Showing posts with label children's books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children's books. Show all posts


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #29

It's TIHATL, Summer Reading Club edition!

Summer Reading Club is in full swing in Canadian libraries. In more than 2,100 libraries around Canada, kids are earning prizes and recognition for reading. Thanks to Toronto Public Library and a certain sponsoring bank, we all have lots of free stuff to give away.

The most popular kids' series ever,
still going strong after almost 15 years.
Our motives are simple: kids who read during the summer do better in school in September. SRC also helps remind parents of pre-readers to read with their little ones daily.

Our children's library is very busy. The first day of SRC, we signed up 180 kids! After two weeks, we're well over 600 participants. When kids register, or when they come in to "report" and collect prizes, it's a great time for some one-on-one conversations with our young customers. Some won't say one word without their parents' prompting, but others are so forthright and articulate! It's really a pleasure chatting with them. What have I heard?

"My favourite books are the ones where things happen, and you know, you don't know what's going to happen, and you think things won't happen, and then they do happen!"

"I love reading about space, and planets, and the universe. I'm going to be an astronaut and go to Mars -- when I'm six!" This boy was amazing. At not yet six years old, he knew so much about astronomy! And he wasn't just regurgitating facts without engaging, as you sometimes see with kids who are on the autism spectrum. This boy was relaxed and social, and had clearly synthesized what he had read. We had a great conversation about his impending Mars visit. His mom and I looked at each other in amazement.

Two sisters wanted to read about... it sounded like churchills.

"Miss, can we bring our churchills to the library?"

"Your ... what?"

"Our churchills!"

"I'm not getting it. Can you say that again?"

"Our CHURCHILLS! Can we bring our CHURCHILLS to the library?!!"

Finally I am forced to admit, "I don't know what that is."

"They are little animals, they have a shell, and their little arms and legs and head sticks out of the shell, and when they're afraid, they can go inside it. We have two baby churchills and we want to bring them to the library!"

I try not to laugh. They are hearing the word from their parents, who are new English speakers.

"Do you mean turtles?"

"Yes, yes, tur-tills!" Without missing a beat, they now begin to pronounce the world tur-till with great enunciation.

"I don't think your turtles would be very happy at the library."

"We would help them! We would show them all the books!"

"But you know what, all the kids would want to see the turtles and pet them, there would be a huge crowd, and I think the turtles might be afraid."

They nod with great seriousness.

I ask, "Would you like to read some books about turtles?"

"Yes yes yes yes yes!!!"

"Do you want to read stories with characters who are turtles, like Franklin, or information about turtles?"

"Information! Information about tur-tills! Tur-till information!"

The book on having a turtle as a pet is nowhere to be found, but we find lots of books about turtles in the wild. I try to shield them from books about endangered sea turtles, but they are too fast for me. Fortunately, they are only looking at the pictures, so they're not bothered by the sad stuff.

"Tur-tills! Tur-tills! Mommy Mommy we have books about tur-tills!!"

Currently the hottest ticket, by the
creator of Captain Underpants
* * * * *

[What should we set for your first reading goal? How many books will you read before you come in for your first prize?]

"100! No, 500! No, one thousand! No, three. Three books."

[What kind of books do you like to read?]

The most common answers are Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries (Wimpy Kid for girls), Harry Potter (still and apparently forever), Percy Jackson (hero of the Rick Riordan series), Narnia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For the younger readers, the most popular answers include Disney Princesses, Ninjago, Pokemon, LEGO, Barbie, various superheroes, and Transformers. (Notice anything?)

For graphic fiction (which kids call comic books), girls are still looking for anything by Raina Telgemeier, especially her new adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club. Everyone is still reading Amulet. This year's kids have not heard of Bone, but I can talk them into trying it. This is especially great because, being slightly out of fashion, Bone is easy to find.

The graphic hybrids are hugely popular: Geronimo Stilton and related spinoffs, Big Nate, Captain Underpants, Dog Man (this year's runaway hit), and the seemingly eternal Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I often steer girls to Marissa Moss' Amelia's Notebook series, which predates Dork Diaries and is way better.

If you phrase the question, "Do you like funny books, scary books, adventures, mysteries...?" the number one answer, by a huge margin, is funny. Scholastic has the results of a survey about what kids and parents look for in books.

The best answer I heard in a long time was: "I like books with words and pictures! I'm very particular about what I read."


what i'm reading: the golden compass by philip pullman

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, has been on my to-read list since it was first published in the mid-1990s. Although I generally don't read fantasy fiction, after reading an outstanding review in The New York Times Book Review, I was very intrigued. Thanks to the Teen Book Club I facilitate at the library, I recently had an excuse to read it: The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights in the UK) is our March title.

This is an absolutely wonderful book. Lyra Belacqua, a smart, spunky 11-year-old girl, is wholly believeable as our powerful, but very human, hero. She lives in a world recognizable to us, but different - a parallel universe which unfolds naturally, without the ponderous world-building that I find so tedious in more typical adult fantasy fiction.

The book is chock-full of adventure, mystery, and action, with just the right touch of thoughtful reflection thrown in. It's an excellent youth or tween read, which is to say it's fast-paced, written in a clear and straightforward style, and with the darker, scarier, and potentially violent material handled with discretion and a gentle touch. There is sadness and loss and frightening elements, as there should be, but there's nothing graphic.

The Golden Compass is sometimes called a youth novel, but it lives on the younger side of that spectrum, perfect for a 10- or 11-year-old who is a good reader. Why, then, is it catalogued in the adult section of our library? I can only speculate that it might have been a response to "challenges" - meaning controversy and calls for banning or limiting access in the library.

To an adult reader, the reason for the challenges - though silly, in my view - are obvious. On the surface The Golden Compass is a straightforward fantasy-adventure, but on another level it can be read as a critique of The Church. The book is certainly not anti-religion or anti-spirituality, but it is a harsh condemnation of the institutional Church - the Church of the Inquisition, the Church of intolerance, and most of all, the Church that has harbored and protected known pedophiles for centuries, allowing countless children's lives to be shattered.

There are other aspects to which some Christian readers might object: our hero is herself identified with Christ imagery. But I believe the principal objections would focus on a negative portrayal of the institution of organized religion.

Some critics see Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass is book one) as a response to C. S. Lewis' The Narnia Chronicles, with its clearly Christian underpinnings. Not being a reader of fantasy, and never having read Narnia (I read and enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, but stopped there), I can't comment on these critiques. There are many comparisons online, but most focus on film adaptations - not a reliable way to critique a book!

The 2007 movie adaptation of The Golden Compass was greeted with articles like "The Chronicles of Atheism" and "The Golden Compass: A Primer on Atheism". This is nonsense, of course. I'm pretty sure anyone who says the movie version of The Golden Compass is about atheism hasn't seen it. For this, I'll turn to the late, great Roger Ebert's review of the movie.
For most families, such questions will be beside the point. Attentive as I was, I was unable to find anything anti-religious in the movie, which works above all as an adventure. The film centers on a young girl named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), in an alternative universe vaguely like Victorian England. An orphan raised by the scholars of a university not unlike Oxford or Cambridge, she is the niece of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who entrusts her with the last surviving Alethiometer, or Golden Compass, a device that quite simply tells the truth. The Magisterium has a horror of the truth, because it represents an alternative to its thought control; the battle in the movie is about no less than man's preservation of free will.
One of the better pieces I've found on this subject was by Jenn Northington, writing on, for Banned Books Week 2013.
One could argue that while the disdain for organized religion and bureaucracy registers in Pullman’s books as well as in his interviews, it doesn’t prevent them from containing all kinds of mystical elements. There are witches with super powers, embodied souls in the form of daemons, a trip to the underworld. One could further say that they promote a sense of spirituality and a belief in the possibility of things beyond our comprehension. There’s a word for that; some call it faith. This argument, of course, is unlikely to hold weight with anyone who objects to the series. In matters of taste there can be no dispute, and each reader finds something different in a book.
If The Golden Compass works equally well as a great children's read, and a response to a famous fantasy series, and a critique of a social institution, that is quite a feat, and Pullman deserves huge recognition for pulling it off. The symbolic meanings are there for discussion and debate, but the solid base of the book is vivid, highly accessible, and simply excellent.


the so-called "y.a. debate" rages on, but doesn't a debate have two sides?

