March 24, 2017

Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined

Written by Danielle Younge-Ullman
368 pp.
Ages 13-17
February 2017
After, I stand for a few moments looking out over the water, the moon reflecting off its glass-like surface.  It's beautiful, yes.  But the beauty doesn't reach me the way it's supposed to because I feel like it's been shoved down my throat.  I register the stark gorgeousness of the dying day, and what it fills me with is unease, and an ominous sensation of cracking inside–of cracking open, of a corresponding excruciating pain I have kept at bay by incredible discipline beginning to seep toward the surface. (pg. 87)
Ingrid Burke must feel like she's been deposited in another world, and one not of her choosing.  In fact, not even one like in the brochure her mother, retired opera singer Margot-Sophia Lalonde, had shown her of Peak Wilderness, an outdoors camp in northern Ontario, to which Ingrid has agreed to go so her mother would permit her attendance at a prestigious music school in London England.  Worse yet, Ingrid, who perceives herself to be “a model citizen and paragon of stability” (pg. 53) compared to the miscellany of other troubled youth campers, must survive three weeks of hiking, canoeing, roughing it, and sharing under the supervision of leaders Pat and Bonnie who seem to enjoy the group’s failures at near impossible tasks.

What happened that led Ingrid to this challenging and repeatedly dangerous situation is told in alternating chapters, organized by Ingrid's age, that speak to her life before Peak Wilderness.  They tell of her life travelling the world with her famous mother and then, after damage to Margot-Sophia’s vocal chords leads them home to Toronto,  the reversal of roles when Margot-Sophia is overcome with depression.  Revealed slowly but with ease are Ingrid’s experiences at school and home, feeling vulnerable and frustrated, fearful and positive, and her attempts to achieve normalcy and some happiness. Eventually we also learn what led her to Peak Wilderness.

My words cannot do justice to the depth of Danielle Younge-Ullman's characterizations and story-telling.  There is so much to share with readers that my words seem sparse and ineffective. But I can tell you that Danielle Younge-Ullman weaves Ingrid’s present and past into a fabric of ordinary and extraordinary, creating a life of tenacity to which most of us could aspire.  Though Ingrid doesn’t want to acknowledge the vulnerabilities that brought her to the camp, Danielle Younge-Ullman provides hints throughout the story–Isaac, an axe and an injured leg–that there is more to the teen’s story than she reveals to others and even to herself.  Her go-to survival mechanisms include a strained positivity –“How exciting, and what a magnificent opportunity to get in touch with my inner savage” (pg. 29)– and silence with a dose of denial.  But beyond Ingrid’s inner turmoil are the relationships the teen has with her mother, her new father, a boy with whom she has a connection, and all the campers.  These relationships drive Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined.  They ebb and flow, both serene and passionate, not unlike the music of a great opera that Margot-Sophia might have performed.  Though Ingrid might think she knows the music of her life really well, she’s just learning to perform it with passion so that she can make it successfully to the triumphant finish.   And Danielle Younge-Ullman makes sure that we want to stay for the whole performance without ever nodding off.


On May 6, 2017, Danielle Younge-Ullman will be speaking at the Stratford Writers Festival Young Adult forum along with numerous other YA authors.  I'll post about it here soon but you can get details at

I'll be there and you should be too!

March 22, 2017

Town Is by the Sea

Written by Joanne Schwartz
Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Groundwood Books
52 pp.
Ages 5-9
April 2017

A little longer than most picture books, Town Is by the Sea needs all those pages to envelop the daily life of a father and son, one above ground in the sunshine of a summer day and the other in the dark deeps of a coal mine.  It's a picture book about legacy, family, work and child's play.  Amazing that Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith managed all that in 52 pages.

