Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Different Kind of Beauty by Sylvia McNicoll

Not many posts lately as I have spent so much time touring. Aside from judging a writing contest for the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, hosting our speaker for the last Children’s Literature Roundtable meeting of the year, and, of course, writing, I am not busy. Can’t even garden since everything is covered in at least a foot of snow; yes this is the West Coast! So, I hope to catch up on my reading and book blogging..

I did manage to read Sylvia McNicoll’s A Different Kind of Beauty but haven’t had time to write about it until now. It is apparently a sequel to Bringing Up Beauty, which was published in 1999 and won both the Manitoba and Ontario’s Readers’ Choice Awards.

A Different Kind of Beauty has two narrators. The story begins with Liz who is fostering a lab for the Lions Foundation who trains dogs for the visually impaired. Beauty is the second dog that Liz’s has fostered and this time she is determined not to have her heart broken when it’s time to give the dog up. The turmoil of a pregnant older sister who has moved back home to get away from her abusive fiancĂ©, and an ex-boyfriend who sends mixed messages melt her resolve to keep Beauty at arm’s length. When Beauty turns out to be terrified of sudden loud noises, Liz can’t hold back. She has to give Beauty her all even if it means breaking her heart again.

Kyle is the second narrator, and his story begins in Hawaii where surf, sand and are a teenager’s dream come true. The dream is a far cry from reality though as this visit is about Kyle’s grandmother teaching him how to better control his diabetes. Unfortunately, it is also the beginning of one of the devastating symptoms of diabetes; blindness. Kyle does not adjust well to his new situation made worse when his girlfriend back home dumps him. Terrified of dogs, he resents his dependency on his family who would rather he got a guide dog. Arrogance combined with using his blindness to ‘get girls’ and buy alcohol are balanced by a vulnerability that is heart-breaking as when Kyle is abandoned by high school acquaintances in the bathroom of the mall. He takes risks as most teenagers do; but for a blind teenager with diabetes those risks can and nearly are fatal.

Kyle and Liz cross paths on several occasions, but it takes loss and Beauty to bridge their differences. McNicoll skillfully weaves their tales together without being predictable. I liked the fact that there were no pat solutions, only real characters with real lives that involved real problems. Secondary characters were just as well developed and believable. I haven’t’ read McNicoll’s earlier book, but I’ll definitely put it on my list.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Toad Rage by Morris Gleitzman

Imagine that all you want is a nice crunchy meal of grasshoppers with maybe a few bull ants for desert. Now imagine having your friends and relatives flattened like placemats while trying to get it. This is the risk that Limpy and his cane toad family and friends face each time they go down to the road for a meal. The lights attract insects, and every cane toad knows that this is the best place for breakfast, lunch, dinner not to mention yummy midnight snacks. Limpy, our cane toad hero with a gimp leg and loveable warts asks why is it that humans go out of their way to flatten them. Can humans be made to understand that even cane toads are nice…well toads? Toad Rage by Morris Gleitzman is the story of one cane toad’s quest to understand why people hate cane toads and to try to change their mind. The adventures he takes are mythic (well at least mythic by toad standards) as well as hilarious. I loved the way that Gleitzman, a prolific down-under Aussie, throws in all sorts of toad science. 8-10 year old boys are sure to be impressed by some of the grosser factoids that Gleitzman builds into the story-line while the less feint of stomach will surely be swept up by the fast pace Odyssey like plot. And for real keeners, Toad Heaven is also available.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Secret of the Dance by Andrea Spalding and Judge Alfred Scow

Picture a man whose life’s work has been to uphold the law. Picture that same man with a childhood secret that could have sent his family to jail. Now picture Canada in 1935 when Aboriginal cultural practices like the Potlatch were forbidden. Award-winning children’s author Andrea Spalding and Judge Alfred Scow, a Kwakwa’ka’wakw Nations elder have teamed up to tell a story based on the judge’s childhood, Secret of the Dance. It is beautifully illustrated by Darlene Gait whose blend of high realism and native motifs enrich every page.

