December 16, 2016

Greenbeard the Pirate Pig

by Andrea Torrey Balsara
FriesenPress
978-1-460285015
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
August 2016

Andrea Torrey Balsara, the illustrator behind my favourite Happy the Pocket Mouse series by Philip Roy (Ronsdale Press), has created her own lovable character in Greenbeard the Pirate Pig, a farming guinea pig entranced by the smell of the salty sea.  Greenbeard, so call because of the copious lettuce he eats which turns his beard a bright, leafy green, smells adventure and packs his bag with lettuce and carrots, dons his boots, a hat plumed with a lettuce leaf, his gardening belt into which he inserts a carrot sword (but not a sharp one because that would be dangerous), and heads to the shore.  There an elderly mouse sells him a decrepit ship for a song–which Greenbeard happily sings, not knowing the mouse means it's cheap–and proceeds to mend and patch and shine his new ship, The Golden Lettuce, until ready to sail.
From Greenbeard the Pirate Pig 
by Andrea Torrey Balsara
But what about a crew?  A gloomy rat, which the mouse owner introduces to Greenbeard as Snug Rumkin, is somehow shanghaied into accompanying Greenbeard, though his involuntary attendance becomes enthusiastic participation when he hears of possible treasure, as well as the adventure, that Greenbeard promises.
From Greenbeard the Pirate Pig
by Andrea Torrey Balsara
Greenbeard is a delight, an innocent in search of adventure, hopeful of worldly voyages.  His intent is to explore the world and enjoy life, never to engage in the nefarious activities often associated with pirates.  Of course, he’ll have to curb the pirating enthusiasm of his first mate Snug Rumkin–probably already curtailed by Greenbeard’s singing of a song he deems inappropriate (n.b. music and lyrics are included in the book)–but that’s just part of his job as captain of The Golden Lettuce.  While I would have enjoyed sharing in one of Greenbeard’s adventures, slated to be told in the upcoming Greenbeard the Pirate Pig and the Isle of Lost, Greenbeard the Pirate Pig is a delightful introduction to Andrea Torrey Balsara’s guinea pig pirate captain.  In addition to charming young readers with her cartoon characters and  characteristic long curvy lines amongst the whiskers, fur and landscape of her drawings, Andrea Torrey Balsara offers colouring pages and puzzles available at www.torreybalsara.com and www.greenbeardthepiratepig.com to entertain and empower children to be more like the invincible Greenbeard the Pirate Pig, ready to pursue adventures at the drop of a carrot.
From Greenbeard the Pirate Pig
by Andrea Torrey Balsara

December 14, 2016

French Toast

by Kari-Lynn Winters
Illustrated by François Thisdale
Pajama Press
978-1-77278-006-2
32 pp.
Ages 6+
November 2016

Although National French Toast is celebrated on November 28, I thought that reviewing this inspirational picture book on that day would trivialize its significant message.  And since my family enjoys French toast, the food, on Christmas morning, I opted to celebrate the book’s publication closer to that celebration, one similarly wrapped in inclusivity, culture, love and family.

