bags to the door. All my stuff is in those bags. There are three of them.

The first person point of view is personal and poignant, and the text, while simple enough for young readers, is also accessible to older struggling readers without being patronizing. Jason’s story is one rarely encountered in children’s books and offers an authentic picture of what happens when a child goes into care.

One of the particularly notable features of this tale is the sensitivity shown by the author towards all of her characters. We see the abuse of the son by his mother, and the effects this has had on the boy, but we also see a parent who is scared and doesn’t know how to make things right. This is clearly a book about people, with all their flaws. Through the support of workers at his group home, and school personnel, Jason learns that it’s okay to make mistakes. During the course of the story he also discovers strategies to help himself control his negative behavior. The ending isn’t “happily ever after” but it’s true to life.

…still it’s hard. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Mom said she loved me, I think. But will she really let me move home again? Or will I be stuck in this group home maybe forever?

All these questions, and I don’t know the answers. If only I did—right now. But I guess I can’t, I think. I can’t make the answers happen right now. I’ll have to wait.

Joe comes into the living room. ‘Hey, Jason,’ he says. ‘Want to play cards?’

And you know, I think, maybe this place isn’t so bad…

The people in this story need more time to heal and learn, but there is hope for all of them. That’s the best thing about this book: its message about hope even in the most troubling circumstances. A title of striking versatility, Jason’s Why is highly recommended for all ages including adults learning to support youth in crisis.

Previous books about youth in care are written specifically for older audiences, and include Diana Wieler’s Last Chance Summer, a story set on a farm for troubled teens, and Jacqueline Guest’s At Risk, a mystery contextualized in a ranch facility. Guest, a Métis writer, will be in Saskatoon in February to receive the prestigious Indspire Award for her outstanding achievements in the Arts.

A second 2012 title worthy of acclaim is Valerie Sherrard’s free-verse novel for young adults: Counting Back from Nine (Fitzhenry & Whiteside paperback, $9.95). The storyline follows the first-person account of a teenage girl who secretly dates her friend’s ex-boyfriend, eventually isolating herself from a group of girls she’s known all her life. The theme of cheating on those who love you is paralleled by a secret that unhappily unfolds after Laren’s father is suddenly killed in a car accident. Through poems grouped in a series of tightly wrought chapters, Sherrard skilfully juxtaposes related plot lines to accomplish a masterful epiphany. Highly recommended for ages twelve and up.

A third selection of note from the past year is Susin Nielsen’s governor general’s award winner for children’s text: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larson (Tundra hardcover, $19.99). Thirteen-year-old Henry’s first-person story appears through journal entries that detail events surrounding an older brother’s suicide. Readers learn that Jesse was a bullied teen who formulated and actualized a plan to shoot his worst enemy at school, and then end his own life. How Henry processes his agonizing memories and learns to live with himself is part of the story; the other part involves the intriguing people he comes to know in his journey forward. While at times difficult to read, through Henry’s eyes, the devastating events that took place, this is also a tale filled with warmth and humour. Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Back to Index

Brenna Book Reviews, 2012

December Review, 2012 – Authors find humour in holidays
  • Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas: Melanie Watt
  • Finding Christmas: Robert Munsch
  • How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas?: Jane Yolen
  • How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?: Jane Yolen
  • The Sound of Kwanzaa: Dmitrea Tokunbo
  • Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters: K. G. Campbell

Melanie Watt’s new fun-filled safety guide: Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $18.85) is well-equipped to support even the most anxious through the Christmas season. For example, a few red things to avoid decorating with include: dynamite, street signs, chili peppers, dragons, poisonous berries, and fire hydrants. Similarly, green things to avoid include: martians, tons of air fresheners, catnip, caterpillars, poison ivy, and bullfrogs. One particularly helpful page lists our favourite squirrel’s Top 10 Worst Kissing Scenarios: 1. Mistletoe above a piranha-infested pond. 2. Mistletoe above an anthill. 3…You get the picture. Nothing didactic here, just complete and nutty amusement. For ages 5 to 9.

Finding Christmas by Robert Munsch (Scholastic hardcover, $19.99) is about Munsch’s daughter Julie who always managed to find all the presents before Christmas morning. Signature humour by Munsch and illustrator Robert Martchenko, as expected, in this delightful family romp. For ages 4 to 7.

Jane Yolen’s How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? (Scholastic hardcover, $18.99), illustrated by Mark Teague, is an imaginative foray into homes that people and dinosaurs share. With skilfully embedded lessons in manners, the simple couplets will engage even the youngest listeners in chiming in with the rhyming words. For ages 3 to 7.

Another seasonal title by Yolen and Teague is How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? (Scholastic hardcover, $18.99). A different set of dinosaurs from the Christmas book, with a similar message: don’t act up during the festivities. For ages 3 to 7.

Dmitrea Tokunbo’s The Sound of Kwanzaa (Scholastic hardcover, $21.99), illustrated by Lisa Cohen, is an informative look at a celebration observed from December 26 to January 1 as a time to reaffirm African American culture. Taking readers through each of the seven days of festivity, the book is clear and vibrant, concluding with a tasty recipe, and a bibliography for further reading. For ages 5 to 8.

K. G. Campbell’s author-illustrator debut appears in a lively vision of what it’s like to receive sweaters from Cousin Clara in Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters (Kids Can Press hardcover, $18.95). Campbell is a clever wordsmith and an artist capable of capturing the height of hilarity. This is sure to be just the beginning of an illustrious career in children’s literature.

“No one knew exactly whose cousin Cousin Clara was, so she came to stay with Lester’s family. She was little and frilly and came with a basket of knitting…” Although innocuous at first, Clara becomes the bane of Lester’s existence as she makes him sweater after horrible sweater, even as he is skilfully disposing of the last. How Lester solves his problem once and for all, and Clara finds her true calling, make for a smart ending to an original take on an old story about giving and receiving. Campbell’s illustrations further extend the story’s sly wit to older readers as well as captivating the 4 to 8 set for whom it was originally intended.

Back to Index

November Review, 2012 – Graphic novels encourage reading
  • Loon: Susan Vande Griek
  • The Brilliant World of Tom Gates: L. Pichon
  • Dalen & Gole: Scandal in Port Angus: Mike Ideas

Changing forms and formats continue to push the envelope as far as reading material goes for ages nine and up. Graphic novels in a variety of genres now offer reading fare alternatives to traditional narrative texts. At one time, the reading of pictures stopped at an age when juvenile picture books ceased to appeal, but now we have picture books designed for older readers, as well as visual information included in texts of all shapes and sizes. These changes aren’t bad. If our goal is to encourage wide reading for enjoyment and information, the inclusion of pictures is an asset that supports comprehension, diversifying the bait we put out to lure kids into reading.

Susan Vande Griek’s Loon (Groundwood hardcover, $18.95) is a feast for the eyes, a picture book marketed for the 6 to 9 age group but pleasing to older audiences, as well. Karen Reczuch’s acrylic on canvas illustrations are breathtaking, their depth of field deftly pulling viewers into the loons’ world as we sample the life cycle of two loon chicks. The genre is narrative non-fiction, achieved through a prose poetry form that is predictable in its sequential format. Highly recommended especially when we need to contemplate the beauty of the changing seasons.

L. Pichon’s winner of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize is The Brilliant World of Tom Gates (Scholastic paperback, $7.99). This book is best categorized as a kind of rebus diary, where words carry the story of Tom’s life, with the help of inserted pictures. Drawing, dogs, and the band Dude3 are highlights of Tom’s life, as are pranking his sister, avoiding homework, and trying to impress a girl in class, and this title isn’t so different from many other popular contemporary juvenile books except for its illustrated form. A fun read for ages 8 and up.

Mike Ideas, a seasoned graphic novel illustrator, has completed the whole package in Dalen & Gole: Scandal in Port Angus (Orca paperback, $9.95). Dalen and Gole are two alien buddies who accidently end up on earth. With their human friend Rachel, they follow a mystery and assist both the fishing community of Port Angus and Budap—their home planet.

This junior graphic novel contains consistent characters and a likeable, humorous storyline that is forwarded by the illustrations as much as the text. The interplay of text and visuals is one element to look for when evaluating graphic novels and, in this case, Ideas has found a good balance. Coloured panels inform us about setting and mood without duplicating such information in the dialogue. Another fun read for ages 8 and up.

Back to Index

October Review, 2012 – Pick your book: boy, man or vampire?
  • Old Man: David Poulsen
  • Money Boy: Paul Yee
  • The Big Book of Vampires: Denise Despeyroux

David Poulsen, the new Writer in Residence for the Saskatoon Public Library and a past graduate of the University of Saskatchewan, will release a new young adult novel in January, 2013. Old Man (Dundurn paperback, $12.99) covers territory unique to YA fiction through a father-son story set in Saigon. Just as summer vacation begins for fifteen-year-old Nate Huffman, his absentee father arranges a mysterious trip that begins by car and extends into a flight out of Minneapolis that is Nate’s first hint that the holiday involves serious travel.

‘“Getting’ more like a buddy movie all the time,”’ jests Nate’s father after an hour on the road, but Nate doesn’t get the joke. The “old man” left when Nate was five, and now nothing his father does is funny, nor can Nate even begin to think of his dad as a “buddy.”

How two people with a connection long severed come to know each other again is one of the intriguing aspects of this novel, and Poulsen’s approach is sure and steady, creating a realistic build towards a predictable ending that links a parent’s mortality with a teenager’s coming-of-age. Another aspect of the novel worth praising is Nate’s realistic and highly readable first-person narrative. The kid is both likeable and detail oriented—the latter a helpful trait when it comes to reproducing scenes from memory, punchy dialogue and all.

A third notable aspect of this book involves originality. The Vietnam War experiences of the old man, even as they are reflected through Nate’s eyes, are poignant and raw, and the book’s setting and content are definitely a subject worth exploring. Highly recommended for mature teens ages14 and up.

With his new young adult novel Money Boy (Groundwood paperback, $12.95), Paul Yee adds to his extensive body of work that portrays Chinese immigrants and their descendants in both historical and contemporary settings. Born in Spalding, Saskatchewan, Yee now lives and works in Toronto.

Money Boy skilfully explores the subject of prejudice through international as well as local lenses. Eighteen-year-old Ray Liu has an uneasy relationship with his father even before Ba suspects that Ray is homosexual. Online evidence to support Ray’s sexual orientation becomes the catalyst for Ba to throw him out of the house—and from that point on, the novel races through scenes that for some readers may be difficult to process due to the fast-paced stream-of- consciousness narration. This narration, however, repeats and unpacks important themes, in a clear and contemporary Toronto setting, building towards a profound message about the importance of self-acceptance and community. Highly recommended for mature teens ages 14 and up.

Just in time for Hallowe’en comes Denise Despeyroux’s picture book for older readers, The Big Book of Vampires (Tundra hardcover, $19.99). Including nine adaptations from well-known English vampire stories, and then four vampire folktales from China, Spain, Poland, and Denmark, this hefty compendium of thirteen tales is certainly something readers can sink their teeth into. Illustrations by Fernando Falcone are most suitably long-necked, offering a darkly humorous counterpart to a text that will interest struggling older readers as well as general audiences ages 10 and up who appreciate the macabre.

Back to Index

September Review, 2012 – Fantasy Stories Deal with Diversity
  • The Hunchback Assignments: Island of Doom: Arthur Slade
  • Seraphina: Rachel Hartman
  • The New Jumper: Oliver Jeffers

Saskatoon author Arthur Slade has now published the fourth and final book in The Hunchback Assignments steampunk series: Island of Doom (HarperCollins hard cover, $18.99). In an investigation that takes him back to his origins, agent Modo’s history is the hinge that moves this book along, with the help of Slade’s trademark cast of captivating characters.

A theme that has carried throughout all four titles is the relationship between physical beauty and identity, with Modo continually searching for love and acceptance in spite of his “disfigured” face and body, a search that fuels his need to exchange one stereotypical mask for another in his repertoire of personas.

A remarkably literate fellow, Modo’s repartee includes references to classic literature, offering titles that might support a readership’s “reading up” without detracting from the plot’s velocity. His intellect is clearly one quality that endears him to the people with whom he lives and works:

“Your brain is a great big book, ain’t it, Modo?” Octavia said. “If we cracked open your skull we’d just find pages and pages of words.”

“I’m glad I impressed you.”

“Oh, I didn’t say that.”

But he could tell that he had.

Only a skilled writer would tackle the omniscient demands required by such a complex plotline, where the story is narrated from multiple third-person perspectives in rapid succession. Kudos to Slade for the completion of an energetic tour de force, recommended for ages twelve and up.

Another fantasy character with issues related to the body and self-acceptance is Seraphina in a novel of the same name by first-time Vancouver author Rachel Hartman (Doubleday hardcover, $21.00). With richly descriptive prose, this title unfolds as an example of master storytelling through the confidential perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl.

Seraphina, a gifted musician and assistant to the court composer, is the illegal daughter of a union between a dragon and a mortal. She subsequently carries a band of scales around her waist and wrist that, although hidden, continually remind her of her singular and risky state.

Some of the most interesting characterizations in the book appear in Hartman’s portrayal of dragons, who, in taking up temporary human forms, have certain identifiable qualities—such as a lack of emotion and a tendency to take things literally—that make dialogues both funny and illuminative in a setting reminiscent of the early Renaissance. The hint of a sequel will leave readers twelve and up cheering for more.

A picture book for younger readers, also containing themes related to diversity and acceptance, is Oliver Jeffers’ The New Jumper, the first book in a series about the Hueys (HarperCollins hardcover, $19.99). In this installment, the thing about the Hueys is that they are all the same…they look the same, think the same, and do the same things. Then, one day, Rupert knits himself a new jumper that sets him apart from the rest. At first the others are horrified, but it isn’t long before they follow suit, knitting themselves jumpers to match so they “would be different too!” After a while, everyone is the same again. Then Rupert finds himself a new hat… and the implications are clear. For ages five and up.

Back to Index

August Review, 2012 – Summertime Reading for All Ages
  • A Hen for Izzy Pippick: Aubrey Davis
  • The Rumor: Anushka Ravishanka
  • Under the Ice: Rachel A. Qitsualik
  • Here Comes Hortense: Heather Hartt-Sussman
  • Larf: Ashley Spires
  • Virginia Wolf: Kyo Maclear
  • The Glory Wind: Valerie Sherrard
  • Nobody Cries at Bingo: Dawn Dumont

Summertime offers a few extra minutes of daylight great for reading, and the following titles may provide intriguing substance.

For the younger set, stave off sleep by choosing picture books that capture children’s imaginations while at the same time appealing to adults who may be reading these books aloud. Three culturally anchored stories provide fuel for thought as well as brilliant illustrations: A Hen for Izzy Pippick by Aubrey Davis, The Rumor by Anushka Ravishanka, and Under the Ice by Rachel A. Qitsualik.

The Rumor (Tundra hardcover, $19.99), illustrated by Kanyika Kini, is set in India’s Sahyadri Mountains. This story is an international version of “the telephone game” where a message passed from person to person drastically changes in content. Comic and yet with an authentic message about the danger of rumors. For ages 5 to 8.

A Hen for Izzy Pippik (Kids Can Press hardcover, $18.95), with whimsical art by Marie Lafrance, is based on Jewish and Islamic traditional texts and tells the story of a little girl who, in standing up for what is right, subsequently populates her village with chickens. For ages 4 to 8.

Under the Ice (Inhabit Media paperback, $9.95) is a retelling of a traditional Inuit qallupiluit story, conceived by art director Babah Kalluk. In this case, the multi-faceted monster steals a little boy on the whim of his irritable grandmother, and then the village tries to reclaim him. Comic-like illustrations by Jae Korin complete this book; potentially scary content makes it more suitable for older children ages 8 and up.

Three other picture books about relationships are also definitely worth a read: Here Comes Hortense, by Heather Hartt-Sussman, Larf, by Saskatoon author/illustrator Ashley Spires, and Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear.

Here Comes Hortense, zanily illustrated by Georgia Graham, is a sequel to Nana’s Getting Married. This new title offers newly acquainted grandchildren the chance to share Nana and Bob, a source of conflict but also an opportunity for developing fresh familial friendships as two kids explore a theme park in unexpected ways. For ages 4 – 7.

Ashley Spires, whose Binky series is already popular with the under 9 set, brings a seven-foot-tall, scarf-sporting sasquatch into the picture as Larf attempts to meet another like himself. His hilarious antics preparing for the event include bathing when “…He hasn’t had a bath in…ever!” Larf’s surprise ending will warm the hearts of readers everywhere; for ages 4 – 7.

Virginia Wolf covertly chronicles the childhood relationship between writer Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, through a story about a little girl who encourages her moody “wolfish” sibling to communicate through art. Isabelle Arsenault’s mixed media illustrations include ink, pencil, watercolour, and goache—enhancing the hand-lettered text throughout what becomes a war of emotions light and dark. Older readers may perceive this tale to be a metaphorical narrative about depression and for that reason the reading age is extended from 4 to adult.

I lay beside her on the bed.

We were two quiet lumps under the blanket.

We sank deep among the pillows.

We looked out the window and gazed at the sky.

We watched the clouds: a smudgy sailboat,

a flying llama and a floating castle.

It was like a whole other world.

Still, my sister said nothing. To anybody.

Two novels for older children offer Canadian perspectives on coming-of-age. Valerie Sherrard’s The Glory Wind (Fitzhenry & Whiteside paperback, $12.95) and Dawn Dumont’s Nobody Cries at Bingo (Thistledown paperback, $15.95) are authentic tales that combine historical insight with innovative storytelling techniques.

The Glory Wind is a heartbreaking story about friendship, prejudice, and loss, set on the prairies in 1946. Overcoming the obstacles of a mixed-gender friendship, neighbours Luke and Gracie support each other until a tornado—both figurative and literal—creates its havoc, with Gracie’s single-parent status at its eye. Highly recommended for ages 11 and up.

Nobody Cries at Bingo reads as a combination of young adult novel and memoir since its author was born on the Okanese First Nation where the story takes place. Rather than unfolding in chronological order, the chapters operate along themes that stand alone as well as contribute to an understanding of Dawn Dumont’s growing-up years between pre-school and first-year law school.

I was born in a small Saskatchewan town called Balcarres. The town had given itself the nickname, the “Pride of the Prairies,” which is a pretty bold statement for a community that boasts more boarded up stores and businesses than regular ones.

Shortly after my debut, I was relocated to the Okanese reserve via a ride in our grandparents’ car. Okanese is Cree for Rosebud. The reserve doesn’t really have a nickname although many people have called it the “armpit of the universe,” usually after they lost an election.

Filled with humour and rich detail, Nobody Cries at Bingo is a captivating and at times gritty read that combines the personal with the universal, taking readers on a journey that covers local history in territory not previously encountered in Canadian literary young adult fiction. Highly recommended for mature readers ages 13 and up.

Back to Index

July Review, 2012 – Tales, Tips Put Kids in Touch with Nature
  • Chickadee: Louise Erdrich
  • EarthFlight: John Downer
  • Get Outside: The Kids Guide to Fun in the Great Outdoors: Jan Drake & Ann Love

Chickadee, book four of The Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins paperback, $8.99), continues the first generation story of Omakayas begun with The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, and The Porcupine Year. This second generation tale occurs in the mid 1800s and is based on the adventures of twin sons Chickadee and Makoons. Erdich developed these novels as counterparts to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House books, foregrounding her own Anishinabeg/Ojibwe family stories and providing American history from a Native American point of view.

With its gentle humour, authentic settings, and a plot that includes some breathtaking twists and turns, Chickadee is highly recommended for adult read-alouds with children ages eight and up. It also works as a stand-alone title for independent reading, but readers who appreciate Erdrich’s style will want to check out the others in the series.

EarthFlight by John Downer (Firefly Books, hardcover, $49.95) is a rich collection of photographs to accompany the BBC series of the same name. Downer utilized spycams, microlights, hang-gliders, miniature helicopters and wirecams to give viewers privileged pictures of birds in flight, showing us not only the birds themselves, but what they see. Most provocative is a story of a bird imprinting on the author and then following his parachute while action shots were captured. Although not designed for younger children due to the inclusion of blocks of fine print, the photographs are stunning and all ages will find this text worth exploring at the library.

Get Outside: The Kids Guide to Fun in the Great Outdoors by Jan Drake and Ann Love, illustrated by Heather Collins (Kids Can Press paperback, $17.95) is a seasonal compendium of child-centred activities designed to promote active learning, exercise, and play. Within four main sections each geared to a specific season, young readers will find activities under the following headings: Nature Lover, Outdoor Fun and Games, Snug Inside, and Look to the Sky.

Summer activities for kids include some just for the birds: instructions for a milk carton seed feeder, a nectar feeder, and a fruit feeder. For the latter, hammer a nail into the side of a tree, above eye level, and punch a piece of fruit onto the nail. As the fruit rots, it will collect fruit flies. Some birds will come for the flies, others for the fruit itself. In addition to daytime birds such as northern orioles and warblers at this “fruit and fly” feeder, the authors recommend checking it at night: “You may find flying squirrels, luna moths, raccoons, whip-poor-wills and other night-loving creatures helping themselves.”

Outdoor games include rules for 500 Up, Spud, and Shinny. Indoor games present old favourites such as home-made crokinole, dice games, and jacks. A sidebar beside the latter informs readers that jacks are descended from the bone games played by ancient peoples. In the thirteenth century, for example, “during the Trojan War, the Greek leader Palamedes and his soldiers played a game using knucklebones.” History, fun, and nature combine in this title designed to beat summer boredom.

Highly recommended for ages 4 and up.

Back to Index

June Review, 2012 – Canadian Identity Home and Abroad, Past and Present
  • Racing Home: Adele Dueck
  • Outcasts of River Falls: Jacqueline Guest
  • Karma: Cathy Ostlere
  • Timber Wolf: Caroline Pignat

Lucky Lake author Adele Dueck has recently won a Saskatchewan Book Award in the Children’s Literature Category for her new juvenile novel Racing Home (Coteau Books paperback; $8.95). Hanley, Saskatchewan in 1908 is an evocative backdrop for this story, foregrounding well-defined characters and a strong, clear plot.

Twelve-year-old Erik wished he could have stayed on his grandfather’s farm in Norway, where he was closer to his dead father, but instead he’s on the prairies with his mother, his sister, and a stepfather whom he doesn’t at first respect. Showing the adeptness of an experienced writer, Dueck plants pieces of the plot like breadcrumbs throughout the text, leaving a careful trail for readers to follow. With a dialogue that includes choice phrases in Norwegian, the story unfolds to tell of a family’s transition to a place where oxen and sod shacks are common, where breaking the land takes sweat and tears, and where doctors are hard to come by—unless you can ski to town and beg relatives for help.

How Erik comes to terms with his new life, and a relationship with a half-brother he never knew he had, is the heart of this tale, involving two boys that turn a badly injured horse back into the prize winner he once was. Strong local fare for ages eight to 12.

Alberta author Jacqueline Guest's new novel Outcasts of River Falls (Coteau Books paperback; $9.95) is another fast-paced historical adventure story that explores the lives of members of a Métis "Road Allowance" community in 1901 Alberta. After their loss at Batoche when the Métis were branded renegades, people were forced to live on land adjacent to the roads and which was owned by the government. This is the fictional story of Kathryn Marie Tourond, a 14-year-old Ontario orphan who comes to live with her Aunt Belle. Kathryn discovers her Métis roots and the gifts embedded in the culture her father had disowned as well as the challenges--she is banned from attending the local school and despised by a would-be boyfriend when he discovers her heritage.

One great choice in Kathryn's character development is that she is an avid reader of classical literature and manages to link her reading life to her daily activities. This operates as a device to remind readers of the historical time period of the novel and smartly contextualizes the formal speech patterns of that era. Richly detailed, the novel contains both a strong story and authentic historical facts--a difficult combination for authors to navigate but one that Guest handles very well. Recommended for ages 11 and up.

Another Alberta author presents quite a different context for racism through historical fiction in free verse form. Cathy Ostlere's Karma (Penguin paperback; $10.50) tells the story of 15-year-old Maya who arrives in India on the eve of Prime Minister Indira Ghandi's assassination and the bloody riot that follows. Born in Canada to a Hindu mother and a Sikh father, Maya--or Jiva, as her father insistently calls her--grows up amidst parental conflict in a small town near Winnipeg. Her mother longs for home, and, after becoming more and more depressed, throws herself into playing classical piano before committing suicide. It is her ashes that Maya and her father are taking to Chandigarh via New Delhi when disaster strikes. Separated from her father, Maya cuts her hair in an act of self-preservation and runs--"no time to weep. For hair. Or ashes. Or life." Traumatized, she ends up on a train, befriended by a young female doctor and her family although for many weeks Maya doesn't speak and isn't able to tell them who she is or where she's from.

Maya's adventures, and the stories of other characters adeptly woven into the plot, are entrancing. Details of city and desert fall in spare, short lines. Like magic, a rich story springs from the condensed text, a tale full of the horror of burned bodies and a young girl growing up at breakneck speed in a world that is not her own and yet a world that is very much a part of her. It's also the tale of a 17-year-old boy named Sandeep who learns to love Maya through the pain of their respective pasts. A captivating read for ages 14 and up.

Timber Wolf, the third in Caroline Pignat's Irish immigrant historical series, follows the adventures of Jack Byrne as he seeks independence in the lumber camps but finds himself injured and in the care of an Aboriginal family (Red Deer paperback; $12.95). Slightly less believable than the other titles in the series, with passages involving a wolf that mysteriously saves Jack's life, the book runs at a fast pace and might be just the title to engage reluctant readers, ages 10 and up, with page-turning adventure sequences.

The howl wakes me, calls me from one darkness to another. My right eye opens but my left is a throbbing slit. Bare branches. Twilight beyond. I’m on my back. Outside. Somewhere. I’m alive. Barely.

What happened?

Back to Index

May Review, 2012 – Intelligent, Speculative Fiction for Young Adults
  • The Green Man: Michael Bedard
  • The Grave Robber’s Apprentice: Alan Stratton
  • Above: Leah Bobet

Three new and substantial fantasy novels for young adults offer fare that is intellectually satisfying as well as supremely plot driven, giving readers good reasons to turn the page and then considerable food for thought once the story is complete. References to classical literature abound in all of these titles, subtle reminders that the world is full of words.

Michael Bedard’s young adult novel The Green Man (Tundra hardcover, $19.95) is a captivating read that offers richly drawn characters and a strong, believable setting to offset a fantasy of the highest caliber. In part a sequel to a previous Bedard title A Darker Magic, The Green Man follows Emily's niece, Ophelia, as she battles the next generation of the same dangerous plot.

The book opens with fifteen-year-old Ophelia going to spend the summer with her bookseller aunt, helping out in The Green Man bookshop while her father is in Italy researching Ezra Pound. Dark forces lurk, and although the real world beckons, with just a hint of romance, the spirit world offers a mix of intrigue not to be ignored.

Within the intertwined story of Aunt Emily and Ophelia (known as O to ward off the heaviness of Shakespeare) is a tightly pulled thread about poets, and some very fine poetry is included from characters who explore this particular way of interpreting the world. Poetry itself becomes a potential source of evil, with hints about mad poets to warn O from at first publicizing her interest in what has been her aunt’s longtime craft. Even Aunt Emily offers caution:

“I need to warn you,” she whispered, as though someone might be listening. “Poetry is nothing to be dabbled in. It can be a dangerous thing. Before you go one step farther, I want you to ask yourself if you absolutely have to do it, if something inside you will die if you don’t. If the answer is no, then let it go.”

It is the darkness that has come three times into Aunt Emily’s life that has been her muse, deepening her desire to survive, to create, but whether she became a poet out of eccentricity or whether eccentricity evolved from her poet’s lens, we never fully discover. What we do learn is that poetry can bring with it great joy, as O finds out:

Who knew where poems came from? In the end, they were a gift. All you could do was accept it with gratitude and carry it into the light as best you could.

