Category Archives: Can-Con

The definition of dramedy: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen

henrylarsenI’ve been in a reading rut the past couple of months, and Susin Nielsen’s The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is one of the books that finally pulled me out of it. If you haven’t read it, don’t wait. It is both heartbreaking and funny-bone-tickling – and when I tell you what it’s about, you’ll probably find the promise of funny hard to believe.

Thirteen-year-old Henry and his family face the unthinkable when his older brother Jesse takes his father’s hunting rifle to school one morning and kills the bully who has been making his life a living hell for months. Henry’s family moves to a new city in an attempt to “start over” and there Henry begins seeing a therapist. The therapist wants him to keep a journal. At first Henry thinks this is stupid. Eventually, the journal becomes a place for him to share his thoughts about his new situation, including what he thinks of the oddball group of nerds he finds himself hanging out with at school, and his new neighbours in their apartment building. Henry tries as hard as he can to make sure what happened to his family stays a secret, but it isn’t easy keeping something so awful and life-changing in the past.

It’s Henry’s voice that really gets you and makes this book memorable. Nielsen excels at capturing the mix of emotions Henry feels - crushing sadness and guilt and anger – but she also makes it clear that Henry is a pretty hilarious boy. I loved how Henry speaks in “Robot Voice” when his therapist (or anyone else) tries to get him to talk about anything painful. It is funny, but also incredibly touching, because it’s something so true to what a kid would likely do to protect himself emotionally in such a situation. You can tell that Henry is one bright kid.

I also appreciated that Nielsen doesn’t gloss over the hard stuff in this book. She makes you think about whether or not you’d be like the people in the community who shut out Henry’s family after this tragedy. She makes you sympathize with Henry when he goes to visit the victim’s sister and her dad turns Henry away, horrified, at the same time as you kind of understand where the father is coming from in the moment. Nielsen doesn’t sugar coat, but there is nothing inappropriate in the content for an intermediate reader. She handles the subject matter with perfect sensitivity. I think kids and adults will appreciate her honest but thoughtful scrutiny of this mature and intense topic.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen is a book that should make you think about stories you’ve heard in the news a little bit differently. It’s very sad in places, but I promise, there will be moments when you laugh out loud. In my opinion, it takes a unique writer to offer readers such great dramedy. 

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is published by Tundra Books.

A Canine Charmer: The Metro Dogs of Moscow by Rachelle Delaney

moscowdogsI’ve been reading a whole lotta dog books lately, mostly about how to train a terrier who is smart enough to open his crate from the inside using only his lips. We are all learning in our house (admittedly, some of us faster than others). So when Rachelle Delaney’s new middle grade novel, The Metro Dogs of Moscow, snuck to the top of my TBR pile, I was powerless to resist. A mystery… starring a dog… a terrier type dog? Of course I jumped at it (a little bit like a certain naughty hound I wrangle on a daily basis).

This quick read is chipper and charming, just right for young readers who are beginning to get their feet wet with longer chapter books. Here’s the premise. JR (short for Jack Russell) travels the world with his person, George, who works as a diplomat. Sounds exciting, right? JR doesn’t see it that way. Now that they’ve landed in Moscow, JR is beginning to get tired of the roving life. He wants to stay in one place, and more than anything, he wants to go off leash for a while and really have a chance to live a little. Then one night, all it takes is an open window and just like that, JR runs off into the city, leaving his drab days in the dust. He meets The Coolest Dogs Ever, aka the Metro Dogs of Moscow. These amazing, street-smart strays show JR the sites and they also fill him in on a mystery that is affecting their crew: strays are disappearing all over the city. JR doesn’t turn back, and soon enough, he is wrapped up in an adventure he will never forget.

It’s hard to resist a book with such a motley collection of canine stars. Before you can say Kroshka Kartoshka (delish stuffed hot potatoes), JR will skip his way straight into your heart, circle around a couple of times, and lie down there to stay for a while. The opening bit, when JR experiences some inner turmoil over having done A Very Bad Thing, completely cracked me up. Any dog owner knows how it goes. Dog does A Very Bad Thing. Dog feels Really Awful. You are Very Mad at Dog. Then, before you know it, somehow, said Bad Dog is curled up with you on the couch and you are holding his rawhide chew for him so that he can enjoy more fully. How? Why? Now that is a doggy mystery.

