May 19, 2017

2017 Forest of Reading winners announced!

The Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading's book awards have been an important part of my school library program and my personal volunteer experiences for many years, so I am always proud to post the results of this wonderful reading program.

It's impossible to congratulate all those who made this reading program and the Festival of Trees such a success but here are some of the amazing people who play important roles in its success:

• the readers;
• the selection committees who read so many books to choose the best for the shortlists;
• the steering committees that organize and put on the fabulous Festival of Trees;
• the OLA staff, with Meredith Tutching at the helm;
• the authors and illustrators who create the wonderful youngCanLit;
• the publishers who publish youngCanLit and promote it; and
• the winners and honourees in each reading program.

Here are this year's readers' choice winners for each reading program:

Blue Spruce


The Night Gardener
by Eric Fan and Terry Fan
Simon & Schuster


Silver Birch EXPRESS

The Biggest Poutine in the World
by Andrée Poulin
Annick Press

Silver Birch FICTION

by Wesley King
Paula Wiseman Books

Silver Birch NON-FICTION 


Haunted Canada 6: More Terrifying True Stories
by Joel A. Sutherland
Scholastic Canada

Le prix Peuplier 

Aux toilettes
Texte de André Marois
Illustrations de Pierre Pratt
Éditions Druide

Le prix Tamarac 


Le Colosse des neiges de Campbellton
Texte de Denis M. Boucher
Illustrations de Paul Roux
Bouton d'or Acadie

Le prix Tamarac EXPRESS


Le facteur de l'espace
Texte et Illustrations de Guillaume Perreault
La Pastèque

Red Maple Fiction


by Caroline Pignat

Red Maple Non-Fiction


Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls 
are Used in War
by Michel Chikwanine and Jessica Dee Humphreys
Illustrated by Claudia Dávila
Kids Can Press

White Pine FICTION

Fifteen Lanes
by S. J. Laidlaw
Tundra Books


Thrilling news for all authors, illustrators and publishers!

Enjoyed all the more for being selected 
by young Canadian readers!

Congratulations to everyone!

The full list of winners and honour books is posted at CanLit for LittleCanadians Awards here.

May 18, 2017

Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs

Written by Helaine Becker
Illustrated by Marie-Ève Tremblay
Kids Can Press
36 pp.
Ages 6-9
April 2017

I love a good picture book biography!  It's an amazing format for telling a person's story without getting bogged down in the minutiae of historical details and trivia.  These books are great introductions and always provide relevant details and references in the appendices for those readers who want to dig a little deeper.  Helaine Becker, who has tackled all genres for young people, is especially well-versed in non-fiction writing including science books, math books and activity books like her award-winning Secret Agent Y.O.U. and Boredom Blasters, and she is no less skilled in telling the story of William Playfair.
From Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs 
by Helaine Becker 
illus. by Marie-Ève Tremblay
William Playfair, born in 1759 Scotland, liked to dream and play pranks but, after his father died and his older brother John took over his schooling, William was brought up on the scientific method and become an excellent mathematician.  At age 14, he accepted employment with the inventor Andrew Meikle where he learned to draw plans and make different machines.  But Will still sought the big dreams of riches, fame and glory and became the assistant to another inventor and engineer, James Watt.  If Will wanted to be somewhere where he could think outside the box and create and problem-solve, he found it in the workshop of James Watt.  Problem was that Will was too much in his own head to do the work his employer required of him and decided it was best to go out on his own.

Though he developed an effective silversmithing machine, Will's business acumen was negligible and this and multiple, subsequent businesses failed. So he wrote books about history, politics and economics to earn money.  When he didn't have sufficient information to complete a chart, he created a visual representation of the data so that he might extrapolate it from that available, and the first line graph, showing changes in export and imports over time, was born. He was so pleased by its efficacy he took it a step further and grouped information into chunks, thereby developing a bar graph based on countries importing and exporting goods.