Another thread that winds its way through this title is related to time, and provides the kind of shimmering tightrope on which the rest of the story balances. In a conversation between O and Aunt Emily, the latter confesses in a belief that makes later events ring true:

“We live in the midst of mysteries, my dear. They surround us on all sides, and, for the most part, we take no notice of them. Take Time, for instance. What is it? Where does it come from? Where does it go?”

She leaned forward and took a book from one of the piles on the table. “Imagine that this book is that very small piece of reality we call the present—you and I, here, now.” She stood it between two tall piles. “This moment stands between a future that is not yet real and a past that is no longer real.” She placed her hands on top of the piles to either side. “Before we know it, it too has slid into the past, and another moment has come to take its place.

“But what if it’s not as simple as that? What if all those past moments still exist, as real as the books on this pile, but hidden from the present moment by a thin fabric, like the painted backdrop in a play? Say that in certain places that fabric were to wear thin and tear, and what lay on the other side were to spill out? Perhaps they would be places where the pressure of the past had grown so great that it could no longer be contained…

Highly recommended for ages 10 and up.

Another fantastical read is Allan Stratton’s The Grave Robber’s Apprentice (HarperCollins hardcover, $18.99). A high-spirited and complex romp, it’s Stratton’s dexterity with vocabulary and his impeccable comic timing that make this contemporary fairy tale fly.

Hans, the foster son of a conniving grave robber, and Angela, a young countess who dreams of the stage, find each other in a desperate journey through dangerous lands and dark woods, Shakespearean themes at every turn. Rather than the high seriousness that imbues some fantasy literature, this title is a rollicking read in which every line seems an attempt to best the previous with ridiculous dialogue.

“How old are you?” Hans cautiously asks his foster dad.

“Older than all the hairs in my nose…” says the elder. “But don’t you go changing the subject.” Definitely a response to tuck away for later!

Angela, rousing in her sealed coffin from a potion that feigned her death to avoid a dastardly wedding, thinks fast. “I planned a comedy,” she announces to the darkness. “That means a happy ending. Do you hear me? A happy ending! I insist on it!”

Recommended for avid readers ages 10 to 14.

Themes in Leah Bobet's first novel Above (Scholastic hardcover, $19.99) push young adult fiction into new territory with a stunning combination of poetic narrative and urban dystopia. The plot revolves around the characters who live in Safe, an underground community open to those rejected by the city Above. Matthew, whose claws and scales can be hidden enough to allow him passage, Ariel, a shapeshifter whose character becomes a metaphor for schizophrenia, and Corner--whose gender ambiguity underpins the initial casting out by a society clearly organized around exclusion while at the same time supporting medical experiments that actually create more 'misfits.'

With a surprisingly uplifting first-person voice, Matthew narrates the fast-paced tale with poise and consistency--his insights speaking to the power of the human spirit and the necessity of stories that remind us of who we are and who we might become.

My last supply duty before Sanctuary Night, I get home and Atticus is waiting.

It's half past three already, and nobody awake except for Hide and Mack and Mercy and me, unloading our week's ration of scuffed-up bottles and tins into the broad-wide kitchen cabinets. Most supply nights that's all there is to it: the swish and thunk of stacking tins, the slow quiet of faucets stopping, piles sleeping, water mains humming lower as the city Above goes to bed. The air moves slower with everyone laid asleep; gets dustier, goes back to earth. There's a light by the kitchen, run off a wire down off the old subway tracks, and the rest is feel-your-way dark until morning, when Jack Flash lights the lamps with a flick of his littlest finger.

Jack's got a good Curse. He might have made it Above if not for the sparks always jumping out of things to kiss at his knuckles. Me, the only thing good 'bout my Curse is that I can still Pass. And that's half enough to keep me out of trouble.

Some contemporary novels deal with diversity themes with respect to disability, other novels address gender and sexual orientation, while still others include a focus on cultural differences. It is rare to find combinations of any of these themes, and for this reason Above is a striking reminder that difference comes in multiples. It's a gritty book, intended for mature teens, reminiscent of other books for this age group that push the envelope including M.T. Anderson's remarkable science fiction title Feed, and Born Ugly by Beth Goobie.

Back to Index

April Review, 2012 – Books for the Younger Set Sure to Please
  • Dear Flyary: Dianne Young
  • Piggy Bunny: Rachel Vail
  • Starfall: Diana Kolpak
  • Dog Breath: Carolyn Beck
  • Nini: François Thisdale

Saskatoon author Dianne Young has a new picture book sure to please vocabulary afficionados young and old. Dear Flyary (Kids Can Press hardcover, $18.95), delightfully illustrated by John Martz, presents the journal of a one-eyed alien recounting his flying adventures in a “Dear Diary” format. What’s so unique about this text is that many of the words cannot be found in any dictionary because they haven’t been invented…yet!

Dear Flyary,

You won’t believe what happened this after-waker! I was on my way home from the factory when my little red spaceship started making another strange noise! The noise was a bit louder than the last one—I could hear it with just three of my ears…

A treat for the imagination, packed with giggles, and a work-out for building contextual reading strategies, this book is highly recommended for ages 4 and up.

Another picture book, published just in time for Easter, is Rachel Vail’s Piggy Bunny (Feiwel & Friends, hardcover, $16.99), a well-told story about a piglet with an identity crisis. Although family and friends attempt to divert him from his goal of becoming the Easter Bunny, thanks to an internet-savvy grandma, a costumed Liam has the confidence to believe in his transformation. A subtle message about respect for diversity and personal goals underpins this lovely read, cheerfully illustrated by Jeremy (Grumpy Bird) Tankard. Highly recommended for ages 3 – 7.

Diana Kolpak’s Starfall (Red Deer Press hardcover, $19.95) tell the story of a lonely clown out to find the stars, without which the world has endless winter. Striking photographs by Kathleen Finlay accompany the story in restricted colour choices—a visual treat and one that makes this book interesting to older readers as well as ages 7 – 9 for whom the storyline will appeal.

Carolyn Beck’s Dog Breath (Fitzhenry & Whiteside hardcover, $18.95) is a rambunctious eulogy for a beloved pet. Zany illustrations by Brooke Kerrigan bring humour into a senstive and heartwarming tale for ages 5 - 8. Highly recommended as a companion read for Judith Viorst’s classic tribute to a family cat: The Tenth Good Thing About Barney.

François Thisdale’s Nini (Tundra hardcover, $17.99) relates the story of an infant who was very much wanted by her biological family, then cared for in an orphanage, then adopted to the other side of the world. Intended for ages 6 and up, Thisdale’s multi-textured images are richly evocative.

Some days, the child hears a distant echo. She thinks of rice paddies, of lotus flowers in the wind, or a little house with a pointed roof. Sometimes, just before she sleeps, she whispers to the moon that she is happy.

In their girl’s wise eyes, her mother and father see the past joined with the present, like a bridge that connects one place to another.

Just like the roots in a garden weave together to become one plant, the mother, father, and little girl are bound to one another. Their love joins them and reaches to the other side of the earth…And they thank a distant echo that travels on the night breeze for allowing them to become a family.

Back to Index

March Review, 2012 – Trio of Books Chart Interesting New Territory
  • Random: Lesley Choyce
  • Red Power: Brian Wright-McLeod
  • Yellow Mini: Lori Weber

Three books for young adults push the boundaries of traditional content and form: Random, by Lesley Choyce, Red Power, by Brian Wright-McLeod, and Yellow Mini by Lori Weber.

Choyce’s Random (Red Deer Press paperback, $12.95) follows a sixteen-year-old protagonist who strives to make sense of life through the lenses of various theories he encounters at school and at home. Joe Campbell is the epitome of a ‘thinking man’ and he introduces readers to snippets of nihilism as well as ideas from Einstein, Malthus, Bachofen and Aristotole, among others, all the while asking himself the age-old question: Is life random?

Much of what is published these days in popular series fiction for teens seems well trenched in the general listening and speaking vocabularies of readers without including anything new or provocative. What makes Random unique is that it has at its helm a smart protagonist who takes charge of a discovery of universal interest to us all—the meaning of life. This is an edgy read, with language authentic to the age group represented and the direct first-person voice of Joe continually posing questions and reeling us back to the issues at hand.

Did you ever think about the word “Dilemma?” I discovered that the true meaning of the word is a problem with two unpleasant solutions. This means you get in a screwed-up situation and you have two choices for finding a way out. Neither one is good but you do have to choose one. Whichever one you pick, somebody or something pays. They use the phrase that you are on “the horns of a dilemma.” Makes it sound like an animal—a bull or a moose, maybe.

I think a lot of life is like that. You have to choose. You have no choice. But it’s not always easy and you pay.

The journey Joe initiates, exorcising his own feelings of responsibility regarding the untimely death of his biological parents, is not a new plotline in fiction for young people. What is refreshing about this read is just how Joe accomplishes his destination.

Wright-McLeod’s Red Power (Fifth House paperback, $9.95) is a graphic novel blend of dream world and reality inspired by the land struggle at Big Mountain, Arizona, where 10 000 traditional Navajo people won a relocation battle with the government. Wright-McLeod (Dakota-Anishinabe) is a journalist with specialities in music and graphic design.

As with other graphic novels, at first glance the illustrations may mask the adult nature of this text. The black-and-white sketches are fiercely evocative and extend a strong story whose conversational tone is both intriguing and engaging.

To bury a memory, one has to dig deep into the heart of the Earth. Things changed very quickly in a place where not long ago, herds of moose and deer were so large that it took a day for them to travel past a given point.

Birds were so plentiful that their passing overhead blocked out the sun for hours. Trees were so bountiful that a squirrel could travel from the coast to the great inland waters without ever touching the ground.

And the people in this new time are taught that all bad things happened in the past. People in this new time are taught that the indigenous people should be thankful for all that has been given to them. I love irony, don’t you?

While aimed at young adult audiences, this graphic novel will find a crossover home with adult audiences interested in a quick but gripping read on this subject.

Weber’s Yellow Mini (Fitzhenry & Whiteside paperback, $9.95) includes the stories of five teens in separate yet delicately intertwining “chapters” of free verse. We meet Mark, reeling from the death of his father, and Stacey, using her relationship with Mark to establish her own popularity. Mary, a budding concert pianist, and Annabelle, an activist for social justice alongside adoring Christopher, complete the list of key characters.

This book is deceptively simple, an easy read with depths to plumb, invoking characters whose stories weave in and out with complex precision.

Beginning with Annabelle’s story in “The Third Floor”, each distilled narrative is full of power and promise.

If I have to go to the library, I take the second floor
as far as it will go, then climb
the stairs and double
back, just to avoid
the third floor

If I really can’t avoid it, I hold my head so high I get a kink
in my neck, and I try not to look anyone straight
in the eyes, because if they know you’re
looking they flaunt it, their
popularity, pull it out
of tight tops like a
magician’s scarf
and fling it,
in your

Yellow Mini succinctly draws to the fore particular and resonant stories of adolescence to which many teens will easily relate.

All three titles are highly recommended for mature readers ages 14 and up.

Back to Index

February Review, 2012 – Strong First-Person Narrative Tales
  • 40 Things I Want to Tell You: Alice Kuipers
  • Stones for My Father: Trilby Kent
  • The False Prince: Jennifer Nielsen

40 Things I Want to Tell You (HarperCollins paperback, $14.99) is a new young adult novel by Saskatoon author Alice Kuipers. Her previous titles, also intended for older teens, are Life on the Refrigerator Door (a crossover from adult audiences) and The Worst Thing She Ever Did.

Seventeen-year-old Amy Finch (a.k.a. Bird) is dissatisfied in her long term relationship with Griffin, the boy next door. Bird’s physical fling with Pete, a consummate bad boy, is the catalyst for change, but what ensues is both a cautionary tale and a gripping read in order to find out what happens next.

When I was eight years old, I climbed up a tree and told my mum I was a bird. Before she could stop me, the leaves dancing in the breeze, I’d balanced at the edge of one branch and looked into the blue tempting sky. My mum had screamed at me, “No, Amy, stop.”

“I’m a bird,” I cried, and flew.

That was how I broke my leg.

Now, in the park, with huge effort, I pushed Pete away...This was too risky...

Kuipers has a gift for plotting her work so that readers can see what’s coming before the characters themselves even recognize what’s going on. This allows deep engagement with the text and will hook even reluctant readers in turning the pages to verify their predictions. But whether or not Bird will keep her baby isn’t something anyone can guess until the last few pages where, in a clever twist, we realize that the story’s title, and the messages therein, are actually intended for Bird’s son.

London born Kuipers, while setting much of her work in England, manages to transcend time and place in a story without geographical reading boundaries. Interested in writing? See Kuipers’ blog for writing tips: here.

While Kuipers was born in London and now writes in Canada, author Trilby Kent has moved the other way from a birthplace in Toronto to her current residence in London. Kent’s newest novel Stones for my Father (Tundra hardcover, $21.99) is remarkable in its focus on the Boer War through the eyes of young Corlie Roux. Yet while the historical details in the book are authentic, it is the difficult relationship between Corlie and her mother that make this book so riveting.

My mother never called me anything but Corlie. If she used my fill name, Coraline Roux, I knew that it was time to make myself scarce by hiding in the cattle sheds.

She’d used my full name the morning I dropped a jar of peaches in the kitchen. The impact sent juice splashing across the slate tiles and a million shards of glass cartwheeling about the floor. When my mother bent to salvage some of the preserved fruit, she must have cut a finger with a piece of glass because immediately she shot upright with a gasped “Godverdomme!” and cuffed me sharply about the ear.

With the death of her father—the only parent who shows her any love— and the invasion of the British, Corlie’s world is shattered. Families who do not surrender escape to hidden laagers in the bush, but eventually Corlie’s laager is discovered, and she and the others are sent to an internment camp. Her strength and knowledge of the land can help her, but is she strong enough to survive starvation, disease, and loss? This is the question that drives the latter half of the book. Compelling reading for ages 11 and up.

American author Jennifer Nielsen has begun a new trilogy with The False Prince (Scholastic paperback, $16.99). Fourteen-year-old Sage is purchased from an orphanage by a mysterious stranger. Before long, he and a couple of other young “candidates” are bounced along in a wagon towards a potential rags to riches ending. Master Conner, a nobleman of the court, will first train and then choose one of them to masquerade as the missing prince now heir to the throne—with the opportunity for Conner himself to rule from the sidelines. The only problem is, while one of these boys will “win” the honour to be crowned as king, the others must die.

With a plotline reminiscent of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy in the manner in which the three candidates are pitted against one another, and a delightfully humorous first-person narrative account by “Sage” himself, this will be a popular title for ages 10 and up.

Back to Index

January Review, 2012 – Tales of Inclusion, Family and Heritage
  • Emily Included: Kathleen McDonnell
  • Joy of Apex: Napatsi Folger
  • Relatives with Roots: A Story About Métis Women’s Connection to the Land: Leah Marie Dorion
  • Call of the Fiddle: Wilfred Burton & Anne Patton

Kathleen McDonnell’s new title Emily Included (Second Story Press, paperback, $8.95) is an authentic version of the true story of Emily Eaton—an Ontario girl with cerebral palsy who won the right to attend her neighbourhood school. In 1995, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against local courts and school boards who wanted Emily in a segregated school setting, ending a three-year battle waged by Emily’s family and setting a strong precedent in favour of inclusionary education.

Emily’s father, in McConnell’s fictionalized version of events, spoke to the Special Education Tribunal who had agreed with the local school board in stating that Emily’s interests were best served in a congregated setting for students with disabilities. Clayton Eaton’s summary of his family’s desire to keep Emily in her neighbourhood school will resonate with many people who support inclusion wherever possible: “Our community includes Emily’s neighbourhood school,” Clayton said. “And the people who live in our community, the children that she will grow up with and who will be part of her community when she’s an adult, go to that school. They need to get to know Emily now. We can’t bring her back at the end of her school career and plug her into that community. She has to be there now, so she can grow up with those children and those children can grow up with her.”

The Tribunal, however, were not swayed, and Emily’s family were forced to take their battle to the Divisional Court of Ontario, and then after this court had ruled against them, to the Ontario Court of Appeal, who eventually ruled that denying Emily an education in a regular class violated her equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This decision was appealed, but upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada—the final step in the family’s fight for Emily.

This is a book that explores Canadian history related to the school inclusion of children with special needs, and covers a great deal of territory with a sensitive and sure hand. Recommended for educators as well as children ages 8 – 11.

Napatsi Folger’s first novel Joy of Apex (Inhabit Media, paperback, $9.95) is a story with a setting unusual in published fiction for children: Apex, Nunavut. This suburb of Iqaluit offers an evocative backdrop for a story of family break-up from the perspective of ten-year-old Joy.

Joy and her brother and sister beg their father for a release from after-supper dishes in order to play outside. Reluctantly, he gives in, and out they fly. “It’s dusk, and the low, orange sun highlights the fall colours of the tundra. Brilliant yellows, reds, and browns, like fall trees and leaves in the south, cover all of the land. Creeping on the ground are mosses, lichens, and low bushes. Everything is earthy-coloured, except for the bay, which is a mirror image of the glowing pink and purple sky.

“The fall tundra always reminds me of my aunt and uncle’s soft shag carpet from the 1970s, except for the smell. Their old basement carpet smells like mold and mothballs, but the tundra smells like rich, dark soil and sweet moss. I find it intoxicating, but it’s almost gone. Winter will soon replace that smell with sharp, frozen air that stings my nose. Everyone can feel the tension in the air as all of us are trying to squeeze in as much fun out of the last few days of summer vacation...”

Folger is careful at letting the story go first, working in sensory reminiscences from her own childhood in Iqaluit without creating a setting that outweighs plot or character. For a first-time writer, this is a true gift, and readers can look forward to hearing more from this twenty-eight-year-old University of Toronto student.

Recommended for ages 9 – 12.

Prince Albert author and illustrator Leah Marie Dorion has a new 2011 picture book: Relatives with Roots: A Story About Métis Women’s Connection to the Land (Lii Peraantii avik la Rasin: Eñ Nistwaar Taanishi lii Faam di Michif E’ishi Kisheyitakik li Tayraeñ). With a complete translation into Michif-Cree by Rita Flamand, this title is published by Saskatoon’s Gabriel Dumont Institute (paperback, $12.95).

Dorion describes her art as a “spiritual expression. My work is intended to be multisensory. The paintings are tactile and many times the paint is applied with my own fingers in order to help me connect on a deeper physical level. I often use other tools that help add dimension and depth...I play with light, colour value, texture, and movement. This is accomplished by colour choice and beadwork, composition to create movement. I honour the traditional art forms of my women ancestors, but I bring them into a contemporary form” (

This beautifully rendered picture book tells the story of a Métis grandmother taking her granddaughter out into the bush to pick traditional plants for healing. The teaching of cultural knowledge offers a rich backdrop to a story about relationships.

“Grandma said, ‘My girl, as you smudge with this medicine, clear your mind and focus on good thoughts so that we can be more open to the wisdom that our relatives with roots will share with us today.’” The Michif-Cree translation under each passage elevates the audience of this book to anyone with a passion for bi-lingual literature, and a CD is provided to orally present the text in both languages.

Recommended for ages 6 and up.

Wilfred Burton and Anne Patton’s 2011 title Call of the Fiddle (Li Vyayloon ka Taypwatikooyen), also published by the Gabriel Dumont Institute (paperback, $12.95) is another intergenerational family story for ages 6 and up. Nolin and his mother and grandfather enjoy the celebrations at “Back to Batoche,” an event put on by the Métis Society of Saskatchewan. One thing leads to another and soon Nolin is participating in the jigging competition, making his family proud. This annual event isn’t only about family fun, however. It’s also a time to remember relatives who gave their lives during the Riel Resistance, and Nolin listens respectfully while Moushoom honours the dead. A brief historical endnote offers for interested readers more facts about the 1885 Northwest Resistance.

With Michif-Cree translation by Norman Fleury, and vivid illustrations by Sherry Farrell Racette, this book is even richer for the CD of traditional fiddle music that is included along with readings of the text.

Back to Index

Brenna Book Reviews, 2011

December Review, 2011 – Unconventional Book Formats for Kids
  • Wonderstruck: Brian Selznick
  • The Batman Files: Matthew K. Manning
  • The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man: Michel Chabon

Some unusual forms, formats, and perspectives appear in contemporary books for children, and none contain more intrigue than Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck (Scholastic hardcover, $29.99). A follow-up to his Caldecott Award-winning title The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this new historical-fiction read offers two concurrent stories set fifty years apart—one narrated in words and the other depicted through pictures.

Ben and Rose each set out on a journey inspired by different pasts. After the death of his mother, Ben—recently deafened by lightning— seeks the father he has never known. Rose—also deaf— dreams of a mysterious actress with whose life she is obsessed, although readers soon see a surprising connection between Rose and Lillian Mayhew.

How Ben and Rose’s stories unfold and eventually intertwine is complex and beautiful—a tale told by a master artist. Selznick’s research is sound, his text rich with historical details that add layers of meaning to a captivating plotline. In addition, the deaf protagonists offer perspectives rarely shown in children’s literature and this title adds to a list of contemporary titles that include previously unheard voices. Highly recommended for ages 9 and up.

The Batman Files by Matthew K. Manning (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $100.00) is a rich scrapbook-style collection of supposed artefacts ‘found’ by its author and compiled here. Billed as revealing the entire history and evolution of Batman, from the early days of his life (comic-style baby pictures and all) to newspaper clippings depicting his exploits and triumphs, this will certainly find favour with connoisseurs of the cartoon. While its audience will be limited due to the scrapbook’s non-sequential style and sections ending with ‘to be continued’ –where only readers familiar with the stories will fill in the gaps—it does fill a particular niche. Recommended for Batman aficionados ages 12 and up.

For younger superhero fans, The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man (HarperCollins hardcover, $19.99) might fit the bill. With text by Michel Chabon and illustrations by Jake Parker, the picture book’s storyline is simple.

I take off after the Flaming Eyeball...I fly west. I fly east. I fly eight times around the earth and all the way to the heart of the sun...Then I see him!...I throw an Awesome Power Grip...kick a little bad-guy behind...Then I make a quick getaway...

Amidst his busy schedule, Awesome Man has a secret identity...and one with which all young readers might identify. When he finally returns to the “Fortress of Awesome,” guess who’s waiting for him? His mom, a little sister, and a plate of plain old cheddar cheese and crackers. What makes this title different within the comics genre is the age of its intended audience as well as a moral message about safe fantasy play. Recommended for ages 4 to 8.

Back to Index

November Review, 2011 – Furry Friends Abound in New Books
  • Binky Under Pressure: Ashley Spires
  • Tales from the Tundra: Ibi Kaslik
  • The Vole Brothers: Roslyn Schwartz
  • Nutz!: Virginia Frances Schwartz
  • Kazaak!: Sean Cassidy
  • Walter: The Story of a Rat: Barbara Wersba

While many publishers’ websites currently express disinterest in kids’ manuscripts that involve talking animals, judging from the new children’s texts available anthropomorphism is clearly alive and well in children’s literature.

Our beloved space cat is back in Saskatoon author Ashley Spires’ third graphic instalment Binky Under Pressure (Kids Can Press hardcover, $16.95). Rich vocabulary, clever illustrations that enrich plot and character, and trademark tongue-in-cheek humour make this a highly recommended title for ages 7 to 10.

Ibi Kaslik’s retelling of Inuit stories in Tales from the Tundra (Inhabit Media hardcover, $12.95) will find favour with readers interested in exploring pourquoi tales—fictional narratives that explain why something is the way it is. Anthony Brennan’s Manga-inspired illustrations accompany explanations that include attention to the plumage of the loon and the raven, and how the caribou and walrus came to be. The collection is rather uneven, with other styles of tales in the mix, and the absence of detailed source notes is a weakness, especially as the author and illustrator are not from inside the culture. The Inuit-owned publishing company in Nunavut ( is geared towards promoting and preserving the stories and knowledge of northern Canada and this title does help fill a gap in available literature that represents this area of the world. Recommended for ages 7 to 10.

Roslyn Schwartz, highly acclaimed author of The Mole Sisters series, now brings us a companion read in The Vole Brothers (Raincoast Books hardcover, $16.95). With simple, playful text and evocative illustrations that encourage visual literacy, this highly recommended title is aimed at emergent readers ages 4 – 7.

Virginia Frances Schwartz (no relation to Roslyn!) adds to her prolific publishing history with Nutz! (Tradewind Books paperback, $12.95) a graphic chapter book about the relationship between a cat (the story’s narrator) and a squirrel. Virginia came from a family who rescued animals, and really did have a squirrel in the house...and a big toilet-trained cat who was very jealous...and a boxer dog next door who captured the squirrel in the first place...and a brother who hypnotized chickens. Highly recommended for ages 8 to 11.

A contemporary blend of fiction and non-fiction can be found in Sean Cassidy’s Kazaak! (Fitzhenry & Whiteside hardcover, $18.95). A clever narrative following a day in the life of Spike and Rupert, two young porcupines, embeds facts about porcupine habits into a text absolutely prickling with child-friendly illustrations and humorous dialogue. Highly recommended for ages 4 to 7.

Barbara Wersba’s Walter: The Story of a Rat (Fitzhenry & Whiteside paperback, $9.95) is a gentle story about a writer and a reader. Prolific Miss Pomeroy and Walter the rat have never met but they discover one another through a series of letters. A rodent similar in intellect to Despereaux in Kate Di Camillo’s award winning novel, Walter would have cringed at the comparison, for he was sensitive to Miss Pomeroy’s favouritism towards mice in her published work.

And not only was Bromberg a mouse, everyone else in the stories were mice as well.

Mice detectives and mice spies. Mice villains and mice heroes. Elderly mice, who were always in some kind of danger. Rich female mice, kidnapped and held for ransom.

Walter sat on Miss Pomeroy’s ladder studying these books, and he did not know whether to laugh or cry. He felt betrayed—for why had Miss Pomeroy chosen to write about mice when she could just as easily have chosen rats? How could she not have known that rats are more interesting than mice, more intelligent, and more adaptable? To put it bluntly, how could she not have known that rats are more magnificent?

Delightful as the narrative is, the heart of this book beats within the letters exchanged between Walter and Miss Pomeroy, epistles through which readers will see clearly see a poignant and developing friendship. “My name is Walter. I live here too,” the letters begin. “I know,” is Miss Pomeroy’s acerbic reply.

Dear Miss Pomeroy, Thank you for writing me. Your letter was short, but I loved it. My name, as I said before, is Walter, and my Latin name is Rattus norvegicus. I have lived here for six months and have no friends. No relatives, either. I am reading all of your books and hope you don’t mind. I always return them to their places. Sincerely, Walter (named after Sir Walter Scott).

Dear Walter: I am not exactly a fool. I saw you the very day you moved in, six months ago. I know where your nest is, and I know you steal food from my kitchen. My Latin name is Homo sapiens, and I am well aware that you are reading my books. You presume a great deal! On the other hand, you are not unwelcome here. Amanda Pomeroy.

Walter: The Story of a Rat is very highly recommended as shared reading with ages 6 and up.

Back to Index

October Review, 2011 – Young Adult Fiction Goes to School
  • Bernadette in the Doghouse: Susan Glickman
  • Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World: Susan Hughes
  • The Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein: Kenneth Oppel
  • Drummer Girl: Karen Bass

A handful of new books offer a diverse look at a context familiar to most young readers: school.

