Middle Grade Monday: Q&A with Anna Humphrey


Canadian author Anna Humphrey first came across my radar when I read (and loved) her funny, charming, Sarah Dessen-esque YA novel Rhymes With Cupid. Anna is now the author of four books for YA and middle grade readers and despite the range in age, the one thing they all have in common is Anna’s deft, light touch as a storyteller.Recently I spoke with Anna about her favourite books, what inspires her as a writer, and her latest heroine, Clara Humble.

VV: What was your favourite novel when you were 10?
Anna: I Want to Go Home, by Gordon Korman. It’s about a kid named Rudy who gets sent to summer camp, hates every minute of it, and rebels and tries to escape in hilarious ways. I read it over and over, and it got funnier every time. The part where Rudy orders 1000 volleyballs from the camp office kills me to this day. Gordon Korman was the writer who first made me want to be a writer.

VV: What book do you admire so much that you wish you had written it?
Anna: Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. It’s about a teenage girl named Melinda who nearly stops speaking and is ostracized by her peers following a very traumatic event. I have no end of admiration for an author who can write about something devastating, treat the subject with complete respect, and still make it laugh-out-loud funny in places. Laurie Halse Anderson does that better than anyone, in my opinion.

VV: What recent book (published in the last 10 years) do you wish was available when you were 10?
Anne: El Deafo, by Cece Bell. My seven-year-old niece was visiting this summer and I read her copy. My ten-year-old daughter read it too, and we all fell in love with the story. It’s a graphic novel/memoir about growing up hearing impaired—but the author draws herself and everyone else as bunnies. She writes about how she felt embarrassed to go to school with a large hearing aid, but then soon discovered she could use it to listen in on teachers in other rooms, like a super power. I would have loved it when I was ten because it’s a book that shows how the differences we sometimes feel ashamed of (mine as a kid was being extremely shy) can become our greatest strengths if we learn to look at them in the right way. Also, it’s just a really sweet and honest story about friendship and growing up. Plus, bunnies!!

VV: What drew you to Clara Humble?


Anna: At its core, Clara Humble is a book about a kid trying to cope with feeling powerless (something I felt often as a kid, and still do). I started writing it when I began planning to move to a new city. I knew that this very adult decision my husband and I were making was going to be really hard on my kids, as well as on our next door neighbour, a woman in her 60s who they had (and continues to have) a really strong friendship with—but that, as kids, there was nothing they could really do to stop it. I guess I was turning that over in my head and trying to come to terms with the unfairness of it. So although my kids and my former neighbour aren’t Clara and Momo… and things don’t go down the same way in the story that they did in real life… the struggle they’re facing and the feelings they’re feeling are inspired by true events.

VV: Do you have a favourite superhero?


Anna: I’ve only recently started getting into superheroes… but the new Ms. Marvel is definitely awesome. I love how Kamala Khan is just a regular Pakistani-American teenager who happens to have amazing powers and defeats villains, but then she still has to deal with things like her parents wanting her to be at the mosque at a certain time and getting caught sneaking out. She won me over the second I saw the cover of issue 2, where she’s busy texting with one hand while absent-mindedly knocking a bank robber out cold with the other.

Thanks to Anna for dropping by to chat books! Visit her online here and here and be sure to check out her latest novel Clara Humble and the Not So Super Powers , available now from OwlKids!


Fall 2016 Events


Can you tell a sasquatch horn from a manticore tooth? What about a phoenix tail feather from a gryphon wing feather? Me and my magical bag of pet clues are going on the road this fall to Rockton, Milton, Calgary, and Vancouver. Will I see you there?


Sept 10th, 10am:  Story Mobs, Toronto, ON

What a fantastic event! Check out participant (and actress) Cynthia Galant’s video here:

September 18th, Telling Tales Festival, Rockton ON

  • If I Had a Gryphon Presentation, Cathcart School House, 12:30
  • Meet the Publishers Talk, Mountsberg Church, 2:45

Sept 24th, 11:30am: Indigo Milton Storytime


Calgary Wordfest

Oct 12th, 10:00-11:30am, Glenbow Museum Theatre- with Ruth Ohi

*If you are a teacher in the Calgary area looking to book a presentation, click here

Vancouver Writers’ Fest

Oct 18th, 10-11am, Revue Stage-  Creatures, Kids & Communities with Alice Kuipers & Roy Henry Vickers

