Sunday, December 30, 2007

Backyard Birds

As you may have gathered, birds are a big draw in our house. We're not fanatical "pishers and tweeters" (birders will understand those terms), but a bird in the yard or the neighbourhood gets us out for a look and we're always hauling our binocs around. (And, I'm proud to say, my eldest's first word was "Caw.") Just yesterday there was a Cooper's Hawk on the telephone pole out front of our house and last week my youngest spotted a Barred Owl just up the hill. We have a nice tangle of bush out front of our house -- great for birdwatching while we enjoy a morning coffee/cocoa.

So, given our enjoyment of all things avian, it isn't a surprise that Santa left P a new book under the tree: Backyard Birds: An Introduction by Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman with Ian Coutts. There are a few "first field guides" out there for kids -- the Peterson Field Guides for Young Naturalists are particular favourites -- but Backyard Birds is a wonderful book to give a young child who is just beginning to have an interest in birds. (And, really, I think all kids naturally have this. It's a question of whether this interest is nurtured or not.)

Bateman focusses on birds that you might logically have in your yard or neighborhood. (That's a tall order for Canada and US mind you, but he's done a good job.) He's included chickadees, mallards, great blue herons, American crows, rufous hummingbirds, barn swallows, etc. Many of these will be the first birds people learn to identify.

With each spread, Bateman focuses on one or two birds, gives a description in the running text and also field notes (i.e., size, range, voice, food, etc.) on a little "notebook page." Of course his paintings accompany the text, putting them in situ in beautifully rendered scenes. Interspersed with pages devoted to particular species are spreads that focus on general topics, such as bird senses, migration, life cycles, etc. To notch things up a bit, he includes a spread on how to tell the difference between 6 species of sparrows, infamously dubbed LBBs -- "little brown birds" -- (or worse, but unprintable) by beginning birders. This comes at the perfect time in the book and explains well how field marks are used to tell species apart.

Young readers will also enjoy an account of how Bateman became interested in birds at the age of 8. He also includes a small illustration showing some birds drawn when he was 14. There's no doubt he was talented and accomplished at a very young age. Birds are a great way to get children to focus in on things in their environment. They draw them in and, hopefully, are a way to encourage them to get outside and, ultimately, protect what is dear.

Here are reviews from Canadian Materials and BookList.

While we're on the topic of birds, Introducing Our Western Birds by Matthew F. Vessel and Herbert H. Wong, is a second-hand score I picked up. (The late Professors Vessel and Wong also wrote The Natural History of Vacant Lots -- obviously men after my own heart.) I was drawn in by the wonderful graphic art by Ron King -- very 1960s -- and so beautifully done. (I wish I had this darn scanner hooked up so I could show you.) This book, long out of print, is actually one of the better birds for young birders I've seen. Very colourful, with very good info. on identifying features, types of feathers, how to determine habitat and food from bills and feet, and more. Ron King gathers several birds in a single-page illustration with the descriptions on the facing page. I love these illustrations and am sorely tempted to rip them out and frame them (gasp!), but that verges on sacriligious. So, for now, they stay between the covers. I can't promise they always will though.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Factory Girl

There were many things that drew me to this book. The author, Barbara Greenwood, was one of course. She writes wonderful books -- primarily on history -- that I've always enjoyed. The cover drew me in too. I'm a sucker for old sepia photos and this cover image of young "factory girls" -- with one of the girls colour-tinted -- was riveting. I found myself staring into the faces of these girls -- close to the age of my own daughters -- and wondering about their lives. And the subject matter, of course, was also a great one. What a fabulous way to learn about and era of our history -- the lives of the working poor in the early 1900s, the reality of factories, unions, strikes, suffragettes,'s all here in Factory Girl.

In Factory Girl, Greenwood alternates the fictional story of Emily Watson, a girl whose family circumstances have driven her to find work in a garment factory, with non-fiction sections. These non-fiction sections give readers the back-story and context to better understand the story. For example, after the first chapter where we meet Emily trying to find work, the non-fiction sections explain the circumstances of life in North American cities in 1912. This gives the much-needed context that young readers will need -- how was life different then? -- to better understand Emily's predicament.

Wonderful historical photos are used throughout the book. Greenwood even weaves the story of photographers, and how important they were to bringing awareness to the plight of the working poor, into the story. Many of the photos are by Lewis Hine, a school teacher who was asked by activists to record the plight of child workers. Since factory owners would never have let Hine in the factories if they knew what he was doing, he told them he was documenting equipment. Cleverly, Hine asked children to stand in the photos under the guise of showing the scale of the machinery. His photos are riveting.

Both the fictional story and the non-fiction narrative in Factory Girl can stand alone, but together they make a stellar book that brings an important era of our history to life. Greenwood masterfully makes the story relevant to young readers, and gives them fodder to imagine how different their lives might have been if they'd lived a century ago. Greenwood adds food-for-thought at the end of the book with a spread on today's young factory worker.

Here are a few other reviews, from Education Oasis, Quill and Quire, and Canadian Materials. And here's a short interview with Barbara from Scholastic's Arrow Book Clubs.

What the Heck am I Doing Here?

No, this isn't a "what is the meaning of my life?" post. None of that here. It's all about the blog and why/what I'm doing. Now that I've been blogging for over a year, I finally think I know. When I first began I though I'd post mainly about my writing and upcoming events, but that can get a tad dull. (Especially for me.) Although I'll still include these things, Tough City Writer has evolved into more of a blog about books, writing and reading. Okay, okay, so the the blogosphere is filled with blogs like that. What makes this one different? For starters, I've focussed in on children's books for now and try to hone in on Canadian books and writers. There are plenty of blogs about American writers and books -- and kid's lit in particular -- but not many about Canucks that I can find at least. (If you do know of such blogs, please let me know. Sheryl's Reading Kids Books does I know.) We have so many wonderful writers and artists here in our vast country, this is my small contribution to getting the word out.

I am not a librarian nor a bookseller or publicist so I can't get my mitts on the latest and greatest new books to hit the shelves. Tough City is also a small town with an equally small library so it often takes awhile for the latest books to make it here. We do have two bookstores though (yup, TWO! -- not bad for a town with a population of 1500 -- and they're both independents) -- but they've pretty small kids' sections. This is all to say I'm not even going to try to make it a focus to review the latest books, unless, of course, publishers decide to send them my way. I'll write about the books that catch my fancy, imagination, eye... They might be published in the last year or two, but maybe not. Maybe they'll inspire you to check out a book you've never read or perhaps a new author. I've got stacks and stacks of books I've been wanting to read and when and if I do, I'll try to blog about them. For all the books that get dozens of reviews, there are gazillions more that fall off the radar for one reason or another before the ink is drying on the next season's catalog. Perhaps they'll find a place -- and a new surge of energy? -- here.

Now my editors and publishers (real or potential) may look at this blog as one big collosol waste of time, and for a time I wondered that too. But I must say that I think blogging has made be a better reader (and, heck, I have to write these things, so at least that's something). When I read now with a mind to a possible blog entry I'm a bit more analytical in my reading and am thinking a lot about why this book "works", or doesn't. I figure this will help my own writing, too. And as far as habits or ways to procrastinate go, it could be far, far worse than blogging.

This is it for navel-gazing and introspection, but 'tis the season for such pursuits. I hope you'll keep visiting and also will take a moment to tell me what keeps you peeking at Tough City Writer.

