Middle Grade Monday: Q&A with Anna Humphrey


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?
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?
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?
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?


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?


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: MiNRs


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: The Enchanted Egg



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

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

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

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

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

Middle Grade Monday: Something Wiki


Middle grade fiction isn’t always gentle or fantastical. Sometimes it can be downright moody, icky, and gross. Thank goodness. Puberty is rarely gentle or magical, so why should fiction tackling the subject be?In Something Wiki, we get a peek inside the mind and body of tween Jo Waller. Each chapter opens with a wikipedia entry that our young narrator has edited to suit her own experiences. This is Jo in a nutshell- internet-savvy, smart, and just entering that phase of tweendom where she is keenly, physically aware of herself.

It is clear that Canadian author Suzanne Sutherland remembers what it is to be a tween. This is a very physical book and there are lots of discussions about the physical experience of adolescence. The kind that make adults cringe and tweens go YES, MORE, PLEASE! Jo is constantly concerned about her acne, the treatment of which runs through the whole book like a low-grade fever. There is also lots of blood, but not the guts and gore kind, the everyday kind- from stepping on a tack, to pimples that have popped, to good old once a month menstrual blood.

One of the things I love best about middle grade is the navigation of relationships. Jo is in the middle of some mean girl games in addition to hard-core adulation of her older brother, a very cool musician with a downtown apartment. I love how much Jo looks up to her big brother and his girlfriend. When she discovers her brother’s girlfriend is pregnant, she starts to think more about sex and also comes to realize that they are both people with problems who make mistakes- not these big, cool, unattainable gods she has worked them up to be in her mind.

I also like the glimpses of Toronto, something Sutherland did well in her debut novel When We Were Good. So much middle grade seems to be set in small-town, middle-of-somewhere North America (something I am guilty of)  but here we are firmly in downtown Toronto. Urban readers will appreciate a glimpse of their lifestyle and rural or suburban readers get all the fun of experiencing the truth of city life (still pretty boring when you’re underage). Other than Susin Nielsen, who sets her novels in Vancouver, not many Canadian kids’ writers use major Canadian cities as a backdrop.

With short chapters, lots of believable dialogue and a breezy pace, young readers will fly through Something Wiki before passing it off to their friends.

Something Wiki is available in paperback now from Dundurn Press.

Feeling Halloweenish: 4 Spooky Books

It’s my favourite time of year! Pumpkins, black cats everywhere, clever costumes, and amazing ghost stories. What’s not to love about Halloween? Here is a round-up of some spooky, atmospheric and down-right terrifying books perfect for those of us who wait all year for October:

The Swallow by Charis Cotter


If you’ve read Summer Days, Starry Nights you know I love the sixties. This period in Toronto is evocatively portrayed in this moody, unsettling ghost story by Canadian author Charis Cotter. The atmosphere reminded me of Janet Lunn’s old-school storey Double Spell, peopled with well-rounded Kit Pearson-esque characters.It’s hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. The stuffy, cloying house was particularly vivid, as was Polly’s large, rambunctious extended family. I will say that as an avid reader of ghost stories, this was a refreshing take on the genre. It is just as much a friendship story between two lonely girls as it is a spooky read.  Cotter captures the anxieties and frustrations of tweens very well.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

through the woods

This collection of graphic (as in illustrated) short stories was pitch perfect. Emily Carroll is an acclaimed Canadian cartoonist/illustrator and I fully expected her art to be stunning. What I did not expect was her superb pacing and knack for telling really, REALLY scary stories. Definitely not the faint of heart, this collection is about the dark side of humanity as much as it is about ghosts, monsters, and ghouls. Her stories feel classic, like Poe or Irving, but they are original contributions to a tricky to navigate canon. This is definitely a book I will return to every October.

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann


This collection of poems based on fairy tales isn’t strictly Halloweenish, but it does suit the creepy, atmospheric October vibe. One of my favourite poetry collections is Transformations by Anne Sexton, which also retells fairy tales. Poisoned Apples is distinctly modern, with references to selfies, social media, etc, but witches and curses and classic fairytale tropes abound in this thought-provoking collection. Heppermann weaves in reflections on female teenage sexuality, empowerment, consent, and body image, with a number of startling images revolving around eating disorders. Poetry can have a particularly strong impact of teenagers, and with the word feminism being bandied about in the media these days, this collection provides an intimate space for personal reflection. Personal favourites include: Nature Lesson, Red-handed, and Transformation.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

night gardener

I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again. Auxier (another Canadian! Why are we so good at scary?) has a gorgeous command of language and he practically paints the story of two Irish orphans working in the world’s creepiest house with his words. This book lends itself well to reading aloud but can be equally enjoyed curled up in a chair with a mug of something warm. Like all good ghost stories, there are questions of life and death, right or wrong, and love, above all else, reigns supreme. A classic in the making.