Joking aside, Delaney must be a dog person. Her dog characters are not just cute, they are nicely differentiated and memorable. The Russian setting comes to life as the hounds tear all over the city, racing to solve the mystery before more of their friends disappear. There’s a classic feel to this story. I don’t know if it’s the shape of the story that makes it seem like a timeless adventure for children, the warm atmosphere, or the lightness Delaney imbues throughout. Whatever the magic, it really works. You could put this in the hands of just about any young reader and chances are, they’d gobble it up. It is the kind of book I would have adored when I was nine or so. I will be finding many nine year olds to read it very soon.

FYI, JR made me think of two Jack Russell’s on film. Cosmo, from the most wonderful movie, Beginners, and Uggie from The Artist. Check out their cuteness:

Also, here’s a lovely interview with Rachelle by Vikki, over at Pipdreaming.

The Metro Dogs of Moscow is published by Puffin, an imprint of Penguin Canada.

I heart Binky, Maru’s brainy cousin

binkyIf you ask me, Binky is what might happen to Maru if he focused less on boxes, and more on the possibility that aliens could be trying to attack his family’s space station (house). Those who know me, know how much Maru means to me, so that is perhaps all I really need to say to tell you how much I love Binky, the crazy cartoon kitty, created by the always stylish, super-talented Ashley Spires.

But honestly, I have many more reasons why I think The Binky Adventures are pretty much purr-fect (absolutely could not help it). Let’s make a list, shall we?

1. It’s got huge kid appeal, for boys and girls. Not just sayin’ this folks, I’ve got the banged-up, always coming-and-going copies in my school library to prove it. Some girls might be picking it up because Binky is just so darn cute, but they’ll stay because he is hilarious. There’s sweetness, but there’s also a little potty humour. In Binky Takes Charge, Gordon the dog may be leaving coded messages for the aliens (flies) in his business (um… poop). Now that will make kids laugh.

2. An average kid reader could finish a Binky book in one sitting, not rushing, just having a good time.

3. Spires’ artwork has such clean lines and a neutral colour palette that the expressions on the characters’ faces really stand out. Also, the uncluttered design of the panels will help readers to hone in on the story all the more. Plus, there’s something about Spires’ illustration style that feels modern and hip – and we all know how important it is for kids these days to feel modern and hip (*wink wink*). Perhaps I should say that Binky will score their hipster parents’ seal of approval?

4. It is becoming harder and harder for me to track down and stock enough graphic novels for the library that are appropriate for smart, book-devouring younger readers. I’m talking about kids in Grade 2/3/4 who are desperate to leap onto the GN bandwagon and who are really not ready for the content, length, and language in some popular GN series. Binky is perfect for that kind of kid. So not only are hipster parents cheering, it also gets the Cool Librarian’s Seal of Approval.

5. When you read a Binky book, you feel like Ashley Spires gets how cats think. Ask any cat lover and she (or he!) will tell you that their cat could be Binky, and this is at once thrilling and terrifying. (Now that I think about it, Yoyo has been spending more and more time lately lying on top of the heating vent. Perhaps he thinks the aliens are going to break in via the magic hot air?)

yoyo

The little rotter

In conclusion, Binky is for everyone from Grade 2 right on up to your crazy cat lady relative. Read all four and you’ll heart Binky too.

Binky Takes Charge and all the others in the series are published by Kids Can Press.

Day 30, book 30: You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey

When I tell you that You Are Stardust is a stunning book, you may think, “Yeah, yeah. Stunning, schmunning. People call books stunning all the time.” To which I reply, “No. I mean it. This book is stunning. Honest.” I don’t think I’ve been as blown away by the creativity and beauty of a book in quite a while. Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim should be getting some serious recognition for their work in this collaboration. This book will make kids think. It will make kids marvel. It will make them slow down and stare at the pages and then, hopefully, turn that wonder to the world around them.

I love it.

“You are stardust. Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.”

This is where Elin Kelsey begins her exploration of all of the ways that we are a part of the earth and its cycles and communities. She writes with lovely directness, make each big idea clear as can be, putting them out there for kids to ponder and talk about. Indeed, the text is full of facts awesome enough to please any science geek. Did you know you sneeze with the force of a tornado, or that you’ll replace your skin 100 times by the time you turn ten? So, so cool. The best part of the words that fill this book is that they are all the more mind-blowing because they are simply describing what is. Our world, our earth, is mind-blowing, and I can’t think of another book for children that communicates this truth more effectively.

