Middle Grade Monday: MiNRs

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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.

 

IF I HAD A GRYPHON: EVENTS!

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What’s in the bag? Do you know any young pet detectives who could help me solve a magical mystery?

I’ve been gathering props and breaking out the vocal exercises all in preparation for events and storytimes across Ontario for IF I HAD A GRYPHON. Come join me (and maybe a magical creature or two) on the following dates for stories & activities:

Tuesday, Feb 9th, 10:30am, Chapters Brampton, Storytime & Signing 

Saturday, Feb 13th, 11am, Chapters Ajax, Storytime & Signing 

Sunday, Feb 14th, 11am, Indigo Yonge & Eglinton, Storytime & Signing 

Saturday, Feb 20th, 2-3:30pm, TPL Lillian H Smith Branch, Book Launch  Storytime

Saturday, Feb 27th, 11am, Chapters Guelph, Storytime & Signing 

Sunday, Feb 28th, 2pm, Cardboard Castles, Creemore, ON, Storytime & Signing

Monday, Feb 29th, 6pm, Thornton Public Library, Storytime & Signing

Saturday, March 5th, 11am Chapters Milton, Storytime & Signing

Saturday, March 12th, 10:30-noon, Woodstock Public Library, Storytime & Signing

Middle Grade Monday: Pax

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I have always wanted a Direwolf of my own, so perhaps it is of no surprise that the last two books I’ve read have featured wild dogs: wolves in Wolf Wilder and foxes in Pax. What better way to explore humanity, our relationship with the wilderness, and our kinship with animals?

I am a long-time Sara Pennypacker fan. I greatly admire an author who can swing from laugh out loud, pitch-perfect early chapter books (hello, Clementine!) to elegiac, sophisticated and heart-rending middle grade novels (enter Pax). The novel alternates between the perspectives of Pax (a fox) and Peter (a boy). Pax’s sections quiver with life and observation of the natural world. Peter’s ache with yearning and a frisson of rage. The balance creates excellent suspense and makes for tense yet thoroughly enjoyable reading.

There is a hint of The Fox and the Hound in this narrative about a boy who must turn his beloved Fox who is thoroughly domesticated loose in the wild. The opening chapter, in which Peter is forced to leave Pax at the side of the road and drive off with his father, cuts deep and lets the reader know that they are in for some emotional reading. Pax’s loyalty, good heart, and ignorance of both the wilderness and war makes him both martyr and potential victim, yet it is these same qualities that allow him to grow and ultimately triumph.

At times I was far more worried about Peter- wracked with guilt, trying desperately to not turn out like his angry, violent father, and truly alone in the world- until he meets Vola. An ex-soldier, sequestering herself in the woods partially to come to terms with her actions and partially to remember who she was before the war, Vola constantly references the “cost” of war. The war that is coming is never defined, but one gets the sense that it is happening now. Pennypacker deftly illustrates this cost on the land and wildlife, something that I think is often overlooked in books. Pax’s experiences and descriptions of burnt grass and soiled water hammer the message home. A convincing argument could be made that people are bad, and Pax’s new friend Bristle certainly has many reasons why she doesn’t trust them. But Peter proves that some people can be trusted, that fox and people can coexist. If only we could get over our inclination towards war.

Pax is not an easy book. Bones and hearts break and heavy truths are learned. But it is beautiful and moving. Fair warning to anyone who has loved a pet, some sections will be hard to read. I found myself on the verge of tears for much of Pax. But don’t be afraid of an emotional read- in fact we should be telling children not to be afraid of an emotional read. True catharsis through reading is rare but powerful.

Pax is available in hard cover from Harper Collins.

*I read an ARC of this book which did not contain much in the way of artwork and so I cannot comment on Klassen’s illustrations, yet I imagine they will do much to establish tone and deepen the emotional resonance of Pax as his work did in The Nest. Pro tip/trend alert: if you want to elevate a middle grade novel to the level of contemporary classic, make sure you have illustrations.

Middle Grade Monday: Wolf Wilder

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Katherine Rundell restored my faith in middle grade whimsy with her much-lauded Rooftoppers, so I was very excited to check out this wintry tale of a girl who helps the pet wolves of Russian aristocracy adjust to a wild, wolfish life.

Feo and her mother are wolf wilders, humans who take in pet wolves abandoned by their wealthy owners for being too wolfish and reintroduce them to the wild. But not everyone approves of their lifestyle, including sadistic General Rakov, who burns their house and takes her mother prisoner. Suddenly Feo, who prefers the company of wolves to people, must learn to trust strangers and make new friends in order to save her mother and the wolves she loves.

