Jan-Feb 2010

Reviews of Children's Literature by Dr. Andrea Deakin

Picture Books

Big Bear Hug Big Bear Hug
By Nicholas Oldland
Kids Can Press 2009

A big black bear dominates the first page. But what is this he clutches in his paw? It is a large flower. Here is a bear so full of love that he hugs every living thing he meets, from a rather scared baby rabbit to a moose, from a little bird to a smelly skunk and a startled snake. He has never met a tree he did not like, so we follow him as big trees, little trees and fruit trees are all embraced. Then he meets a man with an axe who is looking at trees, and when the man starts to cut at a tree, the bear does not feel like hugging any more, he even has to stop himself from biting the man - instead he hugs him, and the man runs off in terror.

Nicholas Oldland conveys his gentle story of the power of love and the joy of nature with that power fed by the story's very simplicity. Every little child will understand the message, and with a smile, for the humour lies in the bemused rabbit, the startled snake and a slightly squashed beaver. The clean-cut picture in basic greens, blacks and browns, expresses the simplicity of the message. The only creature to jar the colour combination is the woodcutter in his red shirt, yellow cap, and grey pants. He is out of line, and we realise it. Otherwise only a tiny red bird, who follows the bear, is the other bright colour, and he is our guide.

A profound message given in classic simplicity and with a loveable hero makes this a moving, important, and beautifully designed picture book.

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Ferocious Wild Beasts!
By Chris Wormell
Knopf/Random 2009
Wild Beasts

A bear, strolling in the forest, comes upon a desolate small boy sitting on a tree stump. The bear offers to show the child the way out of the forest, the forest isn't so bad, but the boy declares that it is full of ferocious wild beasts, his mother has said so, and they gobble up everything!

The bear, now somewhat alarmed, suggests that they should leave quickly. On the way they alert a large elephant and a sleepy lion, and as they go, the child's alarm adds a crocodile, a wolf and a python to the frightened group.

Suddenly there is the sound of some terrible beast coming through the trees, and a light flickers “like a great glowing eye". The animals run for their lives, leaving the little boy to face - a ferocious mom, warning him about ferocious beasts.

"But, Mom, I did not see any ferocious wild beasts."

Chris Wormell once again skillfully turns fear on its head with his gentle humour expressed in his contrast of spoken word and text skillfully playing against each other, and both humourously enriched and illuminated by his illustration. Who would fear this nervous friendly bear, an elephant, a banana grasped in his trunk, or a lion lazing in the sun?

 

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 Picture Books - Poetry

Thesaurus Dinothesaurus
By Douglas Florian
Atheneum/Simon and Schuster 2009
Poet Douglas Florian presents a poetic interpretation of one of childhood's favourite topics - dinosaurs. A series of brief poetic descriptions draw on the characteristics of each creature, such as the Ankylosaurus…

"Tough as tanks and hard as nails.
Heavy clubs swing from our tails."

His poetry, calling attention to the individual forms, encourages children to join in, captured not only by rhythm but also by sound. The poetic form and vivid illustrations beg to be shared in class or in the family. The many portraits are bound to stick in the mind, visually and poetically.

"But now indoors
Great dinosaurs
Fill museum halls, spacious."

Douglas Florian gives us some of those museum halls, including the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, in a useful addition at the end of the poetry, which also includes a "Glossarysaurus: of further information on the dinosaurs he includes in his book.

This is both a delightful and useful collection of "prehistoric poems and paintings" to engage children at home or at school.

 

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 Fiction

Mystery The Mystery of the Midnight Murder
By Roderick Benns
Fireside Publishing House 2009

This is the first in a projected series of novels based on the lives of Canada's Prime Ministers. John Diefenbaker is the first of these to be portrayed, a strong personality brought up during Canada's push westward and familiar with the hardships of prairie living.

This is a novel that is but based upon the character of both the man and the time in an attempt to bring the young John Diefenbaker to life. Some incidents mentioned in the book are real, as are the conditions under which the Diefenbaker family lived, attempting to survive and prosper on a homestead where finding clean water was a struggle and prairie fire a constant threat. The mystery, and John, Summer and Elmer's part in it, is fictional.

In the story John and his younger brother, Elmer, have a First Nations friend, Summer Storm. When a local settler is killed Summer's father, River's Voice, is arrested because he was reported to have quarreled with the victim, Mr. Schneider. Summer Storm goes in great distress to seek help from John and Elmer, and the mystery surrounding the death is the basis of the story.