While out for a walk with her grandmother, Nan-ma, Phoebe is called “French Toast” by kids from school.  Obviously humiliated, the little girl clarifies to the blind woman that she is called that because the colour of her skin is “Like tea, after you’ve added the milk.” (pg. 10) But Nan-ma sees that as “Warm and good” which gets Phoebe wondering since the label doesn’t usually make her feel good, just as “I don’t feel good when strangers at the mall comment on my ringlets or ask me about my accent.” (pg. 11)  This begins a discussion about the colour of Phoebe’s mother’s skin, usually identified as white, but which Phoebe recognizes more like stirred peach yogurt, filled with sweetness and goodness.  She sees her father as warm banana bread and her Nan-ma like maple syrup, and then others as cinnamon honey and toasted coconut. Meanwhile, as they walk, a girl from school engages Phoebe, surprising her by calling her by name. Finally Phoebe takes to heart the guidance she has taken and likewise given, flavouring her life, her family and herself with optimism.
From French Toast 
by Kari-Lynn Winters 
illus. by François Thisdale
French Toast starts out as less about the food and more about labelling but Kari-Lynn Winters, with illustrator François Thisdale (most recently awarded the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award), turns the story around to be about the goodness of food and relationships that nourish us.  Kari-Lynn Winters, who can do fun and whimsical (e.g., Good Pirate, Pajama Press, 2016) as well as serious and meaningful (e.g., Gift Days, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012), impresses with her splendid foray into understanding and acceptance of skin colour, diversity and multiculturalism (Phoebe’s family is Haitian) and one that warms the heart and fills the belly with virtue and affection.
From French Toast
 by Kari-Lynn Winters 
illus. by François Thisdale
Kari-Lynn Winter’s story could only have been paired with the artistry of François Thisdale who illustrated the memorable The Stamp Collector (Jennifer Lanthier, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012) and That Squeak (Carolyn Beck, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015). François Thisdale, whose artwork is a magical blend of drawing and painting with digital imagery, balances the reality of Phoebe and her grandmother’s relationship and emotional situations with a dream-like landscape. His colours and textures fuse so many elements that the book becomes more art than merely a child’s picture book. And then there are the images of glorious food that cultivate nourishment for the soul, inspiring Phoebe and her grandmother, and anyone who reads the book, to see family and skin colour from a fresh perspective.

French toast may not be part of your holiday buffet but French Toast should definitely be on everyone’s bookshelf and story-telling list for the holidays and every day of the year when acceptance is vital i.e., always.  It feeds the spirit and bakes up multiple servings of compassion and open-mindedness, helpings we should all scoop out enthusiastically.
From French Toast
by Kari-Lynn Winters 
illus. by François Thisdale

December 12, 2016

The Secrets We Keep

by Deb Loughead
Dundurn
978-1-459737297
184 pp.
Ages 12-15
December 2016

Not all secrets are bad; in fact, The Secrets We Keep ends on a very sweet one.  But the secrets being kept in Deb Loughead's newest young adult novel are the destructive kind, the kind that destroy relationships and souls, the kind that erode slowly the edges of what is good until it becomes a slippery slope with a pit at the bottom.

Ever since that field party at the quarry last June when challenged teen Kit Stitski disappeared and was later found dead, drowned in the water, fifteen-year-old Clementine has been tortured with guilt, convinced that she played a role in his death.
It’s like his ghost will not go away and leave me alone.  And now that I know his mother’s still hunting for answers, my secrets are spooking me even more. (pg. 15) 
Worse than her own guilt, Clem’s supposed best friend, Ellie Denton, who had also been secretly at the quarry, partying with Mac, a boy on whom she’d been crushing, is manipulating Clem with the threat of exposure.  With excessive demands on Clem to always be available to cover for her and Mac, Ellie becomes a menace that Clem can’t seem to shake.  Though Clem wishes she could speak to her family about this, she finds some relief when she convinces her tech-addicted parents and younger brother to agree to put aside their devices regularly for some quality family time, including at night when Ellie regularly texts Clem.

That might get Ellie somewhat off her back but Clem is still plagued by a guilty conscience and a crush on Grade 10 student, Jake Harcourt, with whom she’d once been part of a Circle of Friends support group for Kit in middle school.  When the two finally reconnect as friends who've both taken on blame for Kit’s death and recognized how the circumstances have changed them, Clem and Jake look for ways to be something positive in the lives of Kit’s mother and younger brother, as well as expose a lot more secrets concerning the young man’s death.

Though The Secrets We Keep is not a mystery, there is a problem to be solved and secrets to be exposed and Deb Loughead never lets the reader’s adrenalin levels subside.  The tension that Clem suffers at the hands of her friend drives the story and her to find some resolution, one with which she can live.  And though it is never obvious, Jake, the boy who defends another teen rumoured to have fought with Kit that night, is the means to that resolution, as well as a sweet respite from the strain of keeping secrets and harbouring guilt.  The Secrets We Keep has both the strong plot and character development to hook teen readers but its strong message about connecting and disconnecting, both personally and digitally, makes the story one worth reading and heeding.

