Vikki VanSickle on Writing, Reading & Other Pipedreams

Everything I need to know in life, I learned from children's literature

Middle Grade Monday: Sunny Side Up

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With that bright blue cover, bouncy font and beach-y theme, Sunny Side Up looks like a typical summer read. But looks can be deceiving. Sunny Side Up is a moving story about coming to terms with difficult secrets disguised as a typical summer read. So-called ‘typical’ elements include a summer spent away from home, steamy days spent by the pool, and adventures with a new friend. It is not surprising that tween-whisperer Jenni Holm makes the elements atypical– instead of camp or a cottage Sunny is sent to stay with her grandfather in a retirement community, the local pond has Big Al, a resident Alligator, and adventures include a cat-rescue business Sunny and her new friend Carl start up, a which provides a fantastic sequence of the two of them sniffing out a whole list of cats with great names.  But half the book is comprised of Sunny’s flashbacks to the months leading up to summer, at home in Philadelphia, chronicling the decline of Sunny’s older brother, Dale.

You will know Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm from the wonderful Babymouse series. Nineteen books later, Babymouse still remains one of my favourite chapter book heroines, a sort of sassy cross between Ramona Quimby and Bianca from The Rescuers, but still her own mouse. Jennifer has also written a number of middle grade novels, three of which have been Newbery honour winners: The sublime Turtle in ParadiseOur Only May Amelia, and Penny From Heaven. And don’t forget about The Fourteenth Goldfish, which now lives in my permanent middle grade top ten.

A delicate balance is struck between Florida fun-times and the darker flashbacks. Sunny’s backstory unravels like a mystery, which adds a nice pace to the read. This is an astute and gentle treatment of children who are dealing with substance abuse in their families. In an author’s note, the Holms’ refer to their own experiences and explain that they wrote the book so children in this situation could learn not to be ashamed and that it’s important to talk about feelings. It also strikes me as a good way to introduce the topic of family struggle (with or without substance abuse) in general.

The Holms are trail-blazers in middle grade graphic novels, a genre which has been given a huge boost by the popularity of Raina Telgemeier’s books. Sunny Side Up will appeal to Telgemeier fans but at 216 pages it is a slimmer novel with less text. It is a nice step up for fans of Babymouse and chapter book readers in the 8-11 range, though older children will find much to love here as well. Learn more about the book and how it came to be by tuning into the brand new children’s literature podcast The Yarn, hosted by middle grade champions Colby Sharp and Travis Jonker, and available on iTunes.

Sunny Side Up is available now from Scholastic Canada.

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Middle Grade Monday: Monstrous

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This cover captured my heart long before its heroine Kymera did. But now that I’ve read her tale, Kymera’s story is one that will stay with me for a long time. In an overall strong book the character of Kymera is perhaps the strongest element and I have no doubt that other readers will root, worry, and cry for her as I did. Imagine if Dr. Frankenstein created a girl with cat eyes, a snake’s tail, and the wings of a raven and taught her to be a superhero and you have the very basic premise of Monstrous.

We meet Kymera when she first awakes and we are told- as she is- that she died but has been brought back to life with a few adjustments (including a tail, wings, and claws) by an ostracized scientist grieving the loss of his wife (her mother) and daughter (Kymera, though she has no memories from her life before). Father teaches Kym about the kingdom of Bryre, which is being tormented by an evil wizard. The girls of Bryre are falling sick and Kym sneaks into the prison where they are kept and steals them one at a time, bringing them back to her cottage in the woods before they are sent to safety in neighbouring kingdom Belladoma. At first Kym is happy to do as her father bids, never speaking to anyone, never straying from the route, trusting him implicitly. But for each day that she is alive, she starts to become curious and craves friendship, knowledge, justice and reassurance. When she befriends Ren, a boy who works as a messenger for the King, and her memories start to come back, Kym starts to question the things she has been taught.