John is the most fully developed and therefore most interesting character and we see traits in him that were familiar in the man, but Summer Storm is little more than a cypher. Indeed she and the Diefenbaker family could have a little more flesh on them as characters. The mystery is interestingly developed, John is a strong character in fiction, as in life, and the story brings readers closer to the harsh realities of the period and the strength of character of the man as seen in the boy.

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Stolen Child
By Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Scholastic Books 2009
Stolen Child

As part of Hitler's racial policy, the SS, in 1936, created the Lebensborn program to increase the number of Aryan children in the population. Between 1940 and 1942 they turned their attention to blond, blue-eyed Polish and Ukrainian children, children who looked Aryan, and they began to take these children from their families, placing those under eight with Nazi families.

Stolen Child is the story of young Nadia who comes to Canada in 1950 from a Displaced Persons camp and in the company of a woman who reminds her to call her "mother" as they approach the Canadian authorities. In Brantford, Ontario they are met off the train by Ivan, "father", who has emigrated ahead of them, and taken to the small house and plot he has found for them.

As the story develops Nadia, now to intents safe, gradually adapts to the new land and people, but is still haunted by vivid memories from the past. She has memories of "Vater" and the SS badge on his collar and she is terrified that she is really a German child from a Nazi family. But the truth is far more complicated.

The writing style is very direct, but the story is told with real compassion and understanding. It is a valuable addition to school libraries, giving background to the Nazi era and World War II, a story which is as moving as any from that period. We have stories which acknowledge and express the terrible suffering of the Jews, and rightly so, but we must never forget that there were so many others whose suffered terribly too during the Nazi era. This is a thoughtful and moving novel that looks at just one of the injustices of the period: many of the "leftover" members of the original families ended up in prison camps.

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 Fiction - Young Adult

Ice Ice
Sarah Beth Durst
Simon and Schuster 2009

Ice is based upon an old Norse tale, East of the Sun, and West of the Moon. Sarah Durst sets her version in contemporary Alaska where Cassie lives with her father in an Arctic research station. She loves the frozen north, intending to leave only for university and then return to the glistening expanses of snow and ice to continue Arctic studies with her father and his team.

When she was small her grandmother would tell her that her mother was the daughter of the North Wind and had made a pact with the Polar Bear King. Cassie had thought of the story as a gentle way of saying that her mother had died, but when she reports back to her father the details of an encounter with a large polar bear that she has had on the ice, he panics, arranging for her to go immediately to the University of Alaska, and her grandmother abruptly arrives from Fairbanks to help her pack. It is then she learns the truth. She has been promised to the Polar Bear King when she is eighteen. When she leaves the station and goes out onto the ice, he finds her and takes her away with him. He is, he explains, a Munaqsri, a gatherer and distributor of souls, a being who is bear by day and human by night.

As in the folk tale, the message is one of grief and loss, and the redemptive nature of love. Cassie has a terrible journey to make and an adaption and maturity to achieve in order to break the spells that bind all she loves. Sarah Durst gives us a convincing adaption of an old tale, a spell working its ancient way on a very contemporary young woman in a very modern setting limited by ancient realities.

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Only in the Movies
By William Bell
Doubleday/Random House 2009

Only in the movies

Jake Blanchard's father is a craftsman, a builder of houses, a constructor of cabinets, a skilled worker who has, since Jake was ten, given him tools and taught him his skills. "A builder builds" is his motto. An evening comes when an apprehensive Jake is drawn out onto the porch and his father points out the side of his van. It reads, "and son". Jake's heart sinks "into a sticky pool of guilt", his dramatic reaction perfectly in character - for Jake dreams of making films, his every experience capable of being woven into a plot line.

Fortunately he has loving and sympathetic parents. His father tracks down the York School of Arts, arranges an interview, and talks Jake's way in. They may not have a screen-writing program, but their program is performance-oriented, and thus they must spend a great deal on set construction, therefore….

Soon Jake is in love. Alba is beautiful and seemingly unobtainable, however there is Vanni, cursed with a too-obvious nose, wise, friendly and a writer, enlisted by Jake to write love letters to Alba and feed him his lines. In a hilarious scene he arranges to meet Alba on a bridge while Vanni hides underneath, feeding him lines of dialogue, shades of Cyrano.

At first the tale moves slowly, building Jake's dreams, but also building our picture of the solid loving background that has allowed him to dream dreams, and the practical instruction which has given him his opportunity. How many experiences we deal with when young return to prove very valuable? We also experience the strength and sensitivity of the father who, his own dream shattered, backs his son to the hilt with his dream. This upbringing grounds Jake in the rather erratic experiences to come as a production of Romeo and Juliet runs a little wild and Jake finds his world turned topsy-turvey.

