Anna at the Art Museum – Hutchins.Herbert

Art museums are not built for children. Though many museums now have programming intended for young audiences, a museum experience still may be overwhelming for a child.

Anna, in Anna at the Art Museum, is doing her very best to have a positive experience with her mother, but she seems to be breaking rules without even knowing, and a grumpy guard points out her mistakes at every turn.

At the end of the day, Anna’s perspective has shifted, thanks to some guidance from the same grumpy guard.

As Anna moves through the museum, the images in the surrounding paintings appear to interact with the onlookers, providing thoughtful commentary on art, and giving children a delightful opportunity to spot similarities between the art and the museum patrons.

The images in this title include artwork from around the world and from a variety of time periods, which could be a valuable and accessible introduction to art for young children.

Thank you to Annick Press and NetGalley for providing a copy of this title.

Anna at the Art Museum – Written by Hazel Hutchins, Illustrated by Gail Herbert

Children’s Literature – Annick Press – Publication Date: 11 September 2018

Diana Dances – Lozano

Most educators know a child (or teen), who cannot sit still in a desk and refuses to conform to the standardization of public education. Diana is the embodiment of this student.

Unfortunately, the adults surrounding Diana immediately assume there must be something wrong with her.

A benevolent psychologist intervenes just in time, however, and Diana’s body and soul are rescued.

The illustrations in this title are reminiscent of Hilary Knight and her beloved Eloise, but Diana certainly is her own special character.

There is limited text on each page, which perfectly suits this story. Some pages have no text at all, allowing the reader to interpret for themselves.

Readers of all ages have the opportunity to see their personalities reflected in Diana.

Thank you to Annick Press and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Diana Dances – Luciano Lozano

Children’s Fiction – Annick Press – Publication Date: 12 March 2019

The Learning Curve – Berman

The Learning Curve, the forthcoming second novel by Mandy Berman, might as well have the subtitle, “a modern parable for the privileged woman,” such is the impression the reader has after finishing this ambitious and, ultimately, frustrating novel.

Among the dizzying amount of information covered in the plot, Berman’s characters navigate personal traumas, sexual politics, frat houses, European countries, visiting professorships, motherhood, alcohol abuse, crushes, failing marriages, failing research projects, failing relationships (romantic and otherwise), etc., etc.

In fact, Berman’s novel covers so many topics that it feels like walking into the brain of an author working on five different novels at once. One need only to read Berman’s acknowledgments to see the surprisingly multifarious research that went into writing The Learning Curve.

In some ways, the parable-feel of the novel is appropriate. During a college seminar called “Sex, Sentiment, and Sympathy,” Fiona and Liv, the two student characters, learn about 18th-century stories that cautioned their readers about the consequences faced by women who dared step outside social norms. Fiona reflects later that these cautionary tales apply to our current treatment of women (Monica Lewinsky is her example). Indeed, the connections between these 18th-century “coquettes,” and the characters themselves are engaging, and one wishes Berman would have spent more time on these developments, rather than swiftly moving on to new territory.

Strikingly similar to this novel is The Red Word, by Canadian author Sarah Henstra (winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award). The two novels both place the female student in dialogue with seemingly incongruous campus circumstances: advanced literary seminar vs. raucous frat party, feminist declarations vs. questionable sexual encounters with sketchy dudes, hagiographies of beloved female professors vs. obsessions with “bad” boys. Henstra’s novel is triumphant in portraying contradictory scenarios and deftly abandoning the reader to weigh the ethics of the characters and their decisions. Berman’s novel, on the other hand, pushes the reader to inauthentic conclusions (i.e. “lessons learned”), using characters who are too busy filling their assigned roles to really resonate.

The stimulating discussions of Berman’s characters and their self-reflective thoughts are lost in an excessive amount of exposition: two sisters share a glass of wine while having a personal conversation. Is it really necessary to justify why one of the women is drinking? (She’s in her third trimester, so it’s safe, Berman tells us.)

Readers looking for a drama-filled campus story will find pleasure but will get lost in the many digressions Berman takes. Those looking for more social commentary and fully articulated characters will be disappointed.

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

The Learning Curve – Mandy Berman

Fiction – Random House – Publication Date: 28 May 2019

Reading this Week

Learning Curve – Mandy Berman

An excerpt from Tom Pickard’s “Fiends Fell” from the February 2019 issue of Poetry Magazine – I keep trying to get to the end, but I keep getting hypnotized by the gorgeous photos.

Hedgehog Needs a Hug by Jen Betton – Our household has been reading and re-reading this, but, alas, it must now be returned to the library.

Cameron Anstee’s Book of Annotations (for the second time!)

Flipping my way through Danish author Asta Olivia Nordenhof’s the easiness and the loneliness, realizing how amazing it would be for all literary translations to have the source language next to the translated text.