This is an engrossing fairytale with an unusual and empathetic heroine. MarcyKate Connolly has stitched elements from various fairytales and horror stories into a dark but lovely tale. Great fantasy addresses the bigger questions in life but does so without feeling pedantic. In Monstrous the stakes are always high. There is much to discuss here about growing up, power, responsibility, and sacrifice. Though the tone is gentle, Connolly does not try to hide her narrator’s blood lust or taste for vengeance, nor the villagers readiness to burn a stranger at the stake. Gambles are taken-sometimes with lives- and lost. The blood and consequences create a capital F Fairytale and also a classic tragedy in the Greek sense.

The language is vivid and it is easy to imagine Kymera and her world, which is both familiar and new. The cover illustration is beyond perfect and though this is definitely a Bookish Book I couldn’t help but picture the incredible work a studio like Ghibli could do with an  animated version. I would love to see how they bring the Rock Dragon, the dungeons of Belladoma, and most importantly, Kymera herself- to life. A tween may delve into this book and not come out for days but I think it could also be read-aloud to younger children, provided they aren’t easily upset by injustice, betrayal, and death. Adult readers may see the twists before they are revealed, but young readers or those less familiar with fairytale tropes will likely be taken by surprise as truths are discovered.

I would love to talk about the ending, and how brave Connolly is in her decisions- which are heartbreaking yet felt necessary- but I do not want to spoil the joy of reading this novel, which was a transportive experience. Find me on twitter @vikkivansickle and we can gush there. Fans of Eon, The PeculiarThe Glass Sentence, and Talon will definitely embrace the strange and lovely Kymera.

Monstrous is available now in hard cover from Harper Collins.

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Middle Grade Monday: Goodbye Stranger

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A Rebecca Stead book is always unexpected and always a delight. I very much enjoyed her Northern fantasy First Light and remember hand-selling the heck out of it to die-hard City of Ember fans in my bookseller days. Then I read When You Reach Me and was struck by how timeless it felt, despite being very rooted in a time & place. Liar & Spy was a quieter character study, very much setting up the reader for the meditation on friendship and contemporary adolescence that is Goodbye Stranger.

My favourite Judy Blume novel is Just As Long As We’re Together, which is essentially about girls navigating the politics of being a trio of best friends. In a way, Goodbye Stranger is a post modern meditation on Just As Long As We’re Together, exploring a spectrum of relationships, from downright cruel to occasionally toxic to fair-weathered to remarkably strong. It sounds unbelievable to say that Stead touches on all the questions of adolescence in one novel (friendships, first romance,  changing relationships to parents, finding your tribe, identity), but not only does she manage it, she does it so deftly it left me stunned and unable to pick up another book for days.

There are essentially three story lines about friendship that overlap- though the plot told entirely in second person feels relatively separate until all is revealed in the end. Bridge, Tab and Emily represent the healthiest possible kind of friendship. Even when dealing with little betrayals they stick to their promise of no fighting and when they DO argue, it is remarkably mature if not a touch idealistic. This is contrasted by a second-person anonymous storyline chronicling the ups and downs in another group of girls that is heartbreaking and at a times chilling (THE CINNAMON)!)

This is also a book about the first stirrings of romantic relationships. Much of the narrative is taken up with a photo Em sends to her maybe-boyfriend that is seen by a group of boys and eventually the whole school, threatening her reputation.  Stead handles this murky and topical scenario carefully and dare I say gently, addressing the issue and its implications but choosing for the best-case scenario. To me this makes perfect sense for the age group, some of whom will be scared silly by the idea of sending a photo of themselves to a boy, and others who have already done so and may relate to the stinging repercussions.

While Em is getting into kissing and embracing her burgeoning sexuality Bridge is moving at her own slower pace with Sherm, who is the cutest of cute and quite possibly my favourite tween love interest since Thomas J in the movie My Girl*. Bridge and Sherm clearly have a mutual interest but neither is ready to take it past spending time together and conversation. Adults are terrified by the desires and awakening romantic appetites of tweens but the truth is that they exist and deserve to be addressed. I love that Stead has two characters of the same age in very different places, romantically speaking. But romantics are rewarded with a truly gorgeous epilogue that I will refrain from re-typing word-for-word except for the following sentence, my new favourite line about love:”Kissing Sherman was like saying “And. . .and. . .and. . .”

The book is not just about girl relationships. Bridge’s older brother Jamie is embroiled in a competitive and toxic friendship of his own with Alex, a frenemy who is bent on tricking Jamie out of his beloved possessions in a cat-and-mouse game involving a limited number of steps per day that seems rigged to make Jamie fail. Sherm, Bridge’s not-quite-love interest, is also present in a series of letters written to his absentee grandfather who he hasn’t quite forgiven for up and leaving him. There is much to be gleaned here about the complications of tween and teenage friendship, male or female.

I haven’t even mentioned Tab and her glorious indignation at injustice and her strong moral code, or the cat ears that Bridge has seemingly inexplicably started to wear and what they represent. This book is an embarrassment of riches and I don’t want to waste your time praising them here- go read it yourself! I will say there are coincidences and twists of fate one has come to expect from a Stead novel and the uncanny dialogue that feels not only authentic but also transcends time and place to feel timeless, like dialogue in a play. This book begs for multiple readings and each time the reader will come away with new insights and a deeper appreciation for Stead as a middle grade magician.

Goodbye Stranger has vaulted into my all-time top ten and I can’t recommend it enough. Rebecca Stead is now the Golden Standard that I personally aspire to as a middle grade writer and belongs in the ranks of Madeline L’Engle, Judy Blume and E. L. Konigsburg. Give this book to a tween in your life and take a peek yourself to get a glimpse of the complicated world contemporary tweens are navigating which is perhaps not so different from what you experienced, but likely has not been so deftly or eloquently expressed as by Stead.

Goodbye Stranger is available now from Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

*For  proof of my undying love for Thomas J and his impact on my own writing, please see Benji in my books Words That Start With B; Love is a Four-Letter Word and Days That End in Y

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Middle Grade Monday: The Fourteenth Goldfish

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This is one of those deceiving middle grade novels that seems straight forward and charming but is so deeply layered that the minute you try to examine it you are left with the conclusion that Jenni Holm is a genius and mere mortals should not try to dissect her work.

Ellie does not know what to think when a fourteen year old boy shows up at her door sounding exactly like her grandfather. It turns out he IS her grandfather, a scientist who has discovered T. Melvinius (named after himself, naturally) which has reversed the process of aging. Because he appears to be a teenager he can no longer live alone, drive a car, or access his lab. Ellie and her mother (a wonderfully colourful drama teacher) adjust to having him in the house and Ellie agrees to help him break into his lab, recover the formula, and change the world. But is growing old really so bad?

There is so much to love here I’m not sure where to begin, but let’s start with Mevin himself. Melvin acts like an old man but looks like a teenager, a premise that provides endless comedy. He is forced to go to school where he finds the curriculum lacking, wears a combination of Ellie’s cast-offs and old man standards, and scolds his daughter as if she is the teenager instead of him. Ellie’s observations are wise but age appropriate. Melvin shows up right at the time in which she is growing apart from her former best friend Brianna and trying to find out what her own passion is. Her parents want it to be drama, but could it be that like her grandfather, she likes science? Her mother is struggling with having her disapproving father under the same roof again- even if she is technically the adult. Ellie gets a glimpse of her mother as a girl which opens a whole new world of possibility.

This is the kind of book you need to press into the hands of everyone you know and say “read this so we can talk about it.” It is warm, reassuring, ridiculous, poignant, and totally weird. At times I was reminded of the movie Big,  but it says a lot about the book that I cannot think of a specific comp nor can I think of someone who would not love it. Like the humour of Diary of a Wimpy Kid? You’ll love The Fourteenth Goldfish. Prefer stories about friendship and growing up ala Wendy Mass or Rebecca Stead? Look no further! Only like books about magic or fantastical things? Voila!

At 190 pages and featuring short chapters and largish font, this is a feat of brevity, especially considering how rich the book is. Without giving too much away, I was worried we were veering into Flowers for Algernon territory, but Holm gracefully skirts an explosive or maudlin  conclusion in favour of a mysterious one. I cannot express how skillful this ending is. Not quite science fiction, not straight up contemporary realism, this is contemporary fiction with a twist- a woefully inadequate way to describe a unique and compelling book. When all else fails, turn to Rebecca Stead, who says of this book “Awesomely strange and startling true-to-life. It makes you wonder what’s possible.”