Susan Glickman’s junior novel Bernadette in the Doghouse (Second Story Press paperback, $8.95) follows a group of friends called the Lunch Bunch as they help an elderly lady with yard clean-up, celebrate Christmas and Chanukah, and navigate growing pains. While much of the narrative is very readable kids’ stuff, a plotline that involves a clique of four girls disbanding and then getting back together seems too shallow to reflect contemporary times. Isn’t there anyone else in that lunchroom who needs a friend? Glickman is clearly adept at narrative in this second title in her Lunch bunch series; now it’s time for a little more depth. For ages 7 – 9.

Susan Hughes’ Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World (Owl paperback, $13.95) is an exploration of creative ways that schooling is offered in unusual circumstances. From unsinkable schools to online schools and street schools, each learning landscape in this book invites comparison. Many first-person descriptions by students are included, increasing the resonance of this project. Rich with photographs and designed to be reader-friendly with short sections of text and colourful sidebars, this title is highly recommended for ages 9 – 13.

Kenneth Oppel’s The Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein (HarperCollins hardcover, $19.99) follows a steady stream of award-winning Oppel titles. Its purpose—the unfolding of a story about the childhood experiences of Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein—is challenging as a gothic prelude to the classic novel and one that many readers will find intriguing.

Victor Frankenstein, his twin brother Konrad, and their beautiful cousin Elizabeth take their lessons at home from Father, filling their spare time with fencing and horseback riding. The discovery of a secret room filled with forbidden knowledge becomes a catalyst for Victor’s descent into an independent study of dangerous alchemy in order to discover a cure for Konrad, who has become deathly ill.

Parallels with the original classic text include a metaphor of science as a monster, and a theory about the importance of schooling and the negative result of self-education through books. This title’s categorization as a young adult novel matches the complexity of the story’s organization and content (Victor donates two fingers to his precious elixir) and the inclusion of a love triangle between Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth. Victor’s dispassionate tone, cleverly matching the original, is balanced with a healthy dose of humour, which makes the narrative more palatable to contemporary readers.

“I imbibed your bone marrow?” Konrad asked.

“It was very nearly imbibed by Polidori,” said Henry.

Konrad sat up straighter. I looked from Henry to Elizabeth, then to mother. I had not wanted the alchemist’s name to be mentioned so soon.

“Julius Polidori is involved in this?” Mother asked.

“He helped us translate the recipe,” I replied.

“He hacked off your fingers?” she shouted.

“That was part of the recipe. I offered them willingly. But he turned scoundrel and meant to take the elixir for himself.”

“We had quite a tussle to get it back,” said Henry. “He set his lynx on us.”

Highly recommended for ages 12 and up. The movie rights have already been sold.

Drummer Girl by Alberta author Karen Bass (Coteau paperback, $14.95) is a young adult title set in contemporary times. A proposition from another girl sets Sid’s teeth on edge—and along with it come comments from classmates designed to elicit a confession about her sexuality. Wes Remichuk, star basketball player, says to her in class: “...I can see why you dumped her. Next time go for someone at least a little cool.” His gaze flicked down and back up. “Not that you’re much better. Raving dyke.”

Sid poked him in the chest. “I am not.”

“Right. Like you weren’t just ogling Maria along with the rest of us.”

All Devin’s lessons on how to take down an enemy rushed into Sid’s mind. She clenched her fist but resisted the urge to plow Wes. “Commenting on the obvious isn’t ogling.”

Wes sneered. “Your friends might be too afraid to say anything—ever notice all your friends are guys? –but you’re so butch it hurts. Admit it. Confession’s supposed to be good for the soul.”

The desire to be invited into a cool band inspires Sid to dress the part—in addition to a hope that new clothes will emphasize her straight sexual orientation. Events catapult towards a sexual assault, and a video that goes viral, offering a conclusion somewhat didactic in the manner that various threads are pulled together, yet satisfying nonetheless.

Strong prose that invites contemplation; recommended for ages 13 and up.

Back to Index

September Review, 2011 - Riveting Young Adult Reads
  • Black Bottle Man: Craig Russell
  • All Good Children: Catherine Austen
  • Born Ugly: Beth Goobie

Manitoba author Craig Russell’s teen fiction Black Bottle Man: A Fable (Great Plains paperback, $14.95) is a riveting read. Highly charged storytelling supports the tale of a man caught since the age of ten in a bargain his family made with the devil.

This Sally Anne dormitory stinks, but Rembrandt is used to the reek of unwashed bodies. In homeless shelters across Canada and the U.S. he has inhaled the musk of men who stumble through life, the sour odour of women too shattered to care. And before there were such things as homeless shelters, he’d shared countless shanties with hobos and migrant workers from Texas to Alaska.

For eighty long years, Rembrandt has been on the move. But he is not like the others in this cot-filled hall. He’s not a drunk, nor an addict, nor currently, a mad-man. Nevertheless, he moves on every twelve days. Sometimes sooner if a place offers too much of its own trouble. But he never stays longer than the twelve.

Like an Eleventh Commandment, “The Pact” has fixed that unrelenting time limit. It is part of a bargain that has ruled and ruined his family for four score years, a covenant forged from family pride and maternal desire. As unforgiving as an iron rod laid upon his shoulders, a burden at first shared with his pa and Uncle Thompson, but now carried onward by him alone.

Rembrandt’s quest is to find a champion, someone who can fight the devil and win, but now, at ninety years of age, he has only thirty days more until the devil’s final triumph.

The story of our hero intertwines with the poignant sketch of a young teacher who, in keeping her students late, put them at the mercy of a gunman. Gail has spent most of her days since then on the streets—unable to forgive herself at the knowledge that four children were shot, one fatally. How she transforms into someone Rembrandt has been looking for offers an unpredictable and glittering ending to a tale well told.

A unique aspect of this book is that it stretches the boundaries of typical character development for its intended audience, presenting entirely adult portrayals except for a few memorable scenes where Rembrandt, at sixteen, falls in love but cannot stay in one place long enough to marry his sweetheart. For this reason, in addition to appealing to young adult readers, the text may also find favour with adults looking for short chapters and a compelling storyline.

Quebec writer Catherine Austen’s teen dystopian fiction novel All Good Children (Orca hard cover, $19.99) chronicles an American community in the not-too-distant future whose children are medicated into well-mannered citizens. The compulsory “vaccinations” arouse the suspicions of seventeen-year-old graffiti artist Maxwell Connors who manages to escape being “treated”, along with his friend Dallas, thanks to the ingenuity of his mother—a temporary school nurse. Although Max recognizes the other kids for the zombies they have become, he is powerless to change his impending fate until the conceptualization of a dangerous escape to Canada.

This edgy saga offers distant parallels to underground railways in other periods of history, and homophobic dialogue alongside intolerance for intellectual disabilities paint a picture of a narrow community rife with prejudice. Some intriguing themes here, including a warning about the use of medication for behaviour control, and a tribute to the power of art. For mature readers.

Saskatoon author Beth Goobie’s newest title Born Ugly (Red Deer Press paperback, $12.95) is the story of an abused and alcoholic teenager who reaches out to life when almost everyone she knows lets her down.

Ugly, she was ugly, thought Shir. No question about it. Glumly she stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Born ugly in a way that was never going to change. No Cinderella slipper here, no Sleeping Beauty to wake with a kiss, even for a toonie. No, hers was the kind of face that fairy tales reserved for dwarfs and goblins, a face without a single redeeming feature. Even the eyes were ugly—small, squinty, and of a queer, pale blue that never seemed to hold any expression. It was almost as if they were made of glass.

Goobie’s marvellous ability to develop authentic characters never wavers; Shir and her compatriots are as true as if they were directly transposed from real life, and according to the author interview at the back of the book, there is some autobiography at work here. Another aspect of Goobie’s craft is her ability to employ the richness of a character’s perspective to invoke just enough detail for a reader to predict an upcoming turn even before the character does, a strategy often clumsy when actualized by less experienced writers but in this case tremendously well done. Finally, Goobie’s writing pushes past the trite or mundane, and whether or not her themes are appealing to individual readers, the stellar workmanship is beyond reproach.

The worst of her appearance was obviously her nose. It wasn’t just that it was so enormous that the rest of her had no choice but to skulk along in its shadow, there was also the size of her nostrils to consider. They were huge, cavernous. In grade five, it had been the favourite lunch hour pastime to stick various objects inside them. Sometimes Shir had been the one to stick in something; sometimes a group of boys had held her down and done it. Stones, shoelaces, dill pickles—the inspiration had been endless. One boy had even brought pet guppies to school and inserted them live.

They had died in her nose. Occasionally Shir still woke in the middle of the night, sweat pouring off her as she relived the sensation of those desperately wriggling guppies...They were still there, those guppy souls, swimming the inside of her head. Telling her things: Don’t believe anything you hear. There’s an enemy lurking behind every smile. Never let yourself get so small, they can do to you what they did to us.

Images of a brutality not often depicted in adolescent literature do appear in this title, yet teens who experience firsthand the agony in Shir’s life may find through her the power to endure. Hope resounds, even in the darkest moments, through a character whose innocence is at times as unsettling as her horrific life experiences. For mature teens.

Back to Index

August Review, 2011 - Trusted Mentor Helps Guide Children’s Stories
  • So You Want To Write a Children’s Book: Peter Carver

“Everyone’s got a book in them. A great idea. A funny childhood memory. A crazy dream they know would make a fantastic novel. We carry it around like a dirty little secret. Like Gollum’s ‘precious.’ It consumes us as we fantasize about it, envisioning the cover face out, front and center in the bookstore. We’ve practiced our sloppy author’s signature. We already know who we’ll get to do the illustrations, who we’ll dedicate it to and who we’ll thank in our award winning speech. Maybe we’ve even started the book. Or at least bought another new journal. And some more pens. The good ones.

“But something always stops us from actually writing. We feel its watchful all-seeing eye burning up every line. It’s the dreaded critic. Our worst one. Ourselves.”

So begins Caroline Pignat’s preface for Peter Carver’s insider’s handbook for children’s writers and illustrators who want to get published: So You Want To Write a Children’s Book (Red Deer Press, paperback, $12.95). Known for his literary acumen, and a trusted mentor and friend to writers worldwide, there could be no better choice than Carver to write such a book.

Since 1996, Carver has been the children’s book editor at Red Deer Press and has previously worked at the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and as a high school English teacher. In addition to instructing classes on writing for children at Toronto’s George Brown College, and working in Ghana to develop original books for local teens, he speaks across Canada about children’s books and, in 2006, won the Claude Aubry Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Children’s Literature.

The handbook itself is a fluent and comprehensive collection of essential requirements for those newly interested in the writing and illustrating aspects of published children’s literature. While focused on children’s books, with sections addressing particular genres as well as organizations and associations related to publishing for young people, any writer will find good advice here as well as appreciate the concise and inviting prose that marks Carver’s style. In addition to Carver’s own wisdom, the text includes sidebars from the likes of Philip Pullman, Brian Doyle, Ken Oppel, Barbara Reid, and Janet Lunn. Challenges on the business side of things are addressed directly and helpfully, and it is clear that Carver respects and celebrates the work that goes into literary products for young people. A quip from Ted Staunton lightens the tone of a serious chapter on why people write for children: “When asked what advice he could give someone who wanted to become a children’s writer, Ted Staunton replied, ‘Become a dentist first.’”

In addition to direct support for artistic processes, Carver also addresses popular fears about the effect of technology on reading. “There have been enough dire predictions about the death of the book over the past five or six decades that this current one should be taken with a grain of salt. No matter the format, there will always be room for creators of wonderful stories to engage young readers, and for the visual artists who can enhance these stories by making them jump off the page—or the screen.”

Highly recommended.

Back to Index

July Review, 2011 - A Look at Unconventional Fairy Tales
  • Princess to the Rescue: Claudia Souza
  • Kiss Me (I’m a Prince!): Heather McLeod
  • Why Girls Love Bags: Georgina Harris

Claudia Souza’s first picture book Princess to the Rescue (Second Story Press, hardcover, $15.95) does a lot of telling rather than showing. Instead of allowing the adventure story to unfold, letting readers anticipate and predict, the narrative is heavy, pushing forward a didactic tale about a princess who, contrary to traditional gender roles, manages to save a prince. Traditional gender roles? Female protagonists have been saving male characters, and vice versa, for years, with gender stereotypes mainly residing in classic fairytales. Christelle Ammirati’s vibrant illustrations make this package look better than it is, although sections of text do reflect a pleasant sense of humour, such as the description of the princess’s purse—“which, naturally, was packed with secret weapons.” A harmless but trite read. For ages 4 – 8.

Another unconventional fairytale is Kiss Me! (I’m a Prince!) by debut author Heather McLeod and illustrated by Brooke Kerrigan (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, hardcover, $18.95). With well-developed characters who grow and change, and punchy dialogue, this story unpacks stereotypical roles for royalty while remembering its real business—to delight and entertain. Ella is a girl with pockets just the right size for ferrying a frog. Instead of a purse she carries other things—a basketball, mostly—and in the end, her sporty lifestyle helps her royal froggy friend see the advantages in becoming a prince.

“Do you want me to kiss you?” asked Ella.

“I didn’t at first,” admitted the frog, “but then Mom and Dad said they’d cut back on my homework so I’ll have time to play every day. I can even join your baseball team! But, frogs can’t play baseball. Frogs can’t do a lot of things. So yes, Ella, I want you to kiss me. Please?”

Recommended for ages 4 to 8.

While books are one way of contesting tradition, they are also culprits in propagating stereotypes. Such a book is Georgina Harris’s Why Girls Love Bags: A Celebration of a Girl’s Best Friend (CICO Books, hardcover, $9.95). Vibrantly illustrated by Sam Wilson, this little number seems bent on convincing readers that “the quest to discover a bag of practical perfection that elegantly expresses our personality” is indeed “a lifelong quest.” Unlike the strong female protagonists described above, whose interests lie beyond cover-girl status, here “the right bag makes you feel different, better, and more beautiful”—the ultimate goal of a girl’s life, or so it seems. And “the right one makes your waist look slimmer, too.” Can a purse really do that? And why would we want it to? This title is not recommended for anyone.

Back to Index

June Review, 2011 - These History Stories for Youth Fly
  • That Boy Red: Rachna Gilmore
  • Wild Geese: Caroline Pignat

Cohesive, well-structured chapters and captivating central characters make Rachna Gilmore’s new novel That Boy Red (HarperCollins, paperback, $11.99) and Caroline Pignat’s title Wild Geese (Red Deer Press, paperback, $12.95) stand out in the growing number of historical fiction books for young readers.

In That Boy Red, Roderick “Red” MacRae is an impulsive eleven-year-old Canadian hero who connects with readers through his humorous Depression era misadventures. Runaway horses, missing hair, cow dung, lost sisters, outhouses, and even aeroplanes, offer page-turning power. But when his father is injured, Red shows a poignant fortitude, blazing in to manage the woodworking that is part of his family’s livelihood.

Inspired by anecdotes told by Gilmore’s father-in-law about growing up in rural P.E.I., the setting of That Boy Red resonates with the prose of another islander—Montgomery’s beloved Anne books.

Tightly crafted chapters that read like stand-alone short stories make this book an excellent choice for reluctant as well as avid readers ages 8 to 12. Here’s hoping Gilmore has sequels on the way; further information on That Boy Red can be found on the author’s blog.

Another style of historical fiction appears in Pignat’s Wild Geese, a stand-alone sequel to the Governor General’s Award winning novel Greener Grass. In contrast to Gilmore’s virtually self-contained episodes, Pignat’s chapters carefully build their way towards the book’s finish, each one ending with a strong declarative statement from the heart of the young narrator or else a cliffhanging event, serving to wind the reader a little closer with each installment.

The title reflects the struggles of expatriate Irish through the story of teenager Kit Byrne as she journeys away from the Irish famine of the mid 19th century. Her travels take her across the Atlantic, through the Grosse Isle quarantine station, and on to Upper Canada, where she struggles to put her family back together. While her original dreams don’t come true, she gains hope, faith in God, and faith in herself, and these accumulated gifts inspire a new dream, concluding the gentle love story that frames this highly recommended title for ages 12 to 15.

Back to Index

May Review, 2011 - Girl’s Brooch in Riveting Journey
  • Winter Shadows: Margaret Buffie
  • Picturing Alyssa: Alison Lohans

Two characters with heavy burdens leave their contemporary lives to travel into different places and times where lessons learned offer inspiration and courage. Cass, in Winnipeg author Margaret Buffie’s Winter Shadows (Tundra, hardcover, $21.99) and Alyssa in Regina author Alison Lohans’ Picturing Alyssa (Dundurn Press, paperback, $12.99) would have a lot to say to each other, if only they could meet outside their respective books.

In Winter Shadows, a teenage girl uses an antique brooch to time slip five generations, connecting with a previous resident of her old house on the Red River. Through eavesdropping and sampling bits from a diary, Cass comes to know Beatrice as a young woman who shares many of the same struggles. Just as Cass longs to escape a life with her newly blended family, Beatrice experiences tensions with her father’s new wife who seems to be consciously driving a wedge between Beatrice and her father. Should Beatrice accept the proposal of a man she doesn’t love, just to embark on a journey where she might eventually find happiness? Cass offers sound advice, and, through helping Beatrice, Cass finally finds a way to deal with the death of her beloved mother and move forward.

The 1865 setting is as sharp and authentic as the contemporary context. Buffie adeptly reproduces tensions related to the mix of Scottish, aboriginal, and English cultures in the early settlement near Selkirk, Manitoba, allowing themes of ethnicity to weave into the background of Beatrice’s gripping story. Cass’s modern story is equally page-turning, and the combination of the two results in a rich and satisfying read.

Picturing Alyssa is a novel covering similar territory. A young girl victimized by bullying, her family bereft at the loss of a baby, finds a way to travel into the Quaker home of her great grandmother where the girls become fast friends. Using a photograph as a portal into the world of 1931, Alyssa at first yearns to stay with Deborah, but our young time traveller soon finds out that life anywhere has its ups and downs. In the end, Alyssa returns home to deal directly with her challenges.

Alyssa took a closer look at the photograph. This one showed a family outside a house—a dad, a mom, a big brother and sister. Four little kids sat on a bench. One of the boys looked mischievous. was weird, but the oldest girl seemed to be looking right at her...

...Alyssa reached for the magnifying glass. Deborah Clayton came sharply into focus. The shape of her face was completely familiar. Alyssa’s heart beat faster. The girl seemed to be smiling...

...Was the magnifying glass playing tricks on her eyes?

A peculiar tingling started in the back of Alyssa’s head, and quickly spread. Everything blurred. She tried to stand, but couldn’t. “Mom!” she tried to yell. Darkness swooshed around her. With a hard bump, she fell backwards.

In the hands of experienced writers Buffie and Lohans, the shifts between past and present are easily navigated by readers. The brooch in Winter Shadows and the photograph in Picturing Alyssa both operate smoothly to convey characters through time and space. At first stricken with confusion, and then with growing understanding and control, these two protagonists are strikingly convincing within the suspension of disbelief conjured by good fantasy. Both books are highly recommended for ages 11 and up.

Back to Index

April Review, 2011 - Ten-Year-Old Explores Fantasy Land
  • Between Two Ends: David Ward
  • Folly: Marthe Jocelyn

Reminiscent of other tales where characters journey in and out of books is David Ward’s new junior fantasy Between Two Ends (Amulet, hardcover, $19.95). A young boy enters a translation of the Arabian Nights on behalf of his father who, two decades earlier, entered the book with a young friend and agonizingly left her there. Now it is up to ten-year-old Yeats to rectify an accident that has haunted his dad all these years. Will Yeats find Shara, who now thinks herself Shaharazad? And if he finds her, can he convince her to come back home?

Underpinning the lively action is a folktale about a girl both courageous and beautiful, the lovely Shaharazad. At the heart of her story is a king, once betrayed by a woman, who marries a new girl each night but kills her before morning. Shaharazad manages to save herself by telling the king a series of stories, for a thousand and one nights, ridding him of nightmares and building his trust until he at last accepts her as a permanent wife. Yeats must save Shara before she enters into this arrangement, adding a time factor to their ordeal that pushes the plot even more quickly forward. Recommended for ages 8 – 12, with companion reads available in Funke’s Inkheart as well as Child’s picturebook for younger readers: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?

The Arabian Nights is a collection of ancient tales from India, Persia, and North Africa, and the stories became available in English in the early 1700s. Retellings of One Thousand and One Nights appear in a number of contemporary children’s stories for younger children. Sinbad: From the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights and Sinbad in the Land of the Giants are two stellar retellings illustrated by Ludmila Zeman. There’s a Mouse in My House by Sheree Fitch is another picturebook playing on the Shaharazad folktale, with a storytelling mouse occupying the lead role.

A historical fiction novel for older readers that also deals with intertwining destinies is Marthe Jocelyn’s Folly (Tundra, hardcover, $22.99). Authentic dialogue and settings that capture the essence of Victorian England, yet invoke present sensibilities, raise this title to exceptional heights, with a storyline both poignant and gripping. One of the voices in this title belongs to Mary, a young woman whose unwitting choices cause a pregnancy that threatens her survival in a time and place where unwed mothers find little support. A second voice is that of her son, young James, whose upbringing in the care of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital illuminates an organization still in operation to support London’s inner-city children.

Jocelyn’s interest in the Coram Foundation began when she traced her family’s roots beyond the “orphan” label attached to her grandfather, discovering a great-grandmother who had received support from the Foundling Hospital in the late 1800s. While this novel is not her great-grandmother’s story, Mary’s character was certainly inspired by Jocelyn’s roots.

“I began exceedingly ignorant, apart from what a girl can learn through family mayhem, a dead mother, a grim stepmother, and a sorrowful parting from home. But none of that is useful when it comes to being a servant, is it? And nothing to ready me, either, for the other surprises a girl might stumble over. Let no one doubt that I’ve learned my lesson and plenty more besides...I’ll confess there were a part of me that shone bright in the sunshine cast by Caden Tucker as it never did elsewhere. A part of me that were me, the true Mary Finn, when I were walking out with him.” Mary’s candid first-person narration leads us through the first chapter in the sure way Jocelyn always deals with beginnings, creating a hook that catches and holds. Highly recommended for ages 13 and up.

Back to Index

March Review, 2011 - Stepping Into Spring Different for This Boy
  • Harvey: Hervé Bouchard
  • Prisoner of Dieppe: Hugh Brewster
  • Noni Says No: Heather Hartt-Sussman

Harvey by Hervé Bouchard and illustrated by Janice Nadeau (Groundwood Books, hardcover, $19.95) is the first Governor General’s Literary Award winner for both text and illustration. Translated from the original French by Helen Mixter, this 2010 graphic novel illuminates poignant themes of death and grief through the first-person narrative of a young boy, Harvey, whose father dies of a heart attack and who becomes invisible in the adult world of confusion and customs.

For me, the first spring is the time when my boots get heavy and slow me down.

I don’t know how it happens, but when spring comes, they suddenly get too big, the laces grow and hang down and my feet drag with every step.

And I’m hot and it even seems that my sleeves get longer. But this time of first spring is also the time for the races in the gutters. And it’s also the time when when Cantin and I lost our father Bouillon. And it’s the time when I became invisible. So there are lots of things to tell.

Highly recommended for ages 10 to 13.

Prisoner of Dieppe by Hugh Brewster is a new book in the I Am Canada historical fiction series (Scholastic, hard cover, $14.99), a collection of titles generally aimed at young male readers. Centred around what has become known as “the bloodiest nine hours in Canadian military history,” the narrative unfolds through the eyes of 18-year-old Alistair Morrison as he enlists in the army at the urge of a fearless friend. Gritty without being gratuitous, the first-person narrative is a compelling read for ages 12 and up.

A book for younger readers is Heather Hartt-Sussman’s Noni Says No (Tundra, hardcover, $19.99), a picturebook that relates the original story of a little girl who just wants to please, but to her own detriment. When Noni finally finds her voice, the consequences are surprising, reminding readers to be true to themselves. Playfully illustrated by Geneviève Côté, a previous winner of the Governor General’s Award for children’s illustration, this title is highly recommended for ages 4 to 7.

Back to Index

February Review, 2011 - Giraffe and Bird Tickle Your Funny Bone
  • Giraffe and Bird: Rebecca Bender
  • Just Ella: Margaret Peterson Haddix
  • Gravity: Leanne Lieberman

The characters in Rebecca Bender’s debut picture book Giraffe and Bird (Dancing Cat Books, hardcover, $18.95) probably would never give each other a valentine, but that does not mean they are enemies. They are just the kind of friends that pester and perturb each other...shouting themselves into a rift that at first looks permanent. When a storm makes them realize the comfort they found in each other: “...The next morning, the bird feels glum. He has nowhere to sit, and no one to pick and peck.” The giraffe feels lonely too...all the giraffe can think about is the bird. What can he do to renew their relationship?

The deliciously comic characterizations are presented for ages 4 - 8 through bright acrylics, while particular words are included in oversized bold font to create further humour. Dancing Cat Books, a new imprint of Cormorant Books, is a Canadian publisher to watch.

A clever retelling of the Cinderella folktale in the format of an intermediate-age novel, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Simon & Schuster, paperback, $7.99) is a highly plot-driven read. Beginning with a pre-wedding scene where the new princess is stuck in her chilly palace room, unable to build her own fire because of stupid rules of etiquette (she has been admonished previously about stooping to menial tasks), the book races forward. An occasional flashback nods to the well-known fairy tale while also contradicting some of the original.

About halfway through the book, Ella (or Princess Cynthiana Eleanora, as she has been ostentatiously renamed) realizes that her feelings for Prince Charming are not love, and that she is now trapped in a situation from which extrication is going to be incredibly complicated. That is the real story here, and one worth telling, although murmured allusions to King Henry VIII may limit this as a story less universal than it really is. In addition, the ending merits critical discussion, as readers will find themselves resting back on stereotypes related to physical beauty. A title whose colloquial style may capture reluctant readers, it is highly recommended for ages 12 to 14.

Gravity by Leanne Lieberman (Orca, paperback, $12.95) is a more realistic coming-of-age novel also addressing the oppression of women, this time with a local focus on the 1980s. Fifteen-year-old Ellie Gold, daughter of Orthadox Jews, must somehow reconcile her faith and her lesbian sexual orientation amidst other questions of career choice, the place of women in society, and her own personal identity.

“Boys,” she says to herself. “Ellie, you’re supposed to like boys. Right. Like...I don’t know any boys. They go to a different school, sit in a different part of the synagogue, look away when we walk by. There’s that nice guy at the supermarket Neshama thinks is cute. He has nice eyes, and his hair is the same strawberry blond as Lindsay’s, except hers is rippled and soft...Omigod...I’m thinking about a girl, and she’s not even Jewish.”

This text was Lieberman’s master’s thesis at the University of Windsor and a winner of Orca Book Publisher’s novel contest as well as highly recommended by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. A complex and sensitive read for mature teens.

Back to Index

January Review, 2011 - Science Fiction, Fantasy, Capture Interest of Teens
  • Draco’s Child: Sharon Plumb
  • Dark Life: Kat Falls
  • Collapse of the Veil: Alison Lohans
  • The Clockwork Three: Matthew J. Kirby

Books for young people are stretching real-world boundaries with variations on science fiction and fantasy, and four new titles from 2010 deserve a look in this regard. Regina author Sharon Plumb offers a compelling read in Draco’s Child (Thistledown, paperback, $14.95), an adventure story set on a planet that has become home to a group of humans fleeing a polluted, dying Earth. The characterization of Varia is highly authentic in its presentation of a young teen who strives for independence despite the dangers associated with their terrestrial community. Typical teen angst is magnified as the only other girl Varia’s age was on a second ‘lander’ whose arrival on the planet went off track and is yet to be discovered. The most complex relationship in the book occurs between Varia and a dragon that she secretly hatches from a crystal egg, although an emerging confidant appears in Sidran, a boy whose depiction implies romantic promise.