Titles reviewed this week:

A Boy and A House by Maja Kastelic

Permission by Saskia Vogel

My Cat Looks Like My Dad by Thao Lam

A Boy and A House – Kastelic

This recent North American edition of Kastelic’s Slovenian original is a visual treat.

The “plot” of this title is basic: An unnamed boy roams the city, happens upon a feline guide, enters a mysterious old house.

The detail of each page, however, is the opposite of basic. One could look through the pages many times and still not catch all of the minute elements that make this book so captivating.

On first glance, it appears that this is a story without words. Looking more closely at this richly illustrated title, it appears that words are everywhere, written on walls, alleys, pieces of paper posted here and there. Words surround the boy and accompany him on his journey. In one example, there is this charming note of guidance:

Manifesto!

1. Look at the stars!

2. And again!

3.

4. Always

5. Forever

This title is perfect for young readers who enjoy studying detail and reading a story multiple times. Adults will enjoy pondering the outcome of the boy’s journey.

Thank you to Annick Press and NetGalley for providing a copy of this book to review.

A Boy and A House – Maja Kastelic

Children’s Fiction – Annick Press – Publication Date: September 11, 2018

Permission – Vogel

A recent episode of Radiolab discussed the connections between the notion of consent and the systems in place to protect participants in the BDSM community. It was clear that, in many cases, proponents of BDSM often have rigid guidelines to ensure consent is established prior to any activity between two people.

It was also unfortunately clear, from firsthand accounts described in the podcast, that these systems can sometimes malfunction. As Saskia Vogel states in her debut novel, Permission,

We might play at power, exploring roles not yet available to us outside these four walls, but for the space to be sacral, it had to be held sacred by us all.

This perceptive reflection from the narrator of the novel has far-reaching implications, certainly beyond the walls of BDSM and even beyond sex itself.

In many ways, it seems as though the understanding and awareness of fantasy and desire on one hand and reconciling our sexuality with the reality of our lives on the other can lead to a more effective system of advocating – and therefore consenting – for ourselves.

Vogel has explained that she turned to literature after her time working as a reporter for a porn industry magazine, suggesting, however, that she continues to explore many of the same questions about discovery, awareness, and acceptance in her current work.

In a lecture about the porn festival, Viva Erotica, Vogel recalls trying to find a way to get audiences to “look at porn as part of, and not separate from, popular culture and the art of cinema.” This project is apparent in Permission. The prose of this novel asks and then demonstrates how the elements of erotica and literary fiction can merge, overlap, intertwine. In many ways, the composition of this novel mirrors life itself.

Reflecting on one’s own sexuality and sexual history in the wake of #MeToo can often be deeply connected to all of the complexities of one’s life and identity. Using the character of Echo, Vogel has the perfect opportunity to explore these connections.

In the novel, Echo is navigating three aspects of her life: a recent family tragedy, complex memories from her adolescence connected to her sexual identity, and the conflicted past and precarious present she has with the entertainment industry. As she confronts each of these facets, she is drawn into the world of her family’s neighbor, Orly, who helps Echo discover herself and reflect on her experiences.

In writing this novel, Vogel has drawn comparisons to Joan Didion. While a comparison to Didion’s writing may be a bit overblown, there is definitely some truth to a thematic link between the two. Like Didion, Vogel locates danger and tragedy in the Californian landscape. There are movie stars and glamorous lifestyles, but there are also jagged cliffs, the impending doom of the San Andreas fault, and disappearances in the Los Angeles canyons. Echo is “forever waiting for tragedy.”

When discussing landscape, the idea of distance is never far off. In Los Angeles, distance is everything. For Echo, the distance between her parents’ home in the canyons and her downtown apartment is vast, though only a car ride away. Even the short distance between neighbors’ homes is prohibitive. It is possible to never meet the person living right next to you.

In Permission, Echo learns that in order to understand herself and cultivate intimacy, she must be willing to eradicate the distance between two bodies, to truly “merge,” as she recalls at one point. In a strikingly surreal sex scene, the physical borders of the body are ripped away; two bodies completely engulf each other.

For a novel that is this brief, there are some odd preoccupations: In one case, Echo repeatedly thinks about the pre-made deli counter food that she eats directly from the containers in her mother’s fridge. Various pre-made salads are given more attention than necessary. The narrator regularly reflects on her mother’s German identity, frequently mentioning her pronunciation of words and desire to move back to “the continent”. While these traits of her mother could provide some valuable insight into the depths of this character, they are not delved into deeply enough for them to be clearly relevant to the story.