Over and out.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Writer Montage

Okay, I know I'm a nerd, posting on Christmas Day before we've even broken out the champagne and orange juice, but it's mercifully quiet, the fire is "crackling" (well, whoosing; it's gas) and I have a few books at my side to choose from. It's going to be a lovely day and here's a little ditty to start it off. My Christmas gift to you dear readers; all three of you.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Alternative Twelve Days

We've been thinking a lot about New Zealand around here lately. P is working on a project for social studies and as her country of choice, she selected NZ. So we've been poring over the pictures of our fabulous trip there far too many years ago. (Only a third of those pictures are in albums of course!) And since we've got NZ and Christmas on our minds, we pulled out our copy of A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree, NZ's take on The Twelve Days of Christmas. Check out the blog from Mama Lisa, with the full text, a picture of a pukeko and a bit of NZ and Maori history in the comments section.

And lookee here, someone has made a fabulous quilt of the story!

And while we're in the southern hemisphere, here are three Australian versions. In our stack of Christmas books, we have a version of the Aussie Twelve Days written by June Williams and illustrated by John McIntosh. I can't find a cover image, but here are a few of the interior images.

No doubt there are a lot of other "alternative" Twelve Days. (A quick search yielded a few, which are unprintable/unlinkable here considering young eyes might be checking out my blog.) If you know of any others, please send a link or drop me a note.

Monday, December 17, 2007

An Education About Christmas and Canada All in One Book

A Northern Nativity by William Kurelek is both a second-hand score and a Christmas title, but I'd buy it new if I came across it. This book, now over 30 years old, is another great addition to a collection of Christmas books by Canadians. In our home we celebrate Christmas in a fairly secular way. While I try to explain to my kids the various celebrations during this, the dark season, my kids are not particularly well-versed in religion. That's a shame I think, not because I'll ever be much of a church-goer, but more that so much of our history, literature, customs, etc. are so thoroughly grounded in Christianity. I think my kids, in fact most kids today (and me too) are missing out on a lot of depth behind what we, and others, do and why we do it. But I digress, sort of. This is all a lead in to saying that there's a lot of think about in this book of Kurelek's.

In A Northern Nativity Kurelek writes and paints his way through dreams of the twelve-year-old William as he imagines the nativity scene in various parts of Canada. He wonders:

If it happened here as it happened there...
If it happened now as it happened then...

Who would have seen the miracle?
Who would have brought gifts?
Who would have taken Them in?

With this premise, the book begins. Each spread shows the nativity in a 20 different settings -- an igloo in northern Canada, a hay shed on a ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, a box car, at Niagara Falls, and even in a broken down car beside the slag heaps of a mining town. It's such an interesting idea and certainly you'll never come across another book like it. And it contains lots of food for thought. In a spread entitled, A Farm Family's Adoration, the Madonna with child sit in front of a Christmas tree, before a farm family. At the end of the spread he writes:

"As William woke he recalled that the Christmas tree had stood not before but behind the Holy Family. He remembered a poem he had heard:
Lead us aaway from the Christmas tree,
Lead us back to the Christmas cave.
If we have gifts to give
Teach us to give to the hungry, the poor, the sick, the lame."

In many of the spreads Kurelek has such sentiments and "teachings" getting at the heart of what Christmas is really meant to be about. This is not really a picture book for young children, but it would certainly be a wonderful book to read (and discuss) with older children.

It was hard to find reviews, but here's one from Book Loons, and here's what Judith Saltman has to say about this book in Modern Canadian Children's Books (Note: "Modern" is relative here as this book was published in 1987.):

"In A Northern Nativity (1976) Kurelek moves from memoir to dream and legend. He sets one of the most resonant of narratives, the nativity, against the kaleidoscope of Canadian scenes. Based on a series of childhood dreams, the paintings place the nativity in the time of Kurelek's own childhood memories and relocate it in a cinematic journey across Canada. The holy family, depicted as representing all Canadians from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to Ottawa, appears in many changing cultural identities, including Inuit, black, and Indian."

You can see some of the interior images here.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Book Lists are Popping Up Everywhere

'Tis the seasons, folks. For book lists, that is. I keep the Globe & Mail's Top 100 Books of the Year, dreaming that I might read them all (Ha, ha, double ha; obviously I live in eternal hope) and feverishly scribble on scraps of paper the names of great books I hear on various radio programs. In the spirit of all things bookish and listy, I give you a few links just in case you haven't fulfilled your book-buying quota for the holiday season and beyond.

For the wee ones, here's John Burns's 10 Picture Books for Tree-Bound Tots from the Georgia Straight. (And while I'm at it, here is another of John's great columns from earlier in the year: For the Little Darlings: Pages to Gobble in Glee.)

Sticking to the left, er west, coast, here's a new list as of today from The Tyee. (This list is worth the read just for the chuckle. Take this entry:

"For that hard-to-shop-for fan of graphic-novel memoirs about once-famous Chinese acrobat/magicians who taught Orson Welles about showbiz and were once the toast of vaudeville but today are unjustly forgotten, as told by the acrobat/magician's great-granddaughter, a Vancouver filmmaker who discovered a lot about herself and her family as she researched this fascinating story:

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam: An Illustrated Memoir by Ann Marie Fleming (Riverhead/Penguin)."

While we're at The Tyee, if you're feeling a bit out of it with all of the fuss about The Golden Compass (and are too afraid to ask anyone), you might check out Crawford Killian's review.

And then there's the good 'ol CBC. Sounds Like Canada gave us a list of cookbooks today and if you go to the "Interviews" you can find the most recent picks from the CBC Children's Book Panel.

All for now. Any lists to share? (Like what's on your wish list?)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Vancouver Envy

Most days I love living here in Tough City, especially at this time of year when it's quiet (few tourists) and everyone is oh so happy and social, despite the grey, rainy days. But, there are other days when I wish I lived in the city so I could take advantage of city events like the upcoming show at Atelier Galley of Julie Morstad's art from one of my favourite kids' books, When You Were Small, by Sara O'Leary, which I previously blogged about here. There are 13 images for sale and the show is only from 2 to 4 so if you're still looking for a Christmas gift for me, be quick!

Sara sent me a note saying that a sequel, Where You Came From, will be appearing soon. Here's a sneak peek at its cover.

While we're (sort of) on the subject of Christmas, check these lovely (and also quirky or downright macabre if you look closely) Christmas scenes in miniature from Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Meet Tiffany Stone

Here's the first of what I hope will become many interviews with Canadian writers. This is the email "conversation" I had with the kids' poet, Ms. Tiffany Stone. This fab photo of the fun-loving Ms. Stone is courtesy Photography by Raegan.

Tiffany's books, Floyd the Flamingo and Baad Animals are favourites of mine. They're filled with fun, wacky poetry with ditties like this:


Do not tie knots
in unsuspecting snakes.
Do not hop on hippo's heads
to get across the lake.
Do not cheat when playing chess
with cheetahs late at night.
It may not be illegal
but that doesn't make it right.
Do not connect a leopard's spots
or toot a rhino's horn.
Laugh at a hyena
and you'll wish that you weren't born.
Do not subtract with adders.
Do not pinch a chimpanzee.
Do not, do not, do not, do NOT
times ninety-nine
times three!

from Baaaad Animals

Tough City Writer: What's the best thing about being a writer?

TS: When a kid comes up and recites one of my poems to me from memory and entirely of his or her own volition. Something created by little ol’ me is now an actual factual part of someone else. How cool is that?!? It’s especially sweet when that kid is the one I’d never expect to care about what I write. To make that kind of a connection is…well, indescribable!

You know, the feeling when I finally finish a poem and I just know it works is pretty good, too.

The worst thing? Rejection letters from publishers. And lines that won’t scan no matter what.

TCW: Do you remember any favourite books from your childhood?

