Monthly Archives: October 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

When I worked at The Flying Dragon, whenever I spotted Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon on the shelf, I always felt guilty. Here was an adorable-looking dragon book that I had not read, and here I was, working in The Flying Dragon. It was wrong, so wrong. I still have not read How to Train Your Dragon, but I just watched the movie and I am in love with it. It was brilliant. And cute. And heartwarming. And funny. And the animation was mind-blowing. (Gush, gush, gush. Side note: in another life, I would have the ability to draw dragons and be really, really good with computers and I would work for Pixar or DreamWorks and everyday I would be amazed by my incredible good luck to do something so beyond belief and so tremendously fun).

So the moment has arrived. I vow to read How to Train Your Dragon. I am about to order it from the library, and I am thrilled to report that there are eight titles in the series. Yay for me.

Here is a video of Cressida, speaking about the books at a literary festival:

Here’s the trailer for the movie, which you must see:

Toothless looks so much like my Siamese cat, who is almost as dangerous (and can almost fly).

Review to follow soon!


May I recommend…

You really should stop everything right now and do the following:

1) Find yourself a copy of this book. Get really lucky at the library. Or else buy one. Really. Just buy it. It’s worth it.

2) Get some apple cider.

3) Hopefully find some leftover caramel sauce in the fridge.

4) Mix cider + caramel until creamy and perfect and sprinkle cinnamon on top.

5) Bring book and warm caramely cider to the couch.

6) Stay there. Sink into book. Sip cider. Every so often look out the window at leaves whipping around and think: “Fall is delicious.”

Words That Start With B

Vikki VanSickle’s debut Middle Grade novel, Words That Start With B is a feel-good story. It might surprise you to learn then, that two of the most central “B Words” in the novel are Breast Cancer and bullying. But VanSickle manages these heavy issues with a delicate hand, making her novel into a heart-warming and incredibly true-to-life story of one girl’s unexpected grade seven year. You’ll be charmed.

For Clarissa Delaney, grade seven was supposed to be her year, but she’s about to find out that sometimes, when you feel the most sure about how things are going to go, the universe has an entirely different plan for you. Every year she’s spent at Ferndale Public School she’s been anticipating the year she’ll be in 7B, Miss Ross’s class. Miss Ross is the teacher all kids dream of getting. Her class does the coolest projects and Miss Ross is so interesting. On top of this, Clarissa had an experience with Miss Ross way back in grade three that made her feel she was destined to be in Miss Ross’s class, and that Miss Ross really understood her. On the first day of grade seven, when a new teacher takes over 7B, Clarissa starts learning that you can’t predict what life will bring to you. This lesson is one that she keeps on having to learn throughout the year that she had been anticipating forever. She finds that not all surprises are bad, and even the ones that are heart-breakers, sometimes have hidden blessings.

This is a sweet book. You feel like you’ve been dropped into Clarissa’s world, her home and family and community. Clarissa is sassy and sometimes difficult, which is entirely believable. Her best friend Benji is a sweetheart. He’s quirky and sensitive. I would happily read a whole book about Benji. I enjoyed the short chapters. They felt a little like vignettes, each one starting with a “B” word, which was clever, but not contrived. Sometimes I find that short chapters don’t always have as great an impact, but not so here. Each one felt crafted and purposeful.

Words that Start With B is going to be just right for a tween who loves a story about the real world, but who might not be ready for something too intense. It’s a great bridge to realistic YA. Certainly there are heavier aspects to VanSickle’s novel, that would bear discussing in a book club, or just in conversations between moms and daughters. Clarissa’s friend Benji experiences severe bullying, to the point where he is attacked by a kid and ends up needing treatment in hospital for his injuries. Clarissa has to face the uncertain reality of being the child of a cancer patient. I liked that Vikki didn’t sugar-coat this, making it clear that Clarissa didn’t know how things were ultimately going to turn out, and she had to live with that. The novel is about family, hope, accepting life’s imperfections, and appreciating the good in what you have even when things aren’t easy.

Bring on a sequel! More Words That Start With B?

Good news: Words that Start With B happens to be nominated for a Cybils Award this year in the MG fiction category.

Words That Start With B is published by Scholastic Canada.