The Fourteenth Goldfish is available now from Penguin Random House.

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The Book Lovers’ Guide to Purging

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Over the course of a year I amass a lot of books. I attend lots of book launches and have an endless appetite for new books, used books, novelty books, books I intend to use for research purposes for novels I want to write…and so on. What I don’t have is a lot of space. Perhaps the only thing I like as much as books is a tidy, well-ordered apartment.

Can a girl have it all, a massive library and a neat, efficient living space?

Yes, but it does require some purging. Like most book-lovers I am quite attached to my books; In fact, I am a secret sentimentalist. As a child I used to fret over which stuffed animal I would choose to sleep in my arms every night, worried I would deeply offend the others, relegated to the cold, lonely, end of the bed. Similarly, an irrational part of me worries that the author will somehow know I have not kept their book and by removing it from my personal collection I am letting her down. This is nonsense. The best way to support an author is to buy her book– which you have done. The next best thing is to spread the word.

Don’t think of purging your shelves as throwing your books away, think of it as passing them on to another reader who will love and appreciate them. You are a benevolent benefactor of books gifting someone her next best read. You can of course drop your books off at Goodwill, Value Village, or a used bookstore, but I find the following alternatives allow me to sleep easier at night, even without a well-worn stuffie.

 Little Free Library

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These book boxes are popping up all over the world and might be the most charming way to donate your books. Check out the map on their website to find the location nearest to you or to register a box of your very own. I have dreams of building a Hogwarts Little Free Library one day. Check out the variety of boxes on instagram (@littlefreelibrary)

Visit your Local Library Branch

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Increase the reach of your books ten-fold by donating to the library. Some branches will accept recent books in very good condition. Not all libraries accept donations-don’t leave books in the drop-off bin or in a box outside the door. Ask to speak to a librarian at your local branch and allow him/her to go through your selection.

The Children’s Book Bank

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In Toronto we are lucky to have this wonderful organization that allows children in lower-income areas to take a book home with them- for keeps- every time they visit the bank. They are currently accepting books for children up to age 12. You can visit the bank or leave your gently-used books in the drop-off box at Mabel’s Fables. They also run programming and have a great trivia contest on instagram (@thechildrensbookbank).

Start a Gift Box

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Find a nice box or storage container that matches your decor and store books you think would make great gifts. Invited to a dinner party? Bring a book instead of a bottle of wine. Last minute baby shower? That signed picture book you got at a launch would be perfect. Heading up to someone’s cottage for the weekend? Everyone appreciates a new addition to their summer library. While this does not get books out of the house immediately, it does clear up shelves. Finding a nice storage box to keep them clean and tucked away is key.

Be a Book Fairy 

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Everybody loves mail. Select a book you love and send it to a friend or a friend’s child who you think will have a particular interest in that book. Even better, include a letter explaining why you chose this book for them. This gives you an excellent reason to invest in the fantastic new Alice Munro stamps.

Local School

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There isn’t a public school in Canada that isn’t strapped for cash. Library and classroom budgets are getting smaller and smaller, what better way to encourage a love of reading within your own community than donating to a local school? Make sure you are in contact with a teacher or librarian and allow them to select from what you have. They understand their students’ needs better than you will. Don’t treat a school like Value Village- a place where you can unceremoniously dump what you don’t want.

Summer Camps

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Like schools and libraries, camps are another great hotbed of reading. I have fond memories of trading novels with my fellow counsellors and reading aloud to the girls in my cabin. Look up your old sleep-away camp or ask a friend who has a child in camp if they could use some books. Some camps have reading rooms or lending libraries that operate out of the tuck shop.

Purging makes you feel great. So does donating books.

Where do you like to take your gently-used books? Let me know in the comments!

