Middle Grade Monday: Flickers

y450-293

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.

Middle Grade Monday: Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard

9780670067732-fullsize-cmyk.jpg

Sophie Quire lives with her father, a bookmender, in Bustleburgh. Her mother died mysteriously years before. Bustleburgh is becoming a dangerous place for Sophie and her father. All nonsense, particularly that found in books, is outlawed. So when a blindfolded boy and a cat with hooves show up with one of four magical books promising adventure, Sophie goes with them.

Some readers may recognize the blindfolded boy as Peter Nimble, from Auxier’s first children’s novel, Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes. Scrappy, arrogant Peter plays second-fiddle to thoughtful, practical Sophie in this adventure. It is not necessary to have read Peter Nimble to enjoy Sophie Quire, although if readers have not read Peter Nimble I imagine they will want to after finishing Sophie.

In a few short years Jonathan Auxier has become a household name in Canadian children’s literature, racking up almost every major award. Sophie Quire is a rich fairytale told in Auxier’s signature omniscient style. In all three of his novels Auxier employs a third person narrator that feels like an old-timey storyteller. The balance between effective and irritating is precarious in this style of narration, but Auxier manages splendidly. He has a beautiful way with words and his somewhat elevated language lends itself well to being read aloud.

All the classic fairytale elements are here. An orphan with mysterious parentage. A funny and heartbreakingly loyal animal sidekick (if one considers Sir Tode in his hooved-cat form ‘animal’). Potential romance. Spells. A chase (actually a number of chases). Just when things start to feel familiar and the reader starts to think, “Hey, I know this story, isn’t it…” Auxier introduces the unexpected. I was particularly enchanted by Akrasia, a somewhat inscrutable but loyal talking white tigress.

The theme of the book- that stories are magical- is explicitly stated in beautiful, quotable ways a number of times. One certainly feels this is true while reading Sophie Quire. Perfect for fans of both classic (Narnia, The Wizard of Oz, The Sword in the Stone) and contemporary fantasy (The Land of Stories, The Unwanteds, Circus Mirandus). A magnificent ode to stories from a gifted storyteller.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard is available in hard cover on April 12th, 2016 from Puffin Canada (Abrams in the United States.)

 

 

Middle Grade Monday: Raymie Nightingale

0763681172

There is a whole generation who will look back at two-time Newbery medalist and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Kate DiCamillo the way my generation looks back at Gordon Korman, Judy Blume, Kit Pearson or Beverly Cleary. In fact, in an EW article DiCamillo names Cleary as a major influence for her latest novel, the superlative Raymie Nightingale. DiCamillo has defined American contemporary children’s literature in a way that none of her contemporaries can match.

Raymie Clarke’s father has run off with a dental hygienist. She is convinced if she does something spectacular- such as win the Little Miss Central Florida pageant- he will see her in the paper and come back. Raymie’s story  (abandoned by a parent) is not uncommon, but DiCamillo’s greatest gift is the ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. In her deft hands a baton, a jar of candy corn, even a swamp becomes something tinged with wonder.

My favourite Kate DiCamillo novel is Tiger Rising, which I think gets lost in the mega-bestselling, highly-decorated books such as Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn Dixie and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Tiger Rising is a very simple narrative about poor children leading hard lives and stumbling upon something so unexpected it feels magical. DiCamillo revisits this idea in Raymie Nightingale. In Tiger Rising, the unexpected is an honest-to-goodness tiger in the woods. In Raymie Nightingale, it is friendship.

Raymie’s new friends, prickly Beverly and painfully optimistic Louisiana have burdens of their own. They are all desperate to be heard and understood, but have been made cautious by past disappointments. There is real sadness here, but as always in a DiCamillo book, hope triumphs over all. Of all the hurting characters in this book, I worried the most for Louisiana. Of all the girls, her situation is the most dire, and yet she is the most hopeful. But even when things looked very bad, I trust DiCamillo to not only point out, but buff up the silver lining.