Human Library

This is nifty. Perhaps you’ve already heard about HUMAN Library? My fella was listening to the morning program on the CBC and he told me about it. Created in Denmark, HUMAN Library is an initiative that is meant to encourage people to face their prejudices and ideally, to walk away from their HUMAN Library experience more open-minded. People volunteer to be “Living Books,” and then visitors to the library can “check them out” for a period of time, and have conversations with the Living Book about his/her life experiences. It’s not just anyone who is the ideal Living Book. It’s someone who has faced prejudice or stereotyping and is willing and courageous enough to be open about his/her experiences, potentially with someone who might carry prejudices. The Toronto Public Library is trying out the project on Saturday, November 6th, at various locations throughout the city. For more information, including the Living Books that you might check out on November 6th, visit here.

(Library photo from stockxchng)

The Birthday Ball

The Birthday Ball is an utterly delightful romp, exactly the sort of book to read aloud to a wide-eyed, dreamy, fairy-tale-loving nine-year old girl (or exactly the right book for a no-longer-wide-eyed grown up who just needs to escape for an hour or so). If you’re not reading anything and everything Lois Lowry writes, well, you’re just denying yourself pleasure, I’d say. The lady is a masterful writer. Her writing in The Birthday Ball is clever, surprising, touching, light, and smile-inducing. I can imagine this book on a girl’s shelf of most-loved classics forty years down the road. It’s delish.

Lowry tells the tale of Princess Priscilla, who is beyond bored with her life and so, less than a week before her sixteenth birthday ball, decides to disguise herself as a peasant and attend the school in the village. This is an eye-opening experience for the Princess. She enjoys the company of the village children (and the handsome school teacher). When her birthday ball arrives, the princess faces the prospect of choosing a husband from an entirely yucky collection of suitors. She must find a way to make things right, to find a life for herself that will let her leave boredom behind for good and be the right ruler for her people.

Jules Feiffer’s illustrations are as quirky and full of energy and humour as ever. Their whimsy fits the tone of Lowry’s narrative perfectly. The whole text is very neat. You feel like each word has been placed just so, for the reader’s pleasure. Of course, I could not forget to mention Priscilla’s wonderful, haughty, difficult-to-manage cat, Delicious. Every time Delicious comes into the story, Lowry brings in a little clever word play, so that Priscilla says something to Delicious that rhymes with the cat’s name (“Don’t be so vicious, Delicious.”). Adorable. Funny every time.

The Birthday Ball is a charmer. Just right for a gift for any girl eager to discover new things, looking to make her own way in the world, and maybe fall in love along the way.

The Birthday Ball is published by Houghton Mifflin.

Sweet things

It seems like September and October have been happening at high speed. Warp speed, actually.

These past few weeks, sometimes I’ve had to stop and let my brain slow down and look at something that makes me remember, “Ah yes, life can be about things other than what is presently on my To Do List.”

Here are a few sweet things I experienced this week (three virtual, one edible, one literary):

Color Me Katie’s list: 10 Things that Make Me Happy. I need to make such a list too.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful images and inspiring words at a blog I just found: the notebook doodles. Love.

Perhaps the perfect fall treat? Next weekend I’ll find out.

Which brings me to this weekend… when I made these:

In a gesture of supreme generosity (+ waistline preservation), I brought some to my neighbours. I am now even more popular.

In bookish news, I am rereading a very sweet book right now, by the lovely and talented Vikki VanSickle:

Here’s to all things sweet, even – no, especially – when life is nuts.

Half Brother

Kenneth Oppel’s latest offering, Half Brother, is an affecting and thought-provoking look at how humans and animals interact, specifically humans and chimpanzees. It’s the story of Ben Tomlin and his family, and what happens when Ben’s father, a behavioural scientist, begins a high-profile experiment to test whether chimps can learn human sign language and use it to communicate. The family brings a baby chimp right into their home and starts to work with him, teaching him language and tracking his progress. It isn’t long before Zan becomes far more than a research subject. As he takes a place in the family, more a child and a brother than a chimp, the scientific endeavour becomes infinitely more complicated and ethically suspect. When Project Zan loses funding, Zan’s future quickly turns towards dark possibilities and Ben must face the question the family has tried to ignore for months: just how are they meant to feel about Zan, and what do they owe him?