TS: The Borrowers by Mary Norton. I copied Arrietty’s diary out of the book into a little journal so I would have my very own handwritten copy of her diary to keep. National Velvet. I really wanted to be Velvet Brown. The Secret World of Og because of course there were other worlds my parents didn’t know about! Rumer Godden’s The Doll House because at one point in elementary school, it was the thickest book I had ever read. Wind in the Willows—both my parents came from England. And the What Katy Did books. Oh yeah—Little Women. My friends and I set up our own book club based entirely around that one book. Alice in Wonderland because it abandons so many of the ‘rules’ of reality (whatever that is!). I could keep going. I read A LOT.

With three young kids, I don’t have time to read for myself as much as I used to but when I do, I still prefer kids’ books. I think it’s because there’s so much hope and possibility in them. Grownups need more of that! There are tonnes of Canadian children’s books I absolutely love but for fear of leaving out someone I know, I’m going to wimp out and not be specific here. What I will say is look for Canadian children’s authors at your local library and at bookstores worth their salt everywhere!

TCW: If you could live in one book, which one would it be? (And what character would you be?)

TS: I would be Pippi in Pippi Longstocking because in real life I live in my head too much and am not brave, adventurous or athletic—although I aspire to be! I also care way too much about what people think of me. Pippi couldn’t care less! Plus I love the funky way she dresses and who wouldn’t want bright red hair and sticky-out pigtails?!?

TCW: Is your fridge covered in magnetic poetry?

TS: Not officially. Besides magnetic Lego and gears, it does have some magnetic words from CBC’s Early Edition on it that my son Emory won at a book event I was part of. But thanks to my two year old, Kaslo, these words have been ‘edited’ quite a bit. (They’re under the fridge, I think.)

Here’s one of my fridge poems from awhile ago that I liked enough to write down:

crave dynamite anatomy always
get not good enough anxiety only
hooray to pain
love being vain
how else is there
I am a cartoon
and you?

TCW: Do you have a favourite time and place to read?

TS: All day long on a tropical island. But seriously. I read at nighttime. In bed. Once the kids are asleep. If I can stay awake.

TCW: Do you write in other genres than poetry? Can you share?

TS: My very first book, Tall Tale: The True Story of the World’s Largest Tin Soldier, is non-fiction and tells, you guessed it, the true story of the construction of the world’s largest tin soldier, which is located at the New Westminster Quay in New Westminster, BC. The book was a commissioned piece so it’s pretty hard to get hold of. It was a terrific learning experience, though, because the illustrator and designer, Elisa Gutierrez, and I were responsible for most of the book’s production. And Tall Tale turned out not half bad if I do say so myself—thanks mostly to Elisa! By the way, check out her fabulous wordless picture book, Picturescape, published by Simply Read Books.

That said, my genre is really poetry. It’s taken me a long time to figure out something I knew back in elementary school but obviously forgot somewhere along the way: I’m a poet. I love writing poems. I enjoy editing other people’s picture book stories for Tradewind Books and as a freelance editor but I have absolutely no talent when it comes to creating my own prose stories. And that’s okay. I just wish publishers weren’t so reluctant to publish collections of kids’ poems by poets who aren’t already dead. And that bookstores, etc. would put more effort into drawing people’s attention to good books of good poems. Poetry has a lot to offer. I believe that the more you play with words, the more they become your friends. Plus reading poems aloud—and lots of poems are meant to be read this way—exercises your tongue and trains your ears to hear the music in language. In fact, I double-dog-dare-you to go find a poem and read it out loud right now! Just remember to come back because there’s still a little more of this interview.

Yes, ma'am. I went and read The Secret Life of Slugs . See how obedient I am?

TCW: Your poems are wonderful and funny. Lovely word play, and well, just fun. Do you play around with other forms of poetry too?

TS: Thanks! There are many, many fantastic serious poems out there but I prefer to be silly. I figure the world is a serious enough place without me adding to it!

I first got really into writing poetry in grade six. My teacher, Mrs Pudek, wrote poetry. Mostly unrhymed descriptive poems to go with photographs she (or maybe her husband) had taken. She encouraged the class to write these kinds of poems, too. Man, I loved Language Arts that year! And, you know, I totally recommend that when kids start writing poems they don’t worry about rhyme. Although rhymed verse often seems quite simple when you read it, it can be amazingly difficult to write. Plus worrying about getting the rhyme and rhythm right can put a cramp in what you’re trying to say. In fact, I only started writing rhymed poems after submitting a collection of free verse to a publisher who read it, liked it but told me that I should try writing in rhyme if I wanted to write for kids because the only thing harder than getting a rhymed collection of poems for kids published if you’re an unknown poet is getting an unrhymed one published. So I switched and have enjoyed it so much I haven’t written any free verse in a long time. Just to prove I did actually write something other than “humorous nonsense verse” (as reviewers tend to call what I currently write), here’s one of those descriptive, unrhymed jobbies I wrote in university that actually got published in several poetry anthologies:

rush hour in the rain

wet streets
shiny black like licorice
twisting through the city

traffic tastes its way home

TCW: On that note, what's for dinner?

TS: Leftover homemade mixed vegetable and bean curd pulao (rice, tofu, cashews, mixed veg and spices). I had planned on cooking something tonight but my kids wanted to paint this afternoon and, well, there was a lot of cleanup. Kaslo thinks his body makes a fine canvas!

Before I finish off, I realize I’ve mentioned my two sons but not my daughter, Jewell. This could put my life at risk so I’m going to end by saying, “Hi, Jewell!” Oh, and go read another poem!

Roger! I'm happy to obey. Thanks for the chat, Tiffany. We look forward to your next work, "humorous nonsense verse" or otherwise!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Holiday Book Pairings

Thanks to inspiration from Mother Reader's Twenty-One Way to Give a Book I compiled a list of ideas from members of CWILL BC. You can read their ideas over at the CWILL Blog.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Second Hand Score: The Christmas Bower

Imagine my delight at coming across a book that has liberal doses of two of my favourite things: birds and Christmas. (Oh, and fantastic illustrations, too.)I can't recall where I picked up The Christmas Bower by Polly Redford - one of my usual used-book haunts, no doubt.

I can't find too much info. about the author of The Christmas Bower, Polly Redford, but she seems to have written a few other books about wildlife in the 1960s. It's obvious she knows something about wildlife from her telling of The Christmas Bower. Noah and his ornithologist Uncle Willie, who works as the curator of birds at the Museum of Natural History, are wild about birds, and Redford gets all of the birding references right -- their lingo, equipment, and fanaticism, even mentioning the birder's journal, The Condor. The rest of the family is preoccupied with the family business, Hartman & Company, "the biggest, best, department store this side of New York." Now that Christmas is upon them, the family must decorate the store in a way that outshines all other years. This year's theme? Birds. But not just fake ones, real ones too. You can probably see where we're going. The idea of lovely birds in cages, sweetly trilling and just quiety being beautiful is quickly put to rest. Birds escape and chaos ensues.

When I first flipped through the book, what drew me in immediately, was the fabulously distinctive illustrations by Edward Gorey. I knew his art looked familiar to me and then I realized it's because he illustrated one of my all time favourite kids' books, The Shrinking of Treehorn, the tale of poor Shrinking Treehorn and his wonderfully oblivious parents whose inattentiveness would cause great distress to today's parenting gurus.