In June of this year, Slate ran a now-infamous piece called "Against YA," in which Ruth Graham argued that adults shouldn't read young-adult fiction, and should be embarrassed if they do. A flood of posts and essays were written in response; my own response is here. In the short term, as far as I can tell, not a single writer agreed with Graham.

Despite this lopsided showing, some headline writer (possibly here) dubbed this "The Great Y.A. Debate," and the name stuck. There must be people out there who agree with Graham - surely hers was not an original idea - but one cranky article does not a debate make.

I did find a few interesting essays that used Graham's piece as a springboard to unpack some interesting ideas and cultural trends.

A. O. Scott, in The New York Times Magazine, is one reader who found himself agreeing with Graham, and asking himself why. Scott's The Death of Adulthood in American Culture joins the crowded field of "things ain't what they used to be" stories, gazing fondly back on a time when a cultural elite drew a very bright line between "high" and "low" culture, a line that, if it still exists, is too blurry to locate and carries little cultural currency. Scott, however, reflects on his nostalgia and acknowledges its curmudgeonly (and sexist, exclusionary) nature. It's a nicely ambivalent essay... and it has very little to do with youth fiction.

In Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate, Christopher Beha, writing in The New Yorker, uses the same so-called debate to muse on the state of the novel, how literature from different eras reflect entirely different worldviews, and why the work of Henry James is still, in Beha's view, relevant to the contemporary reader. It's a good piece, worth reading, and again, none of its ideas are stated or implied in Graham's essay in Slate.

Beha offers this comments on A. O. Scott's piece.
...Scott’s essay is an expression of great ambivalence. He isn’t happy about this trend in movies, but he also isn’t sure how justified his unhappiness is. He admits to “feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” but he quickly adds that he’s “not necessarily proud of this reaction.” He is scrupulously mindful of what it means for a self-described “middle-aged white man” to pine for an earlier era of cultural authority. Indeed, the real subject of Scott’s essay turns out to be not the infantilization of culture but the decline of cultural—if not political or economic or social—patriarchy, and the ways in which this decline is reflected in the culture itself. He takes this change to be the underlying subject of several of the past decade’s prestige TV dramas—particularly “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” In Scott’s view, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White are “the last of the patriarchs.”

This is where the essay becomes a little confused, in my opinion. If we really are living through the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male, that seems like a rich and appropriate subject for a sophisticated work of narrative art. The fact that we find this decline represented on television seems in this sense a sign of cultural maturity, one that cuts against the idea that our culture reflects an “essentially juvenile vision of the world.” Many shows now grapple more honestly with the world as it actually exists than did the sitcoms that I grew up watching, in which mom and dad had all the answers and were waiting in the wings to save us from our mistakes.

The strong ambivalence running throughout Scott’s piece emerges from the fact that he sees an intimate, even necessary connection between the decline of the straight white male’s stranglehold on the culture as a whole (which he views as all to the good) and the rise to dominance of a juvenile strain within popular culture in particular (which he likes a lot less). But even assuming that both of these things are going on, it’s not at all clear how much they have to do with one another. There is a difference between art that merely enacts a culture’s refusal to grow up—say, a Y.A. fantasy turned summer blockbuster marketed at adults—and art that engages thoughtfully with that refusal.
The New Yorker also pointed to a 2008 article by Jill Lepore (one of my favourite writers in that magazine's circle), illustrating the long history of self-appointed reading gatekeepers. This one was a librarian who was horrified by E. B. White's Stuart Little. And not just any librarian: it was Anne Carroll Moore, who invented the idea of the children's library. Great reading: The Lion and the Mouse.

Throughout, I am left wondering if anyone on the "against" side of "Against Y.A." has read any youth fiction other than The Fault in Our Stars or The Hunger Games and has read any children's fiction other than Harry Potter. Often I'm left wondering if they've read even those, or merely read about them.

These essays are all worth reading... as are many youth novels.


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #13

A boy, maybe age 8, was confused about what he needed. He said he needed "chapter books about the human body," which sounded to me like two things - books about the human body for a school project, and chapter books, meaning junior fiction that is not a picture book, not a series, and not a graphic novel. But he was convinced he needed "chapter books about the human body." He would not be helped, casting aside everything I found for him, and getting increasingly frustrated.

Following him around the library (it's a Sunday, so I'm working overtime, not at my own location), I ran into his parents and his older sister. Boy's Father said, "Is he giving you a hard time?" He said this nicely, not in a mean or menacing way.

I said, "Oh no, he's fine. I'm just trying to understand what he's looking for." I had books from two popular funny series in my hands.

Boy's Father took them from me and said, "No, this is garbage. We're not reading these."

I said, "Since he needs a chapter book, why don't we look for something better."

"What does that mean, 'chapter book'?" BF asked.

"Fiction--" I began.

"No. No fiction," BF said. "Let him read about science, or history, or let him practice his math."

I said gently, "He might need to read chapter books for his language skills. Reading fiction will improve his reading, which will help him in all subjects."

Things were getting generally messy, with Mom speaking in their first language, sister filling a cart with all the books she wanted, BF attempting to lecture boy, and boy tuning everyone out. I went back to the reference desk.

The family appeared a bit later. While the rest of the family was at check-out, BF came up to the desk. He clearly wanted to continue our conversation, which I've re-created here to the best of my ability. BF was unfailingly polite throughout, as was I. I made sure to listen closely to what he was saying, and to acknowledge that I heard him, to not rush in with my own answers too soon. I was pleased with myself for being patient, for not arguing, for not being confrontational, while still offering a different perspective. Damn, have I matured!

BF: You know, all that fiction, it's not good for them. It's a drug.

LK: Hmm, well, it could be. But compared to other drugs, it's a pretty positive thing.

BF: No, no, it's an addiction. I see it at home with my eldest. Once they start on those novels, that's all they want to do.

LK: You know, reading anything is good. We believe reading has inherent value.

BF: It's an addiction. It's like movies or video games. Once they start, where does it end.

LK: Do you know, kids who read a lot have greater reading comprehension, and that helps them in all their subjects - science, history, everything. Kids who read a lot do better in school, and that improves their life chances.

BF: Yes, I'll give you that. Reading comprehension is important. But why can't they get that from reading about history, about politics, about science, about the real world? Why do they have to read stupid novels? My eldest at home only wants to read something called Naruto.

I smiled. Manga. It is an addiction!

LK: Does he read anything else?

BF: She. A girl. Her grades are excellent. Very good grades.

LK: So maybe she wants to read Naruto for fun. Would that be OK?

BF: I am all for fun. I don't think children have to work every minute. Fun is good. But those stupid books, they are an addiction. It's what's wrong with our whole society.

LK: Hmm. If I were to pick what was wrong with our society, I don't think I'd say it was too much reading.

We both chuckle. Then:

BF: Do you have religion? Do you have a spiritual life?

Naturally this question took me by surprise. Mentally scrolling through possible answers, I discarded the obvious "That's not really relevant here," or the truthful "No, I don't," as possibly sidetracking an interesting conversation.

LK: Yes, I do. Not sure how that fits in, though.

BF: I'm surprised. I think if you have religion, you would know the answer to this. You would know that we are not helping our children by having them read this awful stuff. All through North America, we emphasize culture, and the arts, and reading, the movies, the plays, the books. Then when we need scientists we have to import them from other countries. Better to develop the science and the math, then bring the arts in later. Once you spoil your brain with arts and reading, you lose the ability to do the science.

LK: Hmm. I don't know about that. I'm a writer and a reader, but I love science.

BF: Perhaps you are exceptional. (Smiling)

LK: (Smiling back) Oh, I don't know... I'm a librarian. I think reading is beneficial for children. For everyone, but especially for children.

BF: At least he should read about the real world. Science, history.

LK: We have a lot of excellent nonfiction he could read, too. Great books on the environment, on animals, on the ancient world - whatever interests him.

BF: Yes? There is nonfiction like that for children?

LK: Absolutely.

BF: OK then, next time we're here I will ask you to help us find some.

LK: It's a deal.