Though awarded a French royal permit from King Louise XVI, the French Revolution had him scurrying home and exploring new ways to represent numbers in picture form, leading to the design of the pie chart.  Unfortunately because of his poor track record, Will's ideas were never accepted in his life time (he died in 1823) as valuable.  Thankfully, acceptance did come in time, allowing his ideas for graphs to convey numerical data in a bold and innovative way to be used throughout the world.
From Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs 
by Helaine Becker 
illus. by Marie-Ève Tremblay
Helaine Becker tells William Playfair's story with the upbeat air necessary for innovation and discovery, though she doesn't leave out the weaknesses in his life's drama.  It must have been difficult to decide what to share from his biography, but Helaine Becker has chosen wisely to share with readers that information which supports the basis for William Playfair's inventiveness and its value without dragging in tedious details of his life.  There's a playful tone to her text and Marie-Ève Tremblay's lively illustrations respect that.  Readers will enjoy seeing a larger-than-life William Playfair stepping out of the roof of his home, heading out to follow his dreams. And cooking up a pie chart while wearing an apron and oven mitt.  Even King Louis XVI losing his head is depicted lightheartedly!
From Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs 
by Helaine Becker 
illus. by Marie-Ève Tremblay
Though Lines, Bars and Graphs is the story of William Playfair and the development of graphs, Helaine Becker and Marie-Ève Tremblay make it into a whimsical story of thinking outside the box and persevering, even when failure seems to be the norm and dreams appear to be dashed, providing good life lessons for William Playfair and everyone.

May 17, 2017

Mary Anning's Curiosity

Written by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Melissa Castrillón
Groundwood Books
116 pp.
Ages 7-12
May 2017

I could wait until May 21st, the 218th anniversary of Mary Anning’s birth, but that’s on the weekend and I don’t want to wait.  This extraordinary woman who began life as a miracle girl, surviving a bolt of lightning that killed three women including the woman who held her, has waited long enough, being the woman whom American scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould declared to be “probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology.” (1)

From a very young age, Mary Anning had traipsed the beaches and cliffs of her home in Lyme Regis with her father Richard and older brother Joe.  They would scour the Black Ven cliffs of limestone, shale and clay for treasures called curiosities that they could clean and sell, supplementing her father’s carpentry income. Mary loved going hunting for ammos (ammonites), thunderbolts (belemnites), “devil’s toenails” (Gryphaea) and all shells but she always hoped to find the giant crocodile (a misnomer) of local lore.  After a cliff fall in 1807 prevents her father from ever fossil hunting again, the family’s debts begin to accumulate. Mary who’d always been sneaking out to go hunting decides to leave school in 1810, at age twelve, and continue excavating and selling curiosities, as well as doing odd jobs whenever possible.

And then Joseph, after his work as an upholsterer’s apprentice, discovers the massive eye socket fossil of the giant croc.  But it’s Mary who must excavate it and the rest of the skull while keeping their fossil-seller competitor Captain Cury at bay.  With tireless devotion to her task, and the support of the wealthy and educated fossil collector Miss Elizabeth Philpot, Mary locates the long snout with jagged teeth and rest of the skull which are removed with the stone to the privacy and indoor warmth of her house for cleaning and preparation.  By putting the skull on display, Mary is able to help earn additional funds for the family while pursuing the remainder of the great animal’s fossilized body.

Though Mary Anning (1799-1847) is a part of history, the story that Monica Kulling tells is a creative retelling of her early life and first major discovery, one which helped define her as one the world’s greatest fossilists.   As was the case for those living to pay rent and food and the uncertainty of health (her mother loses many of her babies), Mary Anning’s beginnings were shaky.  But the lightning strike that she survived miraculously heralded a new beginning, apparently taking her from dull child to one with brilliant curiosity and fever for learning.  Like the curiosities she hunted on the beaches and cliffs of Dorset, Mary Anning was a marvel, she of determination and  inquisitiveness, both which served her and her family well.

As with her earlier picture book biographies, Monica Kulling has highlighted a significant figure of original thought and action whom we should know but probably don’t.  With Mary Anning’s Curiosity, Monica Kulling has demonstrated that she too can be innovative, now extending her biographic storytelling into chapter books, helping young readers delve deeper into lives of significant individuals whose stories need to be told to understand our worlds today.  And Monica Kulling is the storyteller to do so, giving life to lives lived in different times and places so that they might be truly appreciated.

(1) From  Purcell, Rosamond Wolff and Gould, Stephen Jay. Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors (1992). W. W. Norton & Company. 155 pp.

May 16, 2017

I Am Canada: A Celebration

Written by Heather Patterson
Illustrated by Jeremy Tankard, Ruth Ohi, 
Barbara Reid, Jon Klassen, 
Marie-Louise Gay, Danielle Daniel, 
Ashley Spires, Geneviève Côté, 
Cale Atkinson, Doretta Groenendyk,
Qin Leng, Eva Campbell and
Irene Luxbacher
Scholastic Canada
Ages 3+
32 pp.
May 2017

With Canada celebrating 150 years since Confederation in 1867, there will be a plethora of books published solely for the purpose of memorializing that historic milestone for our relatively new country.  Though there has and will be sufficient backlash for praising the birth of a nation amidst the traditional habitation of this land by its Indigenous Peoples, I like to think that we can simply celebrate our land as it is, warts and all, as a glorious amalgamation of peoples and cultures.  This picture book, based on the poem by Heather Patterson and illustrated by thirteen outstanding illustrators, does just that.