Although The Christmas Bower was written in 1967, it didn't have a dated feel. (It seems to be actually set in the 1920s or so, based on the dress. The only things kids might find amusing is the fact Noah' parents sleep in single beds. Very 1960s TV if I recall!) Noah seemed mature beyond his years and all of the characters were distinctive and amusing in their own way. I especially adore the fabulous Mrs. Ogle, the stereotypical wacky bird lady with a lot of money and time on her hands. I've done a quick scan and you can pick up copies at on-line sellers of used books relatively inexpensively. It's worth adding to your collection of Christmas books, and if you don't have a collection, this would be a great one to start with!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Easy Reading is Damn Hard Writing

BC writer Ann Walsh is on the cover of the Winter 2007 issue of BC Bookworld. Below her pic is a quote from her interview: "Nearly everyone is going to write a children's book someday when they have a free weekend." Good one, Ann. Everyone thinks writing books for kids is a snap, but, as writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was purported to say, "Easy reading is damn hard writing." In other words, folks, it ain't as easy as it looks. Take, for instance, this little gem I recently came across: See Otto by the mighty talented David Milgrim. It is a "Ready-to-Read" book, Pre-level 1, published by Aladdin (Simon and Schuster). Pre-Level 1 is identified as "Recognizing Words" so the books have: word repetition, familiar words and phrases, and simple sentences. (And hilarious illustrations I might add.) With just 19 words Milgrim has created a charming, funny and witty first reader. No "See Dick Run" here. I'll keep my eyes peeled for the other in this series: Ride Otto Ride, See Pip Point, Swing Otto Swing! and See Santa Nap. As the reviewer from Kirkus says: "More, Otto, more!"

Saturday, December 01, 2007


I am such a fan of Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust -- iIt's truly one of my favourite kids' books. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up Hesse's Stowaway. It seemed to have all the right ingredients for me -- Hesse as an author, historical fiction, sailing voyages of discovery. The stowaway in this story is young Nicholas Young, who was an actual crew member - and presumed to be a stowaway as his name doesn't appear on the ship's roster until well into the journey -- on Captain James Cook's first voyage of discovery, 1768-1770. Hesse uses a journal format to relay Nicholas's story. Through short entries we slowly gain a picture of our young protagonist, the life he has run from (with ominous references to The Butcher), his life hidden amongst the animals as a stowaway, and then his gradual acceptance as an important and valuable crewmember aboard the H. M. S. Endeavour.

Stowaway is a well-researched book and gives the reader a fabulous sense of how the journey unfolded and its trials and tribulations, but (could you hear the but coming?) I think the use of the journal format was a poor choice. Telling the story through Nicholas's journal doesn't allow Hesse the room she needs to make a gripping narrative. I kept "waiting for something to happen." Of course, there was a lot happening on the voyage, but the journal format never gives us a change to bring out and develop the adventure and the drama of the entire ordeal, and an ordeal it was for much of the time. The only time I sensed a peak in the narrative was as they leave Batavia when one man after another -- and sometimes several a day -- dies.

There is much to learn in this book, however. Young readers will get an excellent sense of shipboard life, of Cook's journeys of exploration, relationship between explorers and native people, natural history (Nicholas often assist's the onboard naturalist, Joseph Banks), sailing terminology, and more. It would make a great read for young readers interested in this era of exploration, sailing adventures, and for teachers as a way to support units on exploration and discovery. As always, these are just my impressions. Here are a few other reviews, from Kids Reads and Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.

And here's an interesting article: Consider The Source: Feminism and Point of View in Karen Hesse's Stowaway and Witness. Food for thought there.

Next up for me from Hesse: The Music of Dolphins. I've always wanted to learn how to speak dolphin!

Philip Pulman on Writers and Company

Before you know it, bloggers across the blogosphere will be commenting on the release of The Golden Compass, a movie based on the first book in Philip Pulman's His Dark Materials Trilogy. I won't be among them because I've just started to re-read the book and won't see the move until I'm done. But, I did enjoy the interview on CBC's Writers and Company with Pulman. The first interview of two is posted on the Writers and Co. website. The second will take place this week. Interesting listening considering all the much-predicted brouhaha and threats of book banning that have (hopefully) peaked with the release of the movie. Where have all of these people been hiding over the years? Oh yes, fretting over Harry Potter. Well they ain't seen nothing yet. Bring on His Dark Materials.

If you're ever interested in following all things about banned books, Bookshelves of Doom is a great place to begin. They've got several links up to the Pulman fuss.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Great Red Fox Calls Upon a Sausage and other kids' stories of questionable worth

If you're interested in the evolution of picture books from The Doings of the Alphabet to Where the Wild Things Are, you might want to mosey on over to Slate, and take a gander at the slide show that accompanies the article Where the Wild Things Came From: How Children's Books Evolved from Morals to Madcap Fun. My particular favourite ... the The Great Red Fox Calls Upon a Sausage (?).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Writing History - John Wilson, GG's Award Finalist

I've been holding off on posting about John Wilson and his books until the results of the Governor General's awards were announced. John was short-listed with his book The Alchemist's Dream, but lost out to Iain Lawrence's Gemini Summer. (At least we kept it in BC - John lives in Lantzville and Iain down the road, and across the water, on Gabriola.)

I'm a big fan of John's historical fiction and most recently I've read Where Soldiers Lie. This book was short-listed for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. Where Soldiers Lie tells the story of 16-year-old Jack O'Hara around the time of the 1857 seige of Cawnpore by mutineers from the Indian Army. Jack originated from Canada West, but was farmed out to his aunt and uncle in India after his parents die of smallpox. As the story opens, Jack finds five chapattis on the verandah. He thinks this was a careless act of the servants, but, in fact, as he learns from his friend Hari, the chapattis are a declaration of war. What follows is a whirlwind of action as Jack, Hari, Alice (daughter of a general) and Tommy, a friend from the British army, are thrown into the trauma of the mutiny.

In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story with the seige of Cawnpore being the transformative event in young Jack's life. This "adventure" is short, but traumatic. Jack will never be the same after it ends. The story is violent and gory at times, but such is war. I feel that John strikes a great balance -- no doubt he had to water-down the actual reality of the tragic and bloody events, yet he still provides us with a realistic account of the chaos. It is as time very graphic and I think that's a good thing -- teen readers should be able to "take it." We are there with Jack and his friends, rooting for them all and hoping for their safety and the well-being of their loved ones.

Of particular interest is the connection between this story and the history of John's family. I won't spoil it -- read the book and you'll find out. Check out John's blog, too, there's lots of information on his books and a great essay on boys and reading, Eviscerating Noddy.

Ode to the Fact Checker

This is just too funny. It's the end of the day, take a 10 minute break and watch it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chanda's Secrets

I saw Allan Stratton speak at at writer's event a few years ago, but it's taken me until recently to read Chanda's Secrets.

Chanda’s Secrets is set in a fictional country in sub-Saharan Africa. The book opens with our protagonist, 16-year-old Chanda, negotiating with the undertaker to prepare a burial and funeral for her 1 ½ -year old half-sister. Mama is despondent, leaving Chanda to make arrangements and care for her other half-siblings, a brother and a sister.

The family lives in the shantytown, but they haven’t always. They originally lived in the country, where life was pretty good. Then Chanda’s father and brothers were killed in a diamond mine accident and things got decidedly tougher. Chanda’s mother eventually re-marries three times. Chanda’s first step-father number one abused Chanda; #2 was kind, but died of a stroke; and #3, the current one, is an alcoholic philanderer. But…what the book is really about is HIV/AIDS in Africa and how, while the illness is startlingly common, it is unmentionable. Individuals and families are shunned if people in their family have the disease, yet everyone knows that almost every family is affected. HIV/AIDS is the big, white unmentionable elephant in the room that is Africa (or at least this fictional country in Africa, but we know this is the case in reality, too).

