Friday, September 29, 2006

Grist by Heather Waldorf

Just finished Grist by Heather Waldorf on my daughter’s recommendation. I haven’t been reading as diligently lately what with work, helping my daughter move out of her apartment in preparation for a year in Australia, and some incredible weather. And did I mention that I have been carrying furniture and boxes up and down three flights of stairs! Meaning, that I fall into bed at night and re-read the same page of the same book over and over; although it must be said that this has everything to do with the above mentioned three flights of stairs and the large quantity of books my daughter owns and nothing to do with the quality of the writing, which in the case of Heather Waldorf, is very good. And, for any Canadian publishers reading this, the cover is so savy and cool and appealing..come on Canadian YA publishers it's possible to do cool covers!

Grist is one of those coming of age stories that ring true. Charlie, the sixteen year old narrator is a keep-your-head-down sort of girl who takes pains not to stand out, especially now that her best friend Sam has moved to Australia. The one place where she does let herself shine is in creative writing. Charlie is a wanna-be writer, and her eccentric English teacher has given her loads of encouragement; that is, up until now. On the last day of school, he calls her into his office to give her a chance to rewrite her last assignment. For Charlie, who has not been doing a very good job of handling her best friend’s absence, nor her father’s new girl-friend and her triplet sons, it is the last straw.

Of course, things only get worse. Her teacher has a sudden heart attack and her father announces that he’ll be working in Toronto for the summer and his new girl friend is joining him. Charlie is welcome to come along, or she can visit her grandmother who lives on a live in the middle of nowhere. A summer at the lake where her long deceased mother grew up sounds only slightly more appealing to Charlie who leans toward being a couch potato. She learns to paddle a canoe, and helps paint her grandmother’s house, they are nothing compared to the fireworks when she kisses Kerry, the hot boy her grandmother warns her about.

At first Charlie manages to keep those “snap, crackle, pop” kissing sessions a secret, but eventually, her grandmother catches them in the act, and that’s when the fireworks really start. Sound predictable? Well it isn’t, but I can’t reveal Waldorf’s twist. You’ll just have to read it to find out. But let me start you off with the novel’s opening passage.

“It was a sticky, last-day-of-school afternoon. The halls of Springdale High were ripe with sweaty bodies, old lunch wrappers and the anticipation of summer.”

Talk about creating a scene. You can smell the place, including a whole high school population’s desire to fly through those double doors to get out into summer. Now, you’ll just have to do the rest on your own.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Baabaasheep Quartet by Leslie Elizabeth Watts

The Baabaasheep Quartet by Leslie Elizabeth Watts is nothing short of delightful, not to mention down right hilarious.

Imagine four friends moving to the city and leaving small town life behind. Decorating a new apartment, trips to the opera and fancy restaurants are all exciting at first, but, the four find they never quite fit in. Of course, it doesn’t help that they are sheep. So, they decide that getting jobs is just the ticket. Lloyd’s Lawn care seemed like a natural, but oops…they clipped more than the grass a little too short. Yumm...tulips! They try knitting sweaters for babies at the hospital, but the hospital isn’t expecting any babies with four legs! The discouraged friends get caught in a downpour, but one of them sees a poster that pique’s his interest. Bits of the poster are missing, but it appears that it is an advert for a Baabaasheep Quartet. Not only will they be able to meet other sheep in the city, but the poster promises “Great big prizes!!!”

The four can hardly believe their luck and set to practice their singing immediately. They are determined to make a good impression. They are determined to fit in. They sing in the shower, on the balcony, and even on the phone to their friends back home. When the big day arrives, they dress in their fanciest clothes and head off to concert hall only to discover that the contest is for Barbershop Quartets, not Baabaasheep Quartets. What a terrible mistake…or is it?