BF: It's been very nice speaking with you. Thank you for your help and have a wonderful day.


youth books, children's book edition #10, and the best part of my job

I thought readers' advisory was the best part of my job, but that was before I began running our library's teen book club.

Once a month, I spend an evening with a group of teens who choose to spend their evening at the library, talking about books. We hang out, eat snacks, talk about books, talk about life. Although I've never had an interest in book clubs for myself, facilitating these young people's enjoyment of reading is a joy and a privilege.

The teens themselves come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Most are the first generation of their family born in Canada. Some lead pressured, overly scheduled lives. Others are relatively independent and mature. Some are bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. Some are quiet and speak very little. All of them listen respectfully to each other and encourage each other. This is what I love best. Always, they are kind to each other.

I've read that reading helps people develop empathy and compassion, that readers exhibit a higher degree of empathy than non-readers. I don't know if these teens are such nice people because they read, or if they read because they're nice people, or if it's just a random coincidence. But on the last Monday of every month, these kids make me love my job even more.

* * * *

TBC is also an opportunity for me to venture out of my reading comfort zone and try books I wouldn't normally pick up.

Many TBC members, including me, thought they wouldn't enjoy Cinder, a dystopian-future take on the Cinderella fairytale, by Marissa Meyer. We all ended up tearing through it, cheering for the strong, independent, but damaged main character, hanging on suspense and plot twists, and not guessing the ending.

TBC gave me an excuse to read Coraline, Neil Gaiman's modern classic children's horror novel. I normally don't read horror, and I really had no idea what constituted horror for children. Coraline seems like just the right amount of scary for kids - and me! It's creepy and shivery, in a way that makes you want to keep reading, not in a way that gives you nightmares.

Gaiman follows some standard children's-lit conventions - the child of absent or neglectful parents as a solo adventurer, forced to rescue herself and others from the clutches of something evil - but energizes them with lyrical language and unexpected twists. One member of TBC shares my avoidance of all things scary, so I'm looking forward to seeing what she thought.

Other upcoming TBC selections: The Maze Runner by James Dashner (which I wrote about here), It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (here), Epic by Conor Kostick, the first book of the favourite adventure series of one of our members, Hate List by Jennifer Brown, and Gauntlgrym by R. A. Salvatore. At our next meeting, we're voting by secret ballot for the last two titles of the year.


what i'm reading, children's books edition # 9: wonderstruck

Over the summer, I wrote about The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, a children's book with a suspenseful, convoluted story, lavishly illustrated with Selznick's beautiful pencil drawings. (I scanned several of those images into my earlier post.)

I've just finished Selznick's most recent book, Wonderstruck. Wonderstruck is filled with drawings in the same distinctive pencil style, but it is even better than Hugo Cabret.

The central story of Wonderstruck is more linear, so it's easier to follow. But Selznick employs a brilliant device that adds mystery and suspense to a straightforward story.

The reader follows the story of Ben, a boy from Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, who dreams of wolves, and misses his mother, and travels by himself to New York City. Interrupting Ben's story at intervals is another story, told in wordless pictures, of a girl from a different time and place - a girl who also travels to New York City on her own.

The two stories, one written in text and one illustrated, unfold independently of each other. The reader knows there must be a connection between them, but can we piece the mystery together? The two stories intersect in marvelous, poignant, and satisfying ways. The use of dual plot lines told in different formats is a gutsy choice that really respects the intelligence of the young reader.

I must admit I have an extra attachment to this book, as so many of its elements have been fascinations - or obsessions - of mine at various times in my life: wolves, New York City, Deaf culture, sign language, the American Museum of Natural History, even - amazingly - the New York City Panorama in the Queens Museum of Art, which I frequently recommend to exploring New York-ophiles. The book also pays homage to a classic children's book of an earlier era, E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Like Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck is about the search for our authentic selves, our need to belong, and the creation of families, both biological and chosen. I highly recommend this book. As I tell our young customers at the library, it looks huge, but flip through it - half of it is pictures, and it's a really fast read, because you won't want to put it down.

Postscript: On the Wonderstruck website, there are wonderful essays that provide more context for the many threads of the book. Great stuff: go here.


my favourite customers and two-way readers' advisory

The children's library where I work services a huge age-range of young people and their caregivers, from birth up to around age 12. I enjoy the full range - helping parents understand the importance of reading to their children, helping kids find fun books to read, finding material for school projects and reports - all of it. But what I love best is connecting avid young readers - of the age group known as "tweens" - with books they enjoy.

Wikipedia defines the tween demographic as ages 10-12, but tweens may be 9-13, or may even be as young as 7 or 8, depending on the person. Tweens are definitely not little kids, but neither are they teens, not only in age, but also in sensibility.

I love being around tweens. They are often actively exploring new likes and dislikes, trying on different selves to see what might fit. They are usually independent-minded, and although they may be socially self-conscious, they are seldom jaded. Tweens are usually more open to adults - and to the world in general - than many teens. I like being around teenagers, and I don't fear them the way many adults do, but interacting with tweens can be more satisfying.

In the library, as in much of life, tweens are often lost in a gap between children's programming and teen groups. Our library and others in the Mississauga system offer Lego Club, after-school homework groups, Robotics Club (in partnership with this organization), and a smattering of other tween activities, but there is much more focus on our younger customers. I've been keeping my eyes open for ways to improve tween programming.

* * * *

Over the summer, I was trying to find books for a frequent customer - a boy, a very strong reader, probably 11 or 12 years old. Anything I suggested, he had already read. I managed to find two books that he hadn't read yet, so when he left, I emailed staff for help. The next time I saw him, I was armed with the staff's list... and it turned out he had read all those books, too!

"You know what?" I said to him. "You are done with us. You are finished with the Junior collection. You need to go upstairs and find books from the Youth section."

He said he had already read several youth books, including the entire Hunger Games series. His all-time favourite book, he said, was a youth novel: The Maze Runner. I put it on hold for myself, and the next time I saw him, told him that he had recommended a book for me.

* * * *

A few weeks after that, I had a similar experience with another boy. He had read everything that appealed to him in our entire collection. This boy, however, was physically smaller than my other friend, and looked much younger. I just couldn't see him being comfortable in the Youth area. Then it came to me: I suggested he go upstairs, find some books... then bring them back to Children's to read. Ah-ha!

In our department, these boys and girls are the top dogs, the oldest and wisest. They chat with adult staff. The little kids ask them for help. But in the youth department, they are back to being little kids again.

This made me wonder if we could create a special space for tweens within the Children's department, or at least a special display of Youth material that is suitable for more mature tweens. I brought the idea to our Senior Librarian and Manager, who were very excited.

Now to see if we can make it happen.


what i'm reading, children's books edition: # 8: the invention of hugo cabret

In the aftermath of the flood and with our impending move, when I'm not dealing with those events, all I want to do is read and blog. If you enjoy my "what i'm reading" posts, you'll be happy. If not...

* * * *

I've long wanted to read The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Now that Martin Scorsese has adapted it into the movie "Hugo," I wanted to make sure I read it before seeing the film.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a wonderfully inventive and engaging book. It combines elements of picture books, graphic novels, and even flip books within the "chapter book" format for older children. It's a big, fat book - which itself has appeal for many readers - but roughly half the pages are filled with black-and-white pencil illustrations. These are pencil drawings, also by Selznick.

Typically, a group of illustrations form a sequence of images, first seen from a distance, then zooming in closer, and still closer. Because of this technique, many people describe the book as having a movie-like quality. Here's an example:

Unlike in conventional chapter books, where illustrations echo or amplify some action already explained in the text, the illustrations in Hugo Cabret are used to move the story forward, like this:
One night, the old guard in the museum forgot that Hugo’s father was up in the attic, and he locked the door, trapping him inside. Hugo had no way of knowing what happened next.

No one knows how the fire started, but it rushed through the whole building in minutes.
I love these wonderful illustrations and the way they are used, but they're not even the best part of the book. The writing is simple, precise, and elegant. The plot is twisting and convoluted, full of suspense and surprises. For the more sophisticated reader, the book is also playfully self-referential: a magical book about magic (which also features books about magic), a movie-like book about the magic of film, a mystery about missing pieces. It is set in 1931 Paris, so it's peppered with elements of history and place.