Long before a little boy awakens to stand in his underwear at the window and gaze upon the sea, his father has breakfasted, grabbed his lunchbox and joined the multitudes of men making their way to work in the coal mines. The father's routine in the darkest dark is juxtaposed against the brightness and lightness of the young boy's day.  Working underground versus playing and running in the sun. Both close to the sea but different.  Though the boy's day is filled with different activities like swinging in the playground, enjoying his lunch, going to the store, visiting his grandfather's grave, and sitting by the sea, his father's day is the same throughout, sombrely depicted with one line, repeated with similar oppressive illustrations:
"And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal.
From Town Is by the Sea 
by Joanne Schwartz 
illus. by Sydney Smith
While it might appear that the end of the day has come when his father returns home safe and the family is drawn together for supper and a sit on the porch overlooking the sea, the young boy's day ends with thoughts of the two different types of days and his own inevitable future in the mines.

"In my town, that's the way it goes."

Town Is by the Sea is a powerful story in words and text of lives lived in a town based in coal mining. Both author Joanne Schwartz and illustrator Sydney Smith are Nova Scotia-born and the depth of their knowledge is evident in the weight of their contributions to the book.  Though Town Is by the Sea could be an oppressive story of a dangerous vocation and the formidable eventuality for the boy and his cohorts, Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith play up the lightness of childhood, giving a shine to the boy's movements, even in the visit to his grandfather's grave.  

  My grandfather used to say,
Bury me facing the sea b'y,
I worked long and hard

From Town Is by the Sea 
by Joanne Schwartz
 illus. by Sydney Smith
The antithesis of the two lives is reflected in the very sea that pervades their landscapes and their livelihoods.  It is both brilliant and overbearing, life giving and life sapping.  It can sparkle and shimmer or be frothy and tumultuous.  In her words, Joanne Schwartz gets it right.  In his artwork, Sydney Smith is definitive. His watercolour and ink illustrations, the very style that garnered Sidewalk Flowers (JonArno Lawson, Groundwood, 2015) numerous awards and had me effusive over The White Cat and the Monk (JoEllen Bogart, Groundwood, 2016), produces that contrast of light and dark, and easy and difficult, so apparently effortlessly that it's as if Sydney Smith was born to illustrate this very book.  

I'm so pleased that neither Joanne Schwartz, a Toronto librarian, and Sydney Smith, illustrator extraordinaire, were destined to lives beneath the sea digging coal.  Without them,  there would be no Town Is by the Sea and this story book is far too important to never have been shared with those who live by that sea and those who do not.
From Town Is by the Sea 
by Joanne Schwartz 
illus. by Sydney Smith

Town Is by the Sea: Book launch (Halifax, NS)

Halifax Public Libraries


Groundwood Books

are partnering for the book launch 

of the first collaboration


author Joanne Schwartz 


illustrator Sydney Smith

Town Is by the Sea


Saturday, March 25, 2017

10 a.m. -12 p.m.


Halifax Public Library
Central Branch
Lindsay Children's Room
5440 Spring Garden Road 
Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada

From the website of the Halifax Public Libraries:

Families are invited to help launch the new picture book Town Is by the Sea with the author Joanne Schwartz and illustrator Sydney Smith. In this beautifully understated and haunting story, a piece of Canadian history is brought to life. A young boy wakes up to the sound of the sea, visits his grandfather's grave after lunch, and comes home to a simple family dinner with his family, but all the while his mind strays to his father digging for coal deep down under the sea. Stunning illustrations by Sydney Smith, the award-winning illustrator of Sidewalk Flowers, show the striking contrast between a sparkling seaside day and the darkness underground where the miners dig.

March 20, 2017

Mr. Postmouse Takes a Trip

Written and illustrated by Marianne Dubuc
Kids Can Press
24 pp.
Ages 3-7
April 2017

Mr. Postmouse is the postmaster but he's closing up the post office and going on vacation with Mrs. Postmouse and his mouselings Pip, Milo and Lulu.  But this is a busman's holiday, if ever there was one, because each stop involves a delivery.  Half the fun of Mr. Postmouse Takes a Trip is looking for what package has disappeared from Mr. Postmouse's wagon and to whom it has been delivered.  The other half of the fun is taking in all the intricate details of Marianne Dubuc's astounding illustrations, overflowing with characters, activity and novelty. If you could only take one picture book on vacation, it would be Mr. Postmouse Takes a Trip, for the sheer volume of stories told within the minutiae of each illustration.