He had to believe her. If he didn’t, no one would. ‘It is a dragon. It has wings and scales and a pointed tail. It even breathes fire. That smell you smelled? Dragon smoke and rotten plants from its farm of giant bees. The shiny spot on my ear is where it bit me.’

‘Bit you! A dragon! But how did you...’ Sidran’s eyes were round in the starlight.

Varia’s heart pounded. He wasn’t laughing. She took a deep breath.

Once Varia started talking, the words poured out like water through a breached dam. She hadn’t realized how much she needed to talk, to hear someone gasp and worry and rejoice along with her. She hadn’t realized how heavy her secret was until Sidran held half of it.

Equally authentic as a character in its own right is Galatea, the dragon that Varia enthusiastically raises until suddenly the lines between friend and foe are blurred. Their developing physical relationship, when Galatea becomes Galateor and insists they... “garoop” produce more dragons, is understated yet important to the plot, elevating the reading age. Recommended for teens.

Another science fiction title based on alternative communities that form after Earth’s environmental breakdown is Dark Life by Kat Falls (Scholastic, hardcover, $19.99). Not quite as compelling as Slade’s The Dark Deeps, it nevertheless offers imaginative fare for young readers who enjoy adventure and the science of the undersea world. The most intriguing theme in this title connects to a question about whether ‘differences’ are gifts, most specifically related to the mutations that occur in children growing up on the ocean floor. Told through Ty’s first person perspective, his observations detailed and clear, this plot driven novel will appeal to boys and girls in the 9 – 12 age range.

Collapse of the Veil by prolific Regina author Alison Lohans (Bundoran Press, paperback, $11.95) is speculative fiction that follows the story of teen mom Katie Carrington as she discovers a passage to a future world and the revelation that the community of Aaurenan worships her son as their prophesied saviour. With the cameo setting of Wascana Lake—

‘Oasc’na’ in the parallel Aaurenan—this local fantasy is unique in its development of a protagonist with authentic teen issues. Some aspects of the book relating to sexuality—such as the necessity for Katie’s friend Lorne to ‘seed’ new life in the desperate world of the future —elevate the reading age. For mature teens.

Matthew J. Kirby’s stunning debut novel The Clockwork Three (Scholastic, hardcover, $20.99) intertwines three stories in a Victorian steampunk fantasy that manages to be both convincing and evocative. Guiseppe, stolen from Italy as a young child, is a street musician who seeks to outsmart his ruthless master through the help of an enchanted green violin. Frederick, having escaped a cruel orphanage to work as an apprentice clockmaker, attempts to ensure his livelihood through the creation of a brilliant automaton. Hannah is a maid in a grand hotel who must find a way to purchase medicine for her critically ill father. Brought together by mysterious and compelling circumstances, each of these three children holds a key to the others’ puzzles. Tightly crafted, with a steady literary hand reminiscent of Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this title is highly recommended for ages 9 – 12.

Back to Index

Brenna Book Reviews, 2010

December Review, 2010 - Read Aloud for Holiday Wonders
  • Song of the Sword: Edward Willett
  • The Hunger Games: Suzanne Collins
  • Counting on Hope: Sylvia Olson
  • Why?: Catherine Ripley
  • One Hockey Night: David Ward

Favourite books for the holidays can be divided into two categories: older titles that withstand the test of time, and contemporary reads that more closely reflect today’s reading audience. Literacy research advocates reading aloud to children as the single most important thing a parent can do to support reading development, and the good news is: there’s lots of titles available that interest adults as well as children, a far cry from the past when children’s literature was generally didactic and difficult for adults to enjoy.

The following list is a combination of new titles and ones more tried and true, offering support for library visits as well as great gift ideas.

Favourite Picturebooks (ages 4 – 7)

Leo Lionni’s Frederick (Knopf; first published in 1968) is a delightful picturebook about a gifted poet mouse, with collage illustrations that inspire children’s own papery creations.

David Ward’s One Hockey Night (Scholastic, 2010), with stunning illustrations by Brian Deines, offers a heartwarming Christmas tale in a Canadian setting.

Junior Titles (ages 7 – 9)

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest (HarperCollins, first published in 1968) is the first in a timeless series about a curious little girl whose scrapes are humorous and universal.

Catherine Ripley’s Why? (Scholastic, 2010) is an engaging collection of children’s questions coupled with informative answers. Illustrated by Scot Ritchie, this non-fiction title is an updated version of the 2001 original, covering popular topics such as why the sky is blue, why we sleep, and why garbage smells.

Matt Smith and David Tilton’s (2008) adaption of Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal winning book The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick Press) is a graphic adventure novel about several unlikely heroes; recommended for avid as well as reluctant readers.

Ashley Spires’ Binky the Space Cat (Kids Can Press, 2009) is a graphic novel from a Saskatoon author/illustrator that weaves feline hilarity into simple words and pictures.

Intermediate Titles (ages 9 – 12)

Kate di Camillo’s The Tiger Rising (Candlewick Press, 2001) has short, luminous chapters that tell the story of two children, misfits in their community, who discover a caged tiger in the woods and through their connections with the animal and each other, grow beyond the constraints of their lives.

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (HarperCollins, first published in 1967) follows the story of three children re-enacting an old tragedy during a summer spent in a Welsh valley haunted by mythical spirits.

Sylvia Olsen’s Counting on Hope (Sono Nis Press, 2009) is historical fiction set in 1982, presenting the story of a friendship between a young English immigrant named Hope, and Letia, a young girl of the Lamalcha people. Hope’s perspective is told through prose, while Letia’s voice appears in free verse, a remarkable narrative combination that is original and striking.

Young Adult Novels (ages 12 and up)

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008) is the first in a series of dystopian science fiction titles that have quickly earned a wide audience, blending elements of popular culture and war. While the text does include minor errors in editing, the story is gripping and very readable.

Gina McMurchy-Barber’s Free as a Bird (Dundurn Press, 2010), shortlisted for the 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award, relates a coming-of-age story from the perspective of a young woman with Down Syndrome.

Edward Willett’s Song of the Sword (Lobster Press, 2010), a highly original take on the King Arthur Legend, follows the adventures of two teen heroes on a Regina landscape. Book 1 of a series by a prolific Saskatchewan author.

Back to Index

November Review, 2010 - Children’s Text Short List Explores Diversity
  • Me Myself and Ike: K.L. Denman
  • Tyranny: Lesley Fairfield
  • Free as a Bird: Gina McMurchy-Barber
  • Fishtailing: Wendy Phillips
  • Scars: Cheryl Rainfield
  • Watching Jimmy: Nancy Hartry
  • Words that Start with B: Vikki VanSickle
  • Between Sisters: Adwoa Badoe

A number of Canadian awards spotlight children’s books, illuminating exceptional titles for the benefit of their readership. Each year, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Governor General of Canada collaborate to honour fine Canadian literature. This year’s shortlist for children’s text includes five young adult titles that, as a group, represent many types of diversity. K.L. Denman’s Me Myself and Ike (Orca Books) is a gripping, first-person narrative by a fictional young man with schitzophrenia. Lesley Fairfield’s Tyranny (Tundra Books) is a graphic novel that authentically presents the story of an adolescent girl with an eating disorder. Gina McMurchy-Barber’s Free as a Bird (Dundurn Press) offers the unique perspective of an adult with Down Syndrome. Wendy Phillips’ Fishtailing (Coteau Books) is a verse novel that deals with bullying through the story of four teens caught in a web of violence. Cheryl Rainfield’s Scars (WestSide Books) grittily presents the life of a teen survivor of sexual abuse who cuts herself to relieve the internal agony. The award winner will be announced in mid November.

A local event that gets young people involved in reading is the Saskatchewan Willow Awards where 30 books, divided into three age categories, have been shortlisted by a team of adult readers. Over the school year, teachers present the books to voting students who will select the readers’ choice winner in each category. It’s important to note that the books do not have to be presented by teachers - families can access them at public libraries and book stores across the province. A boost for Canadian authors and a support for children’s literacy development close to home.

The 2010 Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year is Nancy Hartry’s Watching Jimmy (Tundra Books, hardcover, $18.99), a heart rending junior novel about an eleven-year-old who witnesses an assault on her young friend that leaves him brain damaged. Historical fiction set in 1958, the story underpins the need for social support programs to assist people in trouble. For ages 10 and up.

Awards lists are good places to search for quality literature, but these lists are not all encompassing. Two Canadian authors with first novels not yet in the spotlight should find an immediate readership for their marvellous writing styles and authentic, contemporary themes and settings. Vikki VanSickle’s Words that Start With B (Scholastic, paperback, $8.99) is a definite page turner with a young teen protagonist whose snappy repartee leads readers into serious issues related to a parent’s breast cancer as well as the bullying of a friend whose sexuality is targeted by neighbourhood kids. Highly recommended for ages 11 – 13.

Adwoa Badoe’s Between Sisters (Groundwood Books, $12.95) is set in Ghana, following the life of sixteen-year-old Gloria who fails out of school and becomes a nanny for Christine, a well-to-do relative. Nudged into a corrupt world where adults prey on young girls for sexual favours, Gloria slips but regains her balance in a journey that is both a captivating glimpse of life in Ghana and a universal picture of an adolescent in difficult circumstances trying to make her way. Young girls tempted by the powerful messages offered by gang culture would do well to consider Gloria’s story as a safe way of unpacking the results of personal choices. Highly recommended for ages 13 and up.

Back to Index

October Review, 2010 - Female Fantasy Writers Shine
  • Shapeshifter: Holly Bennett
  • Plain Kate: Erin Bow

Fantasy literature for young people has traditionally had more male than female authors making the awards’ lists: Lloyd Alexander, Eoin Colfer, Roald Dahl, Alan Garner, C.S. Lewis, Garth Nix, Christopher Paolini, Philip Pullman, Jonathon Stroud, J.R.R. Tolkien, and E. B. White, among others, and, in Canada, the likes of Kenneth Oppel, Charles de Lint, Dave Duncan, and Art Slade. Not to be completely eclipsed, contemporary female authors are carving new territory since the classic work of Natalie Babbitt, Mollie Hunter and Madeleine L’Engle followed by Elizabeth Knox and J.K. Rowling as well as Canadians Patricia Bow, Janet Lunn, O. R. Melling, Kit Pearson, and Cora Taylor.

Two relatively new female Canadian fantasy writers for young people are proving themselves rising stars in an industry where male characters have also dominated. Peterborough writer Holly Bennett, an editor and writer with Today’s Parent magazine, has established herself with a fifth of five intermediate novels published in the last five years. Erin Bow, a Kitchener poet and daughter-in-law to Patricia Bow, has recently produced her first novel—a work that will certainly garner her many accolades. Both titles are suitable for ages 12 and up, and both feature strong female protagonists.

Bennett’s new fantasy title for young teens, Shapeshifter (Orca Books, paperback, $12.95), is a retelling of the ancient Irish legend of Finn mac Cumhail involving his first wife— Sive, a woman of the Sidhe. Bennett does a lovely job of transforming the untold details of the legend into a richly crafted epic novel that will certainly make awards’ lists.

“The year Sive became a woman, two things happened that would shape the course of her life. She found her animal form. And the dark druid, Far Doirche, fixed his eye upon her.” So the story begins. We follow the narrative eagerly, hoping for a happy ending, especially where star crossed lovers Sive and Finn are concerned, but such is not to be. By the time the Dark Man is ruined, the ageless Sive has spent years in the otherworld of Tir na nOg while Finn has been following his mortal journey. Discovered by their grown son Oisin, Sive’s reinstated memories are not enough to bridge the gap between her life and Finn’s, and thus the ending of the tale is bittersweet.

Bennett is particularly deft at handling the descriptions of place that mark a vivid path for readers throughout the many settings involved. Sive’s transformations into deer form are believable in the context of the story, and the cover of the book is strikingly evocative. Highly recommended.

Bow’s first novel, Plain Kate (Arthur A. Levine, hardcover, $19.99), is an evocative yarn representative of a master storyteller. It begins: “A long time ago, in a market town by a looping river, there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate.” As is apparent in many fantasy titles, heroes are made, not born, and Kate herself is an example of a young person who rises above adversity to consider the value of humanity above her own person.

A wood-carver’s daughter, Plain Kate has learned her art from her father, a craft that becomes her livelihood when Piotr dies from one of the plagues that scourges the countryside. Because of her gifts and strange ways, in conjunction with the villagers’ fears and superstition, Plain Kate is accused of witchcraft and, to save herself, deals with Linay, a stranger who wishes her shadow in exchange for what he presents as salvation. A growing realization that she has supported Linay in a terrible plan of revenge pushes Plain Kate to the edge of disaster...and back.

A title of high seriousness, it also has its comic moments, many engineered by the cameo comments of Taggle, a talking cat.

“Are we finished fleeing?” the cat asked, the last word swallowed by a huge yawn. He stretched forward, lengthening his back and spreading his toes, then sprang onto the wall beside her. His nose worked. “Horses,” he said. “Dogs. Hrrmmmmm. Humans. Chickens. And—ah, another cat! I must go and establish my dominance.” He leapt off the wall.

Plain Kate lunged after him. “Taggle! Wait!” She snatched him out of the air by the scruff of his neck.

“Yerrrowww!” he shouted, hanging from her hand. “The insult! The indignity!”

If there was an Oscar to be won in the realm of children’s books, this year it would decidedly go to Taggle in the context of this delightfully satisfying read. Highly recommended.

Back to Index

September Review, 2010 - Canadian Publishers Focus on Issues of Social Justice.
  • When Chickens Fly: Kari-Lynn Winters
  • In From the Cold: Deborah Ellis

The beginning of a new school year is a good time to reflect on personal goals and ways to attain them. Kari-Lynn Winters’ new picture book When Chickens Fly, illustrated by Izabela Bzymek (Gumboot Books, 2009, $13.99), is intended for ages 4 – 9 but may also find a place with older students as a discussion starter about dreams and obstacles as well as acceptance of diversity.

Not content with producing Grade A eggs for the Snow Sports Competition, Esper Getz—Chicken Extrordinaire—practices her skiing in anticipation of the event. When her application is rejected, the bad news spreads to chicken coops around the world. In response, Esper’s feathered friends go on strike, the resulting lack of eggs putting farmers, drivers and chefs out of work while athletes miss their usual protein fix. When Esper finally has a chance to prove herself, this ‘free range aerialist’ doesn’t disappoint. Comical illustrations collaborate with a clever text that uses puns and repetition to relate a worthy story reminiscent of the exclusion of women from the ski jumping competition in Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Highly recommended.

Winters’ publisher, Gumboot Books, is a Vancouver based company founded in 2006 whose platform includes the fostering of a sense of social responsibility and respect for our planet and all who share it. Consult for information on their other titles.

Another noteworthy publisher, specializing in adult literacy resources, is Grass Roots Press. Their new line of Good Reads ( by established Canadian authors contain clear language in short novel formats designed to support adult literacy learners.

One of the six available Good Reads’ titles is In From the Cold (Grass Roots Press, paperback, $6.95) by Governor General’s Award winning children’s author Deborah Ellis. Rose and her daughter Hazel are urban street people, and Ellis’s text is straightforward in portraying routines of Dumpster scavenging in dark alleys and hair washing at Donut Heaven. Rose struggles to keep her Hazel safe at night, traveling on uncertain streets.

“Always, on these journeys, Rose wished she were two people. She had to walk in front of Hazel, to protect her from anything that was ahead, but she also wanted to walk behind. What if something—someone—snatched at her daughter as they walked by?” At rest, afraid that her daughter might be stolen without Rose waking, Rose loops a piece of string around their ankles, joining them together.

Mother and daughter are on the run because Rose has killed Hazel’s abusive father in self defence. Afraid she’ll be sent to prison, Rose tries to lie low and think of a plan. Hazel, tired of missing school and sleeping rough, concocts a story explaining how she herself killed her dad. “I was putting my plate in the sink. You and Daddy came in. He was yelling and hitting you. I picked up the knife to get him to stop, and I accidentally killed him. Then I got scared and ran out of the house. You came after me to protect me.” But should Rose let Hazel take the blame? Or would it be better to flee herself, and leave Hazel to be looked after by foster care? Or instead of there a better way?

Real issues in a well written text respectful of adults who look to further their reading skills. Highly recommended.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of seven books for young people. Her newest title Waiting for No One, a sequel to Wild Orchid, is available this fall from Red Deer Press.

Back to Index

August Review, 2010 - Starred Young Adult Fare.
  • The Worst Thing She Ever Did: Alice Kuipers
  • The Dark Deeps: Arthur Slade

Two new titles for ages twelve and up earn star ratings for Saskatoon authors Alice Kuipers and Art Slade, and both deal with complex and evocative characters, albeit very differently. Kuipers’ The Worst Thing She Ever Did (HarperCollins, paperback, $15.99) is a contemporary realistic fiction novel told through the dated journal entries of sixteen-year-old Sophie Collins, suffering post traumatic stress after surviving a terrorist bombing of the London Underground in which her older sister was killed. As Sophie allows herself to remember the ordeal and put it to rest, she discovers and explores a range of poetic forms, an aspect of the novel that increases its richness for young readers who may share related passions. We cheer as Sophie comes to terms with the panic attacks that are preventing her from living life the way she wishes, and find ourselves completely invested in following her day-to-day, including a navigation of alcohol, drugs, and sexuality.

The story unfolds slowly, piece by piece, with memories about Emily building until the close when Sophie can finally let herself dwell on her sister’s last moments. The emotional signature of the narrator rings true in every detail, and other characters—most notably Sophie’s mother, a woman on a tenuous, healing journey of her own—are created with similar care. In addition to Sophie’s story, readers are introduced to a cast of teens that are intriguing in their own right, and whose perspectives are threaded deftly, and with gentle humour, into the whole. Rather than looking back with nostalgia at adolescence, this title is wholeheartedly there. Its title, reflective of a third person stance not present in the novel, does not do justice to the strong first person voice within.

Just as Sophie is a fan of Stephen King and E.E. Cummings, Modo, the protagonist of Slade’s book, is a fan of Coleridge. With a contrasting speed of narration, Slade’s ‘steampunk’ title The Dark Deeps (HarperCollins, hardcover, $18.99), second in The Hunchback Assignments series, moves at a breakneck pace from beginning to end, gathering characters and espionage while taking readers to the depths of the ocean and back.

Slade portrays Victorian England while simultaneously supporting prominent fantasy elements such as shape-shifting alongside real technological developments like the telegraph. Slade’s use of steampunk, a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction, is newly in favour with other Canadian children’s authors such as Kenneth Oppel, and reminiscent of the formal style of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. This choice offers a kind of cushion for young readers when it comes to language and sexuality, avoiding potential censorship issues because lines are neither approached nor crossed regarding mature content although romance is a clear element of the storyline.

Modo, the book’s main teen protagonist and a spy for the Permanent Association, is a shape-shifter, able to temporarily hide his physical differences in the guise of personas and masks. He is paired with Octavia, another secret agent, although for much of the book his true partner is Colette, a French spy who pushes him to show his true exterior, then finds she cannot tolerate his hunchback appearance.

Slade plays with social justice, constructing a group of “comrades”, the target of global investigations, who are secretly at work on developing a new society where hiding deformity “is the old way of thinking” and where, in Icaria, “all people are and disfigured. In Icaria citizenship means equality for all. The old, the weak, the crippled. There are no poor and no rich in our country.” A tempting philosophy for Modo, who at times crosses the line between investigator and new citizen, but whose dreams clash with the forces of evil seeking to destroy what cannot be controlled.

Rife with marine content that creates humour, especially when it comes to fishy food—bread made from ground coral, mermaid’s purse and ground whalebone, and Black Lumpfish caviar butter—readers will quickly take the bate, hooked until the last line is cast. Slade’s first title in The Hunchback Assignments series has been shortlisted for the $25 000 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award with a winner to be announced on November 9.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people. Her new young adult title Waiting for No One, a sequel to Wild Orchid, will be available from Red Deer Press this fall.

Back to Index

July Review, 2010 - Graphic novels for children.
  • Food Fight: Liam O’Donnell
  • The Heart of the Maiden: J. Torres, J. Bone
  • Little Miss Adventures: J. Torres, J. Bone

Graphic novels are a relatively new textual form gaining favour with many young readers. Defined as ‘sequential art narratives’, they differ from comics in the length of the story they tell, with indepth reader engagement being a main goal just as it is for traditional novels. While the term graphic novel has been in use since the mid 1960s, it has only recently been catapulted to North American popularity through series’ titles such as Jeff Smith’s Bone. Because many struggling or reluctant readers have found graphic novels enjoyable, the form has had some trouble rising above a narrow view of its intended readership. New titles have helped graphic novels reach prominence as an appropriate medium for all interest-levels and abilities of readers.

The combination of print and illustration in comic-like style offers a number of different possibilities regarding story representation. Some graphic novels represent classic stories such as Black Beauty and Hamlet. Similarly, successful contemporary children’s novels, such as Irene Watts’ intermediate-age holocaust title Goodbye Marianne, and Brian Jacques’ Redwall, are now appearing in an alternative graphic format. A title for young adults that has begun to create interest with high school students is Nicki Greenberg’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Other graphic novels work with Canadian history from original perspectives, reviewing and re-storying non-fiction characters. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography told by Chester Brown for grades six and up, is one example of these. Saskatoon’s Gabriel Dumont Institute has published the first graphic novel anthology in Saskatchewan: Stories of Our People, an innovative representation of Métis stories.

In addition to the variety of retellings available, many graphic novels are composed entirely as new fiction. The following titles are accessible and relevant as well as engaging for young readers ages eight to eleven. Composed by Canadian authors and illustrators, readers will be able to bring local context to their comprehension of these stories. Liam O’Donnell adds yet another graphic novel to his list with Food Fight (Orca, paperback, $9.95), an adventure story for ages eight to thirteen, illustrated by Mike Deas. While Nadia is spending summer vacation as a counsellor at a university camp for little kids and her brother Devin is an unwilling camp participant, their mother’s agricultural research project is vandalized and her integrity is questioned. An interesting marketing scheme temporarily offers this title as a free download from: Just another benefit of living in the digital age.

J. Torres and J. Bone, co-creators of the Alison Dare series, have two other adventure titles recently reprinted from 2002 editions: The Heart of the Maiden and Little Miss Adventures (Tundra, paperback, $12.99). The spare language carries the story at a rapid pace, but leaves room for word plays which add a whimsical quality to the text. The illustrations at times move the storyline forward without words, a sensation that links graphic novels to films in terms of their effect. These two books are rather glib in their portrayal of stereotypical villains and heroes, but this is perhaps a result of the genre of the books rather than their graphic form.

Because some graphic novels deal with mature subject matter, they are not necessarily geared towards junior readers in spite of what a quick look at the pictures may imply. For this reason, just as much care should be taken when selecting graphic novels for children’s reading as when selecting novels or non-fiction. Tamaki’s Skim, for example, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Thompson’s Blankets, and Spiegelman’s Maus are definitely young adult/adult fare.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people

Back to Index

June Review, 2010 - Story shows how one word can change lives.
  • So Close: Natalia Columbo
  • No Moon: Irene Watts
  • Borderline: Allan Stratton

Building bridges between diverse cultures is a theme found in a number of new books for young people, spotlighting the way that stories can support social change. South American author-illustrator Natalia Columbo’s picture book So Close (Tundra, hardcover, $19.99) relates for the youngest readers the tale of Mr. Duck and Mr. Rabbit, hurrying past each other to and fro work without taking the time to consider their similarities. Readers are left to consider the possibilities through the final lines: “What a difference one little word could make. Hello.” The remaining illustrations carry the story further, as if perhaps one of these universal characters—we’ll never know who—has spoken to the other in friendship and broken a dual tradition of loneliness. For ages four to seven.

Irene Watts, commonly known for her children’s fiction dealing with the Holocaust, has taken another tack with a new intermediate novel. No Moon (Tundra, paperback, $14.99) delves into layers of social class, embedded in British society in 1912, through the story of fourteen-year-old Lou Gardener, nursemaid to the young daughters of a wealthy, titled family living in London. Watts does a remarkable job of capturing historical details—the customs required when meeting various people in a big household, for example—although at times the narration may be a little too stilted for younger readers.

“Now don’t get your hopes too high, Lou,” Mother says. “There’ll be other girls interviewed, though you’re as good as any, if I do say so myself! Mind you, it’ll be hard work, and there’ll be strange rules to learn...

“Housekeeper and butler are at the top; the cook rules the kitchen; the nanny’s the queen of the nursery. Maids all have different duties: the kitchen maid answers to the cook, the scullery maid does the rough work...

“For the interview, you’ll bob a curtsy to the housekeeper and a deeper one to her ladyship. Answer when you’re spoken to, and things will turn out just fine. I want what’s best for you, Lou.”

The climax of the story contains scenes on board the Titanic, with Lou and her charges, sailing to New York on a family vacation, joining the few survivors of the marine disaster. While somewhat contrived to add action to a book that feels to be mainly about class distinction, the Titanic episode will certainly draw readers who may not otherwise discover this title. For ages nine and up.

Borderline (HarperCollins, paperback, $14.99) is a new young adult title by internationally produced and published Canadian playwright and novelist Allan Stratton. When the FBI descends on the home of a fifteen-year-old Muslim boy, Mohammed “Sami” Sabiri, Sami is at first not convinced his Iranian born father is innocent regarding the terrorist plot of which he is accused.

The world’s a blur of shouts. Shadows. Boots. Dogs.



The knee jams into my face. It burns my left cheek into the carpet. Squashes into my eye.

Can’t breathe. Can’t see. Except—

Dad in a headlock. Men crowded around him. Attack dogs at the ready.

Stratton offers authentic characters divided by various lines including race, religion, gender, and sexual preference, in a seamless story of intrigue and coming-of-age. What is so compelling about this read is that its lesson—a call to judge individuals on their personal attributes rather than through stereotypes—is merely a byproduct of an excellent, plot driven tale composed by a master storyteller. Sequences regarding the abuse Sami tolerates at school are horrifyingly predictable, contrasting well with the book’s surprise ending. Mild profanity convincingly used in context elevates the reading age; for mature teens 13 and up.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

May Review, 2010 - Child’s perspective of Lebensborn program.
  • Stolen Child: Marsha Skrypuch

Canadian author Marsha Skrypuch, recently a guest in Saskatoon at the Literacy for Life children’s conference, speaks candidly about her newest title Stolen Child (Scholastic, paperback, $8.99). “It was a difficult book to write,” she says, “especially differentiating between memories, flashbacks, and dreams”—aspects of twelve-year-old Nadia’s life through which Skrypuch builds a historical novel that reveals details of the Nazi’s Lebensborn program.

Skrypuch explains that the Lebensborn, or ‘Fount of Life’ system, was practiced during World War II to increase the number of Aryan children, so that the ‘master race’ could populate more of Europe. When it was determined that German women weren’t having babies quickly enough, Hitler’s secret police kidnapped blond, blue-eyed Polish and Ukrainian children from Eastern Europe and relocated them in special German homes where they were brainwashed into thinking that they were German. The fictional Nadia is one of these children, now safely immigrated to Canada at war’s end with Ukrainian friends Marusia and Ivan who have informally adopted her.

Although their new life in Brantford, Ontario has on the surface transcended the terrors of war, the jumble of Nadia’s past haunts her, a post-traumatic stress syndrome that, reports Skrypuch, required considerable research and expert assistance to “get right.” But get it right she does, producing what results as a gradual unfolding of Nadia’s backstory that serves to answer the question at the heart of this young girl’s tale: “Who am I?”

A message embedded in much of Skrypuch’s work is that individuals should be considered on their own merit, rather than narrowly interpreted through single aspects of identity such as gender or race. This is a lesson Nadia learns as she sorts through her own heritage, questioning her role as a child in a German home, and weighing her earlier Ukrainian memories against the negative labels cast by her Canadian peers.