This is a beautiful, daring, exciting, suspenseful, charming, and sometimes profound book. Highly recommended.


the incredible shrinking life: a flood, a hotel room, a library

I'm always amazed how when personal upheaval strikes, whether tragedy or happy Big Life Change, your world shrinks down to a tiny little circle. We moved to Canada the day Hurricane Katrina struck, and days later, we were struggling to take in all we had missed. Since the flood four nights ago, the outside world has barely registered on my radar.

So, what has happened to the Laura and Allan Family since I posted those lovely sewage-filled photos?

The aftermath

The flood was Monday night. The Greater Toronto Area received a month's worth of rainfall in the span of a few hours. Water and sewage rushed in through the toilet in our basement, then rushed out again, leaving behind a disgusting mess.

We lost many items stashed in the basement, like suitcases, a vacuum, painting supplies, and whatever else. But much more importantly, Allan's office is in the basement. He salvaged many things... and lost many things. We will get an insurance settlement, but many things are irreplaceable.

Power was restored in Mississauga late Monday night or Tuesday morning. Once we had phone service, it was nearly impossible to get through to insurance companies, and if you did manage to file a claim, no one was available to follow up on it. Cleaning and restoration companies were similarly either impossible to reach or fully booked. We had no hot water.

I worked at home on Tuesday, trying to move our claim forward, while Allan carried boxes of books from the basement to the spare bedroom on the second floor. With my broken foot, I could do little but urge him on. When I went into the library for work on Tuesday night, I felt like I was dreaming. How could all these people just be going about their business, enjoying a normal day?

On Wednesday we expected a cleaning crew, a new hot water heater, and follow-up from our insurance company. None of those materialized. So another day went by with no progress, and no hot water. Well, that's not accurate. Something was making quite a lot of progress: the mould growing in the soggy basement.

On Thursday morning I was beginning to lose patience. As usual, our landlord was trying to do things on the cheap - fine for him, he had hot water - and I had to get ready for work by heating water on the stove and washing up in the kitchen sink.

When I got home from work on Thursday, the house stank of mould. The mould had obviously worked its way into the ventilation system and was polluting the entire house. I'm allergic to mould, and five minutes in the house left me coughing and gave me a pounding headache. (It wasn't a stress headache: sitting outside in fresh air cleared it right up.)

At the same time, I was getting an enormous runaround from our insurance company, being passed from one person to another to another, and back to the beginning again. Our claim had fallen into some kind of black hole.

I informed Cheapo Landlord that he should ask his insurance company about putting us in a hotel until the hot water was restored and the basement was clean. When he couldn't reach his insurance company and he managed to restore hot water himself, he thought he could talk me into staying: "Just open the windows."

I found a pet-friendly Holiday Inn in Mississauga, we packed a few things, threw the dogs in the car, and hit the road. We were a little beyond open windows at that point.

So last night we had lovely hot showers and clean air and a bottle of wine in our room at the Holiday Inn. This morning Allan dropped me at work, and when he picked me up, the flood restoration people were at work in the basement. I was able to sit on our patio but unable to stay inside for more than a few moments: instant headache. We're at the hotel again tonight, but I'm hoping tomorrow night we'll be home.
"Yay, we're in the car!"

It turns out our own renters insurance covers "additional living expenses" associated with whatever event caused the claim. That could include child care, kennelling an animal, restaurants, and of course, hotels. I'm a little disappointed that we can't give the bill to our landlord! But it's great to know our insurance will pick this up.

The upshot

We're moving.

This is our second flood. After the first one, we endured a long, drawn-out renovation, but that wasn't motivation enough to leave. But this time is so much worse. How could we ever be comfortable here again? Every time it rains, we'll be nervous. The whole point of renting is not to be tied down to property. So I'm looking at rentals online, and we've already seen two places.

It's sad, because we love our little house and our huge backyard, and we are very unlikely to see the likes of them again. Yards are way smaller and houses way bigger, generally. But I remind myself that when we had to leave our little house in Port Credit (because the landlord wanted it back), I was so upset... and it turned out to be a wonderful move, with many benefits. Perhaps the next place will have much to recommend it.

It's also a very bad time for a move, with Allan facing a September 1 deadline for his manuscript. Right before we moved to Canada, I was offered an exciting and lucrative writing project. (Some of you may remember "Ancient Civs".) I remember Allan saying, "You have to take this. How can you not? I'll do all the packing." And he did. He got quotes from movers, organized the move, and packed every single thing we owned, while I wrote full-time and worked my day job on weekends. Now I will do the same. I can't physically pack us, but I will hire people to do so, and organize everything, and Allan will not work on our move, and he will meet his deadline.

The oasis

Through all this, I've had an unexpectedly wonderful oasis from stress: work. Go figure! On Thursday morning, still without hot water, I left the house feeling grumpy and irritable. I joined one of my Children's Library teammates for a presentation at "Literacy Camp" (a/k/a summer school). We had two groups of kids, one younger, one older; all have been identified as struggling readers.

For the younger kids, we started with a song, read a story, did a talk about the library, read another story, plugged Summer Reading Club, and ended with another song. For the older kids, we substituted "book talks" for the stories, reading a chapter from a funny book plus a scary story, did our library talk, and our summer reading club talk. Both groups were fully engaged and seemed to love it.

I left feeling great: happy, energized, laughing, with a great feeling of satisfaction. My irritable mood had vanished.

All week, my shifts at the reference desk and even in my office preparing for upcoming programming have been a wonderful respite from the stress of the upheaval at home.

Bonus list

If you're keeping score at home, for the younger kids, I read Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, a huge hit with the kids yelling "NO!" over and over. (Got to looove the Pigeon!) My teammate read Robert Munsch's Down the Drain, a more complicated but also very goofy story, with the kids making sound effects and hand motions.
For the older kids, I read a portion of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angelberger, and my teammate read one of Alvin Schwartz's scary stories. I also did a riff on the Guinness Book of World Records, and a plug for nonfiction along the lines of "we've got books on whatever you're interested in".


simon says, grumpy bird, and an evil witch: summer reading club begins

Summer is the busiest time of year in the Central Children's Library. Actually, we are wildly busy any time school is out; the summer is just the most sustained period of busy-ness. Many of my colleagues have been preparing for summer programming since the end of March Break.

All through July and August, in libraries throughout Canada, kids will be participating in Summer Reading Club. The program uses incentives, activities, and fun programs to keep kids reading over the summer, which has been shown to improve their performance in school. It's fun, and it's free.

All Canadian libraries receive the same materials, which is really nice - kids can participate while they're visiting relatives or at a cottage with their family. But libraries plan their own programming, so we can be as creative as we want and can afford.

(The official name is "TD Summer Reading Club". It's designed through a partnership among Library and Archives Canada, Toronto Public Library, and TD Canada Trust. I grit my teeth through the corporate sponsorship, but the name... argh.)

Registration for Summer Reading Club began on July 2, and by July 4, we had signed up 180 kids. Each child receives an activity book, and a "passport," in which they'll record the titles of the books they read. They each write their name on a cut-out shape, and tape the shape to the wall. Each time they check in to report on their reading, they earn stickers, and their name goes on another cut-out shape on a different wall. The stickers tie in to a website, where more prizes are unlocked. The goal is registration, plus three reporting visits, earning a total of nine stickers.

In addition to all the reading and reporting, kids are invited to club "meetings": special programming every week. This past week for the big kickoff, we were outside on Celebration Square - a big public space adjacent to our library - playing games. After a rousing intro, the kids were divided up into teams, and teams rotated through six "stations," playing a different crazy game at each. With my broken foot, I was given a station with a canopy (shade!) and did a variation of Simon Says where the kids took turns leading the game.

The SRC launch had nothing to do with reading. It's meant to make the library a fun place, for kids to meet and interact with the staff, and generally give everyone a good feeling about the library. Then everyone is encouraged to sign up for Summer Reading Club. More than 75 kids took part.

Over the summer, a different staff member will lead the programming each week. Most do a storytime plus a craft. I'm hoping to do something a little different. I have most of the summer to plan my week, but I'll be very busy with other responsibilities - plus I'm inexperienced - so I'll need a lot of time for research and planning.