If I could narrow down the one thing common to DiCamillo’s range of work  it would be her warmth. Whether she is writing fantasy, realistic contemporary, early readers or historical fiction (which  is technically what Raymie Nightingale, set in the 1970s, falls under) genuine warmth for her characters, for her readers, for people permeates the language.

Raymie Nightingale is available on April 12th from Candlewick Press.

 

Middle Grade Monday: The Wild Robot

wild robot

You may know Peter Brown as the author-illustrator of the very funny Children Make Terrible Pets, My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I Am Not) or the earnest and lovely The Curious Garden. In his first middle grade book The Wild Robot Brown asserts himself as a deft novelist, with a fresh twist on the classic survival story, told with insight and lots of heart.

The concept of a robot (Roz) waking up in the wilderness and learning to adapt is simple but genius. The novel unfolds as one might expect- animals are suspicious of robot, robot wins animals over, and in her hour of need those animals come to her aid- but the delight in this novel comes from Roz’s ingenuity and the Brown’s animal characters. At first the animals fear Roz, calling her unnatural and a monster. Roz patiently explains that she is a robot, not a monster, and wins over the creatures one by one by asking for their advice and assistance. She compliments opossum on his superb acting (i.e. playing dead) skills, enlists the beavers to help build her a lodge, takes gardening advice from the deer, etc.

Brown is very careful with his portrayal of animals. They are not so humanized that their natural instincts or qualities are ignored, but they are perhaps more cooperative than they would be in a nature documentary. Chitchat the squirrel is charmingly verbose and scatterbrained. Fink the fox is charming but sly. There are a number of truces the animals agree on- the daily Dawn Truce and a celebratory Party Truce- that allows natural enemies time and space to safely discuss island matters (what to do with Roz, how to survive a particularly harsh winter, etc). I love this concept. By providing the conceit of the truce, Brown is  able to be true to fox, badger, pike, and bear’s natural hunting instincts outside the safe space.

The most central relationship- and the one that allows Roz to develop the deepest understanding of friendship, parenthood, and love- is between Roz and her adopted “son,” Brightbill the gosling. Following an accident in which Roz kills the rest of Brightbill’s family before he is hatched, she assumes responsibility of the gosling’s care. The reader watches Brightbill grow from a runt to a champion flyer. Much of the poignancy of the novel comes from these two, such as the scene where the young goslings are being chased in the water by a hungry pike and Roz is watching, helpless, or the scene where they decide to switch Roz off to see what happens.

The narrator reminds us that because she is a robot, Roz does not have emotions. Her delivery is neutral, bordering on dead-pan which is both funny and endearing. Because Roz doesn’t have feelings the reader feels protective of her, and our empathy is cranked up into overdrive. Roz’s goal is to fit into her community. When the animals debate what her purpose is, she states that perhaps she is meant to help others. She starts to imitate the animals and starts acting like she has emotions, and by the end of the book we believe she does have them.

Survival stories are not a new middle grade trope, but they seem to be popping up this year in a variety of re-imagined ways. In Pax we have a boy and a fox learning to survive without each other in environments completely outside of their element. Roz, never having other experiences, believes the island is her home and adjusts to it accordingly. For example, when Roz learns about camouflage she covers herself in mud and plants, resulting in a poignant illustration of a walking, robot-shaped garden. After an accident causes her to lose a foot, the animals help fashion her a new one out of wood, sap and vines. There is something about the camaraderie on the island reminded me of E.B. White, particularly The Trumpet of the Swan. There are also hints of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Giant and even Disney’s Bambi.

Brown’s prose is straightforward and without artifice. He does not milk emotional moments. At times he points out maxims or greater truths, but they are presented without fanfare. In this way he emulates Roz, but he also gets to the brutal truth of the animal world. There is no dressing up or philosophizing on good or bad, right or wrong. The world is what it is.

I would be remiss if i did not mention the gorgeous packaging featuring lush Pacific- Northwest greens and the very simple silhouette of Roz on the mountain. There are effective spot illustrations inside, though I found myself wishing they were in colour, or featured in tipped-in illustrated plates. The Wild Robot is a classic in the making and worthy of such luxury treatment. It has already garnered four starred reviews and will win over the hearts of readers as well. Like Roz, Peter Brown has entered into a new  landscape and is not only surviving, but thriving. Justifiably so!

