Trail of Crumbs – Lawrence

Years ago, as a newly minted teacher, I was tasked with preparing a reading list for an after-school novel reading class comprised of seventh and eighth grade boys. While discussing the draft of my list with a friend (an author of young adult novels), I expressed my concern that the boys in the class wouldn’t identify with the female protagonist of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. My friend reminded me that, as females, we have spent years of our education reading books featuring male characters and male protagonists. It is absurd, she argued, to consider a different standard for a class of boys. What harm could it do them to see a situation from a female perspective–especially one of sexual violence and bullying, as presented in Speak. I immediately agreed, and I think of this moment often, as both a teacher and a reader.

Trail of Crumbs, which I’ve come to think of as an updated version of Speak, gives the protagonist significantly more agency and power over her relationship to the trauma she has experienced. It is not a story about how the truth is pulled out of her. Rather, Greta continuously speaks up for herself, and it is up to those around her to listen to her and believe her. The focal point is not whether she’ll speak up for herself, but whether she will be heard.

Lisa J. Lawrence, a teacher as well as a writer, captures these tense high school moments accurately and beautifully. There is so much nuance and thoughtful dialogue surrounding the discussions of assault and consent. Sometimes, Greta’s thoughts and interactions with her peers read as though they were lifted directly from articles from the frontlines of #MeToo. Lawrence never lets her novel become merely an educational pamphlet, however. The strength of this work is that the conversations seem natural between these teens. These are conversations that young people should be having and likely do have.

While Greta deals with fallout from the unbelievable cruelty of her peers and abandonment by her father, she seeks support and guidance from a troupe of eccentric but benevolent male characters: her emotionally haywire brother, Ash; their reclusive guardian, Elgin; and their goofy neighbor, Nate. These men support but do not shelter Greta. It is Greta’s actions and Greta’s decisions that allow her to confront those who need to be confronted.

Most importantly, Lawrence has put a disclaimer at the end of her novel: She writes that the choice Greta makes to confront her assailant is not the choice everyone should make. Every case of assault is different, and no one should feel pressured to follow any particular process. Yet again, Lawrence is extremely nuanced and sensitive in her approach to these complex and current issues.

School librarians should welcome this new addition to Canadian young adult literature, and teachers of middle and high school students should absolutely consider including Trail of Crumbs in their lesson plans.

Thank you to Orca Book Publishers and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Trail of Crumbs by Lisa J. Lawrence

Young adult literature – Orca Book Publishers – Publication date 26 March 2019

Spring Children’s Books

It is definitely not spring yet here in central Ontario, but on our recent trip out west it was full-blown flower-blooming, sunburning, green-grass spring. Since I read mostly children’s books while visiting this warm planet, I think it’s appropriate to include them all in the following spring children’s book list. Enjoy!

Love You Head to Toe – Barron

Ashley Barron’s Love you Head to Toe, written in the second person, addresses a “Baby” (indeed many different babies, as the dynamic and colorful illustrations reveal), who are going about their daily baby activities. On each page, the narrator compares the baby to a particular animal. This title is perfect for toddlers and babies who are in a mimicking stage, and will prompt some fun games in animal sounds and actions.

Publication date: 15 March, 2019

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

My Island – Demasse-Pottier and Ratanavanh

In My Island, the illustrations of Seng Soun Ratanavanh definitely take center stage. Oversize animals abound, and the surreal, imaginative creations could stand alone. Demasse-Pottier’s text is thoughtful, but one expects more profundity to accompany such illustrations. Children will enjoy the daydream-like quality of this title, and spend time considering some of the unanswered questions prompted by the fanciful characters.

Publication date: 2 April, 2019

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

Otto and Pio – Dubuc

Like Marianne Dubuc’s other books, Otto and Pio is translated from French (originally published in 2016 as Je Ne Suis Pas Ta Maman). Otto and Pio takes place in a very Dubuc-style setting, a squirrel’s apartment in “a very old tree, bigger than all the others”. The plot feels very familiar, but surprises and specifics in the text make this story singular (like when Otto the squirrel, burdened and agitated by the presence of the otherworldly Pio, finally resorts to “Do you want a hazelnut before bed?”). As usual, Dubuc’s illustrations stand out as both remarkably unique in their hilarious detail and expository in their own right.

Publication date: 19 March, 2019

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

Wish – Saunders

Chris Saunder’s Wish is rich with lessons on sharing, selflessness, planning, and decision-making, among others. Rabbit, the main character, has a big decision to make, and proceeds to consult each one of his friends before ultimately choosing. The book’s illustrations are stunning (one spread shows Rabbit soaring above mountains draped in clouds in a hot air balloon), and they are the strength of this title. Occasionally, the rhyming feels awkward when read aloud (“Rabbit had never caught a wish before/he could not decide what to wish for”), but the message of this book stands out and will appeal to many ages.

Publication date: 12 March, 2019

Thank you to Quarto Publishing Group and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

You are Never Alone – Kelsey and Kim

In a world where children are shuttled from home to daycare to school to indoor play areas, the scientific and social aims of this title (described by the author in her afterword) are inspirational and enormously helpful: She wanted to “look every kid in the eye” and tell them that they were surrounded by the gifts of nature and, therefore, could never be truly alone. Soyeon Kim’s illustrations are artistically significant and noteworthy in the variety of media used and their beautiful, whimsical quality. That said, while they do accompany the text in the most basic of ways, they often stand entirely independent and at times seem irrelevant. A scientifically-inclined title does not need illustrations of textbook precision, but one thinks that children would find it more educational to be presented with a less abstract representation of the book’s message.

Publication date: 15 April, 2019

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

Reading This Week

“Search for the New Land” by Morgan Parker, in the Feb 21 issue of The New York Review of Books – This poem moved me so much that I went to a bookstore within the hour and bought Parker’s poetry collection, “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce.”

Discovering Words by Neepin Auger – This is a wonderful picture book for very young children (approx. 0-2). There is one illustration per page, and each illustration is described in English, French, and Cree. This is a must-have book for children living in Canada.

Trail of Crumbs by Lisa J. Lawrence

Continuing my read of Vice, Crime, and Poverty by Dominique Kalifa – This book prompted me to read the entire Wikipedia article on the Black Death. Yikes.

Reviews from this week:

Anna at the Art Museum by Hazel Hutchins

Diana Dances by Luciano Lozano 

The Learning Curve by Mandy Berman

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

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.