In the end, Watts won’t leave you in any doubt. You’ll gobble up The Baabasheep Quartet as fast as a sheep can mow down a grassy lawn…or polish off a bed of tulips!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ben Overnight by Sarah Ellis

Whether movies or books, sequels are often just not as good as the first time around. Nothing could be farther from true with Sarah Ellis’ Ben books. Big Ben was perfect, and so is Ben Overnight. Ellis has a way of honing in on the things that are most important to kids, the things that are important to them like being a pirate or “lighter than air.” She seems to be able to crawl inside both the kid and parent psyche, and she cuts to the chase with such creative flair that you can’t help but love her books. “The one thing that Ben can’t be at Peter’s [Ben’s best friend] is a sleepover-nighter.” Who else could sum up the issue at the core of a book while being creative; and all in a single line? But Ellis’ books are filled with these well crafted gems. Jumping on a bed is referred to as “…defy[ing] gravity.”

Ben does give a sleep-over at his friend’s another chance. While lying in bed that night he thinks about all the fast ways he could get back home if he needed to. He could be “Marathon Ben…Racecar Ben…[or even] Bird Ben.” Instead, he yawns and falls asleep. He is “Snooze-Boy Ben dreaming himself home.”

Of course Kim Lafave’s illustrations are the perfect match for Ellis, and with dozens of awards and countless books (four of them mine) under his illustrative belt Lafave knows how to bring a character to life. One can only hope that the two will be paired for many many more Ben books to come.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Diane Swanson

Last night we had our first Children's Literature Roundtable meeting for the 06-07 season. Check out the link for info about Canadian Children's Literature Roundtables for any who don't know about them. Our speaker was Diane Swanson. She was so fabulous. Her talk was entitled Toenails and Tunnels That Get Kids Reading and I can't tell you how engaging she was.

Her volunteers were asked to act the part of flatworms all in the name of science and I can say that the teacher and the libarian who were quasi volunteers did a superb job! Later, Swanson had a writer from the audience take on the role of a sibling with a bone to pick and four boxes of chocolate and a few rubber insects, Swanson demonstrated how statistics can be manipulated. Swanson is in fact, a master at getting kids (and adults) to think critically about bogus science. But Swanson's real joy is in getting young people to share her sense of wonder in the world around us. For example, she a student helicopter her arms as pretend wings as fast as she could before Swanson explained that she wasn't coming close to keeping up with a hummingbird whose wings beat 40 times per second, so fast, that they could, in fact, even fly upside down for several seconds. It's no wonder they need to eat 60 times a day! Swanson explained how to hush a room full of people with a mere penny (not with magic, but with science) and how to create the atmosphere of a tunnel with nothing but chopsticks, kids, and a blindfold. And, she made toenail clippings seem like the most interesting thing on the planet.

With 66 books and over 400 magazine articles to her credit, it's no wonder Swanson is a sought after speaker. The real reason though has to lie in her passion for science. It shines through bright and clear, and both kids and adults can't help but be inspired. So, run, don't walk to a bookstore near you to buy one of her engaging books, some of which include: A Crash of Rinos,A Party of Jays, Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain, Burp! and The Wonder in Water. And for you teachers out there, consider having her do an author visit. You won't regret it, and neither will your kids. I guarantee it. Her newest title is pure fabulous. Buy it, you'll love.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Baby Grizzly by AubreyLang and Wayne Lynch

Baby Grizzly by Aubrey Lang and Wayne Lynch is one of more than a dozen in a primary animal information series put out by Fitzhenry & Whiteside. The simple informative text is paired with fabulous photos by Lynch, whose work has appeared in numerous magazines such as Canadian Geographic and Owl. My favorite is a close-up of razor sharp grizzly claws, although a shot of two grizzly cubs at play in the snow is a close second. The table of contents, “Did You Know?” facts and an excellent index contribute to the quality. Baby Grizzly, is a must for any school or public library.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Maude Barlow and Joseph Boyden

Back again. No I haven't been lazy, just away working. Taught a Writing for Kids workshop in Whistler, BC, and did school readings. I had the most wonderful time. I love going into schools to read/talk to kids about books; not just my books, but about books in general. The teacher in me misses all those shiny faces, although not some of the headaches that go along with today's classrooms.