The Wild Robot is available now from Little, Brown.

I Heart TheSix: My Fave Toronto Places

Drake isn’t the only one who loves TO. I truly love my adopted city and was thrilled to talk up my top six places in TheSix for 24Hours. This was a hard list to narrow down, but I wanted to show some love for my neighbourhood (The Junction) as well as highlight a few destinations for bookish types.  Check the original piece out here online, or see below for links!

IMG_2238
Articulations is everything I love about the Junction in one spot: friendly, artsy, and community-minded. It is here, in their cozy studio, that I get to realize my secret dream of being an artist, at least for an hour or so. Featuring a wide range of classes for adults and kids, the annual Sketchbook challenge, and Wes Anderson-themed paint nights, Articulations is a staple in local Junction festivals and events.

Twitter: @_ARTiculations_

Instagram:  @articulations_TO

black daffodil

Black Daffodil has everything I need to walk through life as a modern Nancy Drew or Agent Carter. This vintage-inspired clothing boutique is my go-to shop for t-strap shoes, 1940s blouses, and the perfect femme fatale dress for book launches.

Twitter: @BlackDaffodil

Instagram: @blackdaffodil

beau and bauble

When I first walked into Junction gift shop The Beau & Bauble I felt like I had walked into my dream apartment. Described as ‘a treasure trove that caters to the whimsy of women of all ages,’ here you’ll find cotton-candy pink cuckoo clocks, mint-green office supplies, witty stationary, unique jewelry and a carefully curated selection of clothes that you won’t feel the slightest bit guilty about indulging in.

Twitter:  @BeauAndBauble

Instagram: @beauandbauble

baker scone
Books go best with tea and scones, and St. Clair West cafe Baker & Scone offers a wide selection of traditional (buttermilk, chive & sea salt) and more avant-garde (pear-hazelnut) faire.

Twitter: @bakerandscone 

Instagram: @bakerandscone

IMG_1601

With its perfect combination of nature and kitsch, Toronto Island is my favourite summer destination. Beaches? Check. Zoo? Check. Summer concerts? Check. But my favourite landmark is the hand-carved wooden carousel, accompanied by an honest-to-goodness Wurlitzer, that dates back to 1907 and is one of only 30 in the whole world.

0B2C5631-2D33-48D1-A3A3-61EEAAA3B513

When I’m in need of a little writerly inspiration I like to head to The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, housed in the top floor of The Lillian H Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library. The collection has over 80, 000 rare and notable children’s books, featured in fascinating themed exhibits such as When Cinderella Went to the Ball: 500 Years of Fairytales. I’m also very partial to the gryphon who guards the entrance to the library, designed by Phillip H. Carter and fashioned out of bronze by Ludzer Vandermolen.

I heart TO!

Kids’ Books Recommendations- Classical 96.3 FM

BookBday

This week is my book birthday and boy am I spoiled girl! Check out the incredible cake made by colleague Barb, senior manager of advertising and design at Penguin Random House Canada. It was just as delicious as it was beautiful and certainly made this author feel loved.

On Thursday I dropped by the Classical 96.3 FM studios to chat about my book, If I Had a Gryphon, as well as some of my fave new books from PRH Canada. A version of this segment will air tonight, Friday February 12th, around 7:30. If you’re not in the GTA you can check it out online here.

Over-scheduled Andrew by Ashley Spires

andrew

How do I love Ashely Spires‘ latest book? Let me count the ways. Humour? Check. Adorable characters? Check. Timely and relatable scenario? Check. Bagpipes? French film club? Musical Theatre? Check, check, check. This story about an over-scheduled chickadee will feel familiar to busy families. A good book is the start of a conversation, and Over-scheduled Andrew encourages families to talk about the pleasures of slowing down and being “free to be distracted.”