“Many years ago, when the world and I were younger, my family defied the government.” begins Judge Scow’s story. The narrator, Watl’kina tells us that in 1935, an Indian Agent (government representative) warned his parents that the Potlatch and the dancing that were a part of a Potlatch ceremony were illegal. Watl’kina’s family knew that the Potlatch was an essential part of their cultural identity. They used a fishing trip to disguise a visit to family in a nearby village hosting a Potlatch. They were careful to keep the reason for their visit secret even from their children. Their attendance at a Potlatch ceremony could result in the adult members of the family being jailed and their children being taken away. As the oldest child, Watl’kina was charged with looking after his younger siblings while his parents attended the village long house. But, the drums from the long house called him and Watl’kina could not resist. He crept through the night to the long house where he witnessed not only the unforgettable ceremony, but a familiar figure dancing. It was his father.

The great joy in reading quality picture books lay in the many levels that they can be read at. Secret of the Dance definately resides in this quality picture book category. A young child could simply enjoy the adventure of a trip and sneaking out at night to witness something special but forbidden, while the more experienced reader will understand the historical and cutural importance of bearing witness and yet having to hide that knowlege. Furthermore, First Nations readers can take tremendous pride in being part of a cuture able to withstand repeated and often times brutal attemps to destroy it.

While Secret of the Dance is fictional, the danger of being caught at a Potlatch would have been all too real. It created a blanket of silence during Judge Scow’s childhood and a climate of secrecy. Secret of the Dance is another step in throwing off the blanket of silence over a shameful chapter in our history, and one that nearly destroyed the rich cultural heritage of Coastal First Nations. Healing can only happen when a wound is exposed and treated. Stories like Judge Scow’s are a long needed medicine for wounds too long covered up. It is a compelling story that brings recent history to life.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Pump by Sharon Jennings

Pump! by Sharon Jennings

RL grade 2.2, IL grades 3-10 ISBN 1-897039-19-0

High interest, low vocabulary books are hardly new, but publishers of high/low books have recently been attracting at lot more attention. While there has always been a need for high/low books, the demand seems to be increasing. Fortunately truly talented writers are beginning to turn their attention to this special class of books. Sharon Jennings best known for her wonderful picture books like Into My Mother's Arms is one such author. Pump is an example of a high-low title with enormous appeal for intermediate boys who may be reluctant to pick up a book.

Pump! cover

Jennings grabs readers from the first sentence. “So how did I get into this life or death mess? I guess it started the day I skipped school.” Jennings’s protagonist isn’t a bad kid, but he is a real kid, and as everyone knows―including kids, real kids get into trouble. Pat is a skateboarder, and not very popular with some of his neighbours who would rather never hear the THUNK of a skateboard again. Building a ramp makes matters even worse. But, when the police are called in, Pat gets a surprise. That isn’t the only surprise that Jennings has in store for her readers though. Will Pat be able rally enough support to lobby city council for a skateboard park? Will he be able convince his mother to let him board again even if he does? Pump has the boarding moves, the lingo, and the perfect pacing to take readers on a skateboard ride with plenty of “air.” In fact, parents and teachers would do well to check out other titles from High Interest Publishing.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Back after yet another tour. I can just about count the number of days I've been home this fall on one hand...which has meant that I have been mostly too busy to read. Well, not entirely, but airplanes tend to bring out the worst in my reading choices. I've read more than a few murder mysteries and 'who done its'. One book that I did read which is a must for parents and educators despite it's grim content is We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It is probably one of the most disturbing books that I have read for quite some time as it's about the recent phenomena of school killings. Told from the point of view of the mother of a fictional high school sociopath, it is frighteningly real; almost documentary in style. Each entry is a letter written by Kevin's mother, Eva Khatchadourian to her husband. Eva's letters are a way for her to try to understand what went wrong with their son. The reader is privey to the most intimate of questions that she asks about herself and her relationships with her son, and her husband. She does not spare herself consequently, the reader is not spared either. The entire book sent shivers up my spine in part because Shriver does not shy away from the pain, anguish and inevitable guilt that must result from raising a child who turns out to be a killer. Eva's letters to her husband are stark, honest and gut wrenching. The twist at the end was heart wrenching. While it is not an easy read, I would highly recommend it.