* * * *

Also this past week, I co-led a drop-in family storytime with a more experienced staff member. He led us in a large number of short action songs and finger plays. I read Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard and What's Your Sound, Hound the Hound? by Mo Willems, both heavy on the participation - making grumpy faces, marching in place, shouting out animal sounds. My teammate also read Oh No, George by Chris Haughton, with all the kids shouting "Ooohh nooo, George!".

This week also saw our two sold-out performances of a puppet show, a modern spin on Hansel and Gretl. Five of us (four puppeteers and a director) have been rehearsing for a while, and it was a smash success. I learned something very important: kids love puppet shows, and very few places put them on anymore. Many kids have never seen a puppet show. Apparently if you include a puppet show in library programming, it is a guaranteed hit.

After the show, we came out with our puppets and took questions, then let the kids dig through two huge buckets of puppets and do a little pupetting themselves. They absolutely loved it.

Throughout the summer, there will also be professional performers at the library - magic acts, puppet shows, music, drumming, dance. Unlike Summer Reading Club, these are not free, which I dislike. But tickets are inexpensive - two or three dollars - and most of our customers are glad for the air-conditioned diversions.

* * * *

It was such a busy week! I worked really hard, but instead of feeling wrung out and drained, at the end of each day I was energized and excited. I am having so much fun!


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: # 9, or why this new librarian found the reference desk a little scary

In this post, I described doing reference as "a bit scary," and Impudent Strumpet asked why.

I started to write an answer, ran out of time, then found myself on my first real shift at the reference desk!

During my training and orientation weeks, I did two half-shifts at the desk during non-busy hours - a second chair, so to speak, when there is normally only one person working. But this week I had my first proper evening shift, during peak hours.

It is also exam week for high schools, so every available space in the entire library is filled with groups of teenagers studying (or not studying, as the case may be). The library actually opens up meeting rooms to accommodate them all.

So I did it: I got through my first real reference shift, and I really enjoyed it.

* * * *

But first, why reference is scary.

In the general sense, it's scary because I take the job seriously and want to do well. As a page and a circulation clerk, I observed library staff doing reference every day, and I've seen skills from the truly excellent to the truly awful. I want to use those role models, both positive and negative. I want to give customers good service and good information.

Specifically, doing reference is not necessarily intuitive. It's a learned skill. Customers often can't or don't articulate their real information needs. In other words, what they ask for is often not what they want. If you simply listen to their question, then march off to get a book, or start typing in the catalogue, chances are high that you will not find what they need, because you haven't yet established what that need is.

Instead, you must engage with the customers. You must perform a "reference interview," where you ask pointed, specific, open-ended questions, to discover what the customer is looking for. There are very specific ways of doing this that work beautifully, and a whole lot of ways that work very poorly.

Plus, the reference interview alone is not enough. There's a whole set of customer-service behaviours that go should surround it: appearing approachable in facial expression and body language, showing interest in the customer's question, giving your answer in plain, non-jargon words, taking the customer to the resource they need, or, if you're sending them elsewhere, calling ahead to that branch or department, and following up when you can.

I know all this very well, and in much greater depth than I can write about here. But I know it in theory, not in practice. There are so many things to remember, and when it's busy, I have a tendency to feel pressured and rush. That's a pitfall I must always be conscious of and work against (on every job I've ever held). No one is actually pressuring me, the pressure is entirely internal. I must remember to take a breath, take the extra few moments to do the job correctly. I don't want to rush customer A to get to customer B - that's unfair, and it provides poor service.

So, there are many pieces to put together. I want to get into good habits. I want to do a good job, for the customer, for our department, and for myself.

* * * *

On my first true reference shift in the Central Children's Library, here are some of the questions I was asked, and here's what I did.

From a mom: Do you have any books to help children learn how to use the toilet?

We have lots of great books on toilet training, but none of them were on our shelves at that moment. I took the customer's card, found five or six books in the system, and put them on hold for her.

This reference interview involved asking... Does she want books to read together with her child? Is it a boy or girl? (Many of the potty books are gendered.) Would she like me to put some books on hold for her? Where would she like to pick them up, here at our library, or is there another location that's more convenient?

From a girl, probable age 11: I want some good books to read over the summer.

This involved asking... What kinds of books she likes to read? What are some of the books she has read and enjoyed? To my delight, she said, "I like adventure stories, also animals. Animal adventures. None of that princess stuff!"

We went to the stacks together and I gave her several choices. As I selected them, she told me her brother read and loved those same books. I asked, and learned that he's an older brother, and she's excited to read what he liked. So my choices had the stamp of approval!

It turned out she didn't have her library card with her. So I wrote down all the titles, and suggested she come back soon with the list. She left very happy! I also used the opportunity to promote Summer Reading Club, so hopefully I'll see her again.

From a boy, probable age 7: When is Summer Reading Club? I heard about it at my school! (That's from our department doing outreach! Yay us!)

From a mom: Do you have any books on how to teach children what to do, for parents on how to teach?

This woman spoke very little English, and had trouble expressing her needs. After asking several questions, I thought she wanted books on parenting - although she was not familiar with the word. I wrote down the general call number for parenting books, and suggested she go to a different floor and ask at the desk there.

From a newcomer family - a mom, dad, and three children, including a baby - at the library for the first time: We are new here. What do we do? What do you have for our children?

This is a very typical question in our department, and a hugely important one. I gave them a newsletter with all our children's programming, showing them how to find programs at our branch. I showed them how to log on to the catalogue from home; they were thrilled with this. I found some Star Wars books for one of their boys. I gave them a list of all our branch libraries, which has the opening hours and a map, and explained that they can use any branch at any time. And later I found another Star Wars book and brought it over to them. They were very happy.

* * * *

In addition: I gave out puzzles for parents to do with their kids, gave out headphones for the computer, gave out many program schedules, and answered many questions about Summer Reading Club. I took a brother and sister to where Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries would be if there were any copies the shelf, and told them, to their great joy, that we were expecting many new copies for the summer. And every so often, I did a walkabout to see if anyone needed help and to check on the teen groups.

When the closing announcement came on, there were still more than 50 people in our department. There are always a few stragglers who stay until the last minute, but that night, we could have used a crowbar to get some of the teens out of their chairs.


my life at the children's library so far (plus happy birthday to me)

What a difference it makes when you enjoy going to work. What a difference when you don't dread your job. Wow!

This is what I've done in my new position so far.

- I participated in the finale of Grade 4 Read To Succeed, in which the winning classes - the classes that read the most books in each branch library's catchment area - attended an event at Mississauga City Hall. There were songs, games, prizes, and readings by two children's authors. It was a bit weird for me, as I hadn't been involved in the program, but great fun and very instructive.

- I did my first programming!! I assisted a more experienced librarian in a kindergarten class visit - two classes, 45 kids. I read Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard. Seemed like it went over well. A little girl ran up to me and hugged me!

- I attended a workshop on reference and a webinar on storytelling.

- I am compiling a number of readers' advisory lists, as part of a departmental goal, based on a suggestion of mine last summer. We will have laminated book lists at the shelf ends, with staff picks in different categories: humour, adventure, animals, scary, and so on. I'm doing all the nonfiction. So far I am working on these lists: Amazing Animals, "When I grow up, I want to be...", I Love Science!, "Weird and Wacky, Spooky and Scary, and just plain GROSS," Biographies, Stuff To Do (crafts, game, magic, gardening, cooking, bird watching, etc. etc.), and Life Long Ago (ancient civilizations).

- I am learning how to order books for the department. I'm doing nonfiction, not from scratch, but filling in gaps and reordering popular titles.

- I am preparing for a school visit to promote Summer Reading Club. I'll be doing this with another librarian, one program for Grades 3 through 5, then for K through 2. This will be a skit, a mini scavenger hunt, games, prizes, stories, and of course, information about Summer Reading Club.

- I have been on the reference desk only a little so far, but will be getting my regular shift on the desk soon. I love it, but it's a bit scary!

- I attended a workshop on the libraries' databases, to encourage and remind reference staff to offer these great resources to our customers, and teach customers how to use them.