The trip, which is more inclusive than a world cruise, begins with the family Postmouse leaving their rural neighbourhood (I recognize the rural mailbox with its flag up) and bidding adieu to Mr. Bear and heading to a campground.  Amidst the woods of hikers and multitudinous fauna, Marianne Dubuc provides a glimpse into the tidy camper of Aunt Claudette and the family's own tent with cozy sleeping bags.

These pen and ink and pencil illustrations of structures from the camper to a department store and volcanic mountain are quintessential to the Mr. Postmouse series, taking down that fourth wall (or mountain side or ground) to expose an interior of intricacy and wonder.  It's a peek into unseen worlds, more whimsy than real (except for the human structures of food trucks and buildings), always imaginative and elaborate.
From Mr. Postmouse Takes a Trip
by Marianne Dubuc
Next stop: the beach.  Take a glimpse inside the sandcastle Lulu is building for Mr. Crab or into the ladybug’s ground hovel or the ice-cream truck of Mr. Panda. Or look for which package Milo is delivering to a seagull.
From Mr. Postmouse Takes a Trip 
by Marianne Dubuc
The trip continues with a foray onto the seas in an extraordinary cruise ship named the Rosetta, a stop on a volcanic island (and delivery for Tarzan to his tree house), a trek through the desert and into a jungle which seems to pay homage to Rousseau. The trip ends with stops in a bustling city, in the mountains, on an ice field, and with a venture into the heavens via hot-air balloon.  With each new destination, the Postmice deliver packages or envelopes, enjoy the attributes of the new locale and readers witness new worlds burgeoning with life and joie de vivre.
From Mr. Postmouse Takes a Trip 
by Marianne Dubuc
I hope Mr. Postmouse, Mrs. Postmouse, Pip, Milo and Lulu think to send lots of postcards–I'm sure Mr. Postmouse has a healthy supply of stamps!–to help them remember their trip because it is certainly a memorable one.  Even locales which may seem ordinary to some readers are teeming with delightfulness and amusing distractions for both Postmouses (Postmice?) and readers.  There’s Mr. Lizard’s dinner on a plate, meerkats playing chess under ground, the operatic cat putting an audience member to sleep, King Kong hiding, a marmot with booties on his ears, and ants in every location.  Without naming places, Marianne Dubuc may have taken everyone on a seven-continent tour via all manner of transportation.  But, it’s not like Mr. Postmouse Takes a Trip is a picture book to support your geography curriculum.  It is there to entertain and tickle, and it does, providing rich discussion fodder and a fascination with all that goes on, both inside and outside around the world.  Bon voyage!

March 17, 2017

Blood Brothers

Written by Colleen Nelson
216 pp.
Ages 12-15
February 2017
Reviewed from advance reading copy

"...just cuz we share blood, doesn't make us brothers." (pg. 208)

Brothers are born and brothers are made through commonalities in purpose and temperament.  But does one kind of brotherhood surpass the other? How do you weigh what one brother means to you against another?  These are the questions being asked throughout Colleen Nelson's new work of young adult fiction as two fifteen-year-old boys steer through life, amidst the poverty and violence of a tenuous world and one of apparent opportunity for better.

Jakub Kaminsky admits that he has a sad little life. His parents emigrated from Poland for a better life before his mother died giving birth to him.  An injury at work left his devout father with a mangled leg and unable to work.  Now the two live in a rooming house on the West Side and attend and volunteer at St. Mary's, the parish of Father Dominic.  Jakub works hard at school and gets good grades, but he's truly alive when he's tagging as Morf.

Lincoln Bear may live with his mother and father and younger brother Dustin, for whom he tries to be an attentive big brother, but his home life is hardly comfortable, emotionally or financially.  When 21-year-old brother Henry returns from eighteen months in prison and promptly reestablishes his connection to the Red Bloodz gang, Lincoln is pulled in, hopeful of reconnecting with his brother and making a better life for himself. But restoring that relationship entails Lincoln becoming involved in jacking cars for a chop shop the gang runs which leads to more dangerous and illegal activities.