This story is narrated by Chanda, a bright, educated girl. She is fiercely devoted to and protective of her family and friends. We’re with her as she navigates through this misery, and ultimately — when HIV/AIDS hits close to home more than once — takes the prejudice surrounding the disease head on.

My 14-year-old daughter read this book as well. When asked, she said she didn't like it, but that was primarily because it was so sad. She did stay up all night to finish it though – she wanted to see how it ended and she did acknowledge she learned a lot and that the writing drew her in. She just wasn't ready for sad at that point in her reading life. Yes, it was sad, but, to Stratton’s credit, I didn’t walk away from it feeling despondent. I was angry at the injustice for many reasons, but I knew that our bright Chanda, and likely the family that remains in her care, is moving forward and that, one day, things are going to be better. To that end, we will soon find out as a sequel, Chanda's Wars, awaits.

This book has, most deservedly IMHO, won a whack of awards and honours. Stratton has prepared a teacher's guide for the book and you can listen to a podcast from NPR here.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Dealing with Rejection

I'm off to Campbell River today to be part of a panel with Melanie Jeffs of Orca Books on Editors and Editing. One of the most challenging things I've had to come to terms with in my role as an editor is writing rejection letters. I know, I know, it's much harder to read them, but it's hard to write them too. With this in mind, and in the spirit of our panel tomorrow, here's check out The 8 Rules of Rejection from Editorial Anonymous. My favourite rule: #6 Most rejection letters mean nothing. Nothing. (Except that you can cross the publisher/agent off your list.)

Stop What You're Doing...And Read a Book

As I mentioned the other day, there's been quite a discussion on The Writers' Union of Canada's listserv on the NEA report on falling literacy. Lots of interesting debate. Here's what one school is doing to keep kids reading books. This was posted by writer and teacher, Barbara Pelman, who is a teacher at Reynolds Secondary School in Victoria. (Quoted with permission):

My school, Reynolds, reads for 20 minutes every day, across the board, not just in English classes. The whole school shuts down to read. The vp's are "reading police" to herd kids on spares into the library. Our library take outs have increased over 200% since we began the program three years ago. When we tested the kids after two years, their grade point average went up a grade (yes it was a little test, with a little sampling, but it is something, and it is positive). We have authors in the schools 5 or 6 times a year, and poetry readings in the evenings. More of this is needed.

I've heard of similar programs -- everyone in the school, including the custodian, secretary, administration, support staff etc. stops to read. Other ideas?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Finally, a new book

In my experience, writers tend to be a curious mix of ego (or perhaps I should say self-confidence) and insecurity. This may explain why it's taken me months to post something about my latest book. Well, okay maybe it's not exactly MY book, but if you look between the large DAVID and SUZUKI on the cover of this book you'll see my name along with Amanda McConnell. Amanda worked on the first editions of this book with the good doctor and I assisted with this version, the third. I love the book -- a holistic look at our place on this planet -- there is lots of food for thought. It was a whirlwind experience, but a very good one.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Still more wishes...and more writers

There's been quite a bit of discussion on a few listservs about the new report I blogged about a few days ago. Some people feel we're focussing too much on books when we discuss reading -- there's a lot of other reading going on -- while others say that maybe we need to rejig the material we're presenting to kids, making things more relevant rather than relying on older "classics." (I have to say, I know that The Outsiders and The Giver are fine, fine books, but sheesh, how many fabulous books have been written since - and by Canadian writers, too? For novel study this year my daughter's grade 9 class read an Agatha Cristie novel. No excuse for that.

But, there are lots of ideas for action circulating too. Here's one that I love: Work with your local elementary school to have a small bookshelf full of books that kids can take home...forever if they want. So many kids have no, or very few, books of their own. Suggest that the books are donated by local people culling their children's bookshelves, or by cruising thrift shops where many the bargain can be snapped up. Of course, new books are welcome, too.

Here's another thing we do at home. We don't say grace as a matter of course in our family, but we did start to read a poem before dinner instead. Consequently, our shelf of poetry has grown to three shelves, and my kids hear the occasional (okay, we don't do it every night) poem outside of school (or my poorly realized attempts). And speaking of poems, check back here soon for an interview of the fabulous Tiffany Stone, "poetess extraordinaire" and author of two of our favourite silly poems books, Baaaad Animals and Floyd the Flamingo and his Flock of Friends.

In response to my list of wishes, I heard from Liam O'Donnell last week. Liam is the prolific author of many books including the Wild Ride graphic novels, the Max Finder series (OWL readers will recognize Max), and books in a very cool looking series of graphic non-fiction books by educational publisher Capstone Press. (I'll have to get my mitts on those titles for a peek. Knowing the world actually has a graphic "novel-style" book on photosynthesis warms my heart.) Liam is currently on a Book Week tour in Nunavut. Lucky duck. (And lucky kids, too.)

I also heard from Diane Haynes last week. Diane is the author of the Jane Ray Wildlife Rescue Series. Titles thus far include Flight or Flight and Crow Medicine. (A third is on it's way I believe -- watch for Gaia Wild sometime in the near future.) Diane is passionate about animals and her commitment comes through in these well-researched novels. I read Crow Medicine last year and remember clearly the passion of our heroine Jane Ray as she naviagates the tricky territory of crows (and their bad reputation; I love 'em though -- we even did an issue of KNOW on crows and ravens), West Nile virus, and fighting for the rights of animals and the survival of her beloved wildlife rehabilitation centre. Young readers looking for adventure stories with strong girls (who love animals) as central characters should give these books a read.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Even More Wishes and Endangered Books

Here's an idea from Cheryl: "The wish that I would add would be that people post a blurb, review, or interview about a Canadian children's author or illustrator or one of their books that they love. Help get the word out about good Canadian children's fiction. And it doesn't have to be this week. It can be any time throughout the year."

On that note, it's a happy day around here because I received the Fall issue of the Canadian Children's Book News and in it I found this little gem: "Friends and colleagues of the late Marion Seary have established a new award -- the Marion Seary Endangered Book Award. Marion Seary -- reader, bookseller, librarian and bestower of books on the young -- was a fierce advocate of excellent writing, beautiful illustrations and deep imagination in books for children. The Endangered Book Award will name wonderful books that are in danger of no longer receiving the readership they deserve."

Wouldn't you love to be remembered as a "bestower of books on the young?" Wonderful. The award "will recognize and honour five important children's books (for infants to age 12) that the committee feels should never go out of print, but which are not recognized as classics."

And speaking of The Canadian Children's Book News', its editor, Gillian O'Reilly, sent along kudos for my wish list. And kudos back to you m'dear for all you do. I have huge admiration for anyone who tackles a book on math like Gillian and Cora Lee just did with their The Great Number Rumble. (The book was reviewed in the most recent issue of YES Mag and received a score of 10 out of 10 from a young reviewer. The review also said: "This book is for two kinds of people: those who love math and those who don't.") And then there was her Slangalicious: Where We Got That Crazy Lingo, which I've yet to read, but I'll add it to the stack.

Monday, November 19, 2007

More Wishes

Thanks to the creative folk who responded to my "wishes" post the other day. Here are the words of wisdom from two Canadian creators. More tomorrow.