Soyeon Kim’s illustrations are tremendously creative and in a word, magical. If you take off the dust jacket and look on the reverse side, you’ll see pictures of the seven dioramas she created to be photographed for the book. I can’t think of the last time I saw something so unique and so perfectly suited to the atmosphere and feeling of the subject matter. Here’s a little look behind the scenes at Kim’s artistic process. Prepare to be amazed:

You Are Stardust is awesome, in the ideas that it offers to young readers, and the incredibly unique artwork. Jaw-dropping. Give it to everyone. Then hug a tree and whisper a few deep thoughts into the cosmos.

Bam. Done. Picture Book #30! I did it! It’s been fun gang. Thanks for reading this month.

You Are Stardust is published by OwlKid Books.

Day 28, book 28 (a little late): The Tooth Mouse by Susan Hood

Yesterday was the kind of day that left me so tired that all I could manage by 10:00 pm was slouching over my computer keyboard watching animal videos (exhibit a, exhibit b). Sometimes when this happens I am stuck for a long time in the land of adorable, so I am happy to report that I am back with Picture Book 28, a little late, but so it goes.

The Tooth Mouse by Susan Hood is rather lovely. It makes me long for Paris and for the picture books of my youth, the ones that had lots of words so that they lasted long enough to disappear into them for a while. On a side note, I think it’s sad that it seems longer picture books are becoming rarer all the time. First off, I refuse to buy into the argument that parents don’t have the time or inclination in their jam-packed days to read them to their children. But even if you do believe that, what about kids reading them all by themselves? (*gasp*). I did. Some of my best reading memories from childhood are of the afternoons I hung out leaning against the bookcase in our basement, rereading all of my favourite long picture books. Books like this one:

I think that The Tooth Mouse could be this kind of book for many young readers. It’s a sweet fable about the quest of one small mouse to become the successor to the old Tooth Mouse. Sophie, an orphan mouse, lives high up in an ancient cathedral in France. She is full of spirit and she has dancing feet. One day, when the Tooth Mouse announces she is too old to continue her work exchanging coins for children’s baby teeth, Sophie could not be more excited. She is sure she could be the next Tooth Mouse. But it is not so simple as wanting it. The Tooth Mouse has created three tasks that will reveal the best mouse for the job, one who is brave, honest, and wise. It turns out Sophie is all of these things. She trusts her heart and finds her way.

Hood’s story and style is charming, old-fashioned but with enough flair to captivate a modern audience. The French asides scattered throughout add to the atmosphere and will surely add drama to story time. Who doesn’t love quest tales? There’s something supremely satisfying about seeing the cream rise to the top as the best mouse finds a way where others couldn’t. It’s a classic formula, and it’s done beautifully here.

Speaking of beautiful, the softness coupled with the fine lines and detail in Janice Nadeau’s illustrations will inspire readers to slow right down and notice every whimsical moment. The illustrations make me feel like this story should be brought to life in another form as a ballet for children.

A blend of old and new, familiar and quirky, The Tooth Mouse should live happily on children’s bookshelves (and in their laps) for a long, long time.

The Tooth Mouse is published by Kids Can Press.

Day 17, book 17: Larf by Ashley Spires

I like Ashley Spires‘ sense of humor, and I can tell you that kids do too. It’s understated, a little wacky, and sweet. Small Saul, Spires’ tale of pirate diversity, was the overall favourite of the Blue Spruce titles at our school last year. We were rooting for it to be the big winner, and while it wasn’t, I’m sure that when kids read Larf they’ll be just as delighted and the Spires fan club will get even bigger.

Like Spires’ other creations, Binky the wannabe space cat and Saul, the Martha Stewart of pirates, Larf is an outsider. That happens when you’re a sasquatch. He is a gentle giant, living a simple life in the woods with his bunny, Eric. (Let’s stop right there. A bunny named Eric? You’re laughing, right?) Larf is sure he’s the only sasquatch, and he’s fine with that because he’s shy, and he’d rather jog or take walks with Eric or do some gardening. Then one day when he’s reading the paper, Larf learns that a sasquatch is scheduled to make an appearance in a nearby city. He’s a little uncertain if it’s the right thing to do, but Larf eventually decides to go see if it’s true. After all, how can he not want to meet the only other sasquatch in the world? Turns out, the whole thing is a stunt. Larf realizes it straight away: “Something doesn’t seem quite right. Why are its eyeballs not moving? Is that a zipper down its belly?” There’s a happy ending in sight for Larf, however, and it turns out that like man, no sasquatch is an island.