Oct 19th, 1-2pm, Performance Works- Chain Reactions with Lisa Moore &
Owen Laukkanen-Matthews

Oct 20th, 1-2pm, Revue Stage- Read it Again, Please! with Monica Kulling & Olive Senior


Middle Grade Monday: Ghosts


Cat is not at all excited to be moving to foggy, seaside Bahia de la Luna, particularly when she learns that it is a sort of capital for ghosts. But doctors have agreed that it is a better place for her sister Maya, who has Cystic Fibrosis. Cat is torn between wanting to make new friends and create a life that isn’t defined by her sister’s diagnosis and the visceral need to protect her sister at all costs. With a focus on familial relationships, a diverse cast, and the stirrings of first love, this much-awaited new graphic novel is classic Raina Telgemeier.

One of Telgemeier’s greatest strengths is her nuanced portrayal of the relationships between sisters (see SmileSisters and Drama). Cat loves Maya, but confesses to wanting something that is hers alone. Her guilt is ever-present and burdensome. One of my favourite scenes is a dialogue-less sequence following Maya’s return from the hospital in which Cat plays Maya her favourite song and the girls snuggle up together in bed. Unlike Drama and Sisters, the sisters in Ghosts are fictional, but the dialogue and tiny moments between Cat and Maya are so authentic that one still gets the sense that Telgemeier is mining her own experience.

Of all her novels to date, Ghosts is the darkest, touching on themes of death and mortality. It is made clear that Maya is not going to get better, a fact she accepts more than her family members. Of the two sisters, Cat is by far the most cautious, wanting to keep Maya way from even a hint of danger. But Maya’s sense of her limited mortality conversely makes her seek adventure, action, and fun, recognizing that if she has a limited about of time on earth then she’s going to make the most of it. Her favourite mantra is a song from an animated movie, a thinly disguised version of Frozen‘s Let it Go, entitled Let it Out. Her desire to befriend the ghosts is particularly poignant, knowing that her curiosity about the afterlife is grounded in the reality that she may be joining them soon.

A life-long and ardent Halloween enthusiast, I very much enjoyed the excitement leading up to Halloween and the midnight Day of the Dead party. The residents of Bahia de la Luna are decidedly ghost-friendly and the interaction between the living and the dead is when what has previously felt like a contemporary story veers off into fantasy. Among a number of other ghosts, Cat befriends her neighbour Carlos’ long-dead uncle, who then takes her flying.The energy, excitement and camaraderie of the party scenes reminded me of the Remains of the Day scene in Tim Burton’s woefully underrated movie, The Corpse Bride.

The book includes an extensive afterward from the author in which she provides more info about Cystic Fibrosis, Dia de los Muertos and touches on her own family tragedy that in part inspired the story. Telgemeier’s millions of rabid fans will not be disappointed. Ghosts is another touching, engaging and highly consumable addition to Telgemeier’s growing middle grade canon.

Ghosts is available now from Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic

Middle Grade Monday: Two Naomis


It’s awkward enough watching your parent date, but the situation is much, much worse when the daughter of your parent’s new SO is not only the same age but has the same name as you. Such is the premise for Two Naomis, a charming story about Naomi E and Naomi M (who ends up taking on the “elegant” name Naomi Marie), unlikely friends and (potentially) future sisters.

The premise is a throwback to classic late 80s & early 90s contemporary middle grade, the kind of literature Judy Blume, Ann M. Martin and Paula Danziger were writing about; everyday kids dealing with everyday situations. Both Naomis are “average” kids, if I can use such a vague term here. No one has suffered major trauma or has significant hardships. They both have loving families and friends. But despite the classic “issue” driven premise,  this is modern New York City. The girls have cell phones, attend a coding class, and use Skype.

I am always fascinated by authors who work together. In this case, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick alternated chapters, each tackling their own Naomi and her corresponding world. You can read more about how this process worked over at Phil Bildner’s blog. The big challenge here is to distinguish between the two Naomis. The reader will have no trouble doing so. Naomi E is an only child, Naomi-Marie has a (very precocious) little sister. Naomi E is white, Naomi-Marie is black, this obvious differences leads to a funny moment when Naomi Marie’s little sister Bree suggests they solve the two Naomi problem by calling them “Black Naomi” and “White Naomi.” I love Naomi E’s skepticism, her caution when it comes to friendship or big decisions, her tendency to be sarcastic. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly and doesn’t excite easily. Naomi Marie on the other hand is enthusiasm personified. She is a joiner, a leader, and very competitive. The girls’ personalities may be different but are quite complimentary, something they come to learn (and appreciate) over time.

