May 2, 2017

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk

Written and Illustrated by: Dasha Tolstikova

Published by: Groundwood Books

Published on: October 6, 2015

Ages: 10+

The best nonfiction science books and the best history books for kids are those that are relatable. They are told in prose like great stories that just happen to be true. This is one of those books.

The story of the great Auk is not just one of evolution, but one of the effect of humans on our environment. It is about the world and people over thousands of years. It is about a human-made tragedy as we killed off all the Great Auks a hundred years ago. And it is about how that tragedy spurred humans to start conservation movements, to try to stop the extinction of other species.

All of this is really good for kids to learn. But the reason kids will love this book is that it is like a great story, told by an interesting person. It was a joy to read out loud.

Apr 10, 2017

Book Uncle and Me

Book Uncle and Me

Written by: Uma Krishnaswami

Published by: Groundwood Books

Published on: September 13, 2016

Grades 3-6

I love books that surprise me. This book surprised me.

I thought it would be a book about a schoolgirl in India who loves to read. It is. But it is so much more.

This book is about how anyone, even those without a vote, can be influential in local politics. It is about how one person can make a difference when they get together with others, whether to save wildlife or to make their community better. 

It is how the best books keep you thinking even after you close them for the last page.

I am a political person, and I want my children to be political people. But sometimes I feel as a foreigner that my voice cannot be heard. My children feel that as children their voices cannot be heard. But when we all put our voices together and organize, our voices can be heard. Just like Yasmin and her community's voices.

Jan 5, 2017

Some Things I've Lost

Some Things I've Lost

Written and Illustrated by: Cyb√®le Young 

Published by: Groundwood Books

Published on: September 15, 2015

Ages: 5+

My daughter is very forgetful. Almost every day her teacher sends home a note with things that she has forgotten to bring. But more often than not, she forgets to bring that note home too. You know how you can put string through the sleeves of a coat to the mittens on either side so you don't lost the mittens? We have adapted that idea many times, even to her pencil case/backpack.

She and I often wonder what happens to all the things she forgets. Sometimes they turn back up, sometimes they don't.

I wonder if they take on a life of their own like in this book.

The premise of this book is very simple. Young lists an item and where is is lost. There is a picture of the item before it was lost.

But open the flap and a whole new world begins. Young's papercraft adventures into the transformation of these objects is breathtaking. Would you recognize your plain black glasses after they metamorphize into a brilliant coloured clownfish? I wouldn't.

I'll keep looking for my daughter's missing items. But I'll think more creatively now about how those things could have changed so they hide in plain sight.

Jan 4, 2017

A Year Without Mom

A Year Without Mom

Written and Illustrated by: Dasha Tolstikova

Published by: Groundwood Books

Published on: October 6, 2015

Ages: 10+

For as long as I can remember, I have been captivated by Russia. In the early 90s, when this book is set, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about Russia. I was taking Russian lessons at my local community centre, I was practicing cyrillic handwriting, I was reciting Pushkin poems into my mirror. I knew about 19th century poets and composers, I knew about uskoreniye and the political players of the time. 

What I didn't know about was what it was like to be a kid like me in Russia. Turns out that in some ways it was pretty similar to being a kid like me in Canada. Studying and too scared to skip school with my friends. Crushes on boys who aren't worth it. 

This Dasha comes to life through Tolstikova's black and white drawings with authenticity and exuberance. This Dasha is like Angela Chase, if Angela were a Musocovite dealing with her parents not splitting up but moving across the world.

It was that moving across the world that made me interested in the book in the first place. In the international families I know, there are so many instances of kids and parents being separated for economic or personal necessary. Whether kids being sent back to grandparents to learn a minority language, or a mother going abroad for work, or so many other reasons, temporary separation from parents seems pretty common among families like mine. But I had never seen it in a children's book before, and I am happy that Tolstikova has chosen to share her biography with us.

Jan 3, 2017

Stage Business

Stage Business

Written by: Gerry Fostaty

Published by: Deux Voiliers Publishing

Published on: November 22, 2014

Ages: Adult

Happy New Year! 2017 is a time for setting new goals or getting back into old grooves. For me that means jumping back into blogging. Thanks for coming back to read. 

There is no better book to start my renewed blog career with than Stage Business. I had read and reviewed Fostaty's first book, the non-fiction As You Were: The Tragedy at Valcartier. I enjoyed it immensely. But I was worried that what made that book so amazing, the personal connection and attention to detail, wouldn't be able to transfer over to a mystery novel.

I needn't have worried. Both of those elements are in this book. It is obvious that Fostaty knows and loves the theatre, the world of Stage Business' characters. He builds this world as deftly as he builds up the mystery.

Michael Dion is a Toronto actor whose days involve memorizing lines, inhabiting other characters, and going on auditions, as well as visiting with colleagues outside pubs. The object of his affection asks him to look for her friend's missing son and that seems like something anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Google and Facebook could do. It isn't that simple and although Michael could quit at any time he keeps going, whether it is smart for him to do so or not, and brings his friends and neighbours into the heart of this mystery.

I think that this book would appeal to readers of Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series. Basically there is a regular guy, with a sense of morality that gets him involved in situations that he is more prepared for than he should be, thanks to the theatre. He also has a splendid group of friends to help him out, and I would love to spend an afternoon on the sidewalk of a Toronto pub with all of them. The mystery is what keeps you turning pages for the first book, the quirky characters are what will bring you back for a second book. Here's hoping there is a second book. 

Jan 3, 2015

The Cat at the Wall

The Cat at the Wall

Written by: Deborah Ellis

Published by: Groundwood Books

Published on: August 11, 2014

Ages: 10+

Clare is a regular girl at a regular school in Pennsylvania, but with a mean streak. Clare is also a cat in the West Bank of the Middle East, who finds a boy hiding from Israeli soldiers. How Clare became a cat and what Clare the cat decides to do about the boy are just two of the mysteries told in this middle grade novel.

Ellis has impecable nonfiction credentials (Looks Like Daylight, Kids of Kabul) and she combines her extensive knowledge of the Israeli-Palestine situation to illuminate an important theme- that we all have choices and we can improve or worsen other people's lives as a result of the path we choose.

The fantasy element was actually quite well-done, although different from what I expected from Ellis' work. The juxtaposition of a normal middle-class life in the US with the fear of an orphaned boy in one of the world's most conflicted areas is clever and the fantasy element makes it feel less like a moral tale.

Jan 2, 2015

Work: An Occupational ABC

Work: An Occupational ABC

Written and Illustrated by: Kellen Hatanaka

Published by: Groundwood Books

Published on: August 5, 2014

Ages: 3+

This ABC book is not as simple as it appears. It pays homage to a variety of occupations, opening up the vocabulary of the toddler audience as well as their imagination.

Hatanaka's illustrations seem like they are straight out of a mid-century classic.

Aviator and jockey

Vibraphonist and Xenologist

It's not that Hatanaka is introducing concepts that are new to preschoolers- he is introducing concepts that are new to the adults doing the reading aloud as well. His message is that anything could be work so why not think outside the box?

The mid-century-esque illustrations make this seem like a book that shows things have been possible in the past, so you can be a vibraphonist if you want! It all looks so much more interesting than being a desk jockey.