This is a great story to cozy up with on a wintry day. It opens and closes with very fairytale-like language, but is set in recognizably Tsarist Russia. There are mentions of the army, communism, but the historical detail is hazy and more suggestive of time and place than fact. The fairytale feel is heightened by Rundell’s unexpected and lovely turns of phrase, one of the things that drew me to her first novel, Rooftoppers.

Rundell subverts stereotypes, creating a aggressive, fierce, action-oriented heroine in Feo and a gentle, kindhearted soldier who’s secret dream is to be a ballet dancer in her unlikely companion, Ilya. This is very much a child empowerment story, where the revolution is stalled until a group of scrappy but savvy children take up matters into their own hands. The group dynamic is sometimes overwhelming with too many voices, but ultimately their zeal is charming and their triumph is satisfying.

Wolf Wilder is available now from Simon & Schuster Books for Your Readers.

Giveaway: If I Had a Gryphon

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We are a month away from the release of my first picture book, If I Had a Gryphon (Tundra Books, February 9/16). In this primer on magical pet care, Sam deliberates the pros and cons of raising a series of fantastic beasts, including unicorns, gryphons, krakens, hippogriffs and many more!

Here are what people are saying about the book, illustrated by fellow Canuck Cale Atkinson (To The Sea):

Vikki VanSickle’s first picture book is an outstanding success. The humorous storyline, the strong rhyming scheme, and the bold illustrations by Cale Atkinson make If I Had a Gryphon a marvellous addition to the picture book genre. Sure to be a favourite among fantasy fans and those contemplating what their perfect pet might be—mythical or otherwise! ” CM Magazine 

VanSickle delivers lean, bouncy verse and an impressive array of offbeat creatures, while Atkinson’s illustrations are bold and hint at dynamic motion. . .brisk and bright. “ Kirkus Reviews

VanSickle’s rhymes are unflaggingly exuberant as the girl puts up with noisy harpies, biting chupacabras, and mischievous fairies, and Atkinson fills the pages with visual comedy. ” Publisher’s Weekly Review

Needless to say, I’m as happy as a hippogriff in a dog park! You can enter to win a free copy over at Goodreads.  Contest open to Canada & USA. Follow the links below to enter. While you’re there, why not add it to your To-Read shelf?

 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

If I Had a Gryphon by Vikki VanSickle

If I Had a Gryphon

by Vikki VanSickle

Giveaway ends February 09, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

My Favourite Books of 2015

Every time I start a year in review list I am overwhelmed by the number of amazing books out there. I always intend to pick one or two books per category but it is much, much too difficult. What follows is a mere sliver of the fabulous books I read and loved this year, which is in turn just a chip on the tip of the iceberg of the fantastic offerings in contemporary children’s literature.

Picture Books 

There was a really great piece in Quill & Quire about The Golden Age of  Canadian Picture Books that we are currently enjoying. I could not agree more- in fact I would extend the Golden Age beyond our borders to include the US and the UK as well. Just look at this years’ riches!  This is Sadie marks yet another beautiful collaboration between Canadians Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad, celebrating the imagination of a child. Jon Agee, one of my favourite contemporary picture book makers, delivers a winner with the rhyming It’s Only Stanley, in which a clueless family disregards the astronomical ambitions of their dog. Sidewalk Flowers rightfully made many best of the year lists, taking home the GG for Children’s Illustration. Look out for Hannah E. Harrison, who’s sophomore effort  Bernice Gets Carried Away combines the warmth, humour, and emotional integrity of Kevin Henkes’ work. Seriously, how does she get her art to glow like that?! Christian Robinson had a stellar year with two great collaborations, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, a colourful ode to both urban living and grandparents, and Mac Barnett’s tender ghost-meets-girl story, Leo: A Ghost Story.

Early Readers & Chapter Books 

Mo Willems has another stellar year with The Story of Diva and Flea and I Really Like Slop. 2015 also saw the start of a new early chapter book series by Canadian Kallie George, with the charming Clover’s Luck in January and the equally magical The Enchanted Egg  in November. Non-fiction is at its funniest with the Disgusting Critters series, which added The Spider to the already wonderfully gross line-up of The Fly, The Rat, The Slug and Head Lice. Soon to come? The Toad!

Middle Grade

I read a lot of top notch middle grade fiction this year. The wintry, emotional Waiting for Unicorns inspired me to get back into blogging after a hiatus.  The Penderwicks in Spring proves that some series get even better with time, and this fifth book might be my favourite installment thus far. Goodbye Stranger remains not only the book I wish I had written, but the book I think every twelve year old (and adult who lives or works with twelve year olds) should read. George proves that books that fill a necessary void (in this case, narratives starring trans children) can also be beautifully written. Major props to author Alex Gino for this sensitive, accessible novel.