“Every time a student at school would taunt me, calling me a Hitler girl or Nazi Nadia, I felt a tug of shame. I had met many kind Germans, both in Canada and during the war. I felt sorry for Mutter because she was always sad, but she was not kind to me. And Vater was almost a stranger. A cold, hard stranger. After the war, when I heard about the many evil things that Hitler had done, it made me feel ashamed of who I might be.”

Through gripping prose, and the grounding effect of sensory images cast by post-war life in small town Ontario, Skrypuch relates a story previously untold in children’s fiction, offering an original perspective on the Ukrainian experience during World War II. Highly recommended, for ages ten and up.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

April Review, 2010 - Writing what you know.
  • Fight for Justice: Lori Saigeon
  • Danger in Dead Man’s Mine: Dave Glaze
  • Tumbleweed Skies: Valerie Sherrard
  • The Trouble with Dilly: Rachna Gilmore

Canadian authors continue to put local settings on the landscape of books available to young readers, actualizing the adage “write what you know.” Familiar characters and contexts help children connect their background knowledge to reading material, boosting comprehension as well as motivation to read.

Regina teacher Lori Saigeon’s first novel, Fight for Justice (Coteau Books, paperback, $7.95) is clearly set in the familiar context of “Monarch City.” Ten-year-old Justice and his twin sister are bullied by a local kid named Trey, and attempts at revenge backfire. On a family visit to their home reserve, Justice helps his grandfather with various tasks. In return, Mushum offers stories and advice, providing a window into Trey’s life that helps Justice, as well as Saigeon’s readers, understand the dynamic of bullying and some of the complexities regarding the varying stances people take as bullies, victims, and bystanders. For ages eight to eleven; this is an authentic story from an author to watch.

Saskatoon’s Dave Glaze has published another strong title for a similar age group. Danger in Dead Man’s Mine (Coteau, paperback, $8.95) follows eleven-year-old Mac Davis through various mysteries when he visits relatives in Lethbridge during the summer of 1912. Mining history is embedded in the narrated lives of Mac’s extended family, and young readers will see positive aspects of mining culture as well as the dangers a miner’s life held in times past. The compelling plot revolves around the stories of a number of different characters, one of whom is Mac’s young cousin caught in an abandoned mine shaft:

The bump struck without warning, roaring down toward the entry from deep in the hill. The walls of the tunnel wrenched sideways. Heavy supporting beams splintered like kindling. The floor heaved. A curtain of black dust fell into the room. Then the rock stopped shifting, almost before John Walter had time to tell it had begun. Stumbling, he caught his breath and sucked in a cloud of powdered coal.

Valerie Sherrard’s new novel Tumbleweed Skies (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, paperback, $12.95) is a historical look at “Weybolt, Saskatchewan” in the mid fifties. Nine-year old Ellie has come to stay on her grandmother’s farm while her father begins a new job as a traveling salesman, but her tough and bitter Grandma Acklebee is the last person in the world with whom Ellie wants to live, and the feeling is mutual.

“I could tell right away that this wasn’t a house that wanted me,” begins Ellie’s first-person narrative. “It was a bright, sunny day, but that didn’t help much. The place seemed cold and unfriendly. You could tell that the outside had been painted once or twice, but years of prairie wind and sun had stripped it almost bare. And even the barn and shed and all the fields around it couldn’t save the house from looking a little lost.”

The characters in this book are complex and dynamic, and the gentle story about transitions and family relationships is well told; an excellent choice for readers eight to eleven from an author whose voice from children’s perspectives is both genuine and poignant.

A title with a comparably complex relationship between granddaughter and grandmother is Rachna Gilmore’s The Trouble with Dilly (HarperCollins, paperback, $12.99). Dilly, like Ellie in Sherrard’s Tumbleweed Skies, is a Canadian girl who always seems to be making mistakes and who is often chastised by her large, stern grandmother who seems to rule the roost and who dresses in white as is the custom for widows in India. Dadiji’s bearing and attire has resulted in Dilly’s nickname for her grandmother—The Great White Hen—an aspect of the story that makes readers empathise with Dilly while at the same time enjoying the humour in her outlook on life.

Gilmore narrates Dilly’s story with keen attention to detail, drawing touching aspects of growing up into a story with delightfully comic overtones. Dilly catches the new immigrant kid, Gedion, shoplifting from her family’s store, and her accusation, and the subsequent reaction from her family, spirals Dilly’s quest for redemption. To atone for her impulsivity, she works with a couple of friends to throw a Canadian Christmas party for Gedion’s family, a party that develops in unexpected ways. Soon the whole community is involved, and Dilly is faced with the decision to dip into her savings for new skates to make the party possible or risk actualizing what people have always said about her—that the trouble with Dilly is that she’s always starting something she can’t finish. A book that skilfully weaves contemporary themes of ethnic diversity and hockey culture with the meaning of community; highly recommended for ages eight to twelve.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

March Review, 2010 - Feline stories attractive to children.
  • Chester’s Masterpiece: Melanie Watt
  • Mattoo, Let’s Play: Irene Luxbacher
  • Where Does Your Cat Nap?: Jean Freeman
  • Dinostory: Amanda Sage

Felines figure felicitously in four new titles for children, and may inspire young cat lovers into reading particular texts just for the connection to a beloved pet.

Melanie Watt continues for ages five to eight the exploits of her megalomaniac cat in Chester’s Masterpiece (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $18.95). Some adults might find confusing the non-linear and dialogic text, presented in combinations of sidebars, italics, and bold and regular print, but kids in the digital age love Watt’s work and responses to this title are no exception. The comedy provided by a cat who commandeers a writer’s story in favour of his own design is fresh and original.

Mattoo, Let’s Play (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $18.95) is illustrator Irene Luxbacher’s authorial debut. Known for her illustrations in the Governor General’s Award shortlisted title The Imaginary Garden, Mattoo, Let’s Play uses a similar blend of acrylic ink and collage, following the story of a cat reluctant to partake in a little girl’s dramatic play but who is eventually engaged as the king of the jungle. Great fun for ages three to seven about a cat who offers a startling contrast to Melanie Watt’s Chester.

Regina writer Jean Freeman has again teamed up with Calgary illustrator Val Lawton to accomplish another gentle predictable picturebook for the very young: Where Does Your Cat Nap? (self-published through Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing, paperback, $12.95). This title is highly recommended for shared reading, where children ages two to six chime in the rhyming words. Freeman is also an actress, her endpage photo recognizable from appearances as the mayor’s grandma on the television series Corner Gas.

Another self-published picturebook for older kids five and up includes a great cat cameo within a modern tale of dinosaurs. Amanda Sage’s Dinostory, illustrated by Louisa Sage (, paperback, $15.00) relates an alternative to scientific hypotheses through narrative that reveals dinosaurs still in existence—quite comfortably living underground and secretly making investigative journeys into human society.

Lesothosaurus, one of the dinosaurs, is particularly small—only one meter long—and his visit to Winnipeg during the summer months progresses quite without incident. His study convinces him that the cats of his chosen family “were a little more like dinosaurs in some ways” than the humans themselves. The cats “had tails, and sharper claws and teeth” but “instead of scales, they were covered in a soft fuzz that Lesothosaurus thought would make excellent wool for the Pearlodon.” In the corresponding illustration, readers will delight in the attitude of a very bristly cat stalking past Lesothosaurus, the artist having captured perfectly how a cat would indeed address a dinosaur—with disdain.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people

Back to Index

February Review, 2010 - Mature themes in young adult thrillers.
  • the uninvited: Tim Wynne-Jones
  • Watcher: Valerie Sherrard
  • Me, Myself and Ike: K. L. Denman

Young adult thrillers do not get any better than the uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones (Candlewick, hardcover, $19.00). A cleverly unfolding psychological drama, it carefully presents one scene after another in rich sensory detail, the characters of Mimi, Jay, and Cramer—siblings who find each other in a sleepy little Canadian town—realistically drawn through narration from alternating third-person perspectives.

They peered down into a space about five feet deep, a tiny earthen room.

“I’ve been using this house for years,” said Jay, “and I had no idea that was here.”

“Therersquo;s a tunnel to the outside,” said Mimi. She was glowing with the sweat of lifting the heavy door.

“How did you know about it?” he asked.

She looked up at him, pushed a wing of hair back from her eyes.

“My father told me about it,” she said. “He……Well, he owns this place.”

Jay stared at her, his mouth hanging open. Then he closed it and swallowed. “That’s really funny,” he said at last. “Because my father owns this place.”

Cramer’s backstory is the most poignant of the three, vividly reminiscent of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle where children live with the trauma of parental mental illness. It is Cramer’s story that moves the uninvited into territory meant for older teens and adults, with graphic language throughout the book ensuring a realistic read.

He wiped his face with both hands, squinting from the rain. It was still coming down hard. He waved his arms urgently, then made his way toward the car. Instinctively, Jay locked the doors. What was going on? Where was Mimi? But now Cramer was at his window, his hands pressed against the glass, framing his face, and his face was filled with earnestness and fear. His mouth was moving. He was saying something. Jay turned off the engine. “Mimi!” he said, pointing toward the house. “Hurry!” Jay nodded and Cramer stepped back to let him out. Jay opened the door.

“It’s Mimi,” said Cramer. “She’s in trouble.”

“What did you do to her?”

Cramer looked exhausted. He shook his head. “Have you got a cell phone?” Jay nodded. “Call the cops. And you’d better call for an ambulance, too.”

“What the hell—”

“Just do it!” said Cramer, his voice urgent but not much above a whisper.

Deservedly shortlisted for a 2009 Governor General’s Award, losing out to Caroline Pignat’s Greener Grass: The Famine Years, the uninvited plays on the suspense inherent with a repeated and mysterious home invasion, where clues from multiple characters begin to add up.

Absentee fathers is a theme also evident in Valerie Sherrard’s new young adult title Watcher (Dundurn, paperback, $12.99), illuminating a topic uncommon in books for young people: parental alienation. Someone’s been stalking Porter; could it be the father whom his mother says abandoned him and his sister twelve years ago? Sixteen-year-old Porter Delaney has his future planned out, until this stranger appears in his Toronto neighbourhood and starts him on a re-examination of past, present, and future. A realistic page-turner, except for minor sections of didactic prose where contrived characters attempt to teach psychology lessons. Geared for ages 14 and up although explicit references to drug use may influence the readership.

K. L. Denman’s Me, Myself and Ike (Orca, paperback $12.95) is an edgy first-person account of a teen’s journey into schizophrenia. With a frank, first person voice similar to Porter’s in Watcher, the story follows seventeen-year-old Kit as he plans with his friend Ike a bizarre expedition where Kit will allow himself to become the next Ice Man, frozen in time for future generations to study. As the story unfolds, however, readers catch hints that Ike may not be whom he seems, and Kit’s challenges grow greater with each turn of the page. In Denman’s Author’s Note, she offers a hope that as we come to a greater understanding of mental illnesses, we are as a society in a better position to help. Mature reading for ages 14 and up.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people

Back to Index

January Review, 2010 - Perspectives on winter life.
  • The Snow Day: Komako Sakai
  • Revolver: Marcus Sedgwick

Two books for different age groups offer alternate perspectives on frozen landscapes.

Komako Sakai’s The Snow Day (Scholastic, hardcover, $18.99) is a gentle tribute to winter through the personified perspective of a little rabbit enjoying a day home from kindergarten. Reminiscent of Ezra Jack Keats’s classic The Snowy Day, and Werner Zimmerman’s Snow Day, this title is a good one to share with children ages three to five over hot chocolate and fresh cookies. Sakai’s muted illustrations and spare text depict the bond between mother and child as delightful discoveries unfold.

Marcus Sedgwick’s Revolver (Orion, hardcover, $18.95) is a carefully plotted Nordic thriller for ages twelve and up. It is 1910, and 15 year old Sig Andersson is tending to the body of his father, Einar, who died after falling through a weak spot on the ice-covered lake near their cabin north of the Arctic Circle.

“Dipping his head, he hurried across the newly-fallen snow to the log pile and grabbed half a dozen. On his way back, he saw the lake, shining in the light from a bright moon. Somehow he’d expected it to look different, marked by his father’s death, but it didn’t. He’d seen it look like this a hundred times, and then he understood what was hurting him. It looked commonplace when life had just become anything but. It didn’t even occur to him that come the spring when the ice melted, the place where Einar died would disappear completely, and become gentle wave crests of the wind-whipped lake once more. But then, when snow covers everything and the mercury shows dozens of degrees below, any season but winter is an impossible memory to summon.”

The entrance of Wolff—a rough looking man from Einar’s past—catalyzes a series of events that take Sig from childhood to manhood in a matter of hours, a time period summarized by his sister Anna: “even if you think you’re stuck between two impossible choices, there’s always a third way. You just have to look for it.”

While Revolver begins with an image of winter as the enemy, Wolff soon shoulders that role and, in the end, the snow and ice are clearly on Sig’s side. A clever and gripping read for tweens, also offering intriguing fare for older reluctant readers.

Interestingly, neither Sakai or Sedgwick grew up in cold northern climes, although their descriptions are vividly realistic. Sakai lives and works in Japan while Sedgwick makes his home in Cambridge.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

Brenna Book Reviews, 2009

December Review, 2009
  • Bella’s Tree: Janet Russell, illustrated by Jirina Marton
  • Bradley McGogg the Very Fine Frog: Tim Beiser, illustrated by Rachel Berman
  • My Great Big Mama: Olivier Ka, illustrated by Luc Melanson
  • The Imaginary Garden: Andrew Larson, illustrated by Irene Luxbacher
  • Alego: Ningeokuluk Teevee

The digital age has prompted developments in children’s literature consistent with the changing forms and formats, changing perspectives, and changing boundaries that readers of all ages experience through connections with the internet. Described in terms of Radical Change theory by Dr. Eliza Dresang, a professor at the University of Washington, some of these changes within and among books are foregrounded in the five picture books shortlisted for the 2009 Governor General’s Award for children’s literature (illustration). The winner of this year’s award was Bella’s Tree, written by Janet Russell and illustrated with oil pastels on paper by Jirina Marton (Groundwood Books, hardcover, $18.95). A picture book for ages four to eight, Bella’s Tree is the most traditional of the five shortlisted books, with its chronological storyline and a nostalgic theme involving a child who cheers her grandmother at Christmas. What moves this title into modern appeal is its telling through Newfoundland dialect as well as forms that alternate between story and song.

“Are you crooked, Nan?”

“Yes, child.”


“I can’t stand the thought of all those berries under the snow. The frost is after gettin’ them, and now there they are, gone. And that’s not all. Christmas is soon here, and I haven’t got it in me to go and get us a tree.”

“I could get us a tree, Nan.”

“Go on. Sure, you’re not much bigger than an ax, let alone able to swing one.”

“Not so, Nan. I am after gettin’ big and strong and smart and well coordinated. You just wouldn’t believe how big and strong and smart and well coordinated I am after gettin’.”

Tim Beiser’s Bradley McGogg the Very Fine Frog (Tundra, hardcover, $19.99), illustrated by Rachel Berman, performs in rhyming couplets the story of Bradley’s quest for a suitable meal. Berman’s watercolor gouache on rag paper extends outside its given frames, a decision implying the story’s awareness of itself in an illustrative attempt at ‘metafiction’. Very traditional, however, is the perspective that different creatures eat different things, inspiring Bradley to criticize the choices of others as ‘strange’. Listed for ages two to five, the complexity of the language and the hints at mystery in the dark patches of background illustration may be more suitable for ages five and up.

New perspectives are found in the strikingly original My Great Big Mama by Olivier Ka, illustrated by Luc Melanson (Groundwood Books, hardcover, $18.95) and Andrew Larson’s The Imaginary Garden (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $16.95), illustrated by Irene Luxbacher. Both titles are for ages four to seven, although these are appropriate texts through which older children may practice critical literacy by examining the contradiction of stereotypes.

In The Imaginary Garden, Poppa’s move to an apartment brings his and granddaughter Theo’s gardening to an end, until Theo comes up with the idea to paint their way into spring. With pen and ink and multimedia collage, Luxbacher’s illustrations are vibrantly layered, playfully offering unique placements for the accompanying text. At times, the scenes depict an older gentleman and a little girl on an apartment balcony; at other times, however, the duo are swept into the meadow of their imaginings. One page offers an art lesson while simultaneously continuing the storyline. Definitely a title that doesn’t take itself too seriously, children will delight in the result. So will seniors: Poppa’s representation as an active world traveler is very refreshing.

My Great Big Mama also works against stereotypes through the story of a little boy who loves his mother just the way she is, in spite of “what people say” about her weight. Melanson’s digital illustrations offer diverse perspectives, from ant’s eye to airplane points of view, and alternate between the narrator’s real and imaginary projections.

Alego, written and illustrated by Ningeokuluk Teevee and translated from the Inuktitut by Nina Manning-Toonoo, is the simple story of a young Inuit girl who goes to the shore with her grandmother to collect clams for supper (Groundwood Books, hardcover, $17.95). Along the way, Alego’s discoveries of the natural world offer a specificity about the life of an Inuit child as well as an implied universality about families everywhere. This text is written in Inuktitut and English and includes a glossary of sea creatures as well as a pictorial map of Baffin Island. The illustrations, graphite and colored pencil on paper, will captivate the four to seven age group for whom the book is intended.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

November Review, 2009
  • Crow Call: Lois Lowry
  • Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion: Jane Barclay, illustrated by Renné Benoit
  • Remembering John McCrae: Linda Granfield
  • Truce: Jim Murphy
  • What World is Left: Monique Polak
  • Lunch with Lenin: Deborah Ellis

Unique perspectives on war appear in titles designed towards supporting young readers in the world in which they live as well as recreating the past. Lois Lowry’s Crow Call (Scholastic, hardcover, $21.99), a picture book for children ages seven and up, explores a young girl’s reunion with her soldier dad.

“I sit shyly in the front seat of the car next to the stranger who is my father, my legs pulled up under the too-large wool shirt I am wearing.

“I practice his name to myself, whispering it under my breath. Daddy. Daddy. Saying it feels new. The war has lasted so long. He has been gone so long.”

Father and daughter head into the woods this particular morning in late autumn to rid the area of crows, and Lowry’s fine language celebrates the fleeting season: &rlduo;Grass, frozen after its summer softness, crunches under our feet; the air is sharp and supremely clear, free from the floating pollens of last summer, and our words seem etched and breakable on the brittle stillness.”

What begins as a crow hunt, however, emerges from this finely crafted piece as a celebration of life. “My father comes down the hill to meet me coming up. He carries his gun carefully; and though I am grateful to him for not using it, I feel that there is no need to say thank you—Daddy knows this already. The crows will always be there and they will always eat the crops; and some other morning, on some other hill, a hunter, maybe not my daddy, will take aim.” A story that embraces the universal in family relationships as well as the specific, with stunning illustrations of watercolor and acryl-gouache by Bagram Ibatoulline. Highly recommended.

A simpler tale involving a conversation between a grandfather and grandson, preparing for the veteran’s parade, appears in Jane Barclay’s picture-book Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion (Tundra, hardcover, $20.99), illustrated in watercolor and gouache by Renné Benoit.

“I help him fasten his medal above the pocket of his blazer. Sometimes my poppa’s hands shake, so he needs to borrow mine. He smiles as he gives me a poppy to pin on my jacket. He looks very proud. But beneath my poppa’s smile, I hear the bad dream that woke him in the night.” For ages six and up.

Linda Granfield’s Remembering John McCrae (Scholastic, hardcover, $16.99) is a fitting tribute to the life of the Canadian soldier and doctor who penned “In Flanders Fields” after the loss of a friend. In addition to including a select photo-history of the Boer War and World War I, this book reminds readers that behind every poem is a poet, and offers a strong message about the power of words. For ages eight and up.

Jim Murphy’s Truce (Scholastic, hardcover, $24.99) is a photo filled non-fiction narrative for older readers that focuses on December 25, 1914, when troops openly defied their commanding officers by stopping the fighting for a day of peace. Carrying a message of hope beyond the boundaries of politics, this is a well-researched title worth consideration by young historians. Murphy’s other non-fiction titles—including The Great Fire, and Blizzard!—are also noteworthy. For ages ten and up.

Monique Polak’s young adult novel What World is Left (Orca, paperback, $12.95) chronicles the experiences of a young girl taken with her family from Holland to Theresienstadt, a “model” concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Through the eyes of the teenage Anneke, Polak presents the fictionalized drama of the prisoners alongside a number of real historical events including the reception of a Danish Red Cross delegation that inspected the camp in June, 1944, when the prisoners were forced to fabricate fake shops and schools to ensure that the secrets of their tortured existence were kept from the world. Polak was inspired by the experiences of her mother, Celien Polak, who spent two years at Theresienstadt where her grandfather, a Dutch artist like the fictional Anneke’s father, did commercial art for the Nazis. One of the plot lines in the novel involves the dual work Anneke’s father creates: the work requisitioned by Hitler, but also vivid sketches that he somehow sends out of the camp to portray the real agonies suffered by innocent people. The novel ends with a compelling quote from the German romantic poet Heinrich Heine: “Think what world is left you still, /And how lovely is that part.” For mature readers ages twelve and up.

A short story in Deborah Ellis’s young adult collection Lunch with Lenin (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, paperback, $14.95) offers another perspective on war amidst tales whose themes focus on drugs and alcohol. “Pretty Flowers” unfolds in Afghanistan where twelve-year-old Tahmina is helping her father with the opium poppy harvest. In happier times, the family had owned pomegranate orchards, but since these were destroyed by warplanes, Tahmina’s family spent time in a refugee camp in Pakistan before repatriation and a return to farming in the opium industry. In a tragic turn, when the opium crops are destroyed due to new Afghani legislation, Tahmina’s father has no choice but to sell her as a wife to the local merchant to whom he is in debt. Difficult subject matter that offers complexity in its assignment of blame, this story, along with the rest of the collection, is suitable for mature readers ages twelve and up.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

October Review, 2009
  • Liane Shaw
  • Would You: Marthe Jocelyn
  • Leaving Fletchville: René Schmidt
  • The Hunchback Assignments: Arthur Slade
  • The Mystery of the Moonlight Murder: An Early Adventure of John Diefenbaker: Roderick Benns

Two young adult novels with serious subject matter add important voices to the material available for teen readers from Canadian authors. Liane Shaw’s (Second Story Press, paperback, $11.95) is a fictional high school girl’s first-person account of experiences with an eating disorder. It is in diary format that Maddie’s life unfolds—from the events leading up to her “imprisonment” in a residential clinic, through flashbacks into childhood, and including the online chat among Maddie and her “new friends”—the girls she meets through a pro anorexia website and who convince her that her body obsession is normal. It is only through the personal tragedy of one of these friends that Maddie eventually begins to admit the truth and open herself to healing. With well developed characters in the mix of family and friends who engage with this young woman, readers have the opportunity to enjoy a strong story while at the same time learning about an illness that may hit close to home. Highly recommended.

Marthe Jocelyn’s Would You (Tundra, hardcover, $19.99) travels a difficult road in combining a teen’s upbeat and compassionate nature with heartbreaking family circumstances—Natalie’s older sister Claire is in a coma from a serious accident. How Natalie endures the days after the tragic event creates a page-turner that is heartbreaking yet engaging, reinforcing for readers that some stories do not have happy endings yet life goes on for those left behind.

I feel like I have to see her now and not wait till morning. What if this is one of those cosmic moments where she’s calling me in my dream but I go back to sleep and only think about it later when they tell me Time of Death, 2:09 a.m.?

I splash water on my face and put a cold, damp hand on the back of my neck to startle myself. I trade boxers for shorts and sneak out of the house, which is so easy I should do it more often. Dad snores and Mom’s on drugs. The garage door makes that bent-metal screech, but really, who’s going to wake up or care? I pat my bike like she’s a pony, waiting for me in her stall…

The message in this title is clear: stuff happens, things change, and people do the best they can to cope. “I stare at Claire. She’d never, ever want to know that this is where she is. It’s time to find something new to hope for.” An optimistic slant for a book that in a lesser writer’s hands might have been sloppily sentimental; recommended for mature readers.

In his debut novel Leaving Fletchville (Orca, paperback, $9.95), René Schmidt, tackles issues of social justice and prejudice in a way younger readers ten to fourteen can process. Brandon’s new friend seems reserved and mysterious until the secret’s out—thirteen-year-old Leon is actually parenting his two younger siblings as a result of difficult life circumstances. Although the ending is too pat, the exceptional dialogue and characterization in this title predict future successes for this new author—definitely someone to watch.

Saskatoon author Arthur Slade’s new title, The Hunchback Assignments (HarperCollins, paperback, $18.99), is the first in an exploratory series championing “steampunk,” a genre increasing in popularity with young teens. Steampunk is a sub-category of fantasy and speculative fiction that emerged a couple of decades ago and denotes a world where steam power is still widely used but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy—in this case an alternative Victorian London. Reminiscent of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, The Hunchback Assignments, unfolding in a gothic style that will engage a particular readership, marks the flexibility of an author always eager to explore new territory. For ages twelve and up.

The Mystery of the Moonlight Murder: An Early Adventure of John Diefenbaker is the first attempt at literature from Fireside Publishing House—a new group bent on fictionalizing the past lives of all twenty-two Canadian prime ministers. Unfortunately, author Roderick Benns succumbs to hallmarks of ineffectual writing including ponderous pacing, the narrative telling rather than showing, and hackneyed description. Possibly of interest to history buffs, although the fictionalization takes a wide berth, at times, from Diefenbaker’s actual past; this title is not stylistically appropriate for the intended audience—ages ten to fourteen.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

September Review, 2009
  • Robert Munsch: Frank Edwards
  • Down the Drain: Robert Munsch

Frank Edwards’ biography Robert Munsch (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, paperback, $9.95) offers straightforward insight into the life of one of Canada’s most prolific children’s writers and the recipient of an Order of Canada. Young readers who have grown up on Munsch texts will be intrigued by the journey of a struggling daycare worker who is now “pretty rich and very famous” and yet “seems like a most ordinary kind of guy. When you see him walking down the street, it is easy to forget that he sells about a million books a year and that tens of thousands of kids and parents line up to see the storytelling shows he gives across Canada and the United States.”

Raised in a family where Dad loved to tell bedtime stories, Robert and his eight siblings were, from an early age, exposed to rich oral language. Edwards indicates that Robert was a voracious reader but did not do well at school; were it not for a special school librarian, his gifts might have been overlooked in favour of his shortcomings. Bouts of depression made social life difficult for Robert, and he left highschool determined to become a priest. It was on Robert’s path towards priesthood that volunteer work with young children led to successful storytelling sessions, inspired by his father. Eventually, Robert began a doctorate in anthropology until an assault in a rough neighborhood left him with serious brain injuries that affected his ability to study. When Robert decided upon a career as a daycare worker, his dream was to “change the world, one child at a time.” Now, with over fifty published titles, and more drafts awaiting the final stages of printing, it appears that Robert’s dreams of connecting with kids have definitely come true.

Well organized and crafted to inspire as well as inform, simple without being condescending, Edwards’ biography earns five stars out of five. For ages eight and up with particular appeal for adult literacy learners.

A new Munsch title is Down the Drain (Scholastic, paperback, $6.99), illustrated by Michael Martchenko and full of characteristic repetition and zany humour.

“Adam!” yelled his father. “Your hands are dirty. Your face is dirty. Your feet are dirty. Adam, you need a bath!”

“No, no, no!” said Adam.

“Soap in my eyes!

“Soap in my ears!

“Soap in my mouth!

“I do not like baths!”

Munsch’s typical writing process involves listening to children’s own lived stories and then researching these stories much as an ethnographic anthropologist might do by visiting the child in his or her family context and exploring the roots of the tale. Down the Drain, for example, is dedicated to Adam and his sister Janna, the real life models for the story and who, like Munsch himself, live in Guelph, Ontario.