This isn’t a story about divorce causing irreparable damage to a child. The parent-kid relationships are very positive. Both Naomis’ sets of parents are quite civil and seem to have had  amicable divorces. Although Naomi Marie lives with her mother, she sees her father frequently. Naomi E’s mother is away in LA working in film, and her absence is definitely felt by her daughter and is the root of some of her anxieties. They Skype, but Naomi E is starting to crack with the longing to see her mother, and plans are made for that to happen.

As a kid, I loved reading about what other kids lives were like at home. What after-school snacks did they eat? What were their bedtime routines? How did their family spend Saturday mornings, etc. There is something fascinating about peeking behind the curtain of someone else’s home life. I felt like this reading Two Naomis. This is a funny, frank and positive exploration of how two tweens deal with their parents’ dating.

Two Naomis is available now from HarperCollins.

Middle Grade Monday: Fall 2016 Preview

This has already been a staggeringly good year for middle grade (don’t call it a comeback), with personal favourites such as Raymie Nightingale, The Wild Robot, Look Out for the Fitzgerald Trouts, and Pax garnering all sorts of buzz and attention. Here is a sampling of the new kids on the block this fall:


GHOSTS Front Cover

Ghosts is probably my most anticipated read of the fall. When it comes to middle grade, Raina Telgemeier is the gold standard we all aspire to- funny, relatable, original, and lots of heart. Ghosts promises to delve into deeper and somewhat darker territory than Smile, Sisters, or Drama, but readers are always safe in Raina’s hands.

A Day of Signs and Wonders 2000px-Maple_Leaf


Say the name ‘Kit Pearson’ to Canadian readers of a certain age and watch grown women turn into blubbering, starry-eyed tweens. She is as much a part of my childhood as Hypercolour T-shirts, slap bracelets, and the movie My Girl. Kit Pearson exploring the childhood of artist Emily Carr? Too perfect to be true

The Best Man


Somehow Richard Peck, author of rich slices of Americana such as A Year Down Yonder and A Year in Chicago, has pulled off a pitch-perfect contemporary novel about a community-and one boy in particular- who have their biases checked when everyone’s new favourite teacher turns out to be gay.

The Inquisitor’s Tale


If you’ve been following the buzz on this hotly anticipated novel from story-wizard Adam Gitwitz you’ll note that common themes among reviewers are “incomparable” and “hard to describe.” I have heard Adam speak about how religion is the last taboo in middle grade and he definitely gives readers a lot to chew on in this Medieval ensemble piece. I very much enjoyed the multiple narrators. Also, farting dragons.

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill


I didn’t think this charmer could possibly stand up to the hype, but boy did it ever. This weeper is tinged with just enough magic realism to keep a reader guessing. Take The Secret Garden, set in during WWII, and throw in some winged horses for good measure. Deft prose and emotional resonance give this one the feel of a classic.

The Griffin of Darkwood  2000px-Maple_Leaf


This latest offering from solid (if a little under-sung, IMO) Canadian author Becky Citra has a stellar cover and is getting good reviews. There is a strong Canadian tradition of gothic middle grade novels (The Nest, The Night Gardener, Flickers, The Swallow being just a few), and this seems to fit right in. Run-down castles, a side-kick who emulates his idol, Julia Child, AND the promise of griffins? Yes please.

Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers 2000px-Maple_Leaf


Most of the books on this list are middle or upper middle-grade, but Clara is appropriate for those younger readers in grades 3-5. How do you hook a reader for life? By offering them funny books featuring true-to-life scenarios with just enough imagination to delight. Featuring spot illustrations by Lisa Cinar, this is a spunky, zippy book that deals with change gently and with much humour.

MINRS 2 2000px-Maple_Leaf


I thoroughly enjoyed the action-packed first book in Kevin Sylvester’s latest series, about a group of tweens who find themselves stranded underground on Mars after an attack (from their own allies) leaves all of the adults from their settlement dead. Book one ended with a great revelation and a heck of a cliff-hanger. This is Survivor in space featuring resourceful tweens instead of fame-hungry “reality” stars.