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Reviewed just in time, The Secrets We Keep launches this Wednesday, December 14, 2016 at Harbourfront's Lakeside Terrace in Toronto.  Details here.

December 08, 2016

Akilak's Adventure

by Deborah Kigjugalik Webster
Illustrated by Charlene Chua
Inhabit Media
978-1-77227-123-2
32 pp.
Ages 5-7
November 2016

“…your destination is not running away; it will be reached eventually.” (pg. 6)

This is now Akilak’s grandmother reassures the young girl when she sends her off on her own when the older woman injures herself.  Akilak must travel on foot to her uncle’s camp, hopefully reaching it before nightfall, so that she might get food which they had planned on replenishing during a hunting trip, now cancelled.

The journey across the tundra is long but making the acquaintance of Caribou who decides to accompany the young girl on her journey makes the distance more manageable.  As the two companions trek across the northern landscape, Akilak’s imagination has her wondering how much more quickly she could travel as a fish across the water, or a fleet-footed wolf across the land, or as a snow goose across the sky.  But when Caribou asks whether she would really choose to be an animal rather than a human, Akilak understands the value of being exactly who she is.
From Akilak's Adventure 
by Deborah Kigjugalik Webster 
illus. by Charlene Chua
From their shelter to their clothing and footwear, and their habits and the nuance of language, Deborah Kigjugalik Webster has accomplished what she set out to do: told a wonderful story contextualized in Inuit culture.  She may have intended this originally for her daughters but by wrapping in her own Inuit heritage the story of an imaginative young girl with a seemingly daunting task, Deborah Kigjugalik Webster has created a tale that will entertain, teach and inspire all.  Artist Charlene Chua, who has also illustrated Fishing with Grandma (Susan Avingaq and Maren Vsetula, 2016) and Leah’s Mustache Party (Nadia Mike, 2016) for Inhabit Media, adds an effortlessness to the realism of her illustrations.  Though depicting animals with representative flair, Charlene Chua keeps the energy of the story gentle, never miring her art in the enormity of Akilak’s mission but instead illustrating it as the adventure Deborah Kigjugalik Webster, Akilak and Caribou all recognize it to be. I wish I could adequately scan the double-spread illustrations to share the sweetness of Charlene Chua’s cartoon-like creations because they convey more completely the breadth of Akilak’s Adventure than my mere words can.

I’m sorry that I missed announcing the book launch for Akilak's Adventure which was held on November 13, 2016 at Kaleidoscope Kids’ Books in Ottawa but it's better to get the book late rather than never.  Akilak’s Adventure has timeless teachings about responsibility and the importance of imagination to make it a worthwhile read now and always.
From Akilak's Adventure 
by Deborah Kigjugalik Webster 
illus. by Charlene Chua

December 07, 2016

Saving Stevie

by Eve Richardson
Red Deer Press
978-0-88995-540-0
228 pp.
Ages 14-17
November 2016

When her obnoxious older sister Tiff gives birth to Stevie, it's thirteen-year-old Minto who delivers him, so it’s not surprising that the girl feels bonded to the baby.  But when her sister disappears and her mother has an accident that sends her to hospital and rehab, the decision is made to put Stevie in foster care, and Minto refuses to let it happen.  In a planned escape, she packs up two and a half-month-old Stevie in a sling beneath her mother’s winter coat and, with a laundry bag laden with formula, diapers, food and her sketchbook, heads out across a ravine to Shacktown, a menagerie of shelters constructed from dumped garbage.

     I could, this moment, change my mind, go back inside, make it unreal.  And lose Stevie. 
     Or cut, and keep him. (pg. 15)

There Minto asks for shelter from Dawn, an Aboriginal young artist, who lives with her large dog Niijii in the make-shift neighbourhood.  Amidst the odd assortment of characters are the older Ginger and her nineteen-year-old son Matthew; the hyper Palma who speaks of her own baby, Janine, whom she’d given up to care; Palma’s “sister” Cass;  the handsome Damian to whom Minto is attracted; an older, one-armed dump diver Scrap; and a couple of jerks, Lex and Cody.  Everyone has their own way of surviving life on the edge, including prostitution, but Dawn sells her art and encourages Minto in her drawing, helping to sell some of her doodle designs as cards.