The blend of practical and theatrical, which is the web of the story, is also a portrait of Jake, who finds symbols of structural solidity some temporary help in trying to deal with Alba's charms.

Then there is Vanni, a lover of poetry, her passions concealed beneath her direct manner. Part Irish, part Indian, her quick, at times abrasive, tongue conceals a sensitivity and compassion, a creation not beautiful in face, but full of depth.

William Bell spins a fast moving, witty tale whose early chapters show the source of the psychological cast-iron strengths and bolted oak planks of Jake's upbringing; those forces that keep Jake on his feet despite the mayhem.

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They Never Came Back
By Caroline B. Cooney
Random House 2010
They Never Came Back

Cathy Ferris is attending a summer school for gifted students, involved in and enjoying her introduction to Latin. She is sitting in the student centre at lunch when a boy rises to his feet and comes towards her laughing,”Murielle, is it you?"

It seems he has mistaken her for his cousin, taken away by social services five years before, and lost in the system. "Who is Murielle?", she asks.

Swinging between ten-year-old Murielle's devastating experience when her parents, managers of an investment fund, flee the country, and Cathy's experiences as a ward of social services living, very happily, with loving foster parents, the plot alternates between the two. The tragedies that have affected those close to Murielle's parents are thrust at Cathy as she tries to ignore or turn away the curious enquiries and the accusations brought before her by young people whose parents were damaged by Murielle's parents' perfidy.

Murielle loves her wonderful loving father and mother and desperately wants to hear from them, but she is defeated by a combination of FBI enquiries, her aunt's fluctuations between hurt love and outrage at her parents' behaviour, and then the strangeness of the foster homes she is thrust into. She becomes lost in the system, but tries to keep faith that her parents will send for her.

Meanwhile Cathy Ferris holds out against the growing curiosity and the return of the FBI agent who so alarmed ten-year-old Murielle and who is now curious about Cathy and interested in using her in his investigation.

This is a clever well-woven plot, and Caroline Cooney carries off this case of, perhaps, mistaken identity. The characters ring true, especially the group of bright, technically astute, intrigued classmates who, while supporting Cathy, cannot help joining in a manhunt. The emotionally unstable aunt, the bitter classmate whose mother took the brunt of Murielle's parents' illegal endeavours and served a jail term, all of these add a strong sense of reality. The author deftly presents Murielle and Cathy with sympathy and understanding.

The novel creeps up on the reader, so open at first with the reality of bright young students at a summer school where the atmosphere is full of light, and then the darkening and threatening storm and disaster. Highly recommended.

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Marcelo in the Real World
By Francisco X. Stork
Scholastic Books 2009
Marcello in the Real World

Seventeen-year-old Marcelo Sandoval has been raised in Boston, protected by his parents who have built him an electrified tree house so that he may have time alone, and sent him to a private school for disabled youngsters. He has trouble reading facial expressions, understanding human emotions and finding his way amongst the city streets. He explains that the closest description of his condition is Asperger's Syndrome, although not truly Asperger's, but something similar.

His accomplished, hard-working lawyer father feels that Marcelo may be stuck in his "comfort zone" and he determines that the boy should spend the summer in the commotion that is his law firm's mailroom, learning "the rules of the real world". Under the care of Jasmine, the intelligent and capable girl who runs the mailroom, Marcelo, a decent and thoughtful young man, comes into contact with the manipulative son of his father's partner, and is brought face to face with a great injustice. His empathy aroused, he needs make a major decision.

Marcelo's voice narrates the story as it affects him, and forces him to come face to face with the "Real World". We become caught up not only in his discovery of malice and deceit, but also in the beauty Marcelo sees and appreciates in other aspects of the world around him. He is a fine, brave and totally engaging young man, and his tale is a gripping morality play.

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Outside Beauty
By Cynthia Kadohata
Simon and Schuster 2009
Outside Beauty

Shelby's mother lives life fully and as her spirit dictates. She has four daughters, each with a different father, indeed Shelby's father was married to her mother for only a few days. The girls, brought up by their mother, love her deeply and have learned the art of survival with her - how to dodge ex-lovers in a car chase, how to leave a hotel by the back doors, and how to become devoted to each other and care for each other.

Then there is a phone call in the middle of the night. Their mother is in hospital and the girls are sent across country to live with their respective fathers.

Shelby's Japanese-American father does his best to draw her into his life. He is understanding, sympathetic and quietly a practical support. It is the youngest girl and Shelby's special care, Maddie, who comes off worst, and the girls, always supportive of each other, try to bring their family back together.