Downside Up 2000px-Maple_Leaf


I love when my city is well-represented in literature, and in this fantasy story about family, grief, and second chances, we get two representations of Toronto: the regular one (Sorauren Park! High Park! Sunnyside Beach!) and a slightly tilted version, where what was lost is once again found. And then of course there’s the dragons. Don’t be fooled by Richard Scrimger’s talent for humour, this one tugs on the heartstrings.

What’s on your middle grade reading list this fall?


Middle Grade Monday: Summer Reading Picks 2016

Whether you’re lakeside, poolside, or inside, summer is the best time to read. Silly, spooky, thought-provoking and engrossing; here are some new(ish) books guaranteed to keep you or the middle grade reader in your life occupied this summer.

Wolf Hollow


We all have those keystone books in our lives, the ones so deeply affecting that we remember exactly where we were when we finished them.The Giver, The Sky is Falling, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are some of mine. These books transcend the joy of the reading experience and forever alter how you look at yourself, the world, and the importance of a book. Many readers will feel this way about the taut, tense Wolf Hollow.

Set in the grim aftermath of the first world war, the relative peace of a small American town is upset when a bully named Betty sets off a chain of life-altering events. Annabelle is one of Betty’s favourite victims, but she feels compelled to speak up after a gentle but misunderstood war vet is blamed for Betty’s disappearance. This is the moonshine of poignant-coming-of-age stories; straight up, potent, and guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.

Perfect read for the deep thinker, or the kid who wants to make the world a better place.

You may also like Raymie Nightingale  and Pax 

Look Out for the Fitzgerald Trouts


The Fitzgerald-Trouts are a family of loosely related siblings living in a car on a tropical island full of (delightfully) terrible adults. They are fully capable of looking after themselves, but the one thing they would love is a house to call their own. This first book in a new series does a great job setting up the world of the Fitzgerald Trouts, which is just the slightest bit fantastical. The story is lovingly told by a narrator who walks into the story as a character about half way through the book in a delightful twist.

Spalding’s storytelling is effortless and breezy. Her adult characters would be at home in a Dahl novel but the reader never worries about the Fitzgerald Trouts, who are just too darn resourceful and and devoted to each other to raise any alarm bells. I adored their ingenuity and devotion to each other. Sydney Smith’s accompanying illustrations are spare and whimsical, like the island itself. This book is as summery as sand between your toes and sticky, melty-popsicle hands. 

Perfect read for free-spirited, independent makers or the kid who likes a subversive giggle.

You may also like The Fantastic Family Whipple or The Box Car Children.

The Inn Between


The Inn Between reads like The Shining for middle grade readers. Quinn and Kara are on a cross-country road trip when Kara’s family decides to stop over at hotel called The Inn Between, located in the middle of the desert. The hotel is described as an ornate Victorian building with a pool, incredible pizza and limitless breakfast. But Quinn feels uneasy and soon the creepier things about the hotel come to the surface. Like how some people are allowed on the elevator and others are not. Or the angry-eyed man who keeps showing up. And when Kara’s parents and her brother disappear, Quinn takes a good hard look at the hotel and what it means to be “in between.”

Cohen’s pace and timing is excellent. There are some deeper implications here- letting go, moving on, grief- but this isn’t a realistic contemporary fiction book about loss, it’s a horror story with shades of realism in it. Cohen does not get caught up in blocks of description or too much philosophizing. Realizations dawn on the reader just as they dawn on Quinn.  This is a satisfying, page-turning horror story with just enough gravitas to elevate it out of campy Goosebumps territory.

Perfect read for lovers of scary stories and devoted BFFs.

You may also like Flickers  and The Swallow 

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel


It was a dark and stormy night. So begins a true classic of children’s literature, A Wrinkle in Time. Science fiction in its various forms (sci-fi lite, speculative fiction, epic space opera) seems to be popping up everywhere, thanks to the omnipresence of The Star Wars franchise. A Wrinkle in Time is likely the most famous sci-fi novel written for children, featuring frustrated Meg Murry, her mind-reading little brother Charles Wallace, and gangly, endearing love interest Calvin O’Keefe. Adapting this beloved story to graphic novel form is a stroke of genius worthy of Mr. Murry himself. The time-bending and scientific theory may be mind-boggling for some readers, who will appreciate a pictorial rendition of these abstract concepts. Touches of blue lend an otherworldliness to the illustrations. At nearly 400 pages, this is a hefty book and will keep readers engrossed into the wee hours of the night.

