What I Read in 2016: Picture Books

I value my picture book collection the way that Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler values her files: deeply, though you wouldn’t know it by my lack of an ordered cataloging or shelving system. Here are some of the books published in 2016 that made it onto my shelves this year.

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Panda Pants  is a dialogue between a young panda and his father. The little Panda is set on a pair of pants. The father is unconvinced. The silliness is tempered by a dead-pan delivery and a touch of philosophy. Like Zen Shorts, if conceived by the Comedy Network.

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My Friend Maggie is another fantastic offering from Hannah E. Harrison. All of her books have the emotional realism of Kevin Henkes’ work and her illustrations GLOW. This book isn’t just kid-friendly, it strikes a deep, deep chord. I’m not a crier, but this book makes me tear up every darn time.

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Miss Moon lives in a beautiful, well-mannered world of dogs and dresses and boating parties that I would also love to live in. In Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess, Janet Hill’s collection of life lessons are accompanied by her distinctive oil-paintings and would be a great gift for dog lovers, graduates, or people with a taste for whimsy.

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Sara O’Leary is grand master of the list poem. In A Family is a Family is a Family she lists a wide range of families, accompanied by Qin Leng’s delicate illustrations of the small pleasures of domestic life.

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Jo Ellen Bogart’s quietly magnificent The White Cat and the Monk is an ode to work, peace, and stillness. Even non-cat lovers will admit that there is something delightful in a monk comparing his daily routine to that of his cat’s. Illustrator Sydney Smith does a great job getting into the head of a cat and demonstrates why his work keeps turning up on award lists.

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Lion Lessons is begging to be turned into a piece of theatre. A boy studies to be a lion with an actual lion. Simple, funny, genius. Jon Agee’s books are on my auto-buy list.

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Just when you thought there were no new ways to tell a first day of school story, Adam Rex comes along with the perspective of a new school building in School’s First Day of School. Christian Robinson’s bright, retro art helps make this brand new book feel like an old favourite.

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My favourite debut of the year is Ooko, by author-illustrator Esme Shapiro. Foxes abound in children’s books, but never has a fox been so sweetly delusional before. A quirky friendship story with a twist. Bonus human leg hair!

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Julia Sarda’s colour palette of rich jewel-tones and Goth-meets-Art Deco sensibility is an unexpected but brilliant pairing with Kyo Maclear’s fable about a list-making family. Maclear tends to be paired with airier, more whimsical illustrators, but The Liszts is proof that her canny text works just as well with a darker, earthier art style.

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In Scribble, child-whisperer Ruth Ohi imbues simple shapes (circle, square, and triangle) with matching personalities who are thrown for a loop (shape pun!) when scribble arrives. The book works on two levels, as both a story about learning to accept other’s differences and also as an ode to imagination.

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There will always be a desire for counting books and Lucy Ruth Cummin’s A Hungry Lion or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals adds an element of mystery and dark humour to this tried and true formula. In a post-Klassen/hat eat hat world you may think you know the twist…but DO you?

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Thanks to Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick I have always been drawn to topiaries (yes, even after The Shining). The Night Gardener features some pretty fantastic creations and captures a sense of wonder and possibility in a spare text accompanied by old-timey, sepia-toned illustrations.

Middle Grade Monday: Q&A with Anna Humphrey

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Canadian author Anna Humphrey first came across my radar when I read (and loved) her funny, charming, Sarah Dessen-esque YA novel Rhymes With Cupid. Anna is now the author of four books for YA and middle grade readers and despite the range in age, the one thing they all have in common is Anna’s deft, light touch as a storyteller.Recently I spoke with Anna about her favourite books, what inspires her as a writer, and her latest heroine, Clara Humble.

VV: What was your favourite novel when you were 10?
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Anna: I Want to Go Home, by Gordon Korman. It’s about a kid named Rudy who gets sent to summer camp, hates every minute of it, and rebels and tries to escape in hilarious ways. I read it over and over, and it got funnier every time. The part where Rudy orders 1000 volleyballs from the camp office kills me to this day. Gordon Korman was the writer who first made me want to be a writer.

