Vikki VanSickle on Writing, Reading & Other Pipedreams

Everything I need to know in life, I learned from children's literature

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.

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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

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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.


Hip Hip Hooray! Forest of Reading Winners

Canadian Kid Lit Rock Stars Feted at Harbourfront!

The Forest of Reading winners were announced this afternoon, and what a line-up! Check out the winners here. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these awards, they are administered by the Ontario Library Association and voted on by thousands of Ontario school children. Similar “tree awards” exist in other provinces; they are the people’s choice awards of Canadian children’s lit.

The winners this year demonstrate not only the quality of Canadian kids books out there today, but the breadth of style, form, and content. Consider Blue Spruce winner Jeremy Tankard’s Boo Hoo Bird, the perfect follow-up to his newly minted storytime classic, Grumpy Bird, in which everyone’s favourite moody bird deals with a bonk on the head. Tankard’s illustrations are bright and engaging and his text is authentic, creating a fun, relatable reading experience for accident-prone readers of all ages.

Silver Birch winner Robert Paul Weston’s Zorgamazoo is a truly unique book, about resourceful Katrina Katrell who finds herself in cahoots with a nervous Zorgle named Morty. The premise is fun and magical, but what really stands out in this dark charmer is the narrative, which is told in hypnotic rhyming couplets. I have been championing this book for ages and I’m glad to see it getting the kid cred it deserves.

Silver Birch Express winner Cyndi Sand-Eveland’s Dear Toni combines a number of kid-friendly elements (namely dog-related content and diary formatting) into a charming early novel for young readers. The Red Maple award went to Susin Nielsen’s Word Nerd, about which I have already gushed at great length. See here for a refresher of why you should be reading it now. I have yet to read Pam Bustin’s White Pine-winning Mostly Happy, but you can bet it’s been added to the ever-growing stack that lives beside my bed. Given the stiff competition in this teen category, I expect it’s a fantastic read.

Congrats to all the nominees and winners. Having participated in B.C.’s Red Cedar Awards, I know how much kids enjoy the whole process. They treat the nominees like rock stars, and with good reason! A big shout-out to the good people working in Harbourfront’s IFOA program, without whom this amazing event could not have taken place. Hip, hip, hooray!

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Far From the Last Word: Word Nerd


Gotta love that hat...

Word Nerd is out in paperback this week, which is cause for celebration! If you missed out on this when it was in hard cover, now is you chance to see what all the hype is about. This book has been much lauded, and rightfully so; it’s tightly written, funny, poignant (but not in a way that will make boys cringe), and compelling.

Ambrose thinks things are looking up when he and his mother, an English professor in search of tenure, arrive in Vancouver. But then Ambrose is almost killed in a not-so-innocent prank and his too good to be true upstairs neighbours (and landlords) turn out to be the parents of an ex-convict named Cosmo who is moving back home. But can someone who gets caught playing online scrabble really be all that bad? Ambrose doesn’t think so, and so begins an honest, funny, and unlikely friendship between Cosmo and Ambrose that leads to love, betrayal, danger, and of course, scrabble.

Ambrose spends most of the novel in a pair of hideous purple cords and a lumpy knit hat, which makes me think of the kid in About a Boy who manages to charm Hugh Grant with his Yeti sweaters and off-key singing. Except in this case the Hugh Grant/ big brother/father figure is a muscly Greek ex-con with a tattoo and a scrabble habit. Susin Nielsen’s extensive background in television writing is evident in her talent for voice and dialogue. I felt like I knew the characters in this book; having lived in Vancouver for a few years, I probably did. The dialogue is both authentic and punchy, which is no small feat.

 What is most impressive about this outstanding novel is that at the heart of all the hijinks and snappy dialogue is a tender story about a woman who is still, after thirteen years, missing her husband, and her son who is not only dealing with his own loneliness, but his mother’s, as well. There is some captial B Bullying in here, as well as a potentially fatal prank and thuggish violence, and yet I never once felt like the book was depressing, heavy, or hard to deal with. Nielsen’s combination of a light comedic touch and serious emotional (and situational) drama is rare and worthy of praise.

Last winter there was a bit of drama when this article came out in the Hamilton Spectator, about a parent who was shocked at the language used in the book and wanted it removed from the school library. She couldn’t understand why the library would contain a book with the very same language that her son was being reprimanded for using**. I’m assuming the contentious words were boner, boobs, and f-ing (note: at no time in the novel is the f bomb ever spelled out). The mother then goes on to say that she would not consider Word Nerd  “a children’s book.”

Sigh. So what IS a children’s book? This is a question that can never be answered. It’s like the quest in Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious , in which an entire kingdom is polled in an attempt to secure a definitive description for the word delicious: completely subjective and totally impossible. Most artistic forms embrace breaking the rules, trying new things, and pushing the envelope. But in children’s literature you walk a very fine line. How do you present a harsh reality without traumatizing children and offending their parents? If violence or death or some other taboo is presented in an alternate reality, does that make it more acceptable?  What’s more damaging, explicit violent or sexual content or bad language? Who is responsible for what children read- the author, teachers, librarians, or parents? It’s a chicken and egg situation I try to avoid in order to maintain my own artistic integrity and sanity.

But I digress. Read Word Nerd and try not to fall in love with Ambrose, feisty Amanda who hosts her own stitch n’ bitch sessions, cheek-pinching Mrs. E, and poor hapless Principal Bob with his Simpsons ties. I think you’ll find there’s a lot to love here. Needless to say, I am very much looking forward to Susin’s next novel, the fantastically titled Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom.

Word Nerd is available now from Tundra Books.

**It makes me wonder if she screens all of the television shows, movies, and videogames her child has access to with as much diligence. Kids are picking up that language somewhere… In any case, you can read Susin’s thoughtful response here




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