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 

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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: 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

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.

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

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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.