The poem, written by Heather Patterson in 1996 and originally put to photographic interpretation (Scholastic Canada, 2006) reads as follows (I've separated lines as they appear in this edition; any errors are solely mine):
I am Canada.
I run, I swim,
I skate, I dance.
I skim over snow
on my toboggan.
I have space.
I read, I learn,
I draw, I dream.
I stay out late and see the
northern lights.
I have time.
I watch, I touch, I listen.
I make up my mind.
I decide to build a castle.
I am free.
I am Canada.
I am cool in summer
and cozy in winter.
I am springing in the spring
and floppy in the fall.
I eat pizza and pierogis
and peppers.
I eat meatballs and muffins
and mangos.
I am quiet,
I am curious,
I am friendly,
I am funny.
I explain, I explore, I enjoy,
I share, I sing, I celebrate.
I am Canada.

Each artist prepared a double-spread illustration to correspond with 1-4 lines of the poem and it's a delightful interpretation and showcase of Canada and its artistry by way of its creators, its landscape and its people.
Portion of illustration by Jeremy Tankard
in I Am Canada: A Celebration
by Heather Patterson
Jeremy Tankard, author-illustrator of Grumpy Bird and Hungry Bird, begins with a drawing of children hiking outdoors heading towards a blazing maple tree.  Ruth Ohi, author of recently reviewed Fox and Squirrel The Best Christmas Ever, brings a lightness of touch in style and content with everyone–families, pets, wildlife–enjoying the outdoors.  Plasticene artist Barbara Reid (Sing a Song of Bedtime) lends her craftsmanship to a winter scene of tobogganing, reminiscent of her award-winning Perfect Snow. Transplanted Canadian Jon Klassen (This is My Hat) focuses on his own outdoor scene of a lone house among bare winter trees amidst the wide open spaces of pristine snow, touched by a single child.  

Creator of Stella and Sam and Princess Pistachio, Marie-Louise Gay plays on the imaginative play that comes from books and learning with daydreaming children envisioning clouds of animals and skies of seas.  Danielle Daniel who burst onto the youngCanLit scene with her award-winning Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox honours our northern regions with a display of brilliant northern lights enjoyed by humans and wildlife alike.  Ashley Spires, author of Binky the Space Cat and The Thing Lou Couldn't Do, moves us to the warmth of a summer on B.C.'s shores for rest and recreation on the sand and in the water.

Simplest of all illustrations is award-winning artist Geneviève Côté's depiction of freedom, a child riding a blue loon embellished with a northern, a forested and an aquatic environments.  Her art, seen in her Mr. King and Piggy and Bunny series, has everything about Canada in the subtlest of depictions.
Illustration by Cale Atkinson 
in I Am Canada: A Celebration 
by Heather Patterson
But there's still more.  Cale Atkinson, illustrator of Vikki VanSickle's If I Had a Gryphon, lends his artwork to an exposé of Canada's four seasons and Doretta Groenendyk (A Harbour Seal in Halifax) provides a multicultural smorgasbord for a diversity of peoples and other animals.  (Have fun picking out all the foods displayed. I counted at least 17!) Perfect for the quiet stylings of prolific illustrator Qin Leng (A Family is a Family is a Family) is a spread about a walk in the woods of Mount Royal in the fall.  Eva Campbell, who illustrated Eric Walters' The Matatu, celebrates exploration and fireworks in her illustration.
Illustration by Qin Leng 
in I Am Canada: A Celebration 
by Heather Patterson
The culminating illustration is from Irene Luxbacher (Mr. Frank) and is perfection as the finale, with a blending of landscapes, indoor and out, and the anticipation of travel across this country.
Portion of illustration by Irene Luxbacher 
in I Am Canada: A Celebration 
by Heather Patterson
While Heather Patterson's words set the tone, it's the artwork of these Canadian illustrators that gives them substance and context.  I Am Canada is truly a celebration of all that is right in our country: the land and its people and the lifeblood they create.


A French-language version, Le Canada, C'est Moi, uses Geneviève Côté's illustration for its cover. 

May 15, 2017

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess

Written by Shari Green
Pajama Press
240 pp.
Ages 8-12
May 2017

Why do we think
we can know anything about a person
by how they look
what they can do
what life is like for them now?
Because it turns out
we really can’t.
The only way to know that stuff
is if someone
tells you the story.
(pg. 152)
Truer words were never spoken.  And these from an 11-year-old Macy McMillan, a child who lost her hearing at age 4 and rarely enunciates words verbally but feels deeply, speaking volumes through signing and in her narration in Shari Green’s latest middle grade novel in verse.