In some areas, descriptions venture towards eye-roll territory: “My sheets did not yet smell like sorrow,” or “Alongside my orgasm, sorrow and fear coursed through me.” In general, however, Vogel’s ability to think about the erotic as a legitimate literary technique is encouraging and commendable.

This novel will make a huge impact on the way we consider genre in literature, and it will certainly provide a significant contribution to discussions of sexual identity, desire, acceptance, and consent.

Thank you to Coach House Books and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Permission – Saskia Vogel

Coach House Books – Literary Fiction – Release Date: 9 April, 2019

My Cat Looks Like My Dad – Lam

This children’s book is going to charm and surprise both children and adults!

The text and the illustrations are hilarious, while the message of the book has far-reaching implications for discussions of family and love.

The dad, a Napoleon Dynamite lookalike, in addition to his striking similarity to the cat’s appearance, is also shown partaking in many of the same activities as the cat, from drinking milk to taking naps.

The first read of this book is enlightening in terms of its content, but it truly deserves many successive reads, simply to revel in the detail of the illustrations and the variety of mediums Lam has used in crafting these amusing and colorful scenes.

Anticipate some thoughtful discussions after finishing this book with children.

Thank you to Owlkids Books and NetGalley for the advance readers copy of this title.

My Cat Looks Like My Dad – Written and illustrated by Thao Lam

Owlkids Books – Children’s Fiction – Release date: 15 April 2019

Sprout, Seed, Sprout! – Dunklee.Sookocheff

Sprout, Seed, Sprout! will completely fill you with delight. Fitting somewhere between a how-to guide for sprouting a seed, and a precious reflection on patience and perseverance, this book is perfect for growing minds.

Dunklee’s simple and decisive language is ideal for very young children, while older readers can notice fun details, such as the progression in age of both the protagonist and his plant!

Sookocheff’s illustrations are likewise straightforward, and the use of soft colors and easily-recognizable imagery is appealing to all readers.

Thank you to Owlkids Books and NetGalley for the advance readers copy of this title.

Sprout, Seed, Sprout! –Written by Annika Dunklee, Illustrated by Carey Sookocheff

Owlkids Books – Children’s Fiction – Release date: 15 March 2019

Operatic – Maclear.Eggenschwiler

The definition of bullying in many school boards follows this sort of formula: In order to qualify as bullying, there must be some sort of power dynamic – or “imbalance” – at play, and the bully is the one holding that power over the head of the bullied.

But, as many teachers and young adults can ask, what if the bullying is more of an overall feeling, a general tendency to universally dismiss or scoff at the bullied individual? How do you send the entire school to the office?

Operatic, a gorgeous and thoughtful new graphic novel from Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, explores the aftermath of this bullying, documenting the absence of the universally shunned. Meanwhile, the novel thoughtfully portrays the musical epiphany and blossoming self-awareness of the protagonist, eighth-grade Charlie, in a refreshingly authentic way.

From the start of this brief graphic novel, it is clear that the illustrations are the real strength of the piece. Later in the novel, two frames follow Charlie and the beautiful, quiet, beekeeping Emile as they walk through the city, their surroundings transforming into visual representations of city sound: music, vibration, horns, passing cars. These sounds grow into what appears to be a garden, forming and following them as they move together.

The characters are complex. There is Mr. Kerner (Mr K), for example, the inspirational teacher archetype who, while pushing the students to think beyond their immediate experiences and providing them with creative learning opportunities, is also woefully unprepared for the classroom bullying that ensues. His comments of “quit it” and “go to the office” clearly do nothing to prevent the tender, whimsical, and surprisingly bold Luka from disappearing from school. Mr K. assigns an inspirational music project, he plays songs he wrote in his youth (*cringe*), but Luka’s desk remains unoccupied. The days go on, the class becomes empowered by tales of Patti Smith, but Luka is still missing.

Sometimes, the trend-based dialogue (“OMG post it!”; “You slay”) is too specific for a graphic novel that hopes to reach a wide variety of young readers, but the instances are infrequent and not excessively distracting.

Another small disappointment was the lack of detail involved in narrating Charlie’s discovery of Maria Callas. Much of this short graphic novel delves into a Wikipedia-esque summary of the life of Callas, while what the young adult reader likely wants is to experience Callas through the eyes of Charlie. The illustrations come to the rescue here, as Eggenschwiler cleverly portrays Charlie and Callas as mirror images of each other at points throughout the novel. Charlie and Callas looking out the same window, Charlie playing Callas’s character on stage, etc.

Opera and middle school may seem worlds apart. As Operatic demonstrates, however, the melodrama, passion, and universality of both connect these two in deep ways.

Middle school libraries should display this book in plain sight.

Operatic – Written by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler

Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press

Young adult graphic novel – Release date: April 2, 2019

Thank you to Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press and NetGalley for the advanced reader copy of this graphic novel.