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New Digital Short: AMY ABBOT IS HAVING A PARTY

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I was flattered when Fierce Ink Press approached me to write a piece for their Fierce Shorts program. Featuring powerful work by Jo Treggiari, Susin Nielsen and Alice Kuipers, the Fierce Shorts program is a response to the It Gets Better movement in which YA authors write a short, digital piece about an experience they had in high school.  A portion of the proceeds is donated to a charity of the author’s choice.

Nonfiction is a tricky business. As vividly as some memories stick with you, there will always be details that need to be re-imagined. The events in Amy Abbot is Having a Party really happened. The characters are people I knew. But while I remember certain cutting comments and well-timed compliments word for word, most of the dialogue is an approximation of conversations I had.

I love reading memoir. I love the humour and the outrageous stories in Cathy Gildiner’s trilogy of memoirs, Too Close to the Falls, After the Falls, and Coming Ashore. I love the heart and charm of legit teenager Maya Van Wagenen’s Popular. I will read any food memoir. Some of my favourites include Tender at the Bone, A Homemade Life  My Berlin Kitchen. But I never once considered writing it myself until Fierce Ink came knocking.

Like most people I have a bag of anecdotes I can rummage around in and pull out something apropos as needed. The time I climbed through an open window of an abandoned house as a kid, a result of reading a lot of Nancy Drew. The time I convinced my grade eight teacher to allow me to hand in chapters of a novel instead of my English assignments.  These anecdotes are short, pithy gems polished from years of telling. They may be true stories but they have a distancing effect. They represent how I want to be perceived. Like fiction, they are a smokescreen that I can project upon.

That wasn’t going to cut it this time around.

The truth? My high school experience was very vanilla. Not even French vanilla, but no-name vanilla. I was a good student. I was a joiner. When I wasn’t at school or band practise or in the student council office I was working at my part-time job. No boys, no alcohol, no drugs, no real drama to speak of. I didn’t relate to teenage struggles presented to me in fiction or movies because I never really felt like one. I went from feeling thirteen to thirty-five. Now tween angst I can do. My tween years are as clear to me as the images on my fancy hi-def TV, which is why I tend to write middle grade.

This is not to say that I didn’t have my share of teen angst, as my journals and some truly terrible poetry demonstrate. But my shade of conflict felt pale in comparison to the struggles of so many others. Then I thought about all those thirteen-going-on-thirty-five year old teens out there who maybe don’t see themselves in YA. By writing about myself, I am also writing for them.

So this is my story, a little slice of my life back in 1999 in Woodstock, Ontario. Britney Spears had just burst onto the scene and everyone watched Survivor. I was considering taking kick boxing, which was all the rage thanks to Billy Blanks and Tae-bo.  Maybe you will see a bit of yourself in this story, or recognize a friend or family member. Or maybe you’ll simply be entertained, which is fine with me.  For each download a percentage of the proceeds will go to Girls Rock Camp Toronto, one of my favourite organizations.

You can purchase Amy Abbot is Having a Party at Kobo, iTunes or Amazon.ca

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Manhattan and Macarons: The Summer Invitation Review

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This lovely confection of a book feels a bit like a contemporary fairytale, or at the very least a glimpse at what Eloise’s life might have been like as a teenager. Valentine (pronounced Valen-teen) and Franny are invited to spend the summer in their eccentric and wealthy aunt’s Greenwich Village apartment with sculptress and chaperone-of-many-secrets, Clover. Valentine is desperate to fall in love and Franny isn’t sure what she wants out of the summer just yet- but what she doesn’t want is to be left behind.

For a certain person, this is the ultimate fantasy- an all expenses paid trip to the kind of 1960s Manhattan that likely doesn’t exist anymore. Franny and Valentine shop for fancy lingerie, get make-overs, go to classic old New York bars and have deep conversations with gentlemen in their sixties. Valentine meets a handsome cellist and embarks on the love affair of her dreams. Franny is naive but an old soul at heart, and like her aunt and Clover she appreciates history, sophistication, and solitude. Think champagne, oysters, and sheath dresses. Her naiveté would make the book appropriate for a middle grade reader, though it is technically marketed as YA.