What are your Halloween favourites?

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: Friday Society Review


I was in desperate need for something fun and fresh, and this cheeky YA novel from Canadian Adrienne Kress fit the bill.

You know I love a good girl power (ugh how I wish I could find a cooler term) novel. Case in point, my love of Kiki Strike, The Red Blazer Girls, and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks. When I first heard of the concept- three girls who are apprentices to powerful men join forces to create a sort of secret superhero society in Victorian (or is Edwardian?) London- it felt so perfect I couldn’t believe no one had attempted it before. Kress’  love of all things steampunk combined with a sassy attitude make her the perfect writer for this story.

This book is a fine balancing act. It is at times silly, inspiring, fun, feminist, but it never feels like too much of one thing. It’s easy to visualize and would make an excellent movie, a sort of Charlie’s Angels meets Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. I appreciated the inclusion of Michiko, a young Japanese woman trained in the samurai arts. So often ‘Victorian’ translates to ‘British,’ and  diversity in YA is always welcome.

There is some romance here, but thankfully Kress avoids making the story revolve about boys, which is a nice change of pace in the often romance-saturated YA. Instead, the girls are discovering that they, too can be proactive and make a difference, much aided by their new-found friendships. Kress includes a few conversations about women’s rights but she never feels preachy nor does she stray too far from her fun, adventure-seeking plot. Fans of Y.S. Lee’s Mary Quinn mysteries, Kiki Strike, Lesley Livingston, or anyone looking for a fun, empowering book for teens will love The Friday Society. Let’s hope Kress has more under her steampunk belt!

The Friday Society is available now in hard cover from Dial, and distributed in Canada by Razorbill Canada

Kit Pearson delivers the Whole Package (Again): The Whole Truth

An arresting new look for Kit Pearson's work!

Kit Pearson is a national treasure. Decades of children have grown up feasting on her novels, holding her characters and delicate life lessons close to their hearts. As an experiment, drop the word Gairloch* into a conversation with women under the age of 35 and see how many of them start gushing about Kit Pearson**. So it goes without saying that a new Kit Pearson novel is a major literary event. The Whole Truth does not disappoint.

Canada, 1932. Shy Polly and her bold older sister Maud have been taken in by their estranged Scottish grandmother after the shocking and untimely death of their father. They’ve traveled halfway across the country, from Winnipeg to a remote island off the coast of B.C. to Gran’s house, where there is no indoor plumbing, no electricity, and a whole host of friendly, gregarious strangers and more than a few chickens. When Maud takes off for boarding school less than a week after their arrival, Polly is not sure she can survive. But within a few months she has a new friend (easy going Biddy), a new hobby (painting), and a new pet (the naughty but lovable Tarka- you can tell Pearson adores dogs by her loving and accurate descriptions of him). But on the edge of all this happiness is the truth that Polly and Maud have sworn to keep secret, the truth regarding their father and his unusual demise.

The missing/dead father plot adds tension and mystery to to the story, but for me it takes a backseat to the wonderful coming of age portrait Pearson has created in this novel. Watching Polly bloom is an absolute pleasure. Pearson manages to bring her young protagonist out of her shell without straying from the bones of her character. I enjoyed Polly’s struggle with meat-eating, given her tender hearted feelings towards animals. Her relationship with the headstrong and fiercely opinionated Maud is aptly complicated and gives Pearson a stage to explore Polly’s growing autonomy. I love how Pearson surrounds Polly with a cast of warm and loving characters that are far from perfect, but provide the support that Polly was previously missing in her life.

Pearson’s gifts as a writer are innumerable, but what makes her books classic is her uncanny ability to understand and empathize with the adolescent mind. She taps directly into the core of childhood and addresses all of the fears, anxieties, and joy of that narrow slice of time between the ages of 9-12. She is one of my writing mentors, a gifted wordsmith who has perfected the art of the middle grade novel***. Her books always feel timeless, regardless of the era they are set in, which just proves that great writing never goes out of style.

The Whole Truth will be available in hard cover this August from HarperCollins Canada.

*I still, to this day, when imagining my dream cottage, picture Gairloch as described in Looking at the Moon.

**And it’s not just my generation. This winter I did a school visit and a clutch of  12 year old girls asked me if I had read any Kit Pearson books. I told them I had, and after much squealing we had a rousing discussion about whether or not it was a good idea to include so much Gavin in The Lights Go On Again. My take? Kit Pearson can do no wrong. The Guests of War remains one of the best trilogies for children.

***Personal aside. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Pearson at the store in the fall of 2007 when A Perfect Gentle Knight came out. She was kind, humble and just as lovely as you hope she would be. My signed copy of A Perfect Gentle Knight, due in part to the thoughtful personal inscription she wrote in my book, remains one of my post precious possessions.