Author Nikki Tate suggested we "purchase a children's book by a Canadian author and donate it to a women's shelter in your community." Great idea, Nikki. If you live in BC or the Yukon, you might look for a transition house near you here. Nikki is currently on tour for Book Week in Saskatchewan. Check out Nikki's blog or website, with recent news and info. on her books, which include the Stablemates, Estorian Chronicles, and Tarragon Island series. Nikki has been in the news a little more than usual lately because of the controversy over one word in her book, Trouble on Tarragon Island. (And, no, the word wasn't scrotum, it was ... bazoongas!) Besides being a prolific writer and presenter, Nikki is also a bookseller at Bolen's Books, one of my favourite bookstores.

Illustrator Patricia Storms, with her characteristic wit and humour, suggests that in light of the dearth of good television at the moment (strike and all), we "post signs that read "Celebrate Canadian Children's Book Week!" on all the TV sets of all the people you know." Yes, I say, (although I think I might squeeze in Corner Gas) Or, you could check out Patricia's blog, Booklust, or one of her books, such as Good Granny/Bad Granny or 13 Ghosts of Halloween, all of which are also full of said characteristic wit and humour. Funny gal; great artist. Make sure you check out the description of the fabulous library that Patricia grew up with, or the one she has now. I covet both! And make sure you check out the hilarious promo by the author of Good Granny, Bad Granny, Mary McHugh.

Another Reason To Fill Your House With Books

No doubt by now you've heard the scuttlebutt about the lasted study correlating reading for pleasure and school performance to come out of the National Endowment for the Arts. The key findings are summarized at the blog The Monkey Speaks and at the NEA site, but this is the paragraph that really caught my eye, as reported by Motoko Rich at the New York Times:

In seeking to detail the consequences of a decline in reading, the study showed that reading appeared to correlate with other academic achievement. In examining the average 2005 math scores of 12th graders who lived in homes with fewer than 10 books, an analysis of federal Education Department statistics found that those students scored much lower than those who lived in homes with more than 100 books. Although some of those results could be attributed to income gaps, Mr. Iyengar noted that students who lived in homes with more than 100 books but whose parents only completed high school scored higher on math tests than those students whose parents held college degrees (and were therefore likely to earn higher incomes) but who lived in homes with fewer than 10 books.

I've heard about a similar study, which I can't put my finger on, and it somehow correlated lots of books in the home to better performance in school even if the kids weren't reading the books. If you know of that study/report please remind me of the source.

When I told my husband about the study this morning he wondered aloud what the results would be for a house with over a thousand books... I'll let you know the results of our informal test of that study in about 5 years or so.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Canadian Children's Book Week

Huzzah, huzzah, it's almost Book Week! In celebration of all things Canadian and bookish, I have a wish list. Pretty, pretty please, choose one of these things (or five!) to do in celebration.

[This is this year's fabulous Book Week poster, illustrated by Martin Springett. Used with permission.]

Wish #1: Go to your bookshelf (or your kids') and dust off a Canadian classic you've been wanting to re-read. You know, Jacob Two-Two, Jelly Belly, even Anne of Green Gables would make me happy. (I know, I know, "classic" is subjective. Make your own criteria and go for it.)

Wish #2: Send book from Wish #1 to a child you love. Or even one you don't love, or even one you don't know. Tell them, "Hey, a Canadian wrote this book, ya know? And I think you might just like it."

Wish #3: Find a Canadian author or illustrator you have never heard of and check out their bio and their books. The Canadian Children's Book Centre, The Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP), and, in BC, the Children's Writers and Illustrators of BC (CWILL-BC), have wonderful links to Canadian authors and illustrators.

Wish #4: Git yer tootsies over to your nearest bookstore and buy a brand spanking new book (or five) by a Canadian author and/or illustrator.

Wish #5: If you have a bookstore in your community or neighborhood with a great selection of Canadian books, take the owner a coffee or a cookie, wish them a happy Canadian Children's Book Week and give them a big hug or smooch or just shake their hand and say thanks.

Wish #6: If your local school actually has a librarian, give them a cookie too. Then write a letter to the provincial government, cc'd to the local School District, principal and newspaper explaining why oh why it's so very important to have librarians in each and every school who love children's books and want to share them with children and teachers and parents.

Wish #7: If you are a publsihed writer or illustrator, sit yourself down with a friend or relative who loves you, but just really doesn't get it, and explain how royalties mean that you are only getting 10 or 7 or 5 percent (or maybe less?) of the list price of a book and that authors actually have to buy their own books and that it's really not a great idea to be demanding books for less and less because, ya know, it hurts the author, the illustrator and the publisher too. And then ask them, pretty please, to tell two friends and ask them to tell two friends and so on and so on and so on. (Oh, and while I'm at it, tell them that photocopying your book and sharing it with all of their friends is NOT a good idea — yup, it happened to me — do it with a smile and give them a cookie.)

Wish #8: If, like me, you fritter away a good part of your early morning writing on your blog or reading other peoples' blogs or surfing the Internet when you could be doing something more virtuous like Ashtanga yoga or going for a long jog, do something useful and post a blurb that celebrates Canadian Children's Book Week.

Wish #9: As a gift for your favourite young person, start your own version of a Book of the Month club where, each month, you send them a book or two off your shelf, or from a second-hand (or, ideally of course, first hand) bookstore!

Wish #10: Repeat any of the above at any time -- make this year Canadian Children's Book Year.

(Okay, just one more. Tell me what you wish for Canadian Children's Book Week and send it to me here. I'll post it and link to your website or blog, too.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sardines in Space

My lovely daughter, P, is somewhat of a reluctant reader. She's an enthusiastic listener, so I am not worried, but it warms my heart to see her sit on the couch and, on her own volition, become immersed in a book. My book antennae are on constant alert for new graphic novels to fire her way -- something other than BONE, please. So I was delighted to come across the Sardine in Outer Space series. There are four books in the series by French artists Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar. I love these guys already for their quirky sense of humour and fun, fun books, and, um, they live in Paris and I wanna go. (Apparently they shared a studio space in Paris for many years and would alternate tasks in particular project -- one would write the other would illustrate on one project; on the next one, they'd switch. A talented duo for sure.)

Sardine is a little red-headed girl in a tall blue hat and matching blue gown. (Her black cat lives on the top of her hat, making it look as if the cat is the peak of a witchs'-type hat.) Sardine lives on the spaceship Huckleberry, which is piloted by her swashbuckling space pirate Uncle Yellow Shoulder. The trio is rounded out by Little Louie. In each book, there are 12 short stories, most of which involve battling the tyrant Supermuscleman and his evil sidekick, Doc Kroc. In the first story in volume 2 for instance, Uncle Yellow, Sardine and Louie are off to break into Supermuscleman's orphanage and free all of the kids the evil SMM is putting through his "obedience training," complete with a gigantic brainwashing machine. The kids who are dropped into the brainwashing machine don't go willingly of course, and shout out things such as "Supermusclman, you're a dirty bedpan" (to which SMM and Doc Kroc respond - DK: Ew....that one was particularly filthy. SMM: I'll press VERY DIRTY!) or "Kroc, you old schmuck!!" much to the hilarity of the reader. And so we go on.

The stories are short, funny and witty, with enough "in jokes" for adults and just the right amount of potty humour IMHO. In The Cha-Cha Fly, for instance, children bitten by the cha-cha fly "get stupid dance tunes stuck in [their] head and just can't get them out." One victim is now "skipping" and keeps repeating the same line over and over again. Too boot, "Cha-cha flies live in cocoa trees. They use their delicious chocolate turds to lure their victims to them." Yes, gross but somehow charming in a warped kind of way. So, my vote for a great graphic novel series for pre-teens definitely goes to Sardine and friends. The series is published by First Second Books (who also have some great-looking graphic novels for adults). You can read some other reviews here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Remembrance Day Reading - 3

I saved my favourite for last - Sadako. There are a few versions of this story out there, but I like the version by Eleanor Coerr best. Rivetting cover, too. The story chokes me up every time and is well worth a read with children who are a bit older, I believe. Having just had my 10-year-old speechless with fear about global warming (she had to write me notes) I'm sensitive at the moment about how much angst and fear of the world we should put on the shoulders of our kids. Still, it is a lovely story about the strength of spirit and the humanity that can appear in the darkest times. For more on Sadako's story go here.

A very emotional Remembrance Day at our school. The vice-principal was in tears reading an essay written by the grade 7 girl and the principal who took over from her just barely held it together. The kids sang sweetly -- I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing, Lean on Me and others. And then there was the video with a song by Terry Kelly. We see it every year, but man it gets to me. Despite what you think of wars, past or present, it is worth stopping for a moment to consider how blessed we are to live in a peaceful, fabulous country.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Remembrance Day Reading - 2

In Canada, when you think of writers who write fabulous books on history, Linda Grandfield immediately leaps to mind. She's written a lot of my favourites and many which I read and say "Gee, I wish I'd written/thought of that!". Granfield has written several books about war and, for Remembrance Day, you'd be wise to get yourself to the local bookstore or library to check out In Flanders Field: The Story of a Poem by John McCrae (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1995) and Where Poppies Grow: A World War I Companion (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2001).

In Flanders Field weaves John McCrae's famous poem of the same name with historical facts about World War I. Paintings by Janet Wilson interpret the poem line-by-line and sketches, photographs, and memorabilia are included throughout.

Where Poppies Grow uses a scrapbook style to illustrate the the tradgedy and reality of World War I. Vintage postcards (written by soldiers to their loved ones), black & white and colour photographs, and memorabilia such as posters, training manuals, propaganda support Granfield's text.

Check out Granfield's website. There are short blurbs about the books mentioned here, along with the kudos they've received and info. about her other titles, including these related to war: I Remember Korea: Veterans Tell Their Stories of the Korean War, 1950-53, High Flight: A Story of World War II, and Brass Buttons and Silver Horseshoes: Stories from Canada's British War Brides. She reports she's currently writing a biography of John McCrae and also a book on The Unknown Soldier. I look forward to those titles.

Remembrance Day Reading - 1

With Remembrance Day on the horizon, I thought a post on a few great Canadian titles to share with kids. For younger readers, ages 5 to 9 or so, there is Heather Patterson's A Poppy is to Remember (North Winds Press, 2004). This picture book, with lovely images by the fabulous Ron Lightburn, explains the symbolism of the poppy and how this flower became the symbol of remembrance. You can hear a podcast review on Just One More Book.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sugar Highs (and Lows)

I was intrigued to search out The Candy Darlings after reading a column by author Christine Walde in Quill and Quire (September 2007). She described her book as being pretty edgy ("It had sex. Drug use. Drinking. Violence, both physical and psychological. Not to mention torture.") I was intrigued, particularly because we were discussing in class how dark YA fiction can get. And this is pretty dark. Edgy, gritty, rife with mean, sneaky girls and teenaged angst.

Our protagonist -- who remains nameless throughout -- moves to a new neighbourhood after the death of her mother. Her father is emotionally distant, but she is happy to have a clean slate and only wants to fit in. She can't stomach candy because one of the last images she has of her mother was with a slow intravenous drip, which she describes being like sugar water. (Her aversion to candy did change, rather abruptly I felt. It didn't ring quite true to me.) At first she does fit in, with the popular (but uber nasty) clique of three girls. Things turn when Megan Chalmers comes to town. Megan couldn't care less about fitting in and maximizes her shock value (both in behaviour and appearance). Her background is mysterious and she periodically disappears throughout the book. Megan and our no-name gal bond and it becomes, predictably, but true to reality I believe, a great set up for a teen girl turf war, with all its nastiness and sneakiness and back stabbing. Megan is continually popping candy and each chapter is named as such (Astro Pop, Fun Dip, etc.)

I enjoyed the book, but have to say that I found it bogged down near the end, particularly when the girls become candy stripers (which seemed a bit out of character, except that they did it partially to gain access to their beloved candy) and befriend an elderly woman who also loves candy. This woman begins a rambling tale, told to the girls in parts at each visit. I found myself drifting from time to time at this point, but it comes together for a satisfying conclusion, and even leaves us wanting a bit more. A few things unresolved, but that didn't bother me. I did crave red licorice when I was done though.

A few reviews here: Canadian Materials and Quill and Quire.

Here's a little bit from the Quill and Quire piece by Walde where she explains how the story began:

"In the beginning, my first book was supposed to be a collection of postcard stories about candy. It all started while I was living in Northern Ontario and saw a teenage girl kiss her boyfriend after feeding him a blue gumball. That sparked a story called "Tear Jerker Guts," which was then followed by "Astro Pop," "Fun Dip," and "Lotsa Fizz," among others."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Just For Fun

PEZ reinvented! A short time-waster. Gotta love those PEZ. Thanks for Fuse #8 via Bookshelves Of Doom for the link. (Two great blogs by the way.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog for the Environment

It's Blog Action Day and today's focus is the environment. So in that spirit, today's entry Tree of Life: The Incredible Biodiversity of Life on Earth by Rochelle Strauss (Kids Can Press, 2004). This large format book uses the tree as a metaphor -- the family tree of life on earth if you will. Strauss opens by speaking directly to the reader and comparing a family tree to the "Tree of Life" for all living things. From there, she introduces the five kingdoms of life: Monera, Fungi, Protoctista, Plants and Animals. Each of the first four kingdoms gets its own spread before we get a more detailed break-down of the Animal Kingdom, with its approximately 1 318 000 species. (Or, as Strauss relates the information, animals give 1 318 000 leaves to the tree of life.) Given that animals are ultimately more interesting to young readers than, say, cyanobacteria (although cyanobacteria are pretty cool, and we probably wouldn't be living on this planet without them), this was probably a good move. Each of the larger categories of animals gets its own spread (reptiles, fish, mammals, etc.).

The book is visually very beautiful, with lovely illustrations by Margot Thompson. The images of the organisms are bright and engaging and she's chosen some great species to illustrate, such as the Jamaican leaf-nosed bat, the tardigrade, and the panther chameleon. On each spread, Strauss gives a general introduction to the topic at hand and then gives us the numbers. (On the page for vertebrates, for instance, we learn there are 25 100 fish, 9800 birds, 8000 reptiles, 4960 amphibians, and 4640 mammals, totalling 52 500 leaves on the Tree of Life.) After this introductory sections, Strauss narrows in on a few organisms in detail. (For example, on page 15 we learn: "High up in tropical rainforests, the bromeliad grows into a "bowl" of leaves attached to a tree. This bowl catches water and becomes a habitat for many species of frogs, insects, spiders and worms. The largest bromeliad is just a bit smaller than a backpack. It can hold nearly 7.5L (2 US gal.) of water.")

The last page in the overview of the Tree of Life, finds us with 1 species: humans. This is an important page as children will learn that we are just 1 of the 1 750 000 leaves on the Tree of Life. As Strauss says: "Yet, with a population of over six billion, humans have the greatest impact on the Tree of Life." From there, readers learn about habitat loss and endangered species as well as some ways to help preserve habitats and our earth's biodiversity.