I read and enjoyed Charlotte Silver’s memoir Charlotte au Chocolat and her delicate, almost whimsical prose is put to good use here. There are hints of darkness and melancholy, but they are employed to heighten the giddy, fizzy experience of Franny’s first summer in New York. One of my favourite middle grade novels is Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, and this felt like the perfect next step for readers of that book. Light, classic and sweet as a macaron, this is a frothy and tender look at that old fictional trope, “The Summer That Changed My Life.”

The Summer Invitation is available now from Roaring Brook Press.

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The Art of Noticing: Sidewalk Flowers Review

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As a kid I used to pick Dandelions, purple clover and Queen Anne’s Lace and bring them home to be put in a vase and displayed on the kitchen table. I did not understand the difference between a weed and a flower. It’s all a matter of perspective; one person’s weed is another person’s flower. Perspective and the art of noticing are beautifully explored in this new wordless picture book from Canadians JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith.

Sidewalk Flowers follows a little girl as she walks through the city with her father. While he spends most of his time on his phone, she collects sidewalk flowers and then gives them out to people and animals she meets along the way. In the beginning, only the girl is in colour- wearing a vivid red cloak- along with the flowers she spots in a black and white city full of black and white people. But as she notices things- a patterned dress, a vase, a bird- they too become brightly coloured and by the end of the book the whole world is vivid. Very simple concept, very effectively executed. My heart just about stopped when I saw the image of the flowers left as a memorial for a dead bird.

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You can’t throw a stone without hitting a wordless picture book these days. Wordless picture books invite contemplation in a way that other picture books don’t. That isn’t to say the experience is better, but different. How the story is shared becomes a truly personal experience. Do you make a story up as you go through the book with a child? Is it the same or different each time? Do you give the book to a child (or adult) and have her sit silently and experience the book in her own head? There is more room- or at least more space- for imagination.

Some picture books are kinetic and invite laughter and action (The Book With No Pictures, Pete the Cat, The Day The Crayons Quit, Goodnight Already), but this is the perfect example of the opposite kind of book, inviting meditation and encouraging mindfulness. The experience of reading Sidewalk Flowers mirrors the experience of the little girl in the book- taking time to notice things, becoming aware, and delighting in the world around her. Children are better equipped for this sort of awareness,  perhaps why it keeps turning up in picture books, not only Sidewalk Flowers but also in Kathy Stinson’s award-winning The Man with the Violin.

Fans of The Farmer and the Clown, Journey, The Gardener, On My Walk, and The Man with the Violin will perhaps best appreciate this lovely tale of a transformative walk. I cannot wait until I can go on my own city walk and marvel at the tenacity of spring and it’s new growth, which with any luck, will be in a few weeks time.

Sidewalk Flowers is available now from Groundwood Books.

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Skate Like a Girl: Roller Girl Review

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There is a surge in middle grade graphic novels featuring female protagonists that I am totally into. Some of these books are memoirs ( Smile, Sisters, and El Deafo) and others are fiction (Drama, Chiggers, or This One Summer). Fiction or non-fiction, they are all fabulous, and now there is a new kid on the block that I couldn’t love more if it was covered in vanilla icing and dipped in sprinkles.

Astrid loves roller derby and decides to spend the summer at roller derby camp, hoping to become a  jammer like her hero, Rainbow Bite. But her long-time friend Nicole does not share Astrid’s love for derby, and Astrid finds herself alone at derby camp struggling to stay on her feet and complete basic drills. But then she is befriended by Zoey and things start to look up, until the two girls compete for the same position.

Roller Girl perfectly captures that moment when you realize that you are growing apart from your best friend. This is a bitter pill to swallow, especially if that friend makes new friends that you don’t particularly like or understand. Girls especially put a lot of stock in the Best Friend. But as Mindy Lahiri would say, “Best friend isn’t a person, it’s a tier.” I love that Astrid not only makes cool new Roller Derby friends, but finds a way to keep Nicole in her life. The ins and outs of friendships make up a big portion of the drama tween (girls especially) deal with and Roller Girl gets to the core of these issues.