Today is my birthday. I have been alive on this planet for 52 years. I'm grateful for all I've been given, and proud of what I've created with it. Some days I feel like the luckiest person in the world.


what i'm reading, children's books edition: # 7: two by roddy doyle

Roddy Doyle is one of my favourite authors. I read everything he publishes for adults, but I had never read any of his children's books before. I recently read two of them, and I'm so glad I did.

Wilderness, Roddy Doyle, 2007

In this story, a mother and her two sons set out on winter adventure vacation in Finland. They need some time alone together, while the boys' teenage sister (their mom's stepdaughter) needs some time alone to meet her biological mother.

The girl is a sullen, angry adolescent, trapped in her own confusing emotions, which she feels unable to control. The boys are on the cusp of their own transition, one foot in the protection and comfort of childhood, the other ready to take a few steps on their own, and test their independence.

Wilderness alternates between the two stories, in two distinct voices, one older and more turbulent, the other younger and simpler, more trusting. There's no question that the man who gave us Paula Spencer, narrator and hero of two Roddy Doyle novels, can write convincingly in the voice of a teenage girl.

While the teenage sister struggles in the wilderness of forming a halting, tentative bond with the mother who abandoned her, the winter holiday becomes dangerous, and the younger brothers are forced into a very urgent and real independence. In the wilderness-survival story, Doyle gives a conscious nod to Gary Paulsen's Hatchet. There are beautiful descriptions of the wonders of dog-sledding through a novice's eyes - the intelligence of the dogs, the deep partnership between human and canine, the beautiful, fluid motions and sounds of the well-tuned pack.

The two stories come back together in the end, the young people having each crossed a threshold, both conscious, yet inarticulate, about the change.

This book is an interesting mix of adventure story and family story. In a field dominated by genre books and almost always shamefully segregated by gender, Doyle has done something gutsy: written a book not easily categorized, to be enjoyed by almost any young reader.

A Greyhound of a Girl, Roddy Doyle, 2011

In this funny, sweet, poignant, readable book, four generations of Irish women come together, including one who left the earth long ago. Like Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, Doyle takes a realistic, down-to-earth story and mixes in something a little fantastical - in this case, a ghost.

Like most of Doyle's work, A Greyhound of a Girl is both funny and touching. The characters are witty and sharp, but still entirely believable. As in Wilderness, the teenage girl's voice is as real as it gets.

In fact, each woman's voice is distinctive and authentic - sharp, sarcastic Mary, her free-spirited, quirky mother Scarlett, her dying grandmother Emer, the great-grandmother Tansey, who died of influenza when Emer was a baby. This is very much a women's story, as the four generations play out a story of love, loss, and remembrance, but always with a light touch.

A Greyhound of a Girl is a lovely little book, very engaging, and despite dealing with illness and death, is breezy and easy to read. And just the right amount of sad.


children's books # 6: the return of interspecies love

It's been a while since I've written about children's books, and an even longer while since I've done an interspecies love post, so why not combine the two? There's a spate of children's books depicting cross-species animal friendships, some excellent, some better avoided.

Children love these stories for the same reasons we do. There is something so touching - and off-the-charts cute! - about these friendships between animals who should, by nature, be afraid of each other, or even in a very different kind of relationship - at mealtime.

For kids, some of these books have a moral overlay, teaching about difference and tolerance. That's fine, as long as its done with a light touch. Children's books don't need to be didactic to get their message across.

I've seen at least a dozen animal-friendship books, and there are probably a dozen more I haven't seen. I've chosen four good ones, and highlighted two others that are noteworthy for the wrong reasons. Don't miss the bonus tracks at the end. (Anachronism alert! You might have to be over a certain age to know what a bonus track is.)

Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom, Jennifer Holland, 2010

Jennifer Holland's Unlikely Friendships is noteworthy for the outstanding photography and perfectly concise text. A writer for National Geographic magazine, Holland avoids sentimental or cutesy language, focusing on animal behavioural explanations for how such unusual bonds may form.

Holland includes some of the more famous interspecies friendships, like Owen and Mzee (see below), and some that are total cute overload, like a horse and a fawn. But surely the most remarkable friendship stories are those between animals who normally interact as predator and prey. A leopard returns to an Indian village every night to sleep with its friend... a calf. A female lion raises a baby oryx. There is a friendship between a snake and a hamster!

This book is marketed to all ages. Although an adult could read it to a young child, and the child would undoubtedly enjoy the photos, the language and the subject matter is more appropriate to older children with strong reading skills. The very young child would not understand why these friendships are so unusual, or, for example, why a snake who eats a hamster rather than befriending it isn't mean or bad.

Holland also adapted her book for children. Unlikely Animal Friendships for Kids is a series of chapter books, each with five animal-friendship stories, retold in simplified language. Unfortunately, they read like dumbed-down versions of the original, or something that was hastily thrown together. I'd avoid them.

Friends: True Stories of Extraordinary Animal Friendships, Catherine Thimmesh, 2011

Catherine Thimmesh's book, on the other hand, is a children's book written by someone who knows how to write for children. Each animal friendship is told in a short story written in simple rhyming verse. Although the photographs are not as striking as the ones in Holland's book, they are still beautiful and engaging.

The author's website has a promotional video where you can see some of the animal pairs. Who can resist a sad-eyed monkey cuddling with a white dove? Children of almost any age would enjoy this book.

Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship, Craig Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, Peter Greste, 2006

These days, the most famous interspecies love stories have their own books, or series of books, or maybe a mini-franchise. Owen and Mzee was one of the first. It tells the story of a baby hippo who was orphaned during the 2004 tsunami, and rescued by an animal rehab centre in Kenya. Rescuing a 600 pound baby is no small feat, and that story is well worth telling. But those animal workers were amazed when a giant tortoise, thought to be around 130 years old, adopted the hippo. The two became fast friends, spending all their time together, including swimming and playing together.

This story is not only happy and sweet. The baby hippo is separated from its pod (a hippo family), the fate of the mother is unknonw, and the baby is lost and alone. The choice of photographs by Greste, a photojournalist for BBC, helps prevent the sad part of the story from becoming overwhelming. Ultimately, of course, this is a story of love triumphing over pain, and friendship helping to heal loss.

Craig Hatkoff has written several lovely children's book about animals, including Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captured the World (website here) and Leo the Snow Leopard: The True Story of an Amazing Rescue. Owen and Mzee is not only about animal friendship; it's full of well written information about hippos, animal sanctuaries, tsunamis, and more.

Isabella Hatkoff, listed as co-author or contributor, is Hatkoff's daughter. When she was six years old, Isabella saw photos of the friendship between the hippo and the tortoise, and persuaded her father to write this book.

Another book, A Mama for Owen, treats the same story in picture-book format, without success. Author Marion Dane Bauer over-simplifies the story, portraying the baby hippo as meeting the tortoise by accident. Although I often argue in favour of introducing children to difficult concepts, I'd approach this book with great caution. Should very young children see a baby separated from its mother, who gets swept away in a huge ocean wave? The baby hippo finds a new friend, but friends are not mothers. This book isn't particularly well done, but more importantly, it could be extremely upsetting, even traumatizing.

Tarra & Bella: The Elephant and Dog Who Became Best Friends, Carol Buckley, 2009

This post wouldn't be complete without Tarra and Bella. You've probably seen video of this inseparable pair, who were YouTube superstars.

Tarra had been a circus elephant. When she was allowed to retire, she was put in sanctuary. Tarra avoided other elephants and didn't make friends - until the appearance of Bella, a stray dog and new sanctuary resident. It was, as the cliche goes, love at first sight. When Bella was hospitalized after a serious injury, Tarra sat outside the dog's recovery room, every day. When Bella recovered, Tarra was waiting for her, ready for them to walk together at Bella's new slow pace.

This is a beautiful story, beautifully told, with excellent photographs, including frames from video of the moment the friends were reunited after Bella's recovery. The book contains great, brief information about the Tennessee animal sanctuary where it took place, and the URL of an "EleCam" on the sanctuary grounds.

* * * *

Bonus tracks! A collection of interspecies love sent by wmtc readers over the past year.

Dog and river otter at play!