Following a lengthy research process, Munsch usually spends a great deal of time telling a new story before finally committing the text to paper. A year ago, Munsch suffered a stroke that affected his ability to use language. While not yet able to work on fresh material, he has since returned to storytelling, and details of school visits are available on his website:

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

August Review, 2009
  • Getting the Girl: A Guide to Private Investigation, Surveillance, and Cookery: Susan Juby
  • The Lit Report: Sarah N. Harvey
  • Thirteenth Child: Patricia Wrede
  • Wild Talent: A Novel of the Supernatural: Eileen Kernaghan

Susan Juby’s new novel Getting the Girl: A Guide to Private Investigation, Surveillance, and Cookery (HarperCollins, paperback, $14.99) walks a stylistic line between explicit teen soap reminiscent of Gossip Girl and witty humour the likes of Richard Scrimger.

Sherman Mack, an unlikely grade-nine hero enamoured with cooking classes and detective stories, confronts hierarchies among scholars, jocks, and Trophy wives to save the girl he loves from being categorized as one of the Defiled. Some readers may find descriptions of Mack’s mother—a burlesque dancer who sews her feathery costumes at home—somewhat over-the-top, but deeper than surface level are interesting comparisons between conformist teen culture and adults who have developed an acceptance for diversity. There is more here than meets a first glance.

With strong messages about bullying and bystanders, this title may use its pop surface- structure to lure readers out of less substantial texts and into more literary reading. Content and language for mature teens 14 and up.

Of a similar crossover nature is Sarah N. Harvey’s The Lit Report (Orca, paperback, 12.95). It deals openly about sex and teen pregnancy from the perspective of Julia, the best friend, who helps Ruth through her darkest hour and the months to follow as the girls hide Ruth’s pregnancy from her one-dimensionally strict parents and eventually, with the help of Ruth’s brother, deliver the baby in a remote cabin at the lake.

What makes this book different from other teen confessionals is the introduction of literary themes: Julia is a reader, and nothing in her life occurs without a connection to the classics. Not to be overlooked as a potential steppingstone from Gossip Girls to Jane Austin; content and language for mature readers 14 and up.

A new title from a fantasy writer worth noticing is Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Child (Scholastic, hardcover, $21.99). The book makes an interesting comparison to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books for this, too, is a frontier story, but with a difference. Instead of battling familiar elements, the homesteaders here battle mammoths, steam dragons and other natural dangers, and their tools primarily involve magic. A gentle introduction into fantasy for ages 11 and up that weaves glimpses of real American history into its imaginings; sadly, however, images of native Americans are lacking.

A companion read for Thirteenth Child is Eileen Kernaghan’s Wild Talent: A Novel of the Supernatural (Thistledown Press, paperback, $15.95), although its age range is 14 and up. The rich and rambling story, set in the late nineteenth century, is told from the perspective of sixteen-year-old Jeannie Guthrie, a Scottish farm worker who possesses a psychic energy that in the course of the book she must learn to control, just as Eff, in Thirteenth Child, learns to control her magic. Cameo appearances from William Butler Yeats chronicling his interest in mystic societies add historical detail to the fiction. With Wild Talent shortlisted for a 2009 Young-Adult Fiction Sunburst Award for the best Canadian literature of the fantastic, Kernaghan is another author to watch. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is another of the five shortlisted titles, and Saskatoon’s Arthur Slade received honourable mention alongside six other titles including Kenneth Oppel’s Starclimber.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

July Review, 2009
  • The Mealworm Diaries: Anna Kerz
  • The Lime Green Secret: Georgia Graham
  • Have You Ever Seen a Duck in a Raincoat?: Etta Kaner
  • Chill: Discover the Cool (and Creative) Side of Your Fridge: Allan Peterkin
  • The Royal Collection: Bob King
  • Focus on Flies: Norma Dixon
  • You Are Weird: Your Body’s Peculiar Parts and Funky Functions: Diane Swanson

The Mealworm Diaries by retired Ontario teacher Anna Kerz (Orca, paperback, $9.95) is a warm juvenile novel highly recommended for ages 9 - 12. The landscape of a new school for Jeremy and a science unit on mealworms offers a strong backdrop for this heartfelt tale about coming to terms with loss.

Back in Nova Scotia, Jeremy had been riding a borrowed motorcycle with his dad, and wearing the only helmet, when the accident happened that took his father’s life and left Jeremy with desperate dreams and a sensitivity that at first isolates him, and then, at last, allows him to reach out to someone else just as desperate.

Aaron is Jeremy’s science partner, but Aaron’s special needs at first make Jeremy confused and angry. “ ‘I’m not his friend,’ Jeremy said stubbornly. He didn’t want to give in on this. ‘You know I’ve been complaining about Aaron since the first day of school. It’s not my fault that he’s weird. He drives everybody crazy. Why do I have to be his friend?’ ” Jeremy’s eventual answer is finely crafted, the children’s voices in this novel ringing absolutely true.

Calgary author and illustrator Georgia Graham’s new picture book starring a young flower girl has appeared just in time for wedding season. The Lime Green Secret (Tundra, hardcover, $21.99) follows Gloria’s understandable need to try on her new wedding finery before her sister’s big day, with predictable results involving an encounter between the little girl’s satin gown and lime soda pop. A fun read for helpers ages 4 - 8 involved in wedding tasks this summer.

A breezy non-fiction title for ages 4 – 7 is Etta Kaner’s Have You Ever Seen a Duck in a Raincoat? (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $14.95). Encouraging simple facts about animals while developing comparative thinking skills, this title, with its simple, repetitive language patterns, is a good choice for parent-child shared reading.

A great text for someone who may be involved in cleaning the family fridge this holiday is Allan Peterkin’s Chill: Discover the Cool (and Creative) Side of Your Fridge (Kids Can Press, paperback, $9.95). A wacky combination of refrigeration history and creative art ideas, this title opens wide the big white door with Mike Shiell’s cartoons and a distinctly interactive format. For ages 8 and up.

Musician Bob King’s juvenile songs are illustrated by emerging young artists from schools across Western Canada and self-published in The Royal Collection by Saskatchewan-based King through Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing (paperback, $14.95). With representation by students in the Saskatchewan towns of Rouleau, Pense, Neudorf, Gravelbourg, Bethune, Kincaid, and the city of Regina, the venture is a fabulous idea, however some of the songs don’t easily scan as poetry—the absence of the music matters. The student learning behind the production, however, is definitely a redeeming quality.

Norma Dixon’s Focus on Flies (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, hardcover, $19.95) will be a favourite with budding entomologists as it combines interesting facts with learning activities. For example, in July, 2006, the space shuttle Discovery took off with 100 fruit flies aboard. They were aloft to assist scientists in studying how space travel affects the immune system. It’s hard to sneak up on a fly because its senses are always alert. To catch a fly, it’s important to know that when flies take off, they start by leaping up and backwards before flapping their wings. You have to nab them in mid-leap. (Don’t forget to wash your hands). The inclusion of photography and Canadian content in this text earn extra points; for ages 8 – 12.

Another Canadian non-fiction notable is Diane Swanson’s You Are Weird: Your Body’s Peculiar Parts and Funky Functions (Kids Can, paperback, $7.95). Tackling questions everybody’s curious about—What does your appendix do? What exactly are goose bumps and why do we get them? Why can some people wiggle their ears?—this is a good selection for car travel or for browsing at the beach. P.S. Did you know that a rabbit’s appendix is larger than a human’s? For ages 8 – 12.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

June Review, 2009
  • The North West Resistance Diary of Josephine Bouvier: Maxine Trottier
  • Seeing Red: Anne Louise MacDonald

Two novels for ages 9 – 14 are worth a look, for very different reasons. Maxine Trottier’s The North West Resistance Diary of Josephine Bouvier (Scholastic Canada, hardcover, $14.99) is so rich with detail that the history of Batoche comes alive. Readers are carried back to 1885 when Josephine, a 13- year-old Métis girl, finds herself caught in the tensions of the Northwest Resistance as the Métis people struggle for their rights.

“Half-breed,” writes Josephine in her journal, responding to a Toronto newspaper article that treats as ludicrous Louis Riel’s request for a fair land deal for the Metis and Indian people. “In our family, only Moushoom is half of one people and half of another, his mother having been Cree and his father a Kanayah from Quebec. And what about me? Mama’s great-grandmother was of the Sarcee people. Is one of my ears then Kanayaen and the other Cree, and if so, which is which? Do I have a Sarcee nose or a French nose? I am certainly not half of one thing and half of another, but that is what I will always be called, it seems. If I have children some day, I wonder if it will be the same for them?

“Mama once said that we Bouviers are like threads in a long, tightly woven sash—and as difficult to unravel. One thing I do know. I may be made up of many things, but I am entirely Métis.”

The story doesn’t pretentiously try for glory by involving Josephine in any of the historical details except as an onlooker whose family is seriously impacted by the English soldiers. She also serves to retell the intergenerational stories of her grandfather, preserving in this way a very personal side of history that many other historically situated texts neglect.

For example, one night, as the family sits down to dine on the heads of boiled sucker fish, Josephine listens and then records as Moushoom tells a tale from his grandmother, respectfully naming from whom the tale had originated: “She had heard it from a cousin who once spent two winters among people who lived by the western ocean. In the cousin’s story, one day a sucker fish made a bet with an eel. All either of them had to bet was their bones. Guess who won? It is why the sucker fish has so many bones and the eel is boneless.”

Without a cohesive plot line, this novel is not a quick page-turner and some young readers will find it difficult. Yet the style is very appropriate for the story’s purpose: to portray a significant period in Canadian history and attempt to preserve understanding about a time and a people well worth documenting. A title highly recommended for school curriculum due to the rich and poignant subject matter it portrays.

Reviewers have not been particularly kind to Anne Louise MacDonald’s second novel, Seeing Red (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $18.95) due to its large number of characters and difficulties in pacing, however the book’s redeeming qualities should claim it a position in libraries, if not on personal bookshelves. 14-year-old Frankie discovers he can dream the future, his only claim to fame, and yet even such a talent cannot prevent bad things from happening. Caught in confusing circumstances, this character portrays feelings common to many young people as they strive to control unpredictable situations.

MacDonald’s crisp, immediate prose brings scenes up close and personal, the dialogue convincingly realistic, with chatter between Frankie’s parents especially original. Descriptions of Joey, a kid with autism who Frankie babysits and eventually chaperones during riding therapy at a local stable, are rendered with care, as are other characters with special needs who shift in and out of the therapeutic riding context.

One of the girls smiled a happy, big-toothed smile and said in a booming voice, “I’m Mary. I’m ten plus one. How old are you? What’s you name?”

Susan said, “Mary, this is Frankie. He’ll be working with Joey.”

“I good at riding horses,” Mary said to me. “I can gallop fast. I ride Fur. I like Fur. Do you like Fur? Do you like maraconi and cheese? I like you hair. It like girl’s hair. You pants are falling down.”

“Mary,” Susan ordered. “You’re riding Prince today.”

“No!” said Mary. “I ride Fur!” She crossed her arms. A large Halloween-pumpkin grimace pulled down her mouth.

“Joey is riding Fleur today,’ Susan said firmly.

Mary’s lower lip started to tremble.

Vanessa said in a soft voice, “Mary, Prince was looking forward to you riding him today.”

A bright yellow Beetle drove up and a woman in her early twenties got out. She fished two crutches from the back seat and swung toward us, metal braces on each leg.

“Hi Ellen,” Mary called. “I ride Fur today!”

Susan groaned and shook her head at Mary’s mother, who just shrugged helplessly.

It’s clear that MacDonald knows her way around therapeutic riding facilities. As well, she is savvy enough to create a world that embraces complex characters of differing abilities—an uncommon tendency in traditional children’s fiction, and still relatively uncommon in contemporary work. For readers daunted by past reviews of Seeing Red, give it a try: if you are looking for an original and thought-provoking read, you will be happily surprised.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

May Review, 2009
  • Pieces of Me: Charlotte Gingras
  • Call Me Mimi: Francis Chalifour
  • Puppet: Eva Wiseman

Three new young adult books with female protagonists emphasize cultural identity while at the same time establishing a context through which complex issues are addressed. Pieces of Me (Kids Can, paperback, $8.99) is the English translation of the Governor General’s award-winning novella La Liberté? Connais pas… by Charlotte Gingras. Translator Susan Ouriou retains the French place names in this version, a good choice, and the first-person present-tense text is immediate and compelling.

Mira is almost fifteen and has no friends due to her shyness and the difficulties she has living with a mother who is domineering and mentally unstable. Catherine, a new girl, is drawn to Mira because of the artistic talents they share, but proves not to be the friend Mira at first thinks she is. With the death of her father, Mira sinks into a depression so deep she is not sure she will recover, but she does, with the help of a school counselor and her own inner strength. A minor flaw is the description of the counselor, who is blind, yet helps Mira see: this is an old stereotype not worth repeating. Sexual content rates this title for mature teens.

Seventeen-year-old Mimi in Francis Chalifour’s Call Me Mimi (Tundra, paperback, $14.99) also has issues with identity and belonging. She, too, is friendless, beginning a summer in Montreal when she would rather be in Toronto tracing the identity of her unknown sperm-donor father. Much of the first-person narrative revolves around weight, and Mimi describes herself in no uncertain terms: “Big Beluga,” “a chubbette,” and “a Cabbage Patch Kid, but not as cute.”

In an attempt to actualize her plans to go to Toronto, Mimi tells one lie after another until eventually they catch up with her and she realizes that just as people have hurt her all her life, she too has the power to injure others. While readers will empathize with Mimi, the minor characters, while developed with original traits, are not thoroughly believable: Mimi’s mother seems overprotective, yet suddenly decides to leave her daughter alone for the summer while she takes a job as a live-in caregiver for an elderly woman. Tante Amélie is a brilliant astronomy professor with an obsessive compulsive disorder who naively believes every word Mimi tells her. Peppered with French phrases, the setting is prominent in this story and adds richness to the telling. For ages 12 and up.

Winnipeg author Eva Wiseman illuminates a heartbreaking episode in history with her new novel Puppet (Tundra, hardcover, $19.99). Based on a real court case that took place in Hungary in 1883, the story follows corrupt authorities who coerce a young boy into testifying that fellow Jews, including his own father, murdered a Christian girl for her blood. The story is told through the evocative first-person voice of Julie, a friend of the missing Esther, and explains why, in Hungary, the name Morris Scharf is synonymous with “traitor”. Readers 12 and up will appreciate the vivid detail and emotional choices explored in the course of this gripping read.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people.

Back to Index

April Review, 2009
  • What It Is: Lynda Barry

American cartoonist and novelist Lynda Barry is the kind of artist who detests self-censorship. Her writing instruction manual for older teens and adults is proof that the muse is varied and rich. What It Is (hardcover, Raincoast Books, $24.95) provides, in collage format, strategies which allow artists to pull ideas from the inside out. On visually stunning pages, Barry offers readers a glimpse of what she herself has pulled out...things which most people would be too reserved to share. There is, in some, a suspicion that if we share the artistic process, it will disappear. Not so with Barry, who offers her inner workings for readers to examine. She also sends explicit thanks to teacher Marilyn Frasca at The Evergreen State College, on whose techniques much of this book is based.

Not a book to be read sequentially, or even much in one sitting, What it Is provides a great deal of food for thought, but readers who attempt to digest it as a more traditional writing guide will get a headache.

Assumptions which Barry contradicts in her book include the notions that artistry requires particular time, space, phase of the moon, or nutrition break. She also quashes the idea that writers must be particularly talented. Instead, she offers, through words and graphics, the philosophy that everyone has an inner writer and artist, and that the requirement for production is simply to engineer its release. She also hinges much of her advice on embracing the life of an image, a recommendation that definitely shows up in her own work.

As Barry delves into her storied past, she provides recollections that offer insight into her definition of imagination. “When I was little, I played a certain staring game that seemed to have invented itself. I would hold myself as still as I could and make my eyes like a toy’s eyes that don’t move—and I would wait. I would wait for the other things in the room to forget about me and begin to move...I believed there was another world that would show itself to me in the smallest ways.” She goes on to describe how it is up to us to bring back the illusions, the realities of that other, earlier world. “Where is the past?” she asks, and then answers, “Everywhere, nowhere, somewhere, anywhere, elsewhere, and here.”

Barry relates, in autobiographical terms, a childhood swelling with doubts and fears, and four books that made it into their house. Four books and a radio became her map and her compass, because although they had TV, “both misery and joy seemed to perish in its light.” How do images get inside of us? How do they get out? These are questions that connect to the personal and social demands that make writers want to write.

“Why don’t you write?” she asks. The answer to this question can be explored in terms of place. Stories have transformational capabilities. “They can’t transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it.” Yet if we are in a place where we see no reason for writing, or in a place where the reason for writing is overshadowed by a feeling that we can’t write, we don’t. Barry implies that school is a place that often gives many reasons for writing, and sometimes, at the same time, no reasons for writing. That reasons are contrived may be enough of a detriment to the writing process to make students disinclined. And imagine building a house, where every strike of the hammer caused the foreman to yell, “Too hard! Too soft! Too loud! All wrong!”

Some of the pages separate the book from a younger audience, including Barry’s very dark exploration of monsters. “Why are monsters in so many old stories?” she queries. Her response is that it’s perhaps because we need them when we are children, as a way of helping us come to terms with the monsters we face in real life. “That I had a very gorgon-like mother never occurred to me, and if it had, I would have been lost. Did the (fictional) gorgon help me love my mother? I think she helped me very much.”

In her artistic work, Barry certainly tackles a great number of monsters. Her characters in the weekly comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek offer views of family life from the perspectives of marginalized groups. In her novel The Good Times are Killing Me, she describes an interracial friendship between two girls, and in Cruddy, she offers a gritty and at times hilarious portrayal of an adolescent girl caught in drug subculture.

Straddling the divide between advice for teachers and advice for writers, What it Is provides an inspiration to consider what gives form to the images we keep inside us, the purpose for giving these images voice, and the autobiography of a woman whose artistic life is a memorable tribute to good teachers everywhere.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people. Her junior novel The Moon Children is currently shortlisted for a Silver Birch Award from the Ontario Library Association.

Back to Index

March Review, 2009
  • The Landing: John Ibbitson
  • Numbers: David A. Poulsen

Two literary young adult novels, both told in male voices, grapple with difficult issues very relevant to teen readers. John Ibbitson’s The Landing (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $17.95) won last year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards for Children’s Fiction, and deservedly so. This book takes readers to the Ontario Muskoka region of the 1930s, and, as an evocative interpretation of time and place, it never wavers. In its Prelude, the novel outlines how music stole Ben Mercer’s heart when he was very young. As he grows older, and passionately practices violin amidst the farm chores, he yearns to escape the daily grind.

With strong references to The Great Gatsby, through a plotline which includes a newcomer to Cook’s Landing, widow Ruth Chapman, the book has definite literary appeal. Chapman arrives on Pine Island and hires fifteen-year-old Ben to fix the cottage she and her husband bought before his death. United in their powerlessness (she, through the loss of her husband, and he, through his seemingly indelible path following his uncle into labour), they develop a bond through classical music. Then there is a kiss, and the agony of misunderstanding, and a surprising ending that readers will appreciate. What is so striking about Ben involves the agony of self-discovery, and the manner in which his struggle for identity unfolds before our eyes. Highly recommended.

Another novel, set on the prairies, fictionalizes events reminiscent of those surrounding the James Keegstra affair. Keegstra was a high school teacher in the town of Eckville, Alberta, when, in 1984, he was charged under the Criminal Code of Canada with wilfully promoting hatred by teaching his social studies students that the Jewish perspective of the Holocaust was a fraud. David A. Poulsen’s Numbers (Key Porter, hardcover, $19.95) is a tale told skilfully by fifteen-year-old Andy Crocket, a grade ten student in Mr. Retzlaff’s class at Parkerville High.

Andy, like most of his peers, is enchanted by the charismatic history teacher, and wants to make a positive connection. But when Retzlaff’s version of the Holocaust threatens to change the course of Andy’s life forever, decisions have to be made. Frank scenes about sexuality and alcoholism are alternately funny and poignant, and the gritty language at times reminds us of the modernity of this tale. A thoughtful book, but one that never forgets its narrative potential to entertain.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of six books for young people. She is launching her new collection of young adult short stories, Something To Hang On To, on Saturday March 28, 1pm, at McNally Robinson.

Back to Index

February Review, 2009
  • The Drum Calls Softly: David Bouchard, with Shelley Willier, Northern Cree, illustrated by Jim Poitras
  • The Pet Dragon: Christoph Niemann
  • The Emperor’s Second Hand Clothes: Anne Millyard, illustrated by Josée Bisallon
  • Just One Goal: Robert Munsch
  • Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken: Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Harry Bliss

A collection of multi-cultural picture-books for ages four to eight offers young readers a chance to glimpse their own lived stories in print and admire the diversity of others. The Drum Calls Softly (Red Deer Press, hardcover, $24.95, including a CD in English and Cree) illustrates the beauty of Native Culture, and is created by Métis author David Bouchard in collaboration with Cree poet Shelley Willier alongside the musicianship of Northern Cree and the vivid paintings of Saskatchewan born illustrator Jim Poitras. “Dance in circles around the drum/Seek the magic and it will come./ Shut your eyes so you might hear/ That song is sung to draw you near.”

Christoph Niemann’s The Pet Dragon is a simple story about friendship and includes an introduction to Chinese characters, sure to intrigue (HarperCollins, hardcover, $18.50). Niemann has also illustrated for adults, creating covers for The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times Magazine.

Anne Millyard’s retelling of an old folktale in The Emperor’s Second Hand Clothes (Smith, Bonappetit & Son, paperback, $10.95) is a delightful romp. Josée Bisallon’s artistry, a mixture of collage, drawings, and digital montage, was a finalist for the 2008 Governor General’s Literary Awards for children’s illustration. Millyard knows what kids like—her experience co-founding the publishing house that became Annick Press has taught her acuity— and since her retirement in 2000, she has been working on her own writing.

Robert Munsch’s new title, Just One Goal (Scholastic, paperback, $6.99) is dedicated to Ciara Mapes, Hay River, Northwest Territories, and immortalizes the story of young Ciara who started a hockey rink on the river by smoothing the ice with a spoon and warm water. Soon she and her friends are playing, and Munsch captures, albeit fantastically, a Northern Canadian rural winter where wild animals and snowmobiles disrupt the fun. With Michael Martchenko illustrations, of course. Robert Munsch has put many of his speaking engagements on hold this year due to a stroke he experienced in the summer. Further information about his health is available on his website:

A story that celebrates the world from the perspective of a traveling chicken is found in Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Harry Bliss (HarperCollins, hardcover, $19.50). Best known for her novels, including The Tale of Despereux upon which the 2008 movie was based, DiCamillo’s warmth and humour are just as strong in picture-book format.

Brenna is a Saskatoon author of five books for young people. Her new title, Something To Hang On To, a collection of young adult short stories, will be available from Thistledown Press in March.

Back to Index

January Review, 2009
  • The Canadian Shield Alphabet: Myrna Guymer
  • Where Does Your Dog Sleep: Jean Freeman
  • Mercedes Montgomery
  • Trish the Fish and Her One Wish: Jared Blackwell
  • Jolted: Newton Starker’s Rules for Survival: Arthur Slade
  • Dinosaur Blackout: Judith Silverthorne
  • Seeds of Hope: A Prairie Story: Mary Harelkin Bishop

Here in Saskatchewan we have a lot of things to boast about, and the beginning of a new year is a good time to take stock. One thing to be proud of is our growing population of children’s writers, which implies that reading for young people is alive and well in our province.

A number of new books published in 2008 by prairie writers are well worth a backward glance as they illuminate our setting for the rest of the world. The first is Myrna Guymer’s self-published picture book The Canadian Shield Alphabet (hardcover, Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing, $24.95) for ages 5 and up. Vividly illustrated by Ontario artist RoseMarie Condon, and full of rich details that spotlight, letter by letter, the vast regions of the Canadian Shield and the people who live there, it can be purchased at various local bookstores or by contacting Guymer currently lives in a log cabin at Denare Beach.

Two other self-published books available through Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing ( are also worth a look. Regina author Jean Freeman’s charmingly repetitive picture book Where Does Your Dog Sleep? will appeal to ages 3 – 5. In addition, Saskatoon author Mercedes Montgomery has produced an original, environmental fantasy with an intriguing title: A third self-publishing venture by Saskatoon author Jared Blackwell can be explored on his dynamic website:

Saskatoon’s Arthur Slade concocts a wonderfully quirky hero in Jolted: Newton Starker’s Rules for Survival (paperback, HarperCollins, $14.99). Fourteen-year-old Newton has arrived from his lightning-proofed home in Washington to study at the Jerry Potts Academy of Higher Learning and Survival, a private school located in Moose Jaw; his goal is to defy the curse that over the last two hundred years has seen almost everyone in his family killed by lightning. With cameos on hilariously drawn secondary characters and prairie traditions such as truffle and gopher quiche, Jolted’s comic timing and cleverly unpredictable plot will appeal to young readers ages 10 to 14.

Judith Silverthorne’s new title Dinosaur Blackout (paperback, Coteau Books, $8.95) is the fourth title in her dinosaur adventure series for ages 9 to 12, and takes place in southwestern Saskatchewan’s Frenchman River Valley. As in Silverthorne’s previous books, a helpful reference section at the back is included to assist with difficult vocabulary and pronunciation, as well as to offer young palaeontologists further directions for study. Silverthorne lives in Regina.

Saskatoon’s Mary Harelkin Bishop, author of the Tunnels of Moose Jaw adventure series, offers her first self-published title Seeds of Hope: A Prairie Story (paperback, Emmbee Ink/DriverWorks Ink, $10.95). Danny is a young boy whose greatest loves are the farm and the prairie, and, like his father and grandfather, he wants to be a farmer. Hard times make his dream seem improbable, and the town bully provides a distraction Danny would rather be without. A story that celebrates the rural setting, for ages 8 to 12.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon author of five books for young people. Her most recent, The Moon Children, has recently been shortlisted for an Ontario Library Association Silver Birch Award.

Back to Index

Brenna Book Reviews, 2008

December Review, 2008
  • Imagine a Place: Sarah L. Thomson
  • Ish: Peter Reynolds
  • Polar Worlds: Robert Bateman
  • This Land is My Land: George Littlechild
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret: Brian Selznick
  • The Sweetest One of All: Jean Little

Books new and old that resound with layers of meaning, unfolding as one matures, make for good gifts. The following picture-book titles are highly recommended.

Imagine a Place by Sarah L. Thomson, illustrated by Canadian artist Rob Gonsalves (hardcover, Atheneum, $19.99) is a companion to the critically acclaimed Imagine a Night and Imagine a Day. With gentle, lyrical text and the stunning magic realism of Gonsalves’ paintings, the story helps young readers four and up envision all kinds of places including a place where each turn takes you home...

Ish by Peter (The Dot) Reynolds (hardcover, Candlewick Press, $16.50) tells the story of Ramon, an aspiring artist who is despondent after hearing criticism of his work. Thanks to a supportive little sister, he recognizes that his own work is, at least “...ish” (tree-ish, house-ish, excited-ish...) and so, undaunted, he continues his creative endeavours. About the power others’ words can have over us, the messages within this children’s story transcend age and context.

For nature lovers 7 - 12, Canadian artist Robert Bateman’s new title Polar Worlds (hardcover, Scholastic, $19.99) invites young readers on a journey to the Arctic and Antarctic. With facts about the creatures he encountered while traveling, Bateman covers interesting details about wolves, polar bears, whales, seals, penguins, and snow geese as well as discussing migration, breeding, and climate, celebrating how animals manage to survive in their habitat—as long as we leave their habitat undisturbed.