My course was in conjunction with the Whistler Writer's Festival. One of the things I loved about the Festival, and about writer's festivals in general, is the opportunity to hear and meet other writers. Maude Barlow read one of the evenings. What a powerhouse she is; so articulate, and so compelling. She is the National Chair of The Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest citizen’s advocacy organization, and has been a social activist for years. She is also the founder of The Blue Planet Project, which is dedicated to stop the commodification of the world's water. She was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. If you ever get a chance to hear her speak, don't pass it up. But, if you don't get the opportunity, definately read one of her many books; especially Blue Gold: the Battle Against Corportate Theft of World's Water.

I als
o had the pleasure of hearing Joseph Boyden read from and speak about his new book, Three Day Road. I bought the book but have not yet finished it. For those who are feint of heart, please note that Three Day Road is not light reading. Told mainly through flashbacks, Boyden juxtaposes the experiences of two Cree World War I sharp shooters, Xavier and Elijah, with Niska's story of escape from the horrors of Residential School. The title refers to the three day paddle by canoe that Niska and Xavier undertake to get back home from where the train has dropped off the injured and near death veteran. Sadly, it is a journey that Elijah will never be able to make.

I think one of the things I have liked most about this story so far, and it's true that I'm not yet finished, is the implicit message of the healing power of story and of the land that are at the core of this most elequent of novels. And, as far as I can see, reading it is most definately a journey worth taking.

A kids' book review is coming next. I promise.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Water Hole by Graeme Base

Last night I asked my daughter to bring me home a few books from the bookstore where she works to add to my collection. One of the books she brought me was The Water Hole by Graeme Base, who also happens to have written one of my all time favourites, Animalia. Although The Water Hole isn’t new (published in 2001 by Puffin), like all of his other books, it is pure genius.

The story is a simple one, about various animals which come to water hole to drink. As the book progresses, the hole, which is a cut out in the page and looks like a progressively smaller series of ripples in the water, gradually shrinks until it finally disappears. Of course the wasteland that is left is no place for animals, and they too disappear. But, Base knows the importance of leaving young readers with a positive message. A shadow that falls across the sun is caused by a cloud. From that cloud, a single drop of rain falls eventually replenishing the water hole and signaling the return of the animals.

There are many wonderful parts to this book. The illustrations are rich and lush, and evocative and filled with detail. The author/illustrator has chosen to use each illustration to depict a different ecosystem with the common thread being the water hole. Thus, young readers see the animals and plants dependent upon water holes in Africa, India, China, and Australia to name a few. By doing widening the breadth of his subject, he has created a world rather than regional focus, and drawn our attention to the importance of a balanced ecosystem.

The Water Hole not just a beautiful art book, or an ecology book for the young, although it is each of those. Base’s real talent lay in his ability to fuse the afore-mentioned elements with a counting book and puzzle book to create something uniquely wonderful. Children will return again and again to the lush illustrations to search for hidden animals, as well as to the sepia and black panels that line the top and bottom of each page.. Kids will never tire of it, nor will adults.

Each time I open one of Graeme Base’s books, I wonder why more authors and illustrators of children’s books aren’t following his creative lead.

Friday, September 08, 2006

We All Fall Down by Eric Walters

Before I tell you about Eric Walter's book, I have to comment on the most amazing exhibit. I came over to Vancouver yesterday to see the Vancouver Art Gallery's Haida art exhibit which will only be here for another week. It was a wonderful combination of historical and contemporary work culled from various exhibits and private collections around the world. Some of the pieces I had seen before but many were new to me. The focus was on Raven, an important and recurring theme in Haida art. There were masks, jewelry, large and small carvings, bent boxes, and smaller totem poles as well as a dugout canoe and seven paddles carved by young artists currently being mentored. I particularly enjoyed the last room which was contemporary. I loved Robert Davidson's more modern work that has tended toward abstract but with clear ties to Haida. There was also some wonderful clothing with bold Haida influence gracing thick folds of black draping wool fabric. Another contemporary piece I enjoyed was a large hanging series of prints that told a sort of picture story; except that each picture was a provacative blend of cartoon and Haida art. It was stunning, and had also been created in book form; rather like a comic book if that makes any sense. An added treat included watching Reg Davidson carve. He is a master carver, and although I have never met him, I have two of his early numbered prints.