Animal odd couple photo gallery from the New York Daily News: here. Turns out that paper is good for something after all!

Dog adopts abandoned tiger cubs: here.

Lions and tigers and bears oh my: here.

Thanks to Eric, Stephanie, Allan, James, and if you've sent me one that I've forgotten, thank you, too.


what i'm reading, children's books edition: # 5

In this post, I look at two nonfiction books for young readers. Both are featured in the current "Forest of Reading" program, a province-wide recreational reading program sponsored by the Ontario Library Association. Both fiction and nonfiction winners of the various Forest of Reading awards - Silver Birch, Red Maple, and so on - are featured in public and school libraries throughout the province. In other words, lots of kids will read these books. And that is a very good thing.

The Sea Wolves: Living Wild in the Great Bear Rainforest, Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read, 2012

This beautiful book introduces young readers to some fascinating creatures and their unique habitat. The Sea Wolves begins with the many cultural myths and fears about wolves, then dispels those misconceptions with facts about these beautiful, intelligent, highly social animals. The book examines a unique sub-species of wolf that lives in the rainforest on Canada's Pacific coast. Smaller and thinner than the gray wolf, the sea wolf can swim like an otter, and fishes for salmon like a bear! The sea wolves are also unique among wolves in that they have never been hunted. The First Nations people of the area have lived side-by-side with wolves for thousands of years; their culture holds wolves in a position of respect and admiration. The book also describes the wonders of the Great Bear Rainforest, an isolated wilderness now threatened by plans for the tarsands pipeline.

A lot of information is packed into this short book, richly paired with Ian McAllister's stunning photographs of the sea wolves and the rainforest. (McAllister and Read's earlier book about the Great Bear Rainforest, The Salmon Bears, was also a Forest of Reading selection.) The book is truly a love-letter to wolves and to the Canadian rainforest.

Although The Sea Wolves makes a strong case for conservation and preservation, and does mention that the wolves' future is uncertain and the rainforest is threatened, it stops short of endorsing activism. One never knows about the politics behind the scenes - if the authors had wanted to make the activism piece stronger, but were prevented from doing so - but a short piece of "What you can do to help" would have been better than merely giving a website where interested readers can get more information.

This is a beautiful book, both visually attractive and extremely well written. It has the potential to propel many young readers towards a fascination with wolves, the sea wolf, and one of our continent's last bit of wilderness.

No Shelter Here: Making the World a Kinder Place for Dogs, Rob Laidlaw, 2011

Talking to children about cruelty is always tricky. I've written about, for example, being traumatized by learning about the Holocaust as a child in Hebrew school, and by seeing certain details of animal abuse on a documentary. Children need to see the world as it is, but a sensitive child can be overwhelmed by the view.

In No Shelter Here, a book about animal abuse and injustice, Rob Laidlaw has found the perfect approach. The book alternates between problem and solution, first showing us an arena of maltreatment - such as puppy mills, research, or dogs kept alone and chained - then introducing us to "Dog Champions," actual young people who have taken action. For every injustice, there is a real person fighting for justice, and suggestions on how a young reader can get involved. In this way, the book is not merely informative and depressing, it is motivating and empowering.

Young people from all over the world are spotlighted as Dog Champions, each with photos, a short story of how they got started, the actions they chose, and their accomplishments. At the end of the book, readers are invited to take The Dog Lover's Pledge, and to visit animal-welfare websites.

No Shelter Here is full of photographs of imploring brown eyes and dogs in need of champions, but the photos are not shocking or explicit. There are also plenty of photos of Dog Champions at work, and joyful, healthy dogs who have been championed. As one reviewer put it, the issues are "addressed frankly but gently". Animal-loving children will find this book disturbing, but they are likely to motivated to educate others, and to become part of the solution.


what i'm reading, children's books edition: # 4

Still Classic?

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle, 1962

A Wrinkle in Time has always been one of my favourite books. Although I have re-read it a few times over the years, I approached it for this series with some trepidation, a bit concerned that I might no longer recommend it to young readers. I needn't have worried. The book - continually in print since it was first published in 1962 - was reissued last year in a special 50th anniversary printing, and with very good reason.

From the moment we begin, we are drawn to Meg - confused and frustrated, feeling like she can't do anything right. Scrappily defending her odd younger brother. Clinging to her mother's calm faith that her father will return. Feeling destined to never fit in.

And as we're identifying with Meg, the mystery begins to unfold. Who is this strange Mrs. Whatsit, and how does she know a secret about Meg's mother, one that even Meg didn't know? Family bonds, the pressures of conformity, and the shifting landscape of our own self-esteem quickly become entwined with time travel, the limits of our known world, and the battle against the nameless evil, fascism. The language feels fresh, the characters alive. We follow them into a fantasy, only to learn a basic truth: that we must find our own moral courage, and we must witness the power of love. This book is timeless.

Where to go from there? There are the other four books in L'Engle's "Time Quintet": A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. I haven't read them all, but young people love series, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend anything by L'Engle. However, I would recommend following up in a different direction.

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Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, The Graphic Novel, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson, 2012

Madeleine L'Engle died in 2007, so she didn't live to see her greatest work thrive in a new format. I suspect she would have loved it. The award-winning author and illustrator Hope Larson has brilliantly adapted A Wrinkle in Time into a graphic novel. It's faster-paced than the original, as you might expect, but true to both plot and feel.

A reviewer at calls it "a love letter" to the original.

On HuffPo, Hope Larson writes about why she took on the project and what was involved.

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And finally, I want to (again) mention a contemporary children's novel that pays homage to A Wrinkle in Time: Rebecca Stead's 2009 When You Reach Me.

Miranda, the protagonist of When You Reach Me, is obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time. She carries the book with her and reads it again and again. Perhaps that helps prepare her for what is to come. This book is a daring meld of a realistic story with something fantastical and other-worldly. It is a treasure.

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Previous books in the Still Classic? series: My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, Little House series, The Borrowers, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler.


what i'm reading, children's book edition: # 3: a war resister story of sorts

In this children's book review, I look at a book about military war resistance and analyze its lessons and conclusions.

Shot at Dawn deals with many unpleasant realities of war - including some shameful episodes in Canada's past - with open eyes and without sugar coating. Ultimately, the author pulls his punch, forcing a conclusion that is palatable to mainstream sensibilities. At the same time, though, the book insists on difficult questions without clear-cut answers. So while it doesn't square with my own views, neither does it satisfy pro-military or nationalist propaganda. I add this book to my ongoing exploration of war and war resistance.

Boys read about war

I recently compared some children's historical fiction that I read as a child, such as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series, with more contemporary books in the same genre. I was dismayed to find that most children's historical fiction is marketed to girls. For example, Scholastic's Dear Canada series, for girls, includes 31 books. The I Am Canada series, for boys, comprises only six books.

Theoretically, a child of either gender can read any book. But in reality, it would be a very unusual boy in unusual circumstances who would knowingly choose a "girl book". At the age children read these books, stereotyped gender roles are strictly enforced through the most effective methods: their peers. If a book is marketed as "girly," you can be sure that most boys won't go near it.

Adding to my displeasure, of the six books in the I Am Canada series, four are about war. (One is about the Titanic, and another deals with the building of the trans-Canadian railroad, told in the voice of a Chinese labourer.) But I had reason to hope: one of the war books appeared to be - perhaps - about war resistance.

I Am Canada: Shot at Dawn

This fictional, historically-based story of war propaganda, PTSD, and resistance to war is set during the only time it possibly could be: the Great War in Europe, what we now call World War I. World War I is usually the setting for treatments of these issues, both because of its utter brutality and senselessness, and because it is distant enough from the present to allow frank criticism in the mainstream.

In the fictional diary, one Allan McBride, Canadian, is eager to volunteer to do his patriotic duty, be part of the action, go kill some Huns. Against his parents' wishes, young Allan enlists, following (he thinks) in the footsteps of a friend and mentor he deeply admires.

In France, Allan gets a sudden dose of reality. He witnesses gruesome wounds worse than death, and sees the arbitrary and decidedly unheroic nature of death all around him. He experiences the rush and exhilaration of battle, but the author paints an appropriately grim picture of the trenches - the desolation of No Man's Land, the nauseating smells, the casual horrors.