Cynthia Kadohata has the gift of giving us real people in just a brief time. We know each of these girls within a few pages, and we understand their devotion to their vibrant, loving mother. This is why the struggle to protect Maddie and bring the family back together rings so true and involves the reader so deeply.

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Non-Fiction

Vanishing Habitats Vanishing Habitats
By Robert Bateman
Scholastic Books 2009

Robert Bateman has taught both Geography and Art and has become our foremost wildlife artist. His experience shows in his lucid and interesting texts, full of information but never overwhelming, indeed invitations to discovery. His art illustrates each book with realistic and engaging portraits of the wildlife and habitats he describes.

So with Vanishing Habitats, an engaging introduction for young people that describes clearly and effectively varying types of world habitat and the creatures that live there. The problems those areas face, and the need for protection are clearly spelled out, while the illustrations bring inhabitants and habitat vividly to life. This is a book to engage the young naturalist and an accessible and valuable book for the school library.

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The Secret of Your Name: Kiimooch ka shinikashooyen
By David Bouchard.
Illustrated by Dennis J. Weber.
Fiddle music by John Arcand.

Red Deer Press 2010
The Secret of Your Name

In 1885, the year of his death, Riel stated: "Our people will sleep for a hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who bring back their culture."

Poet David Bouchard puts into words the emotions of one who, not previously knowing of his heritage, tries to express to his nokum, his grandmother, his sorrow and shame that her heritage and the story of her life has been buried. For after Riel's uprising the Metis people hushed their inheritance. European men had married First Nations women, now the Nokums were denied and the European inheritance emphasized. With this, much of the Metis culture and their pride in it were lost.

Now three Metis artists, Bouchard the poet, Dennis J. Weber the artist, and John Arcand the musician join together in this tribute to Metis culture, celebrating the richness of their inheritance from their grandmothers in poetry, painting, and some fine fiddle-playing. The CD that accompanies this sensitive text and rich illustrations carries the text of the book and Arcand's fiddle-playing.

This book, aimed at young people, should appeal to a much wider audience. It deserves to.

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Belated Christmas


Oxford Christmas Book of Poems Oxford Book of Christmas Poems
Edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark
Oxford 1983 2009 Paperback

Oxford Book of Christmas Stories Oxford Book of Christmas Stories
Edited by Dennis Pepper
Oxford 1986 2009 Paperback

By sheer misfortune these two books have just arrived, caught up, perhaps, in the volume of December mail. They are, however, both such engaging additions to school and home libraries that I wish to make comment on them. Both were published in the 80's with the paperback editions becoming available in late 2009.

The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems contains well over a hundred poems ranging from “O Simplicitas”, Madeleine L'Engle's interpretation of Mary's experience, to Mick Gowar's young lad's Christmas "Thank You" letters. Douglas Sladen describes a summer Christmas in Australia, and Sims, in grimmer mode is represented by "It Is Christmas Day in the Workhouse", complete with Charles Keeping's haunting drawings. Robert Herrick brings the Yule Log, the grim intent of Charles Causley's “Innocents' Song”, is balanced by “The Huron Carol”, T.S.Eliot's “Journey of the Magi”, and Gerard Manley Hopkins' “Moonless Darkness Stands Between”.

Gathered together are celebration and contemplation, family rejoicings and afterthoughts, and the first stirrings of the New Year. It is a richly illustrated collection reflecting the moods of the season, one to be enjoyed through to adulthood.

The same quality of choice and illustration accompanies The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, a collection again centred around the season, but with a wide variety of interpretation. One of my personal favourites is the late Jan Mark's “Welcome Yule”, in which the new vicar, turning aside the nervous advice of his congregation, takes the church carol singers into a part of town where they are musically challenged by a strange group - a choir of ghostly survivors from the Black Death who have caroled for hundreds of years, undisturbed, in their own special area. Afterwards a family decides they had better not warn the vicar about Midsummer's Eve!

Thirty tales range from Dickens' story of “Mr. Pickwick on Ice” to James Riordan's retelling of the folktale – “Grandfather Frost”. Geraldine McCaughrean is represented by "The Anarchist's Pudding" and Sue Townsend describes Adrian Mole's Christmas.

The collection follows the themes of the season - love, friendship, charity, happiness and sacrifice. Inside the front cover lies the story, by St. Luke, of what the season actually celebrates. Both books are suitable for older children, although some of the poetry in that collection can be selected for younger children. Both books can be highly recommended.

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Awards 

Costa Award for Children's Literature 2009 (Previously the Whitbread Award)  

Ask and Answer

The Ask and the Answer
By Patrick Ness.
Candlewick/Random House. 2009  

            (See review in Deakin Newsletter Nov-Dec 2009 )

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