Reluctantly, Macy is preparing for a new chapter in her life, leaving her garden and reading window seat at the pretty house she shares with Mom on Pemberton Street to the home of Mom’s fiancé Alan and six-year-old twin daughters Bethany and Kaitlin. Macy's elderly neighbour Ms. Iris Gillian is also moving, her to a seniors’ facility called Rosewood Manor, and Macy’s mom volunteers Macy for the task of packing Iris’ books and other bits and bobs.  Though Macy is initially uninterested in helping, she needs someone with whom she can communicate, even if only by notes, since there are few persons available who can sign, after a falling out with her best friend Olivia and her mother far too busy with her wedding.  With a school project based on students’ family trees, Macy is feeling even more untethered, never having known her father and uninterested in her future family. 
and I’m feeling more and more
like a dried-up
(pg. 26)
But Iris, named for the Goddess of the Rainbow, becomes the grounding that Macy needs to help her find her story. Though Iris, lover of books and baking cookies, is struggling with her memory and health, she is able to share with Macy, often through writing and with some signing, the story of her life, rife with adventures and tragedies, new chapters aplenty, some with endings more sad than happy, but always the right ending.

As Macy struggles with the upcoming wedding, even trying to stop it, and with completing her school project, she is beginning to see her world in terms of the connections she has and is making, all learned courtesy of the Rainbow Goddess next door.

Ever since Steven–the man in the bookshop–
I make a point of connecting with people
who come into my life
because even if only for a moment
their story connects with mine.
That should mean something…
even if there’s not chapter in a café next door. (pg.  67)
Shari Green, author of Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles (Pajama Press, 2016), has found her story as a writer of extraordinary middle grade novels in verse.  Though I suspect she can write just about anything–middle grade, young adult, speculative fiction, non-free verse–her talent is definitely in writing insightfully poignant tales in the impassioned and crisp free verse style.  As in her earlier book, Shari Green uses few words, but the right ones, to grow a story of such sensitivity for and awareness of her characters and readers that all will leave the story fulfilled.  Her characters’ stories connect with us in ways we cannot put into words.  I was astounded that a little girl could gain so much wisdom, courtesy of Iris and Shari Green of course, about life’s stories that she has a middle-aged woman such as myself in tears and heeding her advice. 
Hearts are waiting, worrying, hurting
–in need of a message
you can send.
(pg. 226)
Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess is a message from the writing goddesses that everyone’s life is just a story or series of stories that need to be told to be fully appreciated but no worries here because one of their scribes, Shari Green, has taken on that task capably and, like Iris, with wholehearted extravagance.

May 12, 2017

Optimists Die First

Written by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books
240 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2017

Reviewed from audiobook
Read by Julia Whelan
Listening Library
4 hr 58 min

Apparently optimists do die first.  By ten years.  Pessimists, it seems, are more realistic because they see eventualities the oblivious optimists ignore.  No wonder Petula De Wilde, 16, is obsessed with all the circumstances that can take and have taken peoples’ lives before expected.  Her obsession about all things dangerous has her keeping a scrapbook of news stories of deaths from falling debris at construction sites, a faulty roller coaster or elevator, and even deadly paper cuts, leaving her fearful of everything from double-dipping eaters, public washrooms, biological warfare, and airplanes.  This since the death of her baby sister Maxine two years earlier, a death for which Petula blames herself.  Now she can’t keep herself safe enough.

In lieu of counselling, Petula attends YART, Youth Art Therapy, along with recently out-of-the-closet Alonzo, alcoholic Koula, angry, grief-stricken Ivan and new guy Jacob Cohen, the guy with the bionic arm.  Under the instruction of therapist Betty, the group undertakes a series of juvenile projects.  But, after Petula and the aspiring film director Jacob prepare a cat adaptation of Wuthering Heights (to rave reviews, except from their English teacher), the group convinces Betty to let them organize their own projects, more relevant to their needs and issues.

Amidst their YART sessions, Petula’s phobic life style, overwhelming guilt, regrets over falling out with former BFF and crafting buddy Rachel, and a disintegrating family, Petula and Jacob fall in love.  But Jacob only reveals a few scenes from his life, and apparently a lot of it is fiction, jeopardizing his relationship with Petula and the other members of YART.  Whether they can find a way to heal their own guilts and allow another into their worlds is only up to Susin Nielsen, director of fine stories and creator of characters more real than those we encounter every day.