Miss Moon: Wise Words From a Dog Governess by Janet Hill

miss moon

It’s hard to come up with an age range for this beauty of a book because it truly is for everyone. The pairing of Stratford-based artist Janet Hill‘s lush oil paintings of sophisticated Miss Moon and her dog charges romping around their estate on an island off the coast of France with pithy life lessons will hit the spot for so many people: children, dog-lovers, art collectors, recent graduates. True story: while prepping for this interview I spent alot of time drooling over Janet Hill’s etsy shop and purchased myself this print, which is how I’d like to think I look when reading *my* Nancy Drews:

nancy

For older readers, I chose two books on a theme that feels especially pertinent in these long winter months: survival.

The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence

skeleton

Canadian writers have defined the survival narrative. Iain Lawrence‘s latest is a contemporary addition to the literary canon of Man. vs. Nature, pitting Chris and Frank against the wild when they are stranded off the Alaskan coast after a boating accident. The book is gritty and tense, with welcome moments of comedic relief in the form of antics from a raven named Thursday. A wonderful companion for the millions of Hatchet (Gary Paulsen) fans out there.

The Rule of Three: Will to Survive by Eric Walters

eric walters

Child-whisperer, Order of Canada recipient and best-selling author Eric Walters is at his best with this “it could happen to you” survival story of a suburban neighbourhood dealing with a drastic lifestyle change after all power (computers, phones, automotive, etc) is cut and shows no sign of ever coming back. The dangers here come from people, not environmental or weather-related factors of The Skeleton Tree. The first book in this series, The Rule of Three, earned Eric the 2015 Red Maple award and readers have been impatiently waiting this concluding installment.

Thanks for having me, Classic 96.3 FM!

Middle Grade Monday: MiNRs

minrs-9781481440394_lg

Kevin Sylvester can do no wrong- illustrator, writer, podcaster, frequent host of Kid’s Lit Quiz – he is an all-around children’s literature champion, particularly in Canada. I’m always delighted by the twists his career takes, which may be unexpected but are always genuine, kid-friendly and fun.

Christopher is proud to be part of a mining expedition on the planet Mars. He believes in the Great Mission of Melming Mining, that is until the planet is under attack and what he thought he knew about Melming is challenged. The attack happens the night of the Black Out Party, on the eve of a power outage that will cut his colony off from Earth for two months. In the chaos of the attack, Christopher is given a map and the instructions to find a beacon by his father, before being sent deep underground for safety. When the dust settles, Christopher finds himself along with a handful of other kids. Everyone else is dead and the attackers could still be on the surface.

Throw a mix of characters into a small space and you have a great set-up for drama. Make that space an underground mining colony on Mars under attack and you’ve got a set up for GREAT drama. Kevin Sylvester is an award-winning author-illustrator of nonfiction for kids, picture books, and middle grade fiction. He is also the host of the podcast Great Kids, Great Reads, in which he interviews indie booksellers about children’s books. He is perhaps best known for his smart-alec, verbose kid chef-turned-detective Neil Flambe, the star in a series that is as much humour as it is mystery. With this new series , Sylvester proves he can also write sci-fi adventure.

Christopher is a reluctant but capable leader, which endears him to the reader and eventually the other MiNRs. He is kept honest by Elena, his best friend who is obsessed with military history, and Fatima, a wry and skeptical new ally who’s existence makes Christopher question everything he thought he new about his home and Melming Mining. Chris is not quite an everyman character, he has been taught to drive a digger by his father, for example, but he isn’t the kind of stock protagonist to which heroism and ingenuity comes naturally. The dialogue is snappy and allows Sylvester’s natural knack for comedy to peek through heavy situations.

The plot moves quickly and makes for one-sitting reading. Sylvester doesn’t languish at any point or get bogged down in losses or too much melancholy. The MiNRs are engaged in a race against time, and it feels like it to the reader. This is high-stakes sci-fi, lives are lost, alliances broken, but the tone still feels relatively light and appropriate for younger readers. The book ends with a bang and leaves readers desperate for the second installment, due out later this year. In the meantime, check out the website and the series book trailer:

MiNRs is available now in hard cover from Simon and Schuster.