This Land is My Land by Canadian artist George Littlechild (paperback, Children’s Book Press, 11.95) is a picture book for older readers, and celebrated for its use of color, its native themes, and its playful, evocative spirit. Deliberately provocative, both painful and joyous, the narration across richly illustrated pages offers serious food for thought. First published in 1993, but still current.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (hardcover, Scholastic, $27.99) is a remarkable book that will appeal to gifted as well as struggling readers, its open address a combination of picture-book, graphic novel, and middle to upper grade level text. The storyline involves young Hugo, trying to survive in Paris as a train-station clock watcher, and his connection with a filmmaker/shopkeeper, his daughter Isabelle, and a strange notebook. At 533 pages, this title has haunting, charcoal illustrations that move the plot forward like a film storyboard. Finalist for a National Book Award, 42 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and winner of the Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children: simply a masterpiece.

Recommended for the under five set is Jean Little’s The Sweetest One of All, illustrated by Marisol Sarrazin (hardcover, Scholastic, $19.99). About barnyard babies—lambs, foals, goslings, piglets—whose mothers think that each is the sweetest one of all, it provides a warm context for parent-child read-alouds where children hear again how special they are.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people. Her most recent title, The Moon Children, has recently been shortlisted for an Ontario Library Association Silver Birch Award.

Back to Index

November Review, 2008
  • Germania: John Wilson

While John Wilson’s 2007 title The Alchemist’s Dream is shortlisted for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction, with a winner announced November 6, his new title, Germania (hardcover, Key Porter$19.95), is already receiving rave reviews.

In Germania, Wilson has chosen to split the story of Lucius Quintus Claudianus, a Roman soldier in a centuria of the 19th Legion, between the third-person narration of Lucius’s life, and a first-person narrative inquiry of an older Lucius remembering his youth. This dual framework serves to support a complicated storyline which contains rich historical detail reminiscent of the great Rosemary Sutcliffe, as well as universals about war and cultural identity.

Thirteen-year-old Lucius is an apprentice signifer who relishes the chance to become part of something bigger than himself by joining the army. He becomes friends with Freya, a red-haired Cherusci from Germania who, along with her uncle, fights as a “barbarian” alongside the Romans. When Lucius and Freya end up on opposing sides, they must come to terms with their personal feelings for each other as well as loyalty to their respective cultures. Freya spares Lucius, but kills his companion, saying, “You are a Roman and my friend. He was just a Roman.”

Lucius trades farming for war and becomes a historian, inquiring into his youth in order to explore and understand the complexities of the world around him. Before his life ends on the slopes of an erupting Vesuvius in AD 79, he puts the finishing touches to the account Freya has demanded. “Stories die with the storytellers,” she tells him. “But a story that is written down will last forever.”

Geoffrey Bilson was an avid reader from an early age, and wrote historical novels for children as well as several books for adults. Before his sudden death in 1987, he taught as a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan. The annual Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction was created in his honour in 1988. Shortlisted alongside Wilson’s The Alchemist’s Dream (Key Porter) for the 2008 Award is Christopher Paul Curtis’s Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic), Shane Peacock’s Eye of the Crow: The Boy Sherlock Holmes, His First Case (Tundra), Henry T. Aubin’s Rise of the Golden Cobra (Annick), and Shannon Cowan’s Tin Angel (Lobster Press).

Previous Winners of the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction 1988 to 2007

2008 TBA November 6, 2008
2007 Eva Wiseman Kanada. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2006.
2006 Pamela Porter The Crazy Man. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2005.
2005 Michel Noël Good for Nothing. Translated by Shelley Tanaka. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2004.
2004 Brian Doyle Boy O’Boy. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2003.
2003 Joan Clark The Word for Home. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 2002.
2002 Virginia Frances Schwartz If I Just Had Two Wings. Toronto: Stoddart Kids, 2001.
2001 Sharon McKay Charlie Wilcox. Toronto: Stoddart Kids, 2000.
1999 Iain Lawrence The Wreckers. New York: Delacorte Press,1998.
1998 Irene N. Watts Good-bye Marianne. Toronto: Tundra Books, 1998.
1997 Janet McNaughton To Dance at the Palais Royale. St. John’s: Tuckamore Books, 1996.
1996 Marianne Brandis Rebellion: A Novel of Upper Canada. Erin, ON: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1996.
1995 Joan Clark The Dream Carvers. Toronto: Viking, 1995.
1994 Kit Pearson The Lights Go On Again. Toronto: Viking, 1993.
1993 Celia Barker Lottridge Ticket to Curlew. Illustrated by Wendy Wolsak-Frith. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 1992.
1991 Marianne Brandis The Sign of the Scales. Erin, ON: The Porcupine's Quill, 1990.
1990 Kit Pearson The Sky is Falling. Markham, ON: Viking Kestrel, 1989.
1989 Martyn Godfrey Mystery in the Frozen Lands. Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 1988.
1989 Dorothy Perkyns Rachel's Revolution. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1988.
1988 Carol Matas Lisa. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1987.

Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

October Review, 2008
  • The Unexplained: Janet Lunn (Editor)
  • Dead Silence: Norah McLintock
  • Time Twister: Frank Asch

The Unexplained, edited by Janet Lunn (Scholastic, paperback, $7.99) includes fifteen shivery stories by some of Canada’s most celebrated writers for young people, including Brian Doyle, Monica Hughes, Jean Little, L.M. Montgomery, Kit Pearson and Sharon Siamon as well as Lunn herself.

Within the pages of this collection we meet many ghosts. Some, such as Pearson’s Miss Kirkpatrick, and Joyce Barkhouse’s young woman in “Haunted Island,” want the young protagonists to find something, a something which will allow the deceased to rest in peace. Others, such as the skeleton in Ken Roberts’ “The Closet,” Montgomery’s spectre in “The Return of Hester,” and the dead twin in Little’s “Without Beth,” want someone to do something, while the uncanny creature in Lunn’s story, “Webster’s Roof,” wants someone to stop doing something. The remaining stories are simply tributes to real or imagined ghosts from the past, and one—Hughes’ “The Haunting of the Orion Queen,”—offers a panacea for fearful images from books: shared reading of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, a story which apparently works like a charm. A somewhat uneven collection due to its many genres and styles, but fine for casual bedtime haunting. For ages ten to twelve.

Norah McLintock is a force to be recognized in the field of crime fiction for teens. Right from the first chapter of Dead Silence (Scholastic, paperback, $7.99), the fifth in her Mike and Riel series, she makes sure her audience connects with the story’s first person narrator, along with a sense of urgency and suspense—a deft hook, particularly for readers who are more reluctant to engage with a story.

After Mike skips out on his friend Sal, he discovers that Sal has been stabbed to death near their high school. Bystanders give mixed messages, so Mike starts asking some deeper questions of his own. Various suspects are considered and cleared, including a young man with a cognitive disability whose own family expect he’s guilty. Eventually the mystery is solved, in a way that leaves readers satisfied and able to backtrack over the clues. Fast-paced reading for young teens.

Younger readers grades two and up, who enjoy Frank Asch’s Cardboard Genius Journals, will be intrigued with the third in the series: Time Twister (Kids Can, paperback, $6.95). Based on the story of a boy who has invented a spaceship from cardboard boxes, the character’s exploits with time travel will delight even the weariest of parents who choose this title for bedtime read-alouds. Some famous lines include, “Is that a time machine or a makeup kit?”, “Please play quietly and try not to disturb your father,” and, “Everyone messes up once in a while.” Will Alex send his little brother into another dimension, never to return? When Star Jumper returns from its voyage, will fifty earth years have come and gone? And, once time is twisted, will the Cardboard Genius be able to twist it back? A good escape, including imaginative science and family humour.

Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

September Review, 2008
  • The Dirt on Dirt: Paulette Bourgeois and Martha Newbigging
  • Alien Invaders: Ann Love
  • How Strong Is It?: Ben Hillman
  • Looking Closely Through the Forest: Frank Serafini
  • Here a Face There a Face: Arlene Arda

Non-fiction has provided economical fuel for many young explorers, and the following titles may make even the most reluctant of readers take notice.

Paulette (Franklin the Turtle) Bourgeois and Martha Newbigging offer a clean image for The Dirt on Dirt (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $17.95), a picture book for ages five and up. Fun facts, experiments, and recipes add to the mix, and there’s even a quiz on earthworms: do some earthworms grow very long and make gurgling noises when they move? Yes! In Australia, earthworms four meters in length slither underground and make sounds like draining bathtubs. A short glossary and an index add to the usefulness of the book, and the visuals are definitely child-friendly. Dig in (but wash your hands)!

Did you know that people have battled rats since 2400 B.C.? That invading cane toads, once introduced as beetle exterminators, are threatening other animal populations in Australia and Guam? That purple loosestrife, planted as medicine for diarrhea and ulcers, spreads impenetrable strands that change the nutrient and water flow of the wetland? Jane Drake and Ann Love’s Alien Invaders (Tundra, hardcover, $24.99) introduces readers to real-life threats affecting our ecosystems. Kids determine if they themselves are invaders or savers, and focus on ways to help. Coloured drawings by Mark Thurman seem rather muted, but possibly he was on a budget. For ages seven to ten.

Ben Hillman’s How Strong is It? (Scholastic, hardcover, $17.99) carries it all: vivid, breathtaking illustrations, catchy language, creative comparisons. In Spiderweb, readers learn that if a spider could make a web where each silk strand was as thick as a pencil, it would stop a Boeing 747 in midflight. There is no other substance that comes close to this stopping power. In Black Hole, we’re introduced to the scenario of standing in a black hole with a flashlight. The light wouldn’t go anywhere because nothing escapes the power of gravity in a black hole. Not us. Not Harry Houdini. Not even light. In Hair we learn that Rapaunzel definitely had something going on. The average human hair can support two to three-and-a-half ounces without breaking. Multiply this by the average number of hairs on a human head, which is 100,000, and then count in the fact that blondes have about 40,000 more than how many princes can Rapaunzel support? Hillman claims at least 17,500 pounds of them. Highly recommended for ages seven and up.

Two charming picture books which make use of visual adventures through photographs are Frank Serafini’s Looking Closely Through the Forest (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $16.95) and Arlene Arda’s Here a Face There a Face (Tundra, hardcover, $18.99). Both use gentle rhyme to nudge kids towards looking and thinking, highly recommended for language development in ages three to seven.

Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

August Review, 2008
  • Dreamhunter: Elizabeth Knox
  • Dreamquake: Elizabeth Knox
  • Feed: M. T. Anderson

For young adults seeking intricate fantasy reading to fill these final summer weekends, a couple of titles rise to the top of the list. Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter Duet, two intriguing crossover novels (also billed as adult reading), combine the buoyancy of teenage characters with the wide border of omniscient narration to produce a navigable and yet intelligent journey for readers. Both titles have won Best Book awards from the American Library Association as well as a variety of honours in New Zealand, Knox’s home country.

The first, Dreamhunter (also titled The Rainbow Opera; Viking Canada, hardcover, $20.00) introduces the alternate New Zealand-like republic in which gifted artists catch exotic and inspirational dreams in a mysterious territory which exists in a fold of the map. The dreamhunters reproduce these dreams for the paying public in large theatres called dream palaces. Although a bit thick with early setting and character advances, once the plot takes hold it’s a gripping ride as Laura discovers a message from her absent father and decides whether she is strong enough to publicize an underworld where nightmares are bought and sold. Quite obviously a book with a sequel, this is still a viable independent read although the ending by itself is somewhat unsatisfying.

Dreamquake (Puffin Canada, hardcover, $20.00) begins with the aftermath of Laura’s act of misguided psychological terrorism, and plunges forward into the darkness of antagonists desperate to claim power in a world where dreams can be harnessed to control the dreamers. The plot continues to hold, and readers become disturbed by what seems more and more plausible within the context of Knox’s fine writing. Rising above a simple mystery into an intense myth of place, some challenging questions are raised about power and freedom, artistic license, and the role of the storyteller. One particularly telling line is when the Grand Patriach says, “This society cannot continue in its callous willingness to base its wealth on suffering,” and Doran laughs, “Oh, yes, Your Eminence? And what are you going to give up?” ...a question which could be applied in modern contexts, which is the value of fantasy literature: allowing readers to explore intensely personal issues from a safe distance.

The Dreamhunter Duet is highly recommended for mature readers; with these books, Knox takes her place beside fine fantasy writers Susan Cooper, Mollie Hunter, Lloyd Alexander, Kenneth Oppel, Philip Pullman, and Garth Nix.

M.T. Anderson produces an even darker view of society in Feed (Candlewick Press, paperback, $11.99), a story about the relationship between Titus and Violet and the cost of resisting the establishment. The novel occurs in a futuristic world where the teen rumble spot is on the moon and technology dominates humans from implanted transmitters. Communication and entertainment are instantaneous, just a thought away, but is this actually progress? Kids are seduced by pop channels continuously feeding into their heads, smart advertising tuned in to brain waves and individual preferences, and even the lesions which develop on their skin have no warning power, thanks to the even larger “embellishments” appearing on the skin of pop idols.

Scary stuff, particularly for those already concerned about the power technology has on our society, and, if anything, a little heavy handed, but defiantly a convincing and heartbreaking look at a future where technology rules. Winner of a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and a National Book Award finalist, Feed makes a fine parallel with George Orwell’s 1984. Themes of peer pressure and individuality will definitely resonate with older teens; recommended, but be aware of mature language and content.

Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

July Review, 2008
  • Freefall: Wendy Lewis
  • Katie Be Quiet: Darcy Tamayose
  • Dead in the Water: Robin Stevenson

Freefall by Wendy Lewis (Key Porter, paperback, $11.95) is a remarkably gripping book for older teens, set in the exhilarating context of skydiving. The prose is both confident and lyrical, deftly establishing the separate voices of sixteen-year-old Airin Marks, and Ry Truman, the owner of the Skydive Gottanotter School, both of whom have weighty issues to share in addition to a growing attraction for each other. Ry’s long-term girlfriend has just taken off, leaving him the unwelcome parting gift of an STD. Airin is in the process of recovering from a childhood of sexual abuse, and, to make matters worse, the perpetrator of the assaults is her biological father who may or may not be stalking her again.

The addition of a few over-the-top details, such as the mysterious stranger who turns up with colored contacts, and the discovery that Ry is Airin’s childhood acquaintance who witnessed with her the life-changing, brightly colored Cessna, distract from the story, easing it towards melodrama, but there is enough realism here to keep the momentum. Definitely a page-turner, with a strong message about the power of life over death.

A more gothic melodrama for ages 11 – 14 is Darcy Tamayose’s Katie Be Quiet (Coteau Books, paperback, $8.95). Reeling from the death of her composer father, thirteen-year-old Katie Bean is having a difficult time adjusting to life at a new school until friendship with a couple of other kids, including the son of the detective working on a local case not unlike her own father’s death, propels her towards the idea that there is a murderer on the loose.

Snippets of backstory appear in italics: a thwarted composer, his childhood filled with abuse at the hands of a father who demands perfection, designs the perfect crime: hire John Bean, his nemesis, to write an opera, and, after Bean’s death, advertise the score as his own. A death craftily arranged, thanks to a detailed knowledge of herbs...But he doesn’t account for the daughter. The widow he can handle, charm, even. But the daughter must be dealt with, once and for all...

Dead in the Water by Robin Stevenson (Orca, paperback, $9.95) is a fast-paced sailing adventure for ages ten and up that begins and ends with the high drama of a man overboard. Simon “Spacey” Drake is a competent narrator and divulges just enough information about himself and his cabin-mates to whet interest. Rich contextual detail adds to a plot involving poachers and a sea chase, and the book is a good choice for reluctant readers who like their chapters short and action-packed.

Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

June Review, 2008
  • Out on a Limb: Gail Banning
  • You Can Save The Planet: Jacquie Wines
  • The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming: Laurie David and Cambria Gordon
  • Try this at Home: the editors of OWL Magazine
  • One Watermelon Seed: Celia Barker Lottridge

Out on a Limb (Key Porter, paperback, $11.95) is B.C. Crown prosecutor Gail Banning’s first novel, and a good place to begin a writing career. The characters are original and finely drawn, the voice authentic, and the plot very suitable for the nine to twelve audience for which the book is intended.

The story begins with a family climbing out of house troubles by living in a treehouse on property left to them in a will. We’re not talking spindly prairie trees here, but apt descriptions of the giant oak make things clear. In September, experiences in a snobby new school alter Rosie’s take on treehouse living, and a little white lie complicates things until at last Rosie’s survival instinct offers her an alternative to the slow social death she is imagining. A fun book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, highly recommended as a light summer read, about a family who tries to be kind to the planet and each other.

Three non-fiction titles for ages nine to twelve focus on the environment. Jacquie Wines’s You Can Save The Planet (Scholastic, paperback, $5.99) challenges some common ideas about being green and staying healthy: “washing dishes by hand after a big meal will waste more energy, water, and detergent than turning on a fully loaded, energy-efficient dishwasher;” and “bottled water is not tested for impurities to the same high standards as tap water.” It also outlines some standard practices for Eco-warriors—fifty, to be exact—and is printed on recycled paper, which just makes good sense.

Laurie David and Cambria Gordon have created an informative and entertaining book in The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming (Scholastic, paperback, $19.99). Filled with child-centred metaphors and definitions, websites, and further reading suggestions, this is a rich resource book every library should have. Check it out!

Try this at Home, by the editors of OWL Magazine (Bayard Books, paperback, $14.95) provides a combination of do-it-yourself activities supported by facts about why it’s easy and smart to be eco-chic. Green tweens will put their energy to action with projects such as organizing a book swap and calculating their eco-footprint. Reduce, reuse, and recycle: yeah!

A reprint of Celia Barker Lottridge’s picture book One Watermelon Seed (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, hardcover, $17.95), first published in 1986, is a livelier, digital version of the original. This title for ages four to seven makes a stellar counting book, but it’s also a strong simple story which offers basic facts about gardens and gardening. Highly recommended.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

May Review, 2008
  • Terror at Turtle Mountain: Penny Draper
  • The Proof: Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman
  • Egghead: Caroline Pignat

Penny Draper’s Terror at Turtle Mountain (Coteau Books, paperback, $8.95) contains fascinating historic narrative fiction, but its themes may be too mature for the nine to twelve age range for which the book is marketed.

At 4:10 a.m. on April 29, 1903, when one hundred million tons of limestone rock crash down Turtle Mountain and onto the town of Frank, Nathalie is forced to confront her fears in the resulting devastation of Canada’s worst slide disaster. As she joins the search for survivors and her missing friends and neighbours, she manages to rescue Baby Marion and prove herself a courageous heroine. In among the uplifting aspects of the tale, however, are passages which must be included to prove the impact of the crisis, but which could distress younger readers. Death, destruction, families separated and grieving—these make for a story powerfully told and important within the context of our country’s past.

Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman’s collaborative junior fiction novel The Proof that Ghosts Exist (Key Porter, paperback, $11.95), first in The Ghosthunters trilogy, is certainly well-suited for the ages nine to twelve set. Reminiscent of the glib Goosebumps novels for a similar age group, Matas and Nodelman’s title operates on a premise similar to one used by Alan Gibbons in the Blue Peter award winner Scared to Death: that a particular force of evil is capable of bringing on whatever it is that frightens people the most.

For Molly, it’s the sensation that she’s trapped in a small, close space. For her younger brother Adam, it’s creepy crawly things. For their father, Tim, who lives under the shadow of an approaching thirty-fifth birthday and the knowledge that both his father, and grandfather, died on their thirty-fifth birthdays, it’s his wife!

Humorous passages, including segments about an odd lakeside neighbour named Reggie who initially appears to nurse Tim’s strained ankle, keep this a light read for kids who like to be scared—but not too much.

First-time author Caroline Pignat provides a fast-paced, emotional read in Egghead, a young adult novel about bullying and peer pressure.

Will Reid is a gawky kid who wears fake turtlenecks, is obsessed by his ant farm project, and is lousy at gym. He becomes a target for Shane, a grade nine bully with problems of his own, and the story spirals into a nice mix of angst, compassion, and regret, told from the three differing perspectives of Will, his friend Katie, and Shane’s cohort, Devan.

Although the ending offers what may seem as a trite escape hatch for Will, the rest of the novel is satisfying and provocative, leaving readers with much food for thought. Hopefully more titles are on the horizon from this gifted writer.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

April Review, 2008
  • Henry’s Freedom Box: Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
  • Elijah of Buxton: Paul Curtis

The theme of freedom resounds in two stellar new books for children. Ellen Levine’s true story from the Underground Railroad, Henry’s Freedom Box (Scholastic, hard cover, $20.99) is a picture book for ages eight and up. Its more mature themes make it a suitable read for older reluctant readers as well as the senior end of a more traditional picture-book audience.

Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was. Henry was a slave. And slaves weren’t allowed to have birthdays....the story begins with a depiction of a childhood vastly different from today’s youth. Readers will react to the struggles of a mother and son who are separated with the death of their master, the son sold into factory service where he is beaten for even the smallest mistake. After he grows up, Henry marries a young woman named Nancy, and they have three children. When Nancy’s master loses a great deal of money, she and the children are sold. As Henry powerlessly watches his children disappear down the road, he searches for his wife.

He saw her the same moment she saw him.

When he wiped away his tears, Nancy, too, was gone.

Henry no longer sang. He couldn’t hum.

He went to work, and at night he ate supper and went to bed.

Henry tried to think of happy times. But all he could see were the carts carrying away everyone he loved.

Henry knew he would never see his family again.

The spare text makes a fine contrast to the emotions it inspires. This is a story of a man who loses everything, and manages to endure. Eventually, he designs a plan for his escape to a place where he will be free. The plan involves sending himself, in a wooden crate, through the mail. The journey would be a difficult one.

“What if you cough and someone hears you?” asks his friend.

“I will cover my mouth and hope,” Henry says.

The day Henry arrives safely to friends in Philadelphia, is the day he at last has a birthday—March 30, 1849, his first day of freedom! And from that day on, he also has a middle name: Henry “Box” Brown.

Levine discovered the story of Henry’s great escape in William Still’s 1872 publication of The Underground Railroad. She was awed by Henry’s ingenious idea and moved by his incredible courage. Kadir Nelson’s evocative illustrations—created by crosshatching and then layers of watercolor and oil—are a rich accompaniment to the text, creating a book that is highly recommended.

Also worthy of high praise is Christopher Paul Curtis’s Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic, hard cover, $19.99). This junior novel for ages 11 – 14 follows the story of the first child born into freedom in Buxton, Ontario, a settlement founded in 1849 by a white Presbyterian minister. The mission was first shared by Reverend King, fifteen slaves whom he had inherited through his wife, and six escaped slaves. King purchased land on which he and the freed slaves could live, and developed rules which created an economically viable settlement. Even into the twenty-first century, several hundred descendants of the original settlers still live in the area, farming the land their ancestors hewed from the once thick Canadian forest.

Readers meet a likeable hero in eleven-year-old Elijah. Given to what his parents call “being too fra-gile,” he strives to transcend a label that makes him squirm with embarrassment. Taking the initiative in planting a “toady frog” in Ma’s knitting basket, he hopes to prove that everyone has their fears. Ma handily repays him a few days later when he discovers a snake in the cookie jar, an event which brings even greater pandemonium. These humorous scenes move us quickly into a series of lighthearted adventures that nicely set the stage for the more serious events to come.

A local man has saved money to buy the freedom of his wife and children, who are still enslaved in the south. How this plan goes awry, and Elijah is enlisted to help, makes for a gripping finale to the book. Never again will he initiate silly games with his friends, play acting around slaves and abolitionists. Real life is much more horrifying than he had ever imagined, the plight of slaves so dire that what he sees will remain forever etched in his memory. And Elijah learns that his conscience and Ma’s cookie-jar snake are pretty much alike.

Seemed that no matter how hard and fast I tried to run away from either one of ’em, I ended up carrying it right along without even knowing.

Conscience, however, can be a good thing. It carries Elijah past his shortcomings, supporting him in a heroic act that will forever change the destiny of a little girl called Hope.

At first the dialect Curtis uses in his narration makes for somewhat difficult reading, but after a little while the story takes hold and young readers will appreciate an authentic and gripping read. Elijah of Buxton is an Honor Book for the 2008 Newbury Medal.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

March Review, 2008
  • Great Women From Our First Nation: Kelly Fournel
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: Sherman Alexie

Prince Albert writer Kelly Fournel has produced a noteworthy collection of short essays in Great Women From Our First Nation (Second Story Press, paperback, $10.95). Ten outstanding women leaders are profiled, including Inuit singer songwriter Susan Aglukark, Metis broadcaster Suzanne Rochon-Burnett, Professor Lorna Williams, Governor General’s Award winning Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, and poet-performer Pauline Johnson-Tekahionwake.

The subjects of this collection are presented clearly and respectfully.

Fournel’s voice is straightforward, offering carefully chosen details about her subjects’ childhoods, responses to challenge, and their emergence as international role models. Numerous black-and-white photographs add lots of appeal. Highly recommended non-fiction for readers ages ten and up.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown and Company, hardcover, $19.75) contains few positive role models, but lots of heart. Told with a voice reminiscent of Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye, Alexie’s young adult novel has been both criticized and lauded for its portrayal of cultural stereotypes, adolescent sexuality, and teenage angst.

Junior is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation. His quest to leave school on “the rez” in Wellpinit and survive in all-white Reardon high school combines gritty and heartbreaking life experiences with a fairy tale plot: boy is bullied in his home community and realizes he needs to leave, boy endures great trials in the transition to his new school, boy becomes date of cheerleader, Penelope, and befriended by football jock, Roger. Moments of exquisite poignancy are juxtaposed with crude humour, Alexie’s background in stand-up comedy always on the alert.

Alexie himself grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Like Junior, he was born hydrocephalic, and, at six months of age, underwent surgeries to correct the condition. After a grim prognosis, and suffering numerous seizures, Alexie developed into a very capable student, bullied by his peers, who eventually opted to attend Reardon high school, twenty miles from Wellpinit, where he became a star basketball player. Believable in real life, but more difficult to buy in Junior’s case.

The novel starts with a description of Junior’s special needs, giving readers a clear picture of a young man with a speech impediment whose “brain was a giant French fry,” “drowning in grease.” “My brain damage left me nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other, so my ugly glasses were all lopsided because my eyes were so lopsided...And my skull was enormous. Epic. My head was so big that little Indian skulls orbited around it. Some of the kids called me Orbit. And other kids just called me Globe. The bullies would pick on me, spin me in circles, put their finger down on my skull, and say, ‘I want to go there.’” Initially, Junior draws as a way to talk to the world, and because drawing might be his “only real chance to escape the reservation.” As he so eloquently puts it, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”

Somehow through the course of the story, Junior’s character morphs from an artist into an all American basketball star on the varsity team as a freshman. “Coach said I was the best shooter who’d ever played for him. And I was going to be his secret weapon.” He also handles interviews with ease: “I have to prove that I will never give up. I will never quit playing hard. And I don’t just mean in basketball. I’m never going to quit living life this hard, you know? I’m never going to surrender to anybody. Never, ever, ever.” Is this Junior talking, or Alexie?

And then, after a big game against his old team from the reserve:

I mean, jeez, all of the seniors on our team were going to college. All of the guys on our team had their own cars. All of the guys on our team had iPods and cell phones and PSPs and three pairs of blue jeans and ten shirts and mothers and fathers who went to church and had good jobs...

But I looked over at the Wellpinit Redskins, at Rowdy.

I knew that two or three of those Indians might not have eaten breakfast that morning.

No food in the house.

I knew that seven or eight of those Indians lived with drunken mothers and fathers.

I knew that one of those Indians had a father who dealt crack and meth.

I knew two of those Indians had fathers in prison.

I knew that none of them were going to college. Not one of them.