If you’re familiar with Susin Nielsen’s earlier works (Word Nerd; Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom; The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen; and We Are All Made of Molecules)–and if you’re not, go out right now, rush, get them and read them–you’ll know the power of her writing to blend stories of families in transition with heavy issues like death, divorce and homophobia, while still leaving room for humour and romantic love.  Optimists Die First is a package of inspiritment (even from the tragedies) that serves to entertain because of Susin Nielsen’s diverse characters, human and cat, subplots of secrets and shames, and reassurance of a close that’s more a beginning than an end.
But that’s life, I guess. We know we can’t do a rewrite.  We can’t undo what’s been done, or control what’s coming next.   
All we can do is hope for the best.
Just stick to the bright side (away from falling construction debris) and you’ll be just fine.  I’m positive.


Author Susin Nielsen speaks about Optimists Die First in a brief video on YouTube and is accompanied by her cat who is not named Moominmamma, Anne of Green Gables, Ferdinand, Stuart Little, Stanley, Alice or Pippi.

Susin Nielsen talks all things 'Optimists Die First' avec cat
Uploaded by Maximum Pop! Books on March 13, 2017 to YouTube.

May 11, 2017

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird

Written by Cary Fagan
Illustrated by Banafsheh Erfanian
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
May 2017

Based on Franz Kafka’s aphorism identical to the title, Cary Fagan tells the story of a long-forgotten bird cage in an attic, hopeful of a bird to reside in it once again.  So determined is the cage for a bird that it throws itself out the window of the attic and rolls out into the big world outside in search of a new bird.

Though the cage is visited by many a bird–crow, blue jay, hummingbird, sun conure, hoopoe, owl–they all profess valid reasons for why they will not venture inside.  After all, they are wild birds, used to the freedom to fly where they will for food or perch, one with young in a tree nest, one far too big to spread its wings within.  It’s not until the cage is visited by a canary that its quest comes to an end.
Illustration by Banafsheh Erfanian 
for A Cage Went in Search of a Bird
A Cage Went in Search of a Bird has the feel of one of Aesop’s fables in that birds and objects such as the birdcage, a suitcase and a guitar speak.  Whether Cary Fagan intended to teach a lesson as fables do only he can tell us but there are important messages within regardless.  Though A Cage Went in Search of a Bird has at its basis the premise that there is someone for everyone, it also speaks to freedom and wild animals versus pets and perspective.  It is evident that no matter how lovely Banafsheh Erfanian’s acrylic and pastel illustrations are of the ornate bird cage, it’s not enough to get any bird to jump inside.  And her artwork is outstanding, as daring in her colours and shapes as the cage is in its search.  Reds, oranges and turquoises give A Cage Went in Search of a Bird an exotic feel, though the collection of bird species suggests a global tale by including temperate birds of North America, a South American parrot and the Afro-Eurasian hoopoe.  The lavishness of Banafsheh Erfanian’s illustrations embodies the importance of Cary Fagan's words.  Though it might not follow the paradoxical meaning of Kafka's aphorism, A Cage Went in Search of a Bird's message that even that which is most beautiful can be lonely and that quests to alleviate that loneliness can be daunting but worthwhile is just as relevant.
Illustration by Banafsheh Erfanian 
for A Cage Went in Search of a Bird

May 10, 2017

The Thing Lou Couldn't Do

Written and illustrated by Ashley Spires
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
May 2017

Lou has the spirit of adventure. She and her friends love to play, build fortresses, rescue wild animals and take on all challenges.  But when her little friends suggest pirates,  using the tree as their ship, Lou is apprehensive.  This from the little girl who sees herself as a deep-sea diver or a race-car driver or maybe even a pirate when she grows up.
From The Thing Lou Couldn't Do 
by Ashley Spires
But tree climbing is new to Lou.  While her friends scramble up, Lou tries to convince them to play something else or she makes inspired excuses (e.g., slug funeral, incoming asteroid, resting after eating) to avoid attempting that which makes her uneasy.  When her feline sidekick scales that tree (of course), Lou wishes for another means of getting into the tree without climbing it.  But, that’s no help; after all, where are you going to get a helicopter on short notice?  Finally a plea for help has the young girl trying what she almost believes to be impossible.
From The Thing Lou Couldn't Do 
by Ashley Spires
Don’t think that The Thing Lou Couldn’t Do is a little-engine-that-could story.  It may be about determination and courage and confidence but it doesn’t end with achieving the goal.  That’s the inspiring part of Ashley Spires’ newest picture book.  The Thing Lou Couldn’t Do isn’t about telling kids that they can do anything to which they put their minds because, let’s face, that’s not true.  All the inspiration and encouragement can’t make all dreams and wishes, even those with plans, come to fruition.  And kids need to know this.  It doesn’t mean you’re setting them up for failure.  It’s telling them that it’s good to try but, if it doesn’t work out, you can try again but you can also accept that it’s not for you.
From The Thing Lou Couldn't Do
by Ashley Spires
Ashley Spires makes sure that children will undoubtedly see themselves in Lou’s play and fears so they can take her as a role model for accepting challenges.  This little girl and her diverse friends represent anyone who has ever seen a task as impossible i.e., everyone. And these children are darling.  Ashley Spires’ characters, with their bright eyes and slightly larger than normal heads, serve all children, including those with eyeglasses, unmatched socks, in pants or dresses, red-haired or not.  Ashley Spires, who wowed everyone with her Binky the Space Cat series, has found a way to provide inspirational messages in children’s books (Small Saul, Larf, The Most Magnificent Thing) without preaching or providing answers to life’s dilemmas such as undertaking the impossible.