He also learns about war's class system - how the enlisted man, the common soldier, is mistreated, and expendable, while the officers are pampered and protected. He learns about war profiteering, and I credit the author, John Wilson, with this unsparing view of just how government always "supports the troops".

The rabble-rouser

Part of young Allan McBride's education is his introduction to a war resister, a radical who preaches resistance. This character is presented ambiguously: it's up to Allan McBride and the reader to decide what to make of him. But the words the man speaks are unambiguous and strong.
"But a short while back you also called me a coward. Now that's a serious thing.

"I've seen 'brave' men with chests full of medals reduced to gibbering wrecks by days of shelling or the sight of their best friend's brains smeared along the wall of a trench. Are they cowards?"

I stayed silent.

"Of course they're not. They've just been pushed beyond what any sane man can stand.

"I've been down the coal mines at Cumberland and Extension on Vancouver Island, where it's so gassy that a careless spark can create a wall of fire that'll incinerate fifty men before they even have a chance to run. By the Somme River I've seen sixteen-year-old boys walk forward until machine-gun bullets stitched a neat line of holes across their chests. I've heard wounded men in no man's land scream insanely for two days before they died. I've seen men drown in mud holes at Arras when six of their friends weren't strong enough to pull them out. I've felt the last breath of a young German soldier on my cheek while I struggled to pull my bayonet out of his chest." Sommerfield paused for a long minute, still holding me with his stare. Around us the other men stood in a silence I had only ever heard in church. Eventually, Sommerfield continued.

"I've felt fear so intense that I was paralyzed and I've wept uncontrollably at some of the things I've seen and done, but have I run away? No. After every horror I buried my comrades, picked up my rifle and fought on like a good soldier. So, yes, I am a coward. I'm a coward because through all of that I went on doing what the stupid generals wanted. I never stood up and said, 'No!' I never screamed, 'Enough!' I never shot the officer who ordered another thousand young men to go over the top, knowing that half of them would be dead an hour later."

Confusion overwhelmed me now. What was this man talking about? His list of horrors had nothing to do with bravery, honour and fighting for your country. Did it?

Before I could think of anything to say, an Australian in the crowd shouted, "But you did run away, Harry."

Sommerfield turned his stare on the man who had spoken, releasing me.

"Some would say that," he murmured. "Others might say I'm simply fighting a different war. I'm taking as much of a chance coming here as any I took in the front lines. Only difference is, if I'm caught now, it's my own side that'll shoot me, not the Germans."

"You're a deserter," I said with sudden realization.

"That's what some would call me." Sommerfield turned back to look at me. "I've also been called a Socialist, a traitor, a conspirator and a rabble-rouser. I prefer to think of myself as a sheep who has seen the light and no longer wants to be led unprotesting to the slaughterhouse."

Deserter or victim? The army shoots you either way.

Eventually, Allan McBride suffers "shell shock," what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, what I hope one day we will finally acknowledge is the normal, human response to the insanity of war. He wanders away from his unit, believing he is walking home to Canada. He meets a band of deserters, led by the same Sommerfield, who help him recover. Sommerfield speaks bluntly about their predicament.
"Only one choice as far as I can see," Sommerfield said. "Nothing's going to stop the Germans. As soon as they reach the coast, Britain and France are going to have to make peace.

"Oh, there'll be lots of shouting and a big peace conference. Some money and some land will change hands and everyone will try and claim that they did well out of it. There'll be a few years for everyone to lick their wounds and build up their armies." He spat into the fire. "And then it'll all happen again."

"But that means that we'll have fought for four years for nothing."

"For the average man it always was for nothing. What did you or I ever stand to gain from this war? If we were lucky, we'd stay alive. The only people who profit from war are the businessmen who make the guns, shells, bombs, uniforms and all the rest of the paraphernalia an army needs.

They're making fortunes and you don't see a single one of them risking his life in the mud. The worker — whether he's British, French, Canadian, German or, now, American — is fighting to put money in some fat slug's pocket in London, Paris, Toronto or Berlin."

"Like the bloody Ross rifle," Pete muttered. Sommerfield caught my questioning look and said, "You weren't out here at the beginning, but the Canadians in 1915 and '16 were given Ross rifles instead of the British Enfields. The government wanted the contract to go to a Canadian company so their cronies could profit. Trouble was, the rifle didn't work. It jammed when the least bit of dirt got in it, the bayonet tended to fall off and, if you weren't really careful assembling it, the bolt flew back and took the side of your head off when you fired it. Everyone hated it. At Ypres in 1915, the first thing you did when you got out of the trench was find a dead Brit and take his rifle.

"Canadian boys died because of the Ross rifle, but would the government stop issuing it? No. Good old Sir Charles Ross was making a packet and he had friends in high places. What did it matter if the rifle was killing a few young soldiers? Eventually, General Haig had to order the Canadians to issue us with Enfields."

If Sommerfield had told me this story last summer, I'd have shouted him down as a liar. Now I was angry, but my anger was at Ross and the others, not Sommerfield.
So our hero has grown. His experiences have changed him. Where there was once only flag-waving patriotism and utter disdain for dissent, there is now a painful and confusing doubt. All the while, McBride suffers from nightmares, outbursts of anger, episodes of confusion.

Eventually, Allan McBride comes to a crossroad. He can either take off with Sommerfield and make his way back to Canada, lying about his circumstances but likely saving his life. Or he can return to his unit, where he will probably face a firing squad.

Sommerfield and others make it clear that the Army will have no sympathy for McBride. He was out of his mind. He didn't know where he was or what he was doing. He did not intentionally desert. But if he returns, he probably will be executed for desertion. The injustice of this will be obvious to most young readers. (In the epilogue, back in the present, we learn how many British and Canadian soldiers were executed this way, and how long their families waited for their posthumous pardons.)

Making the means fit the end

Both sides of Allan McBride's dilemma are presented. But this is a children's book, and our hero cannot knowingly desert his duty. He cannot hold fake identification documents and stow away on a steamer ship to Canada. He must do the honourable, dutiful thing: he must face the consequences of his actions and return to his unit.

How are we to make this credible? How many people will knowingly walk to their deaths - not in the heat of battle, and not to save someone else, but calmly and with consideration, choose an unjust death for principles like patriotic duty? The only way this ending can be justified - meaning, the only way it won't look like a crazy deus ex machina decision - is to discredit the road not taken.

Allan is torn between two opposites, the classic two-father-figure scenario: his commander, who is his friend and mentor from home, and Harry Sommerfield, the rabble-rouser. The author pushes his character into the right choice by discrediting Sommerfield, who is suddenly motivated purely by self interest.

Of course, some political operatives are primarily self-interested, but nothing in Sommerfield's character up to this point has hinted that he is anything but a charismatic true believer. Suddenly he is transformed into an entirely selfish, manipulative opportunist.

So Allan McBride is freed from Sommerfield's spell, and can return to his unit - where he is immediately incarcerated and scheduled for execution.

Allan's commander (who is also his friend and mentor from home) pulls some strings, gets the execution stayed, and gets Allan treatment. The famous army hospital at Craiglockhart War Hospital, where Dr. Rivers has been breaking new ground with his humane treatment of "shell shock" (portrayed in Pat Barker's excellent book Regeneration, based on the memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon), is available only to officers. But somehow Dr. Rivers will treat Allan privately.

A Hollywood ending, but I understand

It's a fairy tale ending, tacked on to a story that is anything but a fairy tale.

And yet, as someone who wrote for kids, I acknowledge that is likely the only choice available to the author. (I can't speak for the author; perhaps this is exactly the ending he wanted.) Our hero can't very well be shot for desertion. And no mainstream publisher wants a book where the hero deserts and sneaks back to his country with faked papers. So I get it. But I don't like it.

But more importantly, Shot At Dawn shows a reality of war that is often not available to young people - not only war's brutality, but its inherent injustice. And through the character of Harry Sommerfield, strong ideas of pacifism and socialism are spoken alongside the more familiar words of nationalism.

The book is perfect for advancing classroom discussions or for writing assignments asking children what they think Allan should have done, or what they would do, and why.