When Dawn has to leave to help her suicidal brother, leaving behind Niijii who has appointed himself Stevie’s canine guardian, Minto must ensure she can keep Stevie safe, fed, and clean, a tall order in such precarious circumstances.  When survival is the priority for all, it’s hard to know whom to trust, especially when desperation dictates much.  Too soon Minto learns she’ll have to save Stevie from far more than foster care.

Saving Stevie is a raw initiation into life in the tenuous urban neighbourhoods hidden in plain sight and those who make them their homes.  Minto may be distressed by her situation i.e., the possibility of losing Stevie and feel the need to react by running away with the baby, but she learns soon enough that there are worse places to be.  Eve Richardson pens a story of desperation and action that reveals that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the ravine.  In fact, it’s pretty darn scary, even if there are a few friends around to mitigate the apparent hopelessness. Eve Richardson is especially good at giving Minto voice, a voice that is both young and mature, vulnerable and strong, with her heart and head working together to save Stevie.  As a debut, Saving Stevie is an accomplished story, hopefully a portent of more YA from Eve Richardson whose own voice takes us into places we need to see but rarely do.

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The book launch for Saving Stevie takes places tomorrow in Toronto. Details are posted here.

December 06, 2016

Saving Stevie: Book Launch (Toronto, ON)

Debut YA author

Eve Richardson

will be launching 

her young adult novel

Saving Stevie
by Eve Richardson
Red Deer Press
978-0-88995-540-0
228 pp.
Ages 14-17
November 2016

on 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

7 p.m.

at

Mabel's Fables
662 Mount Pleasant Road
Toronto, ON


Thirteen-year-old Minto's family is in crisis. Minto's older sister has had a baby and immediately abandoned the family and her son. Her father and mother are overwhelmed with the new baby and not coping. When Minton hears discussions about the possibility of turning weeks-old Stevie over to adoption services, Minto must take action and responsibility. She steals away in the night with the baby, some basic supplies and a little bit of money to hide in a shacktown. There are so many problems to deal with — Minto isn't sure she can make this work. But she has to keep trying because the alternative is not acceptable.
Description retrieved December 5, 2016 from Fitzhenry & Whiteside website at http://www.fitzhenry.ca/Detail/0889955409


December 05, 2016

Kamik Joins the Pack

by Darryl Baker
Illustrated by Qin Leng
Inhabit Media
978-1-77227-125-7
32 pp.
Ages 4-9
October 2016

Like Inhabit Media’s original Kamik story (Kamit, An Inuit Puppy Story by Donald Uluadluak, 2012), and its sequel (Kamik’s First Sled by Matilda Sulurayok, 2015), Kamik Joins the Pack is adapted from the memories of the author, here from Darryl Baker, an Inuit teacher and dog musher who learned about raising dogs from his late brother-in-law Bernie Sulurayok.  In Kamik Joins the Pack, Jake now is learning from his uncle how to care for his dog, Kamik, to help the husky ultimately become part of a team.

From Kamik Joins the Pack 
by Darryl Baker
illus. by Qin Leng
Jake is proud to show his uncle how well behaved Kamik is, hopeful that his puppy would lead the boy’s own dogsled team one day.  Jake’s uncle, well-versed in raising dogs to be mushers, demonstrates to Jake that there is more to making a dog a musher than just putting a harness on.  He teaches him about keeping Kamik healthy by checking his nails and paws and ensuring that he is always well fed.  He also indicates that Jake must learns some additional skills like braiding and repairing leather for harnesses, repairing a sled and building shelter for his dogs if the boy is to become a successful musher like his uncle.  But, the ultimate test comes when Jake’s uncle adds Kamik to the end of his own pack to see how well the puppy fares in a trial run.