So, you know that thing that Lou didn’t think she could do?  She was right.  For now.
From The Thing Lou Couldn't Do 
by Ashley Spires

May 08, 2017

Greetings, Leroy

Written by Itah Sadu
Illustrated by Alix Delinois
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
May 2017

Greetings, Leroy is one long email from a new Canadian boy named Roy to his friend Leroy in Jamaica, telling about his new life and first day at school.  But as the young boy tries to connect with his friend, missing so much of his Jamaican home, it becomes evident that his new life in Canada is already rich with Jamaican connections.
From Greetings, Leroy 
by Itah Sadu
illus. by Alix Delinois
Roy looks a little saddened sitting at his computer, trying to get a response from his friend Leroy, one of the many Roys on his soccer team.  There’s Iroy, Delroy, Uroy, Stedroy, Buckroy, Royson and, of course, Leroy.  With all the Roys back home in Jamaica, it’s no wonder Roy feels left out.  And it’s no wonder he’s nervous about the first day of school in Canada when his peer support system isn’t with him.  

But the day brings warm surprises of reminders of his Jamaican home, from his father playing Bob Marley and the Wailers, and their neighbour Ms. Muir giving him a Bob Marley button.  
I puffed out my chest big, big and grinned from ear to ear, because Bob Marley was Jamaican and I am Jamaican, too. (pg. 8)
At school, the principal has a picture of Bob Marley playing soccer and his new class greets him with “Welcome, Roy, one love” (pg. 13) channelling Marley’s song, “One Love.”  But when Roy realizes that he’s lost his Bob Marley button after showing it to the principal, it becomes a frantic search that ends happily, just as Roy’s email to Leroy does.
From Greetings, Leroy 
by Itah Sadu 
illus. by Alix Delinois
Storyteller Itah Sadu, much loved for her book Christopher, Please Clean Up Your Room (re-released in 2006 by Scholastic Canada) and known for her bookstore A Different Booklist in Toronto, creates effortlessly the voice of a young boy bridging two worlds: his former life in Jamaica and a new one in Canada. (Born in Canada but raised in Barbados and then returning to Canada, Itah Sadu would have first-hand knowledge.)  Greetings, Leroy is a story about moving and moving on, respectful of the two worlds from and into which Roy will grow.  Itah Sadu makes it clear that the two worlds are not separate entities but rather interconnected parts of Roy’s world, bringing him joy and memories and opportunities.  

Haitian-born artist Alix Delinois has already made a name for himself as the illustrator behind Muhammad Ali:  The People’s Champion (Walter Dean Myers, 2016), Eight Days: A Story of Haiti (Edwidge Danticat, 2010) and Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence (Gretchen Woelfle, 2014), all stories that celebrate Black culture and history. With Greetings, Leroy, Alix Delinois is able to apply his bold artwork to a similarly relevant story, though here focusing on a Jamaican boy’s new life in Canada, and honouring Itah Sadu’s story with pride and festivity for an old life lived and a new life’s promise.

As a story of immigration, of new experiences and first days at school, Greetings, Leroy may take many back to those uneasy days of newness but reminds us that, as Bob Marley sang, everything’s gonna be alright.  
From Greetings, Leroy 
by Itah Sadu 
illus. by Alix Delinois

May 04, 2017

The Valiant

Written by Lesley Livingston
372 pp.
Ages 13+
February 2017

It  should have been an auspicious day for Fallon, youngest daughter of the Celtic kind Virico, chief of the Cantii tribe of Prydain.  She was turning seventeen and becoming old enough to become a member of her father’s royal war band. Moreover, Maelgwyn Ironhand, her fighting partner and best friend, had pledged his love to her.  But some backroom dealings and a murder send Fallon in pursuit of vengeance and sadly captured by slave traders and on her way to Rome, the city of their enemy and the killers of her much-revered older sister Sorcha.