VV: What book do you admire so much that you wish you had written it?
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Anna: Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. It’s about a teenage girl named Melinda who nearly stops speaking and is ostracized by her peers following a very traumatic event. I have no end of admiration for an author who can write about something devastating, treat the subject with complete respect, and still make it laugh-out-loud funny in places. Laurie Halse Anderson does that better than anyone, in my opinion.

VV: What recent book (published in the last 10 years) do you wish was available when you were 10?
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Anne: El Deafo, by Cece Bell. My seven-year-old niece was visiting this summer and I read her copy. My ten-year-old daughter read it too, and we all fell in love with the story. It’s a graphic novel/memoir about growing up hearing impaired—but the author draws herself and everyone else as bunnies. She writes about how she felt embarrassed to go to school with a large hearing aid, but then soon discovered she could use it to listen in on teachers in other rooms, like a super power. I would have loved it when I was ten because it’s a book that shows how the differences we sometimes feel ashamed of (mine as a kid was being extremely shy) can become our greatest strengths if we learn to look at them in the right way. Also, it’s just a really sweet and honest story about friendship and growing up. Plus, bunnies!!

VV: What drew you to Clara Humble?

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Anna: At its core, Clara Humble is a book about a kid trying to cope with feeling powerless (something I felt often as a kid, and still do). I started writing it when I began planning to move to a new city. I knew that this very adult decision my husband and I were making was going to be really hard on my kids, as well as on our next door neighbour, a woman in her 60s who they had (and continues to have) a really strong friendship with—but that, as kids, there was nothing they could really do to stop it. I guess I was turning that over in my head and trying to come to terms with the unfairness of it. So although my kids and my former neighbour aren’t Clara and Momo… and things don’t go down the same way in the story that they did in real life… the struggle they’re facing and the feelings they’re feeling are inspired by true events.

VV: Do you have a favourite superhero?

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Anna: I’ve only recently started getting into superheroes… but the new Ms. Marvel is definitely awesome. I love how Kamala Khan is just a regular Pakistani-American teenager who happens to have amazing powers and defeats villains, but then she still has to deal with things like her parents wanting her to be at the mosque at a certain time and getting caught sneaking out. She won me over the second I saw the cover of issue 2, where she’s busy texting with one hand while absent-mindedly knocking a bank robber out cold with the other.

Thanks to Anna for dropping by to chat books! Visit her online here and here and be sure to check out her latest novel Clara Humble and the Not So Super Powers , available now from OwlKids!

 

Middle Grade Monday: Ghosts

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Cat is not at all excited to be moving to foggy, seaside Bahia de la Luna, particularly when she learns that it is a sort of capital for ghosts. But doctors have agreed that it is a better place for her sister Maya, who has Cystic Fibrosis. Cat is torn between wanting to make new friends and create a life that isn’t defined by her sister’s diagnosis and the visceral need to protect her sister at all costs. With a focus on familial relationships, a diverse cast, and the stirrings of first love, this much-awaited new graphic novel is classic Raina Telgemeier.

One of Telgemeier’s greatest strengths is her nuanced portrayal of the relationships between sisters (see SmileSisters and Drama). Cat loves Maya, but confesses to wanting something that is hers alone. Her guilt is ever-present and burdensome. One of my favourite scenes is a dialogue-less sequence following Maya’s return from the hospital in which Cat plays Maya her favourite song and the girls snuggle up together in bed. Unlike Drama and Sisters, the sisters in Ghosts are fictional, but the dialogue and tiny moments between Cat and Maya are so authentic that one still gets the sense that Telgemeier is mining her own experience.