Larf is a feel good story. There’s not a lot of tension, but I don’t think that matters. There’s plenty of charm and trademark Spires humour. One of the parts of Small Saul that the kids at school liked most was the way that Spires inserted funny details into her pictures that were just as funny as the jokes in the text. That’s here this time as well, like Larf’s #1 Sasquatch mug and his hilarious bunny pack for carrying Eric. Plus, you gotta love the looks on everyone’s faces when they spot Larf walking along the city streets. Priceless.

In my opinion, Ashley Spires is well on her way to becoming one of the big names in Canadian Kids’ Lit. She’s a unique talent, and she’s charming kids and grown up readers alike with her quirky tales starring out-of-the-ordinary heroes.

Larf is published by Kids Can Press.

Day 15, book 15: I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black

So I’m halfway through my self-imposed 30 Days, 30 Picture Books Challenge and I’m the opposite of bored. It’s been so much fun that so far that there’s a little bit of me wondering how long I could keep this whole a-picture-book-a-day thing going. It’s turned out to be the opposite of burdensome, instead, a fantastic perk up. My little celebration has done exactly what I’d hoped it would: I’m officially over my blogging blahs.

I guess the lesson here is, when you’re feeling decidedly “meh”, do something, which is one of the messages kids will likely get from this picture book by Michael Ian Black with illustrations by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. It’s not Black’s first picture book (A Pig Parade is a Terrible Idea, Chicken Cheeks, The Purple Kangaroo), but it is Ohi’s debut, and it’s exciting to see such a great beginning from her. I love adding another artist / writer to my Watch What They Come Up With Next list.

If you caught my Day 5 review of It’s a Tiger!, you’ll know that I’m a believer in picture books with running jokes. (By the by, now that I’ve finished my start of year library tours at school and I’ve read It’s a Tiger! oh… 25 times, I can confirm that kids find repetitive humour HILARIOUS. I wish I’d thought to record my reading with the kindergarten classes. The laughter was totally out of control. Those little people have big laughs. I could hardly see the book because my eyes started watering from laughing so hard because they were laughing so hard). So I’m certainly pleased as punch to report that I’m Bored is another great choice for fans of running gags. Continue reading

A love triangle, some Frankensteins, and the Elixir of Life: This Dark Endeavour

I came to This Dark Endeavour with high expectations. Great reviews, an author who never disappoints, and some seriously swoony recommendations from the diehard grade seven girl readers in my library, combined to make me pretty excited to crack this one open. I read it in two days and the sequel, Such Wicked Intent, was the first purchase I made when our school secretary handed me back my library credit card after the summer.

In This Dark Endeavour, Kenneth Oppel offers readers his vision of Victor Frankenstein’s young adulthood in an inventive and wholly satisfying prequel to Mary Shelley’s classic. Sixteen-year-old Victor leads a life of privilege in Chateau Frankenstein, with his twin brother Konrad, their cousin Elizabeth, and the rest of his family. Exploring the castle is a favourite pastime, and one afternoon, by chance, the three teenagers come upon a new passageway behind the library wall. It leads to a strange library in a chamber deep beneath the castle, filled with rows of ancient texts and odd instruments and tools that seem to belong in an apothecary’s shop.  When their father finds Elizabeth and his sons in the library, he makes them promise never to visit the dark place again as he claims they will only uncover corrupt knowledge and wickedness there. Soon after, Konrad falls dangerously ill, and it seems that nothing will cure him. Victor sneaks back to the library for answers and when he discovers a book containing the formula for the Elixir of Life, he knows he must try to create it to save his brother’s life. This leads to a partnership with an enigmatic alchemist and then to seemingly impossible quests to source the ingredients for the elixir. As time passes, Victor becomes more consumed by his desire to succeed, pushing himself, and those he loves, past the point of reason, towards the greatest dangers they have ever faced.