Jakub knows Henry is using Lincoln but he has no defence when he himself is involved in illegal tagging, especially after Lincoln takes the fall when they are almost caught by the police.  With Jakub starting as a bursary student at the prestigious St. Bart's school, and Lincoln falling deeper under the thumb of his violent brother, it becomes evident that the friendship between the two teens is at risk.

The survival of their friendship ends up being the least of their worries, though it is a driving force, when Lincoln becomes involved in a murder, and Jakub finds a very public but dangerous way of revealing the perpetrators. Blood Brothers culminates with a violent struggle between brothers of different kinds and very real consequences for all involved in desperate ventures.
"It's too late, I want to tell her.  It's like when water gets sucked down a drain.  Stuffing a finger in to stop it won't do any good.  The water still slips away." (pg.161)
Colleen Nelson leaves no time or breath of respite for the reader who is thrown from one harrowing situation to another, as both Jakub and Lincoln attempt to create lives that matter for themselves.  Yet, with all the poor choices the two make–and there are many–they are guided by a desire to be part of something good whether it be family, friendship, church or school. They want to be persons of consequence, because of their art or their presence or their actions.  They want what everyone wants: to matter.  Whether that happens depends on where you start and where you go and all the steps you take in between.  For Jakub and Lincoln, whose voices Colleen Nelson asserts both honestly and compassionately through those strides and missteps, it's their brotherhood that walks with them, leaving its own footprints.


Be sure to check out Dundurn's book trailer for Blood Brothers at
Uploaded to YouTube by Dundurn Press on November 24, 2016. 

March 16, 2017

Hand Over Hand

by Alma Fullerton
Illustrated by Renné Benoit
Second Story Press
24 pp.
Ages 5-8
April 2017

Alma Fullerton is becoming well known for taking young readers to other parts of the world to appreciate different ways of life.  There was A Good Trade (Pajama Press, 2012) set in Uganda; Community Soup (Pajama Press, 2013) which is based  in a school garden in Kenya; and In a Cloud of Dust (Pajama Press, 2015) which emphasizes the long distances Tanzanian children travel to school.  Now Alma Fullerton, with Renné Benoit’s soft illustrations, transports young readers to the Philippines in Hand Over Hand and takes up the cause of a young girl determined to not let her gender limit the life she wants to have.

It’s evident that Nina is expected to stay on shore and tend to racks of drying fish because she is a girl.
From Hand Over Hand 
by Alma Fullerton 
illus. by Renné Benoit
When she proposes to her grandfather, Lolo, that he take her out fishing in the banca boat with him, he scoffs at first.  But Nina is determined and insists she will bait her own hook and remove the caught fish.  It is obviously a milestone for the young child but one her grandfather accepts and even defends to the other fishermen who discount Nina.  However, though Lolo instructs his granddaughter in the art of baiting and jigging, demonstrating the hand-over-hand technique for drawing his line in, Nina is catching no fish.  When she becomes dismayed, repeating the other fishermen’s refrain that a girl can’t fish, Lolo shares the wise words, “Posh! The fish can’t tell you’re a girl.” Just when she is checking that the bait is still intact, she gets a tremendous tug on her line.  Nina, fearful she might not be strong enough to bring in the fish, almost gives it up to Lolo but he instead encourages her to use the hand-over-hand technique and persevere.

From Hand Over Hand 
by Alma Fullerton 
illus. by Renné Benoit
Hand Over Hand is a story of empowerment and determination when faced with naysayers and traditions that keep opportunities at bay.  Alma Fullerton’s simple story is loaded with lessons in seeing beyond gender, of courage to take on new struggles, both emotional and physical, and of the amazing things that can be accomplished with a supportive hand.  Even the other fishermen are surprised when they see the big fish little Nina brings in. The messages are evident but the context of Hand Over Hand is just as powerful, revealing the fishing traditions of the Philippines, as well as the stereotyping of roles that are being broken all over the world.  With a charming but realistic relationship between grandfather and granddaughter, Alma Fullerton encourages cultural competence amongst all readers.

Illustrator Renné Benoit whose artwork has garnered numerous awards and nominations (e.g., Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion by Jane Barclay, Tundra, 2009;  The Secret of the Village Fool by Rebecca Upjohn, Second Story Press, 2012; A Year of Borrowed Men by Michelle Barker, Pajama Press, 2015) was the perfect choice  for Hand Over Hand.  Her watercolour and coloured pencil with pastels lend an airiness to the outdoor setting of sky and water, and an innocence to Nina and her endeavours.

Hand Over Hand has a purity of text and image that promotes an appreciation for another culture but it extends beyond by furthering the idea of gender equality, helping a little girl and her grandfather both see a new way of doing things.
From Hand Over Hand 
by Alma Fullerton 
illus. by Renné Benoit

March 15, 2017

Good Morning, Grumple

Written by Victoria Allenby
Illustrated by Manon Gauthier
Pajama Press
24 pp.
Ages 2-4
March 2017

According to Victoria Allenby’s dedication, she has a couple of grumples in her life–a big one and a little one–and I suspect that, if you’ve been trying to rouse your kids during March break when they’d much rather sleep, you’ve got some grumples of your own.
A grumple, a grumple is hard to awaken.
It doesn’t like noises. It hates being shaken.
It loathes and despises a bright, cheery voice,
And big, shiny lights are a terrible choice. (pg. 5)
From Good Morning, Grumple 
by Victoria Allenby 
illus. by Manon Gauthier
In Good Morning, Grumple, a mother fox, who has obviously endured many a morning struggling to get a grumpy young one in rumpled bed clothes out of bed, attempts the near impossible feat with an established process of rhyming song and accompanying actions.  It starts with a soft singing of “Shh–Shh–Slow we go.  The sun is rising on tip-toe, tip-toe.” (pg. 9)  Nice and easy, but the grumple just burrows deeper into the linens, only feet and a paw clutching a stuffie visible.  That’s OK.  Mother knows the next step is getting a little closer and a little louder with “Shush–Shush–There’s no rush.  The sun is gold in the morning hush.” (pg. 10) Mother Fox may rely on the sun for her inspiration but the efforts are all hers, with tickles, kisses, hugs and a dance, all with louder affirmations until both mother and child are out the door, welcoming the new day and its promise for play.

Every household must have one or two grumples, and Victoria Allenby has contrived a playful way of rousing them to waking.  You may need to read the book several times, with your child, to establish the song, and I’m not sure of the melody, but little ones will delight in the role they get to play, even if it means ultimately getting out of bed.

Victoria Allenby has proven that she can write light and refreshing books for pre-readers and early readers (Nat the Cat Can Sleep Like That, Pajama Press, 2013; Timo’s Garden, Pajama Press, 2015; Timo’s Party, Pajama Press, 2016; Rhino Rumpus, Pajama Press, 2016) but now she’s bringing that novelty to helping parents parent, all without preaching about how to do it right.  I wonder if she even intended to provide a wake-up protocol for grumples or just share an engaging practice that might work for others.
From Good Morning, Grumple 
by Victoria Allenby 
illus. by Manon Gauthier
Manon Gauthier lends her trademark cut paper collage (see Elliot, Pajama Press, 2016, and All to World a Poem, Pajama Press, 2016) to Good Morning, Grumple, establishing evocative scenes with her artistry.  Colour is limited but effective, with the neutrality of a grumple atmosphere evident throughout.  No grumple would ever see much in the way of colour before deigning to open his/her eyes completely, and Manon Gauthier supports this premise wholeheartedly.  But Manon Gauthier refuses to keep things stark and uninspiring.  All indoor and outdoor scenes, before and after waking, are freckled with birds, flowers, and household furnishings and decorations that invite readers in.  Collage art has never been so expressive and atmospheric.

Enjoy the smaller and inviting format of Good Morning, Grumple with Pajama Press’ unique padded cover, rounded corners and heavy-duty paper that make it a pleasure to hold.  Let me know whether the premise works for your own little grumples but remember: it may take a few tries, and a little more sunshine than we’re seeing in March, for it to work.  Even if it doesn’t, you’ll enjoy a great read with your youngest ones and perhaps lead them to the self-discovery of their grumple status and ultimately to an appreciation of the efforts made on their behalf.