Look out for stars on the rise Victoria Jamieson, who’s Roller Girl ran away with my heart and should be on the TBR pile of all Raina Telgemeier’s zillions of fans. Ursula Vernon’s confident, fraction-obsessed Harriet Hamsterbone, the first in the delightful Hamster Princess series, is guaranteed to give readers a serious case of The Giggles. Circus Mirandus transported me right back to being 10 and discovering fantasy books for the first time and Monstrous was the Frankenstein/fairy-tale mash-up I didn’t even know I wanted.

 

Teen 

Sarah Dessen proves that she is indeed worthy of the title Patron Saint of YA with her thought-provoking, nuanced and ultimately redemptive Saint Anything. All I want for Christmas is some well-deserved Printz recognition for my girl Sarah! Longtime fans of Dessen will devour newcomer Emily Adrian’s Like It Never Happened, which first caught my attention because of the high school drama club setting and won my heart with it’s honest portrayal of contemporary issues. Susan Juby, another YA pioneer, was in top form with the unforgettable The Truth Commission, serving up a devastating family drama with her trademark wit and style. Fans of Juby will also love the mad-cap, Veronica Mars-esque Trouble is a Friend of Mine, by debut Canadian author Stephanie Tromly, featuring a reluctant detective with a very dry sense of humour and a weird, mysterious boy with a tragic past who is a much-needed quirky alternative to your standard YA book boyfriend. Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap wins the award for most unique book I read this year, with it’s gorgeous prose and shifting narratives. File this one under surreal mystery. For those who prefer their teen books laced with magic realism, The Accident Season provided the same kind of breathless, beautiful read as mega-bestseller We Were Liars. The series I should have read earlier but am still thankful I got around to reading is the lush, epic Throne of Glass series by NYT Bestseller Sarah J Maas. I have a terrible habit of never reading past book 2 in series, but I could not get enough of Maas’ rich, dark world. You can bet I’ll be taking the most recent book (and Goodreads Choice Award Winner) Queen of Shadows with me on vacation…that is if I can wait that long.

Sarah Dessen Patron Saint of YA

 

What books stole your heart in 2015?

Middle Grade Monday: The Enchanted Egg

 

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I tend to recommend middle grade that falls in the 11-13 range, or “upper middle grade.” It’s a bit more  issue-driven and appropriate for kids with a certain emotional maturity. For a great discussion of what this age group encompasses, check out the re-cap of the Middle School is Hell panel  featuring Mariko Tamaki, Kate Milford, Rebecca Stead (SWOON) and Connie Hsu. But what about that 7-11 year old age group, those readers who are ready for chapter books but perhaps not ready for too much emotional drama or realism? Enter Canadian author Kallie George and her charming series, The Magical Animal Adoption Agency. Clover is a volunteer at a magical animal adoption agency where she helps Mr. Jams care for the creatures and find them their best possible forever-homes. In this second volume Mr. Jams leaves Clover in charge while he seeks out a magical animal expert to help solve the mystery of an enchanted egg.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am good friends with the author and have the pleasure of seeing these books from inception  to publication. But I can say without bias that Kallie George’s two greatest gifts as an author are invention and turns of phrase. This is a series populated with fairy horses, magical eggs, grimalkins (aka magic kittens) and more. Clover’s job feels totally plausible (mucking out stalls, preparing food, looking after the adoption book), but is made delightful by a few clever, creative twists. George’s light but assured tone coupled with her imagination brings to mind Cynthia Rylant’s work, particularly The Van Gogh Cafe

There is an assumption that all children love goofy, uproarious, gross-out humour and that this is the only way to hook a child on reading. This is a bit reductive, and I believe children also respond to invention. Who doesn’t love to be delighted? I can’t think of another series more winsome or delightful. There are definitely moments of humour in The Enchanted Egg, but it’s a gentler comedy, one based on word play (fairy-spitting fickle corns!) and classic fairy-tale charm. The fun extends to the official website, featuring activities, a cast of magical creatures, and many cute extras.

Magical creatures are always of interest, but I believe that we’re about to reach fever pitch next year with the film release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the next installment in the beloved Harry Potter franchise. This is a great family read-aloud or series for newly independent readers who can’t get enough of animals, magical creatures, or have enjoyed Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures by Jackson Pearce, illustrated by Maggie Stiefvater. The first book, Clover’s Luck, is a finalist for the 2016 Silver Birch Express and Kallie will be on tour in Ontario during Canadian Children’s Book Week in May 2016.

Magical Animal Adoption Agency #2: The Enchanted Egg is available now from Disney Hyperion (in the US) and Harper Collins Canada.