And I knew that Rowdy’s father was probably going to beat the crap out of him for losing this game.

I suddenly wanted to apologize to Rowdy, to all of the other Spokanes...

I was crying tears of shame....

All at once, it doesn’t really matter who’s talking. The message resounds, and the book is nearly over. Parts of it brilliant, parts of it less so. Parts of it comic, profane, poetic, stereotypical and yet highly original. Accompanied by the drawings of Ellen Fornoy, this novel is the Winner of the American 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. For ages 14 and up, with a language and content warning.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

February Review, 2008
  • Righty and Lefty: Rachel Vail, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
  • Cinderella: Michele Marineau, illustrated by Mylene Pratt
  • The Blue Hippopotamus: Phoebe Gilman, illustrated by Joanne Fitzgerald
  • A Bumblebee Sweater: Betty Waterton, illustrated by Kim LaFave
  • Mr. Gauguin’s Heart: Marie-Danielle Croteau, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Love in many of its forms can be found in a new armful of picture books for ages four and up. Rachel Vail’s Righty and Lefty, illustrated by Matthew Cordell (Scholastic, hard cover, $20.99), tells the story of two feet who learn to appreciate each other in spite of their differences. Good thing, because they belong to the same person! Cordell’s clever addition of a bandaid on Lefty helps kids tell them apart, and Vail’s witty characterizations will make even older readers laugh out loud.

For example, when they race, sometimes Righty wins; sometimes Lefty wins. It is always close. Later, they help each other out of their sneakers. “Ew,” says Lefty. “You stink.” “You stink, too,” says Righty. “I know,” says Lefty. “We are quite a pair.”

Michele Marineau’s modernized Cinderella, illustrated by Mylene Pratt (Tundra, hard cover, $14.99) adds yet another version of this classic tale. Leaning towards humour rather than melodrama, we meet a girl who lives in a little house in front of an asphalt jungle and whose fairy godmother gives her some good advice: “Smile! Without a smile, all the other stuff doesn’t count.”

A wonderfully varied collection of would-be princesses line up to try on the lost shoe: Pratt must have had particular fun with this page, offering the young, the middle-aged, even a granny, the chance of a lifetime. And then one morning, a delicate little foot slid gently into the shoe. The prince looked up and instantly recognized the smile that had won his heart at the ball. How could Cinderella resist those brown eyes, that noble profile, that speckled shirt? Romantic love, after all.

Love’s power to transform is evident in the late Phoebe Gilman’s The Blue Hippopotamus, illustrated by Joanne Fitzgerald (Scholastic, hard cover, $19.99) and nominated as a finalist in the 2007 Governor General’s Awards for children’s literature illustration.

When a little hippo falls head over heels for the Pharoah’s daughter, he hopes that a great magician can turn him into a boy. Alas, it isn’t possible, but Hapu instead becomes a beautiful blue hippo on wheels, and Mery-Am is enchanted... for a time. When he sees that she is lonely, Hapu puts her happiness above his, using his one wish to make Mary-Am’s dreams come true. And, in return, he finds himself transformed, not into the boy he once wished to be, but into a baby, born to Mery-Am and her handsome husband. A little Freudian, perhaps, but charming, nevertheless.

Grandma’s affections for Nellie in Betty Waterton’s A Bumblebee Sweater are clearly demonstrated by her knitting (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, hard cover, $19.95). A black-and-yellow striped garment is inspired by Nellie’s upcoming role in the spring concert, but, at first, it is a little large.

“That’s all right,” said Nellie. “I like it big. It’ll keep my knees warm.”

The sweater is eagerly worn ahead of time, and washed, and worn, and washed, until it isn’t so big after all. In fact, it won’t go over Nellie’s head. But when her role is changed from bee to flower, the sweater becomes an important costume after all...for her dog. Kim LaFave’s exuberant line-and-watercolor illustrations are a perfect fit for this child-centred tale.

Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau and translated by Susan Ouriou (Tundra, hardcover, $22.99) is reportedly based on the true story of artist Paul Gauguin who, when he was small, traveled from Denmark to Peru with his family. On the journey his father dies—“carried off by his heart—” and the text illustrates how an old man models for Paul the art of giving life to memories through painting.

“Years later, Paul would become one of the greatest painters of his time. It is said that his art resembles that of Japan. But what no one knows—other than you and Mrs. Gauguin—is that the red sun he painted all those years ago does not represent the flag of a faraway nation. The little boy’s painting of the big red sun is really a picture of Mr. Gauguin’s heart.”

Substantial text makes this a possibility for older, less fluent readers who require visual cues, and, correspondingly, the themes of love and loss will appeal to more mature children. Illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault are clever and complex, but without representations of Gauguin’s work the book doesn’t quite seem complete.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

January Review, 2008
  • Gemini Summer: Iain Lawrence
  • Chester: Melanie Watt
  • Bounce: Natasha Friend
  • Ten Ways to Make My Sister Disappear: Norma Fox Mazer
  • Zoe’s Extraordinary Holiday Adventures: Christina Minaki

With the authentic, child-centred feel of Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, Canadian author Iain Lawrence brings us Gemini Summer (Delacorte, hardcover, $21.00), winner of the 2007 Governor General’s Literary Awards in the Children’s English Text category. Lawrence deals with loss in the same, sensitive way as Katherine Patterson’s classic Bridge to Terabithia, however a touch of magic realism carries Danny, the lead character, past the anguish of his elder brother’s Beau’s death and into a world where maybe, just maybe, Beau has come back as Danny’s new dog, Rocket.

Set in the mid sixties in a neighbourhood pieced together from places and people Lawrence used to know in “Hog’s Hollow,” Toronto, although the storyline takes place across the border, the book has the comfortable feel of nostalgia and yet one element rankles. The antagonist, developed as a local bully and described as a boy with a great hollow head and a pudding of a face, whose speech only his father can understand, is presented as a one-dimensional character for whom readers will have scant empathy. The stereotype of someone with special needs being innately dangerous is allowed to blossom with very little attention until the end when Danny briefly acknowledges Dopey’s accidental, rather than intentional, role in Beau’s misfortune.

Humour is one hook which consistently catches young readers, and a number of new books are out to prove it. Melanie Watt’s Chester (Kids Can, hardcover, $18.95) is geared for ages four to eight, but older kids will be interested in the dual narrative , told from the perspective of Watt herself, as she attempts to write a story about a mouse, while her text is altered by Chester, the cat, who constantly “interrupts” to tell his version.

The change in narrators is flagged by red ink, as the cunning cat uses his own marker to cross out what Watt writes and replace it with his preferred text. Even the dedication is altered, becoming, “For Chester because I couldn’t have made this book without him. He’s the smartest most handsome cat in the world. I wish I could be like him someday!” By Chester, of course.

Natasha Friend’s Bounce (Scholastic hardcover ,$20.99) is the story of a young teen whose life is spinning out of control. Her father, “Birdie,” moves Evyn and her brother from Maine to Boston to live with his new partner and her six children, and Evyn struggles to make sense of it all through “conversations” she has with her mom:

“At night, I talk to my mom. I know what people would say. Talking to a dead woman? She must be nuts. But I’m not.”

Sensitive and honest, the story works so well because the main character has a strength that will convince kids ten to fourteen that no matter how bad things get, she can handle it—and so can they. The only drawback with the plot is an uneven passage of time which sometimes leaves readers scrambling to catch up.

Ten Ways to Make My Sister Disappear by Norma Fox Mazer (Scholastic hardcover, $20.99) begins as ten-year old Sprig is in constant competition with her older sister, Dakota. But when Sprig’s father is away, working in Afghanistan, her favourite neighbour is ill, and the class bully is acting like a boyfriend, Sprig discovers that allies are sometimes related to you. Mazer is a prolific realistic fiction author whose body of work is worth a look.

One other title worth mentioning is Zoe’s Extraordinary Holiday Adventures by Christina Minaki (Second Story Press, paperback, $8.95). Although the narrative is at times a little bumpy, the main character—a delightful young girl who explores the world from the confines of her wheelchair—reminds readers of the common ties that bind us together. For ages eight to eleven.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

Brenna Book Reviews, 2007

December Review, 2007
  • Lily and the Paper Man: Rebecca Upjohn, illustrated by Renne Benoit
  • Bunny Wishes: Michaela Morgan, illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church
  • Dear Polar Bear: Barry Ablett
  • Hanna Bear’s Christmas: Monica Devine, illustrated by Sean Cassidy
  • Pippin the Christmas Pig: Jean Little, illustrated by Werner Zimmerman
  • Even Higher: Richard Unger

Seasonal titles for ages four to eight warm the heart this December. Rebecca Upjohn’s Lily and the Paper Man (Second Story Press, hardcover, $14.95) outlines the story of a little girl and her mother who encounter a homeless man in their neighbourhood. At first Lily is afraid, but compassion triumphs, inspiring a gift that truly makes a difference. Poignantly illustrated by Renne Benoit.

Bunny Wishes by Michaela Morgan and illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church (Scholastic, hardcover, $20.99) is a richly worded tale of two bunnies who pin wish lists to a hollow log. The wind whooshes the papers onto the heads of baby mice who nibble and chomp and chew the notes into all sorts of winter toys. A fun romp kids will want to share more than once.

Barry Ablett’s Dear Polar Bear (Scholastic, hardcover, $19.99) vividly illustrates the story of a lonely bear who writes letters to his friends. A bit weak on the narrative, but kids will enjoy the actual letters enclosed and perhaps be inspired to write some of their own.

Monica Devine tells a tale of friendship in Hanna Bear’s Christmas, illustrated by Sean Cassidy (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, hardcover, $19.95). The little bear wants to wake up when Christmas arrives, but she can’t do it without the help of her pals who must work together to achieve their goal.

Pippin the Christmas Pig, Jean Little’s fresh Christmas classic of 2002, is now available in paperback (Scholastic, $8.99). Accompanied by Werner Zimmerman’s exquisite paintings, this gentle story illuminates how it feels to be small and insignificant, only to discover one’s own true worth.

Richard Unger’s Even Higher is a picture book for older children ages seven and up. Every year, on the day before Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi of the village disappears until nightfall. What is he doing? Is he soaring up to heaven to beg forgiveness for the sins of the townspeople? A small boy follows him, only to discover that the rabbi has been cutting wood for a poor widow.

“Reuven, did you see where he goes?” asked Yossel, breathlessly, after the boy returns.

“I did,” replied Reuven.

“Well?” said Menachem. “Don’t keep us waiting! Is it true? Did the rabbi ascend to heaven?”

For a moment, Reuven was silent. Then he looked at his friends, nodded, and said softly, “Even higher.”

Unger’s jewel-toned watercolors and coloured-pencil illustrations beautifully capture the essence of this timeless Jewish folktale.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

November Review, 2007
  • Speechless: Valerie Sherrard
  • A Sky Black With Crows: Alice Walsh
  • Where Soldiers Lie: John Wilson
  • The Youngest Spy: Barry McDivitt
  • Prisoners in the Promised Land: Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Speechless, a new young adult novel by Valerie Sherrard (Dundurn Press, paperback, $12.99), is a good choice this Remembrance Day for readers who wish to increase their emotional intelligence regarding world affairs. Griffin’s 115 day “protest of silence,” under the guise of raising awareness about child soldiers, begins as an attempt to escape an oratory assignment in school. How he deals with his ever-growing guilt over the ruse, and eventually turns in earnest towards this international cause, makes for a psychologically intriguing read.

Somewhat contrived is the confession of a teacher, who tells Griffin the story of a Ugandan sponsor child conscripted into battle at age eleven and not heard from since, and yet it serves its purpose, giving Griffin an authentic reason to be the leader many already believe him to be. In the end, after a million signatures, Griffin is asked again to give a speech; this time, he has something to say.

The wartime setting is gently understated in Alice Walsh’s A Sky Black With Crows (Red Deer Press, paperback, $12.95), and yet it offers a genuine background to the book’s characters and the choices they make. Raised in Dr Grenfell’s orphanage after the death of her parents “on the Labrador,” Katie is bound to seek her youngest sister while trying to finish her education at the Halifax academy. “We are a family,” she tells herself. “We belong together.”

Her quest to become nurse, and a blossoming romance with a young soldier who was once a childhood friend, combine to make this a page-turner for girls twelve and up. With historical information about the International Grenfell Association, the novel combines fiction with important facts about one of Canada’s early medical leaders.

Where Soldiers Lie by John Wilson (Key Porter, hard cover, $15.95) brings battle to life. India, 1857, provides an exotic background as sixteen-year-old Jack O’Hara finds himself fighting for his life alongside soldiers, women, and children, in an inadequate entrenchment surrounded by the mutinying Indian army. Fast-paced and vivid, this title for ages twelve and up deftly presents the grim realities of war in contrast to the optimism of youth.

Much of the story seems very authentic, and yet a few things jar: passages where Jack waxes romantic about the commander’s daughter are clearly fiction, and, in one scene, the weakened mother of a newborn baby deftly steps out of the room with her husband to discuss names, only to see the new father blown to bits. Choices geared toward drama, to be sure, but many in the intended audience will see the writer’s hand behind these scenes rather than realism.

Barry McDivitt’s The Youngest Spy (Thistledown, paperback, $12.95) is also an authentic read, with its author doing a remarkable job of piecing together varying perspectives related to the American Civil War. McDivitt’s main character, George Duguay, is a fourteen-year-old Canadian farm boy working as a spy to protect his community from US invasion. Although the historical research seems sound, rapid transitions between setting and character make navigation difficult. Older teens interested in this particular period in history may find the effort worth it, but the complex storyline may evade the intended audience of ages eight to twelve.

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s new title, Prisoners in the Promised Land (Scholastic, hardcover, $14.99) does a stellar job of presenting the perspective of a young Ukrainian girl interned in the Spirit Lake work camp during World War I. The diary format allows Anya’s heart and soul to be spilled onto pages outlining her family’s journey from the village of Horoshova in Austria-Hungary, 1914, to Montreal, where they begin to make a new life for themselves. Their steps toward a brighter future, inspired by Canadian advertising to encourage immigration, is short-lived when they are viewed as possible “enemy aliens.”

The War Measures Act labelled 8679 new Canadians as potentially dangerous, interning them in twenty-four camps across the country. Approximately 6000 of those held were Ukrainians despite the fact that the British government proclaimed that these people were not “Austrians” and thus were not the enemy. During and after the war, hysteria against foreigners resulted in poverty, homelessness, and, for some, death.

Yet Anya’s story, in addition to outlining times when her heart is “wrapped in sadness,” is full of a young girl’s hopes and dreams, her ingenuity in helping her family, and the universal themes of growing up. It will appeal to young people for its direct and honest voice, and in addition to a great story, it contains an important lesson: never again should we deny people their basic rights and freedoms because of where they come from. For ages eleven to fourteen.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

October Review, 2007
  • Darkwing: Kenneth Oppel
  • Villainology: Arthur Slade
  • Fear this Book: Your Guide to Fright, Horror, and Things that Go Bump in the Night: Jeff Szpirglas

The Paleocene epoch provides a clever setting for Kenneth Oppel’s new title, Darkwing (HarperCollins, hard cover, $21.99). A prequel to Oppel’s previous bat books (Silverwing, Sunwing, and Firewing), this fantasy is definitely a flight of fiction, and yet all of the characters are based on real species living during this time period, making this an especially intriguing read.

Readers will strongly identify with Dusk, the lead character and a youthful “chiropter” who discovers that he is a more evolved form of the arboreal gliders who raised him. Much to the horror of his clan, he can flap as well as glide, using his sails in the same way that birds use their wings. In a poignant conversation with his sister, Dusk asks, “Is different wrong?” and much of the storyline is spent exploring this point, to great advantage. Herein lies the value of fantasy literature—allowing readers to explore, at a safe distance, issues which very clearly arise in present day reality.

Later, when Dusk discovers other outcasts, he rebels at the thought of the new name—bat—which they have given to creatures such as themselves. “It doesn’t matter what you’re called,” his sister says firmly, obviously more generous than earlier in the story. “You’re different, we always knew that. But you’re still you. You haven’t changed.” Wise words from one so young...or rather, old: sixty-five million years old, to be exact.

The plot line following Dusk and his clan, through dangers created by their own ethical choices as well as the changing world around them, is clear and strong. Interwoven is a secondary, less successful plot, tracing the progress of two carnivorous “felids” as their story crosses in and out of the path of the arboreal gliders. Oppel’s sketches flag changing points of view as readers move between chapters, transitions which may prove a stumbling point for less skilled navigators. On the whole, however, this title, geared for ages ten to twelve, will likely appeal to an even wider age range, and especially to those who have previously enjoyed exploring with Oppel his unique viewpoints on the delicious appeal of flight.

Saskatoon author Arthur Slade has a new title out just in time for Hallowe’en: Villainology (Tundra, paperback,$12.99 ) is a witty and compelling read, a rogue’s who’s who, for ages nine to twelve. Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the most villainous of all? From Attilla to the Invisible Man to memorable characters from Shakespeare, all are described within, and spookily illustrated in black-and-white by Derek Mah. For those who dare, join Slade himself on October 29, 7pm, at Saskatoon’s McNally Robinson for a hilarious look at the likes (and dislikes) of villains through the ages.

A seasonal non-fiction title geared to ages eight and up is Jeff Szpirglas’s Fear this Book: Your Guide to Fright, Horror, and Things that Go Bump in the Night (Maple Tree Press, paperback, $12.95). Witty and succinct, it includes a dissection of all things even remotely frightening as well as an examination of parts of the human body connected to fear such as the amygdala, the section of the brain that, as a result of learning, signals reactions to danger. Szpirglas himself used to fear sharks, dogs, and stinging insects; now he fears bills and income tax.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance author who has five published books for young people.

Back to Index

September Review, 2007
  • Free as the Wind: Jamie Bastedo, illustrated by Susan Tooke
  • The Summer of the Marco Polo: Lynn Manuel, illustrated by Kasia Charko
  • Bugs Up Close: Diane Swanson, photos by Paul Davidson
  • A Wish For You: Katrina Ham, illustrated by Carey Rigby-Wilcox
  • Kids Do Snacks: Jean Pare

Two visually appealing new picture books celebrate Canadian history with pizzazz . Jamie Bastedo’s Free as the Wind (Red Deer Press, hardcover, $19.95) illustrates the story of the wild horses of Sable Island, animals whose origin there is somewhat of a mystery. Some may have been survivors of the many shipwrecks that occurred on the island’s rocky shores. Others may have belonged to Acadians deported by British authorities from the area now known as Nova Scotia. It is reported that Thomas Hancock, a Boston merchant whose ships were used to transport the Acadians to the British colonies in America, took about 60 of their horses and left them to graze on Sable Island.

In the early 1880s, many of these animals were rounded to up sell at auctions in Halfax. In the mid 1900s, remaining horses were being captured and sold for dog food. Children across North America wrote letters to Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, pleading that he save the wild horses. And within a month, the government issued a protection order. The children had won their cause! Free as the Wind follows the story of one young boy who loves the horses and assists in the bid for their freedom.

These animals are a national treasure, not only because their history dates back to the early settlement of Canada, but also because their preservation demonstrates the difference children can make. A story well worth sharing, with magnificent paintings (acrylic on watercolor paper) by Susan Tooke, a Halifax artist.

A child’s viewpoint is also the center of Lynn Manuel’s The Summer of the Marco Polo (Orca, hardcover, $19.95). Adapted from the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the story takes place in 1883 when the famous clipper ship ran aground off the coast of Prince Edward Island near the Cavendish home where a young Montgomery lived with her grandparents.

I was only eight years old that summer, the narrative begins, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. We were in school when we heard the great crash. It had been storming in Cavendish for days, yet we could still hear the crash through the wind. The Nelson boys said it was a tree blown down, and we all looked out at the old spruce woods. But I knew it wasn’t a tree.

The child’s instincts were correct. The crash was the sound of a great, black ship stranded among the breakers. Townspeople painted signs warning the sailors not to leave the ship—they would drown for sure if they tried to make it through the raging sea—and, in the morning, a rescue boat went out.

Captain Bull stays with the story’s narrator and her grandparents, and tells tales of the ship, built in Saint John, New Brunswick. The Marco Polo made her first trip to England in fifteen days, beating all records. Then she raced other ships to Australia. A twisted keel was the captain’s explanation for her terrific speed.

Another storm came up while the wreckers were on the ship. By the next morning, the sea was raging worse than when the Marco Polo ran aground, and the ship split apart, with the men still aboard. Finally a seine-boat made it out, with barrels lashed to the sides, and rescued men who had survived by clinging to bits of wood. Not all, however, were so lucky.

Kasia Charko’s watercolor-and-pencil illustrations make detailed, inviting counterparts to the text. Coincidentally, Charko herself met L.M. Montgomery’s great-grandchildren where she lives in Caledon, Ontario, a short distance from Norval where Montgomery lived for many years.

Both these picture-books, although intended for younger children, will likely be best-suited to capable readers seven and up who can handle the not-so-happy details as well as the rather weighty historical context which, in the case of Bastedo’s title, best comes through in the endnotes. These books would also make excellent material for older, less capable readers, who might appreciate the simpler language and picture-cues along with the mature story ideas.

For kids six and up reluctant to let go of summer, Diane Swanson’s non-fiction Bugs Up Close (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $18.95) will keep the bees buzzing and crickets chirping a little longer thanks to Swanson’s clear, informative text and Paul Davidson’s stunning photos of common North American insects and their cousins. Did you know that some insects molt more than 50 times, shedding their exoskeletons as they grow...that a grasshopper can travel a distance 15 times its body length in one leap...that some small flies flap their wings 1000 times a second? And that spiders and daddy longlegs, because of their unique body parts, are not insects? For a swarm of fascinating facts, this title is highly recommended.

Local literacy activist Katrina Ham supports early language development in her preschool boardbook A Wish For You (lifetime productions, $9.95). Teaming up with illustrator Carey Rigby-Wilcox, Ham’s gentle rhyming text ( may want to be a fireman, a dancer, or a website designer/an engineer, a lawyer, a waiter, or potash miner...) has a strong prairie theme and very young children, always intrigued by babies, will be drawn to the kid-centred and humorous illustrations. Katrina Ham runs her family-based business from a farm north of Brock, Saskatchewan.

Missing family time now that kids are back to school? Jean Pare’s new Kids Do Snacks cookbook (Company’s Coming Publishing, coil bound, $15.99) can help reunite everyone at the kitchen counter. Although not everything’s made from scratch, and much of the fare is high on sugar, these recipes are fun and kid-friendly, and the included riddles and jokes will tickle the funny bone (...What starts with t, ends with t and is filled with t? A teapot! Why did the chicken cross the playground? To get to the other slide...).

Berry Me Alive

  • Ingredients:
    • 1 ¼ cups milk
    • 1 cup frozen mixed berries
    • 1 cup raspberry yogurt
    • 1/3 cup orange juice
    • 2 tablespoons instant vanilla pudding powder
  • Method:
    • Put all 5 ingredients into blender. Cover with lid. Blend until smooth. Pour into glasses.
    • Makes about 3 ½ cups.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

August Review, 2007
  • Flight of the Tiger Moth: Mary Woodbury
  • Sketches: Eric Walters
  • Shadow of the Moon: Mariana Cohen

Mary Woodbury’s Flight of the Tiger Moth (Coteau, paperback, $10.95) is a youthful variation on World War II historical fiction, celebrating the west’s contributions related to the training of aircrew. The important thing about this book for Saskatchewanians is the mention of local colour associated with the base near Moose Jaw, the related fanfare of young British pilots, and the general impact of the aerodrome on the war, which, through the stories of Jack’s elder sister and her fiancé, sometimes seems all too close.

The historical elements of this novel appear detailed and well-researched, and many readers will enjoy the descriptions of the planes and all they imply. Difficulties appear with the age of the main character, for, although he is sixteen and entering grade twelve, Jack often appears too young for his age, and there are contrasting characterizations of someone who eagerly takes the drivers’ seat, yet a little later builds model planes and concentrates on saving an abandoned pup with the naivety of someone years younger. This, unfortunately, impedes the book’s impact and will affect its readership.

In a similar manner, Eric Walters’ new title Sketches (Puffin, paperback, $12.00), while very appealing in terms of its themes and setting, sometimes feels contrived. The language at times doesn’t ring true for characters experiencing the grit of the streets as do Brent, Ashley, and Dana, limiting the emotional level of the book and bringing its age range close to the eleven and twelve-year-old minimum. In spite of this, the book is a viable read for middle-grade kids who want a safe context in which to consider difficult issues related to urban problems, and may inspire some interested readers towards volunteer work or other future endeavours related to community support.

Mariana Cohen’s Shadow of the Moon (Vanwell, paperback, $9.95) is an unusual blend of early Gordon Korman humour and Lloyd Alexander-esque high fantasy. Because it’s too flippant to quite fit the latter, it will miss a larger audience, appealing in a limited fashion to ages ten to twelve. It, and its sequel, might just fit the bill as quick, beach books, and hopefully Cohen will continue to write because she does show promise. She might consider requesting more input into the covers Vanwell is using for her books—this one in particular does not well represent her content, nor does it say anything of meaning to the readership she intends to draw.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index

July Review, 2007
  • The Royal Woods: Matt Duggan

For young readers avidly awaiting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and last book in the series by J.K. Rowling, a few other recommended titles are worth examining in the interim.

Children who enjoy lighter fare will appreciate Matt Duggan’s The Royal Woods (Key Porter, hardcover, $16.95), a contemporary running-away-tale set in big-box metropolis. Twelve-year-old Sydney and her nine-year-old brother Turk find themselves in a strange and confusing new world: the subdivision known as The Royal Woods. Rich with storytelling language and quick wit, capable readers eight to eleven will find this title fun to read independently.

Reminiscent of E.L.Konigsburg’s 35-year-old Newbury award classic, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E.Frankweiler, the two books would make good companion reads. The latter is an adventure spotlighting characters of similar ages and angsts, Claudia (twelve) and Jamie (nine), but instead of hiding in suburbia, these two run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both books play on common themes of childhood and are told from the perspectives of rather unexpected narrators.

For readers eleven and up who are set on epic fantasies, a number of series’ books are available to whet willing imaginations. When asked how to develop intelligence in young people, Einstein is reported to have answered, “Read fairy tales.” Fairy tales and fantasies supply the imagination with room to grow and create a basis for the sciences as well as the arts. In addition, children can safely explore, in the distance of a fantasy world, problems that may be too difficult to endure in a context of real life.

American author T.A. Barron’s Great Tree of Avalon series, beginning with Child of the Dark Prophesy, and The Lost Years of Merlin epic, beginning with the title of the same name, are two worthwhile reads. For more information, consult the author’s website:

Another New York Times bestselling author is twenty-four-year-old Christopher Paolini. His trilogy begins with Eragon (on which the recent movie was based), continues with Eldest, and extends into one other title yet to be published. For more details on Paolini’s writing, go to

A British author to consider is Alan Gibbons, whose Shadow of the Minotaur catapaulted him to fame with a Blue Peter Award (run by a BBC children’s program of the same name) seven years ago. This title contains the first part of the Legendeer Trilogy, discussed further on

Australia boasts Garth Nix, whose Keys to the Kingdom series starts with Mister Monday and extends, so far, through five titles. For more details, see

An author to watch in Canada is Kenneth Oppel, who is extending the bat theme (which began with Silverwing in 1997) to Darkwing: a brand new title expected in August. Oppel’s absolutely brilliant website can be accessed at

Lloyd Alexander, a stalwart fantasy writer for this age group, passed away in May at the age of 83. Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series is a good one to start with, beginning with The Book of Three. More information about this author’s work can be found at His legacy includes over forty published books for the enjoyment of young readers.

Beverley Brenna is a Saskatoon freelance writer and the author of five books for young people.

Back to Index