The slave master Charon takes a surprising interest in Fallon and, after the ship they take across the Mare Nostrum is beset by pirates and Fallon fights alongside the legionnaires sent to escort the cargo, she also becomes the interest of Decurion Caius Varro.  This is especially so after Fallon and Elka, a girl of the Vaini tribe of the north, are sold as a pair to the Ludus Achillea, an academy for female gladiators, lead by the Lady Achillea.  There she is advised to “Kill your past and bury it deep in the earth of your heart” (pg. 135).  But the past keeps rearing its ugly head, bringing those she thought long gone into her present, and demanding her attention if she is to surmount them and become valiant in the future.

From a heart-pounding chariot manoeuvre to the murder of her beloved Mael to the arenas of the Rome and the appalling trafficking of humans as  chattel, The Valiant plunges readers into other worlds in time and space and mood.  The Valiant, like life for Fallon and her compatriots, is not for the faint of heart.  There is a brutality and ruthlessness necessary for their survival that must be balanced against the hedonism of those in power.  But Lesley Livingston focuses on the women as strong  and shrewd, with most finding a way to accept their fates and make them work for them.  There’s Elka who acknowledges to Fallon that with war and with life
There is only forward. Only tomorrow. No yesterday, no going back.  And nothing of value is left behind, so nothing is truly lost.” (pg. 73)
And there’s Kassandra, a fellow slave girl, who gives Fallon her sandals when an accident permits potential escape.
This was a girl who would choose to stay chained if it meant that her odds of survival were even so much as a hairsbreadth better.  And there was strength in that choice–the sheer, bloody-minded will to survive no matter how dreadful the circumstance.  Maybe honor wasn’t always something won by a blade, I thought.  And maybe it couldn’t be so easily stripped away, even in servitude.” (pg. 67)
Like all Lesley Livingston’s YA fantasy including her Wondrous Strange and Once Every Never series, The Valiant is an epic read of another world–here historically-based–offering a story of a gladiatrix that might or might not have been possible.  In fact, Lesley Livingston’s afterword discusses the known history of gladiatrices (plural of gladiatrix) and her own creation of “the realm of “what-if” where fantasy meets history.” (pg. 375)  With The ValiantLesley Livingston, in her impressively-evocative writing, gives readers a front seat in the arena, glory and guts and even a love story included in the price of admission.

May 03, 2017

The Bonaventure Adventures blog tour: Q & A with author Rachelle Delaney:

Written by Rachelle Delaney
Puffin Canada
288 pp.
Ages 9-12
May 2017

Yesterday, middle grade youngCanLit writer Rachelle Delaney witnessed the somersaulting launch of her newest book, The Bonaventure Adventures.  Today, as part of Penguin Random House Canada's blog tour for The Bonaventure Adventures, I am pleased to present my interview with author Rachelle Delaney.

Author Rachelle Delaney
(Photo from author's website 

HK:  Having read your earlier middle-grade novel The Circus Dogs of Prague and knowing that the Bonaventure is a circus school, I’m struck by your ongoing interest in circuses.  How did this interest arise? And did you ever dream of being a circus performer yourself?

RD:  I’ve definitely been a bit obsessed with the circus for several years now. It began back in 2010, when I was teaching creative writing to some kids enrolled in circus classes. This struck me as such an interesting way to gain an appreciation for arts and sports and performing, all at once. So I started researching it as a potential setting for a novel, and I quickly learned about the National Circus School in Montreal, where young performers from around the world go to study the modern circus. I spent some time in Montreal, doing a bit of research and taking in contemporary circus shows, which were so incredibly different from the traditional shows I grew up with. And I fell in love with the modern circus scene, and with Montreal too (it’s pretty hard not to love Montreal). I’ve been back many times in the past five years; at one point I even had an Access Copyright Foundation grant to do circus research there. Tough job, I know. ☺

HK:  Your research into circus schools and circus performers must have been extensive as your writing demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of  the full array of circus skills.  How did you conduct your research? And did you conduct any personal research at a circus school in Montreal or here in Ontario?

RD:  Well, I’m glad it seems like my knowledge is extensive, because I still feel like there’s so much more to know about the circus world! Fortunately, the Bonaventure Circus School is a pretty quirky place—it’s nothing like the professional schools I learned about through my research. So that setting gave me some freedom to be creative.