Of all her novels to date, Ghosts is the darkest, touching on themes of death and mortality. It is made clear that Maya is not going to get better, a fact she accepts more than her family members. Of the two sisters, Cat is by far the most cautious, wanting to keep Maya way from even a hint of danger. But Maya’s sense of her limited mortality conversely makes her seek adventure, action, and fun, recognizing that if she has a limited about of time on earth then she’s going to make the most of it. Her favourite mantra is a song from an animated movie, a thinly disguised version of Frozen‘s Let it Go, entitled Let it Out. Her desire to befriend the ghosts is particularly poignant, knowing that her curiosity about the afterlife is grounded in the reality that she may be joining them soon.

A life-long and ardent Halloween enthusiast, I very much enjoyed the excitement leading up to Halloween and the midnight Day of the Dead party. The residents of Bahia de la Luna are decidedly ghost-friendly and the interaction between the living and the dead is when what has previously felt like a contemporary story veers off into fantasy. Among a number of other ghosts, Cat befriends her neighbour Carlos’ long-dead uncle, who then takes her flying.The energy, excitement and camaraderie of the party scenes reminded me of the Remains of the Day scene in Tim Burton’s woefully underrated movie, The Corpse Bride.

The book includes an extensive afterward from the author in which she provides more info about Cystic Fibrosis, Dia de los Muertos and touches on her own family tragedy that in part inspired the story. Telgemeier’s millions of rabid fans will not be disappointed. Ghosts is another touching, engaging and highly consumable addition to Telgemeier’s growing middle grade canon.

Ghosts is available now from Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic

Middle Grade Monday: Two Naomis

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It’s awkward enough watching your parent date, but the situation is much, much worse when the daughter of your parent’s new SO is not only the same age but has the same name as you. Such is the premise for Two Naomis, a charming story about Naomi E and Naomi M (who ends up taking on the “elegant” name Naomi Marie), unlikely friends and (potentially) future sisters.

The premise is a throwback to classic late 80s & early 90s contemporary middle grade, the kind of literature Judy Blume, Ann M. Martin and Paula Danziger were writing about; everyday kids dealing with everyday situations. Both Naomis are “average” kids, if I can use such a vague term here. No one has suffered major trauma or has significant hardships. They both have loving families and friends. But despite the classic “issue” driven premise,  this is modern New York City. The girls have cell phones, attend a coding class, and use Skype.

I am always fascinated by authors who work together. In this case, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick alternated chapters, each tackling their own Naomi and her corresponding world. You can read more about how this process worked over at Phil Bildner’s blog. The big challenge here is to distinguish between the two Naomis. The reader will have no trouble doing so. Naomi E is an only child, Naomi-Marie has a (very precocious) little sister. Naomi E is white, Naomi-Marie is black, this obvious differences leads to a funny moment when Naomi Marie’s little sister Bree suggests they solve the two Naomi problem by calling them “Black Naomi” and “White Naomi.” I love Naomi E’s skepticism, her caution when it comes to friendship or big decisions, her tendency to be sarcastic. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly and doesn’t excite easily. Naomi Marie on the other hand is enthusiasm personified. She is a joiner, a leader, and very competitive. The girls’ personalities may be different but are quite complimentary, something they come to learn (and appreciate) over time.

This isn’t a story about divorce causing irreparable damage to a child. The parent-kid relationships are very positive. Both Naomis’ sets of parents are quite civil and seem to have had  amicable divorces. Although Naomi Marie lives with her mother, she sees her father frequently. Naomi E’s mother is away in LA working in film, and her absence is definitely felt by her daughter and is the root of some of her anxieties. They Skype, but Naomi E is starting to crack with the longing to see her mother, and plans are made for that to happen.

As a kid, I loved reading about what other kids lives were like at home. What after-school snacks did they eat? What were their bedtime routines? How did their family spend Saturday mornings, etc. There is something fascinating about peeking behind the curtain of someone else’s home life. I felt like this reading Two Naomis. This is a funny, frank and positive exploration of how two tweens deal with their parents’ dating.

Two Naomis is available now from HarperCollins.

Middle Grade Monday: Flickers

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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.

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.