But, on to Eric Walter's book. As I mentioned in my last post, I have had We All Fall Down as an advance copy for some time, I think since last January. But, because of it's 9/11 subject, I have been reluctant to pick it up. With that time of the year rolling around again, I have found myself thinking about the whole question again, and about how it has truly changed the way we look at things; at least here in North America. Walter's wisely stays largely away from preaching, although he does sometimes border on it. What he does do is personalize a terrible and dark day in our collective history.

Will, the main character in Walter's story, is your average 14 year old kid, with girls, sports, and music on the brain. He is resentful that his father is always working, but other things occupy him; until a school-based job shadow forces him to drag his butt out of bed early one morning and accompany his father on the train to the Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan where his father works as a trader. Of course Will would rather go on a more exiting job shadow, like his friend who is going to a firehall where his dad is a firefighter, or that hot new girl whose brother works for MTV.

All that changes though, when Will catches a glimpse of a distant airplane. Moments later, a loud crash shakes the World Trade Center buildings and it's occupants. It changes everything, Will's relationship with his father, the face of Manhattan, and history. The timespan in this novel is short, a mere two days. There is no shortage of drama though. The way Walter's describes the bank of trader televisions switching from stock market news to a plane crashing into the World Trade Centre is chilling. The scene where Will witnesses two people falling or jumping to their deaths is equally chilling, and one I recall watching in horror on television along with millions of others around the world. It is a scene I would rather forget along with the scene of a second plane crashing through glass and steel. Walters gives the sense that Will, his father, and his father's co-workers are all watching too, only they are inside. He gives a sense of their horror, their confusion and helplessness, and finally of the bravery and resolve some of which we learned of later, some of which we will never know. Will and his father's climb down the stairs toward the floors where the plane crashed rather than away from it, is gripping. Their rescue of Ting, an injured woman who must be carried down 78 flights of stairs is not without drama either. Just when we think that all is well, the building collapses. This too is a mirror of what happened on that terrible day. While Will, his father, and Ting survive, there were so many who did not.

Whatever your politics, 9/11 is one of those days that won't easily be forgotten. Walter's We All Fall Down is a window into a shocking day a young generation of young readers will now have the opportunity to learn about. One can only hope that they never have to live through a similar event.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Password: Murder by Norah McClintock

Arg! Lost my post just as I was finishing writing it because my internet connection went down and I hadn't saved!

The gist was yet another apology for being too busy to read, much less review. It's all about work though, so no slacking off here in sunny Victoria. I did, however, finish Norah McClintock's Password: Murder, which is a great read and a must for wanna-be writers not to mention those of us already in the bus. Great dialogue, not just crisp but helps move the action forward. One of the things I like best about McClintock though is the internal dialogue isn't contrived the way it often is in mysteries. Oh and I love the way she breaks rules. Man I will definately be reading more of her.

With the anniversary of 9/11 in mind, I'm about to start Eric Walter's We All Fall Down. Walters has a way of grabbing you that has made me put this one off for a while. It's just one of those random terrible events that I'd rather not think aobut, but I'll give it a go. This guy is incredibly prolific. I wish I had his output but I think I'm too ADD to stick to one thing; I'm all about bouncing from the computer to the garden to the laundry back to the computer, off for a snack, and then I may get distracted by buying paint for my bedroom, which by the way is now a beautiful golden yellow and much improved from the lime green it was when it was my teenage daughter's room. Don't expect anything for a few days though. I'm busy with preparing for a writing workshop I'll be giving next week then have friends visiting from Ontario for a few days. Until next time...