I went about my research in three ways: reading everything I could, talking to any circus pros who would answer my questions, and—this is where it got scary—taking some circus arts classes myself. Now, I’m awfully uncoordinated and not at all acrobatic, but my teachers were patient. Natalie Parkinson of Toronto’s Hercinia Arts Collective was particularly great—she answered all my ridiculous questions while attempting to teach me acrobatics and aerials. I have no more skills than my main character Sebastian, but it was such a fun experience.

HK:  A theme of The Bonaventure Adventures is the duality of persons, sometimes to deceive but more often just to show different faces in different circumstances and with different people.  Audrey Pott, the clown teacher, suggests that “When you get to know your inner clown, you get to know the person you really are deep inside, not just the person you might sometimes pretend to be.  It can be soul-expanding.” (pg. 92) Do you think it’s a good idea to have two (or more) different personas to show the world or is it better to show all aspects of your personality to everyone?

RD:  Good question. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to have two or more personas to show the world, but I think a lot of people—adults especially—do exactly that. I suppose it’s a social survival strategy, and not a terrible one. But it takes courage to show up as your whole self. I know I’m still working on it.

HK:  I know that The Bonaventure Adventures is aptly tagged as “Harry Potter meets Cirque du Soleil” because three young people come together to navigate life in a circus school.  As with Harry Potter, do you foresee or have already planned sequels to The Bonaventure Adventures that would have Seb, Frankie and Banjo having more adventures at the school and in Montreal? If so, please let us know what and when we might expect them.

RD:  I’m one hundred and fifty percent open to writing a sequel or three about Seb, Frankie, and Banjo’s adventures in Montreal (and beyond). But as of right now, there are only plans for the one book.

HK:  Angélique Saint-Germain insists that the students “pursue perfection, practice at every opportunity” (pg. 78).  One student, Camille, even considers giving up sleep to practise.  Do you believe the adage that practice always makes perfect? (I think Seb might not agree with that completely although his somersaults did become passable.)

RD:  I do believe that practice is essential, and that if something (whether it’s writing or juggling swords) is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly for a long time. But I don’t think that practice necessarily leads to perfection, or that perfection is even the point. Striving for perfection, in my experience, can really suck the joy out of life. Also, practice without sleep is just an all-around bad idea, especially when acrobatics are involved.

HK:  We know that it’s important for young readers to see themselves in a book’s characters and I think all readers could see themselves in Seb or Frankie or Banjo.  Did you write them as a reflection of Harry, Hermione and Ron respectively (going back to the Harry Potter reference) or just young people who reveal multiple characteristics in temperament, strengths and weaknesses? 

RD:  You know, I didn’t even notice the Harry Potter parallel until someone else pointed it out recently! I can sort of see similarities between Seb and Harry, in that they’re both intelligent and introspective. But Frankie is this mysterious, hot-headed parkour expert, and Banjo is a timid slack-liner from a backwoods logging town, so I don’t see Ron and Hermione in them. But it’s not a bad comparison—I’m certainly not complaining.

What appeals to me about Seb, Frankie, and Banjo connects back to your question about hidden personas. Each one harbours secrets and aspects of themselves they feel like they can’t or shouldn’t show. And they help each other find a sense of belonging; when they’re together, they feel more whole.

HK:  If there is one theme or message that you would like middle-grade readers to take from The Bonaventure Adventures, what would it be and why?

RD:  I’ve been playing around with the theme of authenticity for a few years now, although I didn’t realize it until a writer friend recently pointed out that it’s a recurring theme in my writing. I’d love middle-grade readers to know that sometimes the things you’re passionate about can seem strange or even pointless to others. But those interests are not only valid but so very important, because they make you who you are.

Also, if I can add one more: fire-breathing should never be attempted on an empty stomach. I didn’t actually try this myself and I DEFINITELY don’t recommend anyone try it ever, but it was one of my favourite facts from my research. Apparently the pros recommend a bread and milk appetizer before breathing flames. Who knew!


Many thanks to Rachelle Delaney for answering my questions about The Bonaventure Adventures as well as to Vikki VanSickle, her publicist at Penguin Random House Canada (and an author in her own right) for arranging this blog tour stop.


Other Rachelle Delaney books

I encourage young readers to read The Bonaventure Adventures and, while crossing fingers for a possible book two, check out Rachelle Delaney's earlier middle grade books.  They are all bon adventures!
The Lost Souls series:
The Ship of Lost Souls (2009)
The Lost Souls of Island X (2010) (in US The Guardians of Island X)
The Hunt for the Panther (2013)

The Metro Dogs of Moscow (2013)
The Circus Dogs of Prague (2014)