Kenneth Oppel has always been very good at getting you to turn the pages of his books. This Dark Endeavour is certainly as exciting as anything he has ever written. The pacing is perfect. I never feel though, like he is sacrificing character development for action. Victor comes across as a passionate, misguided, conflicted risk-taker, and I enjoyed not being sure what he was going to do next thoughout the story. You don’t feel like you trust him – or his motives – and that creates great tension. He’s complicated and certainly not always sympathetic. The love triangle between Victor, Konrad and Elizabeth (who is a distant cousin – don’t get all creeped out), will surely hook YA readers who’ve come to more or less expect to find this element in the adventure / thriller genre. I’d say Oppel gets the romantic aspect of his book just right. It’s sexy enough without ever becoming too blatant or distracting for readers who might be reading more for the thrill of the action adventure than the romance.

Speaking of action, there was one moment at the end of the book when I actually gasped after turning the page. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened to me. The ending is satisfying but also leaves you with that gimmee-the-sequel-right-now feeling that many teens, and adults, crave. Good thing I have the sequel on my desk as I write this. I’ll just have to read it secretly (and quickly) before the grade sevens start stalking me for it every recess.

This Dark Endeavour is published by Harper Collins.

Day 7, book 7: Wishes by Jean Little

When I was a girl, I read everything Jean Little wrote. She was one of my favourite authors. Reading Little by Little one summer was my first Jean Little experience and I still have my childhood copy of her autobiography. So when I had the chance to meet her at an event a few years ago, I was very nearly tongue-tied. She’s an impressive person, and a gifted writer. I think she’s one of the treasures of Canadian Children’s Literature.

Needless to say, I’m always happy when a new Jean Little book comes my way. Wishes is a rhyming picture book about the power within all of us to dream and imagine. Really, it’s a sort of ode to wishes and how the act of wishing can help us to value the good things in our lives, see the world differently, and embrace playfulness.

“If wishes were horses,
then poor folks would ride.
If wishes were friendships,
I’d be by your side.”

This structure continues throughout the text, as Little plays with the saying, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” The text contains many lovely images that satisfy the reader with their bouncy rhythm and creativity.

“If wishes were pancakes,
I’d eat a tall stack.
If wishes were parsnips,
I’d send the plate back.”

Teachers, I’m sure it would be simple and lots of fun for kids to take Little’s poem as a model and write their own Wish poetry. You could even do it as a class and create one Wish poem. You’ll want to add this book to your pile of resources for your poetry units.

Genevieve Cote was certainly the ideal choice to illustrate such a whimsical, lilting text, full of playfulness and light. Her artwork is gentle yet expressive, bringing the dreamy feeling of Little’s words to life.

Wishes is made for reading aloud. I’d say it’s the ideal bedtime story. Shouldn’t every child drift off to sleep thinking about all of the wishes she wants to come true?

Wishes is published by North Winds Press, an imprint of Scholastic Canada.

Day 5, book 5: It’s a Tiger! by David LaRochelle

I’ve been excited about It’s a Tiger! by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Jeremy Tankard, since I had the chance to hear Jeremy read it to some lucky students when he visited the library this spring. So I’m able to confirm that this story is an absolute kid-pleaser. There was a whole lot of belly laughing going on. It is a book made for reading aloud, and I plan to do that over and over again with my primary grade classes this fall.

The concept is delightfully simple. An intrepid kid is exploring the jungle when he thinks he might see something strange swinging in the vines… “IT’S A TIGER!” So he does what comes naturally. He runs away. But then, when he decides to hide inside a cave, he thinks he might see something strange lurking in the shadows… “IT’S A TIGER!” You get the picture. On he goes, running away from and always running back into the tiger. It’s a goofy, kid focused, Indiana Jones-esque romp. Let me tell you, the tiger joke never gets old, quite the opposite in fact. Every time “A TIGER!” shows up in the text, the laughs get bigger. This makes the book a blast to read out loud.

And Jeremy Tankard’s artwork is dynamite. David LaRochelle must have done a happy dance when he was told that Jeremy would be illustrating the story. I couldn’t think of an artist whose style would be better suited to the energy and humour of this tale. I love how on every page Jeremy creates such a sense of movement, using the vines and bats and snakes and waves to make each picture full of life and interest. The kid is always in motion too, as he runs, dodges, jumps, and climbs. If you know anything about Jeremy’s artwork, you know that his colour palette is eye-popping, and that’s true here, as the colours mimic the story’s excitement. They’re loud, which works to perfection for such a raucous tale.

By the end of It’s a Tiger! I think you’ll feel a little breathless yourself, like you’ve been running away from something. It’s just that much fun to read. And I’m betting the first thing you’ll do when you’re done is take a deep breath and read it all over again.

It’s a Tiger! is published by Chronicle Books.