Perfect read for sci-fi novices or kids who are looking to try something beyond the Star Wars universe.

You may also like Wonderstruck or  the graphic novel adaptation of Coraline

The Gallery


1928, Brooklyn. Martha is the daughter of a housekeeper who has started working in the home of newspaper magnate Mr. Sewell. Martha accompanies her mother only to get caught up in a mystery surrounding his wife, Rose. In her youth Rose was a charming party girl, but now she spends her days ranting and raving about paintings in a locked bedroom. What happened to Rose? Why is she obsessed with the paintings? And who is leaking stories about the Sewells- some of them untrue- to the tabloids?

From the first chapter we understand that Martha is a girl with modern ideas. She talks back to her teacher (a rather unforgiving nun), is suspicious of Mr. Sewell’s charm and intentions, and takes the side of woman most people have dismissed as mad. Her dialogue is saucy and her devotion to the truth is inspiring, which will speak to readers’ strong sense of justice. There is a cinematic quality to the narrative and Fitzgerald uses visual and historical details to paint a clear portrait of 1920s New York. There is glitz in the form of Sewell’s mansion , but there is also poverty- represented by Martha’s own crowded apartment and her mother’s dashed optimism. But perhaps the most impressive feat is how Fitzgerald deftly handles a narrative that is essentially about involuntary confinement and turns it into a caper. Rose’s story has parallels to the suffragette movement and is a grim reminder of the challenges women faced at the time. This historical caper feels fresh and exciting, thanks to a breezy writing style and excellent pacing. 

Perfect read for history junkies, especially those interested in hidden histories.

You may also like Under the Egg and Chasing Vermeer.

Middle Grade Monday: Flickers


Middle grade horror is difficult to pull off. Some authors go for camp, with lots of gore and over-the-top scenarios that are almost humorous, therefore defusing any terror the reader might experience. Governor-General award-winning author Arthur Slade is the other kind of author-genuine thrills created by uncanny situations, eerie coincidences, and a slow-burning sense of impending doom.

It’s been a few years since we’ve had a new Slade novel and Flickers is a return to the atmospheric and chilling storytelling in his GG winner, Dust. The Hunchback Assignments  series was epic in scope, a swashbuckling grandiose adventure- Flickers is quiet. Even though the implications are huge- introducing other realms huge- this is Beatrice’s struggle. We are invested in her, not the fate of the world.

Slade plays with all sorts of tropes, including the psychic connection between twins and the sinister ability of cameras to steal souls of the people they capture on film. I just so happened to be hard-lining the You Must Remember This podcast, all about the hidden or forgotten stories of Hollywood, which added texture to Slade’s depiction of the tempting yet ultimately poisonous apple of Hollywood’s allure. Slade manages to balance the opulence of golden era Hollywood with a sense that something is truly, truly wrong. As a reader you don’t want Beatrice to look too closely at the world around her, convinced that it’s all a sham for something horrible. And how horrible it is, the stuff of steampunk nightmares.

Despite their differences, there isn’t much in the way of rivalry between “ugly” Beatrice and “beautiful” Isabelle. I appreciated their supportive relationship, which is not without its challenges, but never delves into nasty territory. Both Beatrice and Isabelle are complex and interesting heroines with varied interests and plenty of agency. In a world of increasingly cookie-cutter Strong Female Protagonists, Slade bucks the trend of ass-kicking assassins and presents a different kind of heroine, proving strength has many shades. Beatrice doesn’t let what others refer to as physical deformity stop her from seeking out friendship or the things she enjoys in life, despite remaining basically a captive on Mr. Cecil’s estate. She has a good friend in the form of Raul, the gardener’s son, her ‘friend bird’ (instead of ‘lovebird,’ as her sister insinuates.)

In addition to Slade’s own Dust, now a Canadian horror classic, I was reminded of The Nest (Kenneth Oppel) The Night Gardener (Jonathan Auxier), and Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, all Canadian, all horror.Perhaps there is something about our landscape or literary culture that inspires eerie storytelling- in any case, Flickers is a welcome addition to the genre.

Flickers is available on April 26, 2016  from Harper Collins Canada.