Middle Grade Monday: Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard

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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: The Wild Robot

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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.

Kids’ Books Recommendations- Classical 96.3 FM

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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

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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

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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:

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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

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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

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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

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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.

 

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.

Middle Grade Monday: Harriet the Invincible

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If you don’t already know Ursula Vernon, you will soon. This author-illustrator is on the verge of making it big. The creator of the very funny Dragonbreath series as well as a few equally hilarious middle grade novels, Vernon’s new series Hamster Princess casts my new favourite rodent in a proposed series of fractured fairytales.

The gift of invincibility has made Harriet Hamsterbone extremely confident. Determined to make the most of her invincibility before a sleeping curse sets in she spends the first 12 years of her life adventuring and slaying monsters. Even when her invincibility wears off and she is as mortal as anyone else, her confidence and exuberance remains. How wonderful to have a heroine who deals with challenges, be they sleeping curses, ogrecats or arranged marriage, head on.

Vernon’s sense of humour shines. While Harriet is a great comedienne, reluctant-adventurer Prince Wilbur gets in a few zingers himself. Much of the humour exists in the dialogue, including a series of graphic asides with speech bubbles (i.e. “You must have missed someone. Are you sure you kissed all the newts?”), but there are some very funny illustrations, too.  The image of Harriet riding her beloved steed, a quail named Mumphrey, silhouetted against a grand landscape, still cracks me up.

Fairytales, be they traditional or reinterpreted or new stories in the classic tradition, are everywhere. Some of the best-selling book series (The Descendants; The Land of Stories) and most popular TV shows (Once Upon a Time) or films (Cinderella; Maleficent; Frozen) of the past few years are fairytale related. As a culture we cannot seem to get enough of them. Princesses in general seem to be forever being debated (Disney princesses vs warrior princesses; princesses in pink vs princesses in black). Harriet Hamsterbone is a welcome addition to the world of middle grade princesses; a confident, funny, and capable royal with a penchant for fractions and a desire to right wrongs.

Obvious readers include fans of the Babymouse, Lunch Lady, and Origami Yoda series, in addition to fairytale and princess devotees, but I am hard pressed to think of a kid who would not laugh out loud at Harriet’s adventures. With large font, frequent illustrations and a great premise this is an excellent choice for early chapter book readers, but it would also make a wonderful read-aloud, particularly in the classroom. Learn more about Harriet and Vernon’s other series here.

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible is published by Dial books, available now from Penguin Random House Canada. To get a sense of the illustrations and hilarious hi jinx, check out the trailer here: