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.

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:

Middle Grade Monday: Goodbye Stranger

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A Rebecca Stead book is always unexpected and always a delight. I very much enjoyed her Northern fantasy First Light and remember hand-selling the heck out of it to die-hard City of Ember fans in my bookseller days. Then I read When You Reach Me and was struck by how timeless it felt, despite being very rooted in a time & place. Liar & Spy was a quieter character study, very much setting up the reader for the meditation on friendship and contemporary adolescence that is Goodbye Stranger.

My favourite Judy Blume novel is Just As Long As We’re Together, which is essentially about girls navigating the politics of being a trio of best friends. In a way, Goodbye Stranger is a post modern meditation on Just As Long As We’re Together, exploring a spectrum of relationships, from downright cruel to occasionally toxic to fair-weathered to remarkably strong. It sounds unbelievable to say that Stead touches on all the questions of adolescence in one novel (friendships, first romance,  changing relationships to parents, finding your tribe, identity), but not only does she manage it, she does it so deftly it left me stunned and unable to pick up another book for days.

There are essentially three story lines about friendship that overlap- though the plot told entirely in second person feels relatively separate until all is revealed in the end. Bridge, Tab and Emily represent the healthiest possible kind of friendship. Even when dealing with little betrayals they stick to their promise of no fighting and when they DO argue, it is remarkably mature if not a touch idealistic. This is contrasted by a second-person anonymous storyline chronicling the ups and downs in another group of girls that is heartbreaking and at a times chilling (THE CINNAMON)!)

This is also a book about the first stirrings of romantic relationships. Much of the narrative is taken up with a photo Em sends to her maybe-boyfriend that is seen by a group of boys and eventually the whole school, threatening her reputation.  Stead handles this murky and topical scenario carefully and dare I say gently, addressing the issue and its implications but choosing for the best-case scenario. To me this makes perfect sense for the age group, some of whom will be scared silly by the idea of sending a photo of themselves to a boy, and others who have already done so and may relate to the stinging repercussions.

While Em is getting into kissing and embracing her burgeoning sexuality Bridge is moving at her own slower pace with Sherm, who is the cutest of cute and quite possibly my favourite tween love interest since Thomas J in the movie My Girl*. Bridge and Sherm clearly have a mutual interest but neither is ready to take it past spending time together and conversation. Adults are terrified by the desires and awakening romantic appetites of tweens but the truth is that they exist and deserve to be addressed. I love that Stead has two characters of the same age in very different places, romantically speaking. But romantics are rewarded with a truly gorgeous epilogue that I will refrain from re-typing word-for-word except for the following sentence, my new favourite line about love:”Kissing Sherman was like saying “And. . .and. . .and. . .”

The book is not just about girl relationships. Bridge’s older brother Jamie is embroiled in a competitive and toxic friendship of his own with Alex, a frenemy who is bent on tricking Jamie out of his beloved possessions in a cat-and-mouse game involving a limited number of steps per day that seems rigged to make Jamie fail. Sherm, Bridge’s not-quite-love interest, is also present in a series of letters written to his absentee grandfather who he hasn’t quite forgiven for up and leaving him. There is much to be gleaned here about the complications of tween and teenage friendship, male or female.

I haven’t even mentioned Tab and her glorious indignation at injustice and her strong moral code, or the cat ears that Bridge has seemingly inexplicably started to wear and what they represent. This book is an embarrassment of riches and I don’t want to waste your time praising them here- go read it yourself! I will say there are coincidences and twists of fate one has come to expect from a Stead novel and the uncanny dialogue that feels not only authentic but also transcends time and place to feel timeless, like dialogue in a play. This book begs for multiple readings and each time the reader will come away with new insights and a deeper appreciation for Stead as a middle grade magician.

Goodbye Stranger has vaulted into my all-time top ten and I can’t recommend it enough. Rebecca Stead is now the Golden Standard that I personally aspire to as a middle grade writer and belongs in the ranks of Madeline L’Engle, Judy Blume and E. L. Konigsburg. Give this book to a tween in your life and take a peek yourself to get a glimpse of the complicated world contemporary tweens are navigating which is perhaps not so different from what you experienced, but likely has not been so deftly or eloquently expressed as by Stead.

Goodbye Stranger is available now from Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

*For  proof of my undying love for Thomas J and his impact on my own writing, please see Benji in my books Words That Start With B; Love is a Four-Letter Word and Days That End in Y

What to Read This Summer: Middle Grade

Here are some great recent/upcoming middle grade titles for the tween in your life, or, if you’re like me, your own inner tween:

 

The Glass Sentence

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Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series gets comped  a lot in fantasy, but this is the only book I’ve read in recent memory that lives up to it in terms of richness, ingenuity, and political intrigue. This is a gorgeous literary offering about a world that has been split up across time after the Great Disruption, meaning that different time eras are living next to each other. The various time zones/states have been living in relative harmony, although paranoia and suspicion has head to the borders being closed. I could just as easily have included this in the YA list, though technically it is middle grade. The finished copy of this book has all the wondrous trappings that book fetishists like me crave: maps, a velum slipcase, and embossing!

 

The Night Gardener

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Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? The latest book from Canuck Jonathan Auxier offers Irish orphans, a derelict Victorian mansion, a ghostly gardener and a potentially evil tree. Auxier’s language is perfect for reading aloud- though make sure your campers/children/friends are not faint of heart.

 

The Circus Dogs of Prague

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I was totally charmed by Rachelle Delaney’s first book about JR and the embassy dogs and the second is just as fun. Readers who prefer their middle grade fiction gentle, funny, and classic will love this series about dogs who travel the world and solve mysteries in exotic European capitals. This would make a great family read aloud, particularly for a reader adept at doing doggie voices.

 

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek 

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I’ve already raved about this teen memoir (which is technically YA), but I think in the hands of a 12 year old girl this funny, warm and smart treatise on what it means to be popular could work miracles. An ideal graduation gift for kids moving from middle school to high school.

 

A Snicker of Magic

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Author Natalie Lloyd does some fun things with language and description in this quirky read about magic lost and found. Readers who revel in words and their bookish-ness will have so much fun with this book. A little bit Chocolat (minus adult themes and Johnny Depp), a little bit fairy-tale, you really can’t go wrong with a town called Midnight Gulch and a protagonist named Felicity Pickle.

The Thickety

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What a great title! This complex middle grade tale has two of my favourite things: witches and a mysterious forest. In fact this is the second book on this list alone that features a spooky wood (The Night Gardener has The Sour Woods). Kay and her brother Taff have grown up shunned by their community after their mother is convicted of witchcraft. And when I say shunned I mean shunned. Some of the discrimination they face is cruel and upsetting. The only thing people fear more than witchcraft is the strange, dark wood that seems to be slowly overtaking the island. But Kay has always felt that the forest has called to her, and one day she ventures in…

Don’t be misled by it’s fairy-tale themes, this is a dark, harrowing tale that is more Brothers Grimm than Frozen.

Happy Reading!