Children hear enough about global warming and recycling and turning off the lights to help "save the world." I'm not a fan of telling kids they can save the world, frankly. They've got enough to worry about without that weight on their shoulders, yet, I think it is very important they know where they fit in the scheme of things on our planet. And, hopefully, if they become more aware of the incredible diversity of life and habitats and cultures and religions and music and food and books ... well, just the diversity of life on our planet, they will learn to respect and care for all life. To that end, The Tree of Life is a wonderful tool -- it's not preachy, but it fuels the wonderful childhood quality: curiosity. Share the book with a child (or 30) and then get out there and discover the incredible diversity in your neighbourhood (even a yard or a ditch or a vacant woodlot can usually yield some treasures if one's willing to slow down and look).

The final spread in the book is an excellent Note to Parents, Teachers and Guardians, with more detailed information on the classification of living things as well as some more suggestions are exploring biodiversity with young people.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Kayaking and Cemeteries

A few weeks ago I was asked to tag along on a kayak trip to talk about local history. My eldest daughter and joined the group and had a wonderful time on a beautifully sunny fall day paddling through the harbour islands. I write about local history in our local monthly and write columns like this on local place names. We ended our trip at an island locally called Cemetery Island, where many of the pioneers are buried. Lovely, lovely island. When I die, bury me there.

ABC Spook Show

This is the Halloween book I'd really like to get my mitts on: ABC Spook Show. Who can resist an ABC book with entries "from Apparitions to Zombies." This title is created by the wonderful Vancouver artist, Ryan Heshka.

Here's a peek inside at the "M is for Mad Scientist" page, which I plucked from his web site.

And this is what The Georgia Strait magazine had to say about his book:

"Vancouver artist Ryan Heshka's love for old horror movies, 10-cent magazines, and stuff you send away for from the back pages of comic books is obvious in this Halloween-themed ABC book. Every page is beautiful, and the expressions of the ghosts, ghouls, and monsters are priceless. See the Mad Scientist pull the lever on the red alien squid ("Boys, this is it!")! Quake at the terrible hunger of the Imp ("Red-Itchy-Scaly")! Tremble at the electric-voodoo beams from the eyes of the Bat ("High-Voltage Fun")! If only the pages were twice as big…"

The Georgia Strait has reviews of a slew of other kids' books here. I'll be saving my pennies for this keeper.

Second Hand Score: Georgie

Halloween's a comin' and what better way to celebrate than to dust off this score I picked up for 25 cents. I remember Georgie by Robert Bright from when I was a kid. It was published by Scholastic in 1944 (the cover price then was 45 cents), and it has that very nostalgic feel to it -- single colour line art (blue) and fairly child-like art. Who can resist a town where every house has its own ghost in the attic? Georgie was having a gay-ol' time "spooking" the Whittakers, in a gentle sort of way, where spooking means creaking a loose floor board and a squeaky door so the Whittakers would know it's time for bed. Oooooh, scary. Life changes though, when Georgie has to look for a new home because Mr. Whittaker has decided to get out his Mr. Fix-it Kit and repair the floor board and oil the door hinge. Poor Georgie needs to find a new house to spook. Of course I won't spoil the ending and you can find your own copy!

Here's a peek inside.

Author and illustrator Robert Bright went on to create 12 more Georgie books after this initial offering -- Georgie and the Robbers, Georgie and the Little Dog, Georgie and the Magician, etc.

WE: Evolution in a Picture Book

I've been stewing over WE by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Kenneth Addison, trying to sort out my thoughts on this interesting new picture book. This is how the publishers describe this book:"In WE ... Alice Schertle brings to young readers the fascinating story of the common origins of the human family. In spare, lyrical verse she traces the evolution of human development from its beginnings in Africa seven million years ago to modern times, highlighting the emergence of diversity among peoples and the spread of culture, technology, and our ability to form complex, and sometimes troubled, societies."

Phew, that is a tall and very ambitious order for a picture book with, on average, fewer than 50 words a spread. Schertle is, no doubt about it, a very accomplished and talented poet. I have no quibble with her poetry, my concern with WE is the subject matter and the target age group. Evolution, human origins, human history...however you want to describe not an easy topic for the "average", not-too-science-literate adult, so I think this book, as presented, could prove confusing to young people.

Here's an example of what I mean. After an introductory spread showing the changing landscape in Africa, and reference to the formation of the Rift Valley, we see two apes illustrated and this text:

African sun warmed us
African winds blew through our thick hair
We cooled our feet and our throats in the river
and ate what we could catch or find
in Africa

On the next page:

And we changed slowly
as the river-washed stones grew smooth as moons

We were brainier now
and our hands fingers and thumbs so clever

Okay, so in one page we've blasted through hundreds of thousands of years of minute changes at the hands of natural selection. And so it goes. By the next page, we have upright Homo sapiens. From there, the book goes into the the technological advances ("So we built boats/ and made sails to catch the wind/ and were lost on the vastness of the sea"), settlements ("We built cities with strong walls/ and machines to knock down the strong walls of cities/ We made war."), and diversity of human existence as we learn through the text and pictures the diversity of religion, art, landscapes, etc. A huge, and very brave imho, amount to fit between the covers of a picture book.

My conclusion about this book is that it is only as successful as the person reading it is skilled at interpreting the information to children. How well can they expand on the ideas presented within to children? It could be a fabulous starting point for all sorts of discussions, but I just don't think that children will grasp the idea of human evolution as it is presented in the opening pages. For a child, "slowly" means the amount of time it takes for the school bell to ring at the end of a day. I can only imagine what they might be thinking when presented with the idea -- probably for the first time -- that humans evolved from apes. And, as a science educator who has written about evolution, I know how lacking most adults' understanding of this topic is. I would love to be a fly on the wall to see how this book is used by parents, teachers, and librarians and hear the questions children ask (and the discussions that result).

Having said all this, I do think that once you get past the first few pages and are into fully evolved Homo sapiens and the story of their dispersal across Earth, you're into a very different story. This one tells of how we spread across the planet and created societies, cultures with varying religions, music, art and technologies. This is more straightforward stuff with no end of starting points for wonderful discussions.

So, these are just my thoughts. I'd love to hear yours if you've read this book. A note on the art by the late Kenneth Addison. At first I thought the collages were too busy and confusing, but the more I looked over the book the more I liked the style. There is lots for children to pore over and the art would be a good jumping off point for activities on collage. Here's a good blurb on Alice Schertl on the occasion of her birthday from the blog, Poetry for Children. You can also read more about the book, including an interview with Schertl, here.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Human Flipbook

Okay, this is too fun. For some reason, I can't seem to get YouTube movies to post to my blog, despite having done it before. So, go to this link for a bit of distraction.

Endpaper Eyecandy

Check out these wonderful endpapers. Older books certainly did this feature well. I wonder why so few new books use them? (On that note, I forgot to mention in my post on Adele and Simon on September 25 had great endpapers which show the route Adele and Simon take through Paris overlayed on the Paris may from the 1907 edition of Paris and Environs by Karl Baedeker.)

What My Mother Doesn't Know

In my constant search for verse novels, I have just finished What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones, published in 2001. Short, pithy poems of a young girl's first loves and trying to fit in make this story zip along. Nice to see that Sophie wades through the morass of trying to be one of the cool kids to find what really matters. This is the blurb from the jacket cover:

My name is Sophie.
This book is about me.
It tells
the heart-stoppingly riveting story
of my first love.
And also of my second.
And, okay, my third love, too.

It's not that I'm boy crazy.
It's just that even though
I'm almost fifteen
I've been having sort of a hard time
trying to figure out the difference
between love and lust.

It's like
my mind
and my body
and my heart
just don't seem to be able to agree
on anything.

Sonya Sones has a great web site, including a blurb on the cover design as well as the idea behind the little flip book (that ends with a kiss), which runs from pages 231 to 259.