I always appreciate Oppel’s ability to just tell a good story, to keep things moving along at the perfect pace, never lagging, always giving just the right amount of description, dialogue and exposition. With his Airborn series, I felt when I was reading that I was completely absorbed by the narrative. The world went away. It surprised me that Half Brother was not as perfectly paced overall. It was slow in places. The second half of the novel picked up substantially, however, and every scene involving Zan caught me immediately. He has to be one of the most memorable primates in fiction. The subplot involving Ben’s crush on a girl at school felt fairly run-of-the-mill and sometimes even dull against the drama of the experiment and Zan’s behaviour. The family dynamic between Ben and his parents was true and nuanced. The ending is dynamite. It’s not an easy ending. I like that. (Tissues may be required).

Half Brother should inspire discussion around animal experimentation, inter-species connection, animals’ abilities to feel emotion, and many other challenging subjects. It certainly conveys that when humans enter into working relationships with animals, we will inevitably face complicated ethical questions that seem to become more and more difficult the more we consider them.

Oppel posted an interesting reflection on writing the book at his blog. Check it out here. Perfect for budding scientists, animal lovers, debaters, and teens who think their siblings could not be any more annoying.

Half Brother is published by Harper Collins in Canada and Scholastic in the U.S.

(cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire)

Word After Word After Word

Patricia MacLachlan’s newest book, Word After Word After Word, is one of those slim reads that is sure to be referred to as a “gem” by booksellers, teachers, librarians and parents. Sometimes, those “gem” books are books that kid readers find mostly yawn-worthy. And this gem also happens to be about what it means to be a writer. Are you thinking “double yawn”? I am pleased to say that I’ll bet MacLachlan’s book will delight children in as many ways as it is sure to charm adults. I loved every page, and I imagine kids will find characters and situations and ideas in this book to hold onto and remember for a long time.

Word After Word After Word is about a group of grade four kids whose lives change in small and big ways when they have the chance to work with a real live author in their classroom. Her name is Ms. Mirabel, and she’s wonderfully eccentric and wise (like all the best authors, right?). She teaches the kids that writing is something an author might do to answer questions, and that when you find a story that is important to you, you will write it, “word after word after word after word.” She helps the kids to see that stories find writers and words can be magical and real all at once. Most of the kids in the tale are dealing with something challenging in their lives – a sick parent, divorced parents, a new sibling, and through writing, they come to see their situations in new ways. Surprisingly, this aspect of the novel didn’t feel forced. You get to read poems that the kids write about their day-to-day experiences, like this gem:


My mother’s wordless humming
The smell of lilacs –
The sky
Looking up through branches:
Old leaves,
Old earth,
My home.

(That one’s by Henry).

I liked how the poems were believable as pieces written by kids – particularly poetic kids, mind you, but I find some kids have tremendous natural gifts for poetry. MacLachlan has far and away succeeded in writing a book about writing that kids will take something from, hopefully find inspiring, and also find sweetly entertaining. It reminded me of Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog, which is a high compliment indeed.

Word After Word After Word is published by Katherine Tegan Books.

A little pastry gloating for Thanksgiving

It’s Canadian Thanksgiving today. I’m just about to head to my mom’s for our Feast. I’m always the baker.

Here’s what I’m bringing:

(Recipe here – so SO good. I could make it in my sleep).

And this:

(Recipe here. We used to make this at one of the bakeries where I worked in my former pastry-cheffing life. It’s beyond yum – and very festive, if I do say so myself).

Happy Thanksgiving to all! Eat tarts! Eat turkey! Fall asleep under a good book. Perhaps this?



Kathryn Otoshi’s gorgeously simple and powerful picture book, One, has completely captivated my class. As soon as I turned to the first page, I knew I’d found something unique. Otoshi’s images are about as simple as you could imagine, splotches of colour and numbers placed so artfully on each page that she communicates tremendous nuance of feeling in a wonderfully understated way. It’s quite something. One is a story about tolerance and being “the one” to stand up and make a change. Kids get it. They love it. It makes them laugh and empathize and have conversations about bullying and integrity.

No surprise that Otoshi has worked as a graphic designer. Her book is stunning. My class enjoyed looking at how Otoshi conveyed the colours’ changing emotions just in the way she positioned the splotches on the page and played with lines and intensity of colour. Even the kids appreciated what a beautiful piece of artwork the text is. When we finished reading it for the first time, one of my students commented, “We should do an art project connected to this book.” Ab-so-lutely kid. I’m thinking up one right now.

One has snagged a bunch of awards. You can sneak a look at the first few pages right here. Then you’ll want it for your very own.

Perfect. Just perfect.

Here’s a good interview with the author. I’m planning to pick up all of her other books too.