From Kamik Joins the Pack 
by Darryl Baker 
illus. by Qin Leng
There are many Inuit and children of northern climes for whom this story will resonate.  They will recognize the landscape, the dogs, the mushing, and the wisdom imparted by Jake’s uncle, lessons which author Darryl Baker undoubtedly learned from his accomplished brother-in-law. But every child will recognize the value of caring for one’s animals and the skill-building necessary to ensure their well-being.  Kamik Joins the Pack is both a story of lessons and hope, about a future and achievement that comes from doing things well and in small steps.  Darryl Baker makes sure that readers get this message, just as Jake’s uncle emphasizes the same to his nephew.  But while teaching important lessons, Kamik Joins the Pack has a light story-telling feel to it, more sharing than preaching, and much of this has to do with Qin Leng’s artwork.  Just as she illustrated Kamik, An Inuit Puppy Story and Kamik's First Sled, Qin Leng uses the almost weightless touch of fountain brush and ink with high-contrast colours against the snowy background to keep the story graceful and self-assured, not unlike Jake’s uncle’s teaching.  Kamik is growing up and young readers, both those familiar with his home and those of more southern habitats, will enjoy watching his progress.

December 02, 2016

Deck the Halls: A Canadian Christmas Carol

by Helaine Becker
Illustrated by Werner Zimmerman
North Winds Press, an imprint of Scholastic Canada
978-1-4431-4836-8
32 pp.
Ages 3-8
October, 2016

Deck the Halls is Helaine Becker and Werner Zimmerman’s third picture book in their A Canadian Christmas Carol collection in which classic Christmas carols become quintessential Canadian Christmas stories.  The award-winning A Porcupine in a Pine Tree (Scholastic, 2010) was a reworked version of the carol “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and Dashing Through the Snow  (Scholastic, 2014) was based on “Jingle Bells.”  By adding “Deck the Halls” to that repertoire, Helaine Becker and Werner Zimmerman are firmly establishing themselves as the duo that’s making Christmas music Canadian and relevant to Canadian children today.
From Deck the Halls: A Canadian Christmas Carol 
by Helaine Becker 
illus. by Werner Zimmerman
Some of the animals characteristic of Canada who first made their appearance in A Porcupine in a Pine Tree have gathered to decorate the house for the holidays and celebrate.  There’s the famous porcupine leading the endeavour with a wreath, the beavers appropriately getting the tree set up, and loons, muskoxen, caribou, bears, raccoons, sled dogs, otters, moose, puffins, squirrels and hockey-playing grey wolves getting up to all kinds of Christmas shenanigans.  There’s the bounty of food, and the warmth of Christmas sweaters, the burning of yule logs, the wrapping of presents and the singing of carols, along with some high-spirited young ones racing around.  With each page and verse, the scene becomes more chaotic and lively and animated.  It’s a Canadian Christmas through and through, with the carol “Deck the Hall” now more Canadian than any version we’ve ever known!

So deck the halls
with boughs of holly,
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la.

Make your True North
Christmas jolly!
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! 
From Deck the Halls: A Canadian Christmas Carol 
by Helaine Becker 
illus. by Werner Zimmerman
Helaine Becker has created another Canadian classic from a favourite Christmas carol and, with the music appended to her story, I can already hear little ones having Christmas singing fun.  The Australians have their “Six White Boomers” and now we have three of our own Canadian takes on classic carols.  Of course, Werner Zimmerman’s entertaining illustrations bring life to the carol, adding detail and joie de vivre to the fresh lyrics.  There is so much to discover in his illustrations that young readers will be rereading the text–more like singing it over and over again–just to pick out the Sasquatch cradling baby raccoons, or puffins with their Christmas crackers, or the hard-hatted beavers constructing the tree, or the curious otter peering at the napping polar bear. Every page is a delight and will charm small eyes who’ll want to pick out all the Christmas fun being had.  
From Deck the Halls: A Canadian Christmas Carol 
by Helaine Becker 
illus. by Werner Zimmerman
Deck the Halls: A Canadian Christmas Carol is the first new release of the season that has Christmas singing in my head and lightening my heart with joy.   Thank you, Helaine Becker and Werner Zimmerman.