Plus this book is about roller derby, an adrenalin-laced, kick-ass female driven sport. I’ve always had a soft spot for roller derby and freely admit to loving Drew Barrymore’s under-appreciated film adaptation of Whip ItThe idea of thousands of young girls on the cusp of adolescence discovering the power, camaraderie, athleticism and fun of roller derby through this book warms the cockles of my heart. Skating does not come easily to Astrid, and there are lots of bumps and bruises along the way. Roller Girl also demonstrates- in the most fun way possible- that learning a skill is hard and perseverance has its rewards.

Victoria Jamieson is now on my list of girl crushes, alongside such greats as Celine Sciamma, Tina Fey, Emily Lockhart, and Raina Telgemeier. Not only does she write fab middle grade but she herself is a Roller Derby girl and a great artist. I mean look at this amazing magnet she designed:

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I want big things for this book because it’s bright and funny and empowering and all-around wonderful. Plus it begs the question, what is YOUR roller derby name? I can never decide between Alice Munroad Kill or Surly Temple…thoughts?

Roller Girl is available now from Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Random House.

 

 

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Happiness is a Penderwicks Novel: The Penderwicks in Spring Review

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How can a book that is ultimately about an eleven year old’s belief that she is responsible for the death of those she has loved be so funny and charming? Such is the magic of The Penderwicks in Spring, the fourth in the truly classic and heartwarming Penderwicks series. We throw words like “modern classic” around a lot in children’s literature, but The Penderwicks are deserving of that classification. I used to comp these books to Little Women, but The Penderwicks has now evolved into the series that other books are comped to, though I have yet to find a truly worthy contender.

This book focuses on Batty, who is now eleven. She has recently discovered a hidden talent for singing and cannot wait to share it with her family on her birthday, which also happens to be when Rosalind returns from college and Jeffrey is visiting from Boston. Despite a large revolving cast, the characters are clear and the reader never feels overwhelmed. Birdsall’s gentle third person narration gives us wonderful insights into her characters, some which tug at the heartstrings and others that made me laugh out loud. Ben is evolving into a sweet, serious boy with a love of rocks and a dislike of Rosalind’s schmarmy boyfriend (“How could such a person as Oliver come from a state with so many great rocks? Would Ben have to rethink his devotion to Minnesota?”). Skye is as angry and complicated as ever, and we get a breathtaking look into the source of this pain, one that slays the reader and sends Batty into a devastating tailspin. It is hard to watch Batty suffer, and she weeps throughout a lot of this book, which meant I also wept. I finished the book a few hours ago and I still feel emotionally sensitive.

One of the aspects of Birdsall’s writing I find the most interesting is which moments she chooses to include in her family saga, and which happen off the page. One of the challenges of writing a series that takes place over seven years is that obviously you can’t include everything. But Birdsall tends to include quieter, everyday moments instead of big dramatic ones. We don’t see Rosalind go to college, for example, or experience the birth of Lydia. But we do spend time with Batty in the woods or Ben behind the bushes playing army. Perhaps most significantly in this novel, we don’t see the death of Hound but we do experience Batty’s profound and prolonged grief, which is perhaps the unexpected choice, but an extremely effective one.

There are few things in life I enjoy as much as a Penderwicks novel. I have written about them before here. I love the wild, warm chaos of the family, which now numbers up to eight with toddler Lydia, nine if you count Asimov the cat, which Batty certainly would. I love the descriptions of home and the traditions and details that make the Penderwicks as real to me as any living breathing person in my life. Take for example, how at age five (otherwise known as the age of reason) each Penderwick chooses their own special cake which is made for them lovingly by the rest of the family every year on their birthday. I love how emotionally resonant the books are, a literary equivalent of that tender person who wears her heart on her sleeve. So many books these days use snark, irony or flashy gimmicks to win over a presumedly jaded audience, but Birdsall proves that all you really need to engage a reader is emotional integrity.

Apparently there will be one more Penderwicks novel after this one. I would read about this family all the way to old age. The whole series thus far stands up to re-reading, for both kids and adults. While all of the novels are genuinely emotional, this one dips into the darkest territory so far, but it is a cleansing and satisfying experience. I am so happy to live in a world where there are Penderwicks books. 

The Penderwicks in Spring will be available March 24, 2015 from Random House Canada.

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