Friday, November 29, 2013

The Metro Dogs of Moscow

Lately, I have been knee-deep in this at work:

Neat little piles of Blue Spruce, Red Maple, Silver Birch Fiction, SB Express, and Silver Birch Non-Fiction books

The nominated titles for the 2014 Forest of Reading have all arrived. What remains is to process them, and to read as many as I can before we officially kick off the reading programs in the new year.

Last week I had the immense pleasure of reading the Silver Birch-nominated title, The Metro Dogs of Moscow, by Rachelle Delaney.

I had heard of this junior novel before the OLA nominations were announced in October. And of course I had it on my list of books to read. Thanks to Daughter1, I have a bit of a Russian fascination happening. But outside of my personal connection to the story's setting, I adored this book.  It is an adventure/mystery novel perfect for both boys and girls in grades 3-6. Dog lovers are sure to enjoy it. I couldn't help but be reminded of another adventurous literary Jack Russell puppy, Wishbone - from the 90's television show of the same name. Metro Dogs is easy to read; has a nice, natural flow to the plot; likeable characters; an engaging sense of humour, and a fascinating setting. This would also make a great read-aloud for this age group.

JR is the pet of a Canadian Embassy worker stationed in Moscow. Not content with remaining in an apartment while his human goes out on the town in the evenings, JR finds a way to escape, and he eventually meets up with the stray dogs that he has seen while out on his "walkies" with George. Appearances are not always what they seem, and despite their mangy exteriors, JR is able to strike up a friendship with these strays. Mystery and adventure ensue as first the strays, and then another embassy dog go missing from the streets of Moscow.

Upon finishing this book, I would have loved to sit down with Ms. Delaney and chat about each other's Moscow experiences and impressions. And isn't this what a good book does? It allows the reader to make a connection and leaves you wanting to  talk about the book with anyone who shares this connection. Unfortunately, Daughter1 was embroiled in print deadlines when I turned the last page of Metro Dogs - I had to be satisfied with a few quick text messages back and forth about the book. I laughed out loud at the image of Katerina running after JR in her high heels, because I know that a stiletto-clad woman with model good looks is not an unusual thing to see.

 And the description of the parking etiquette? How's this for an example?

Everything about The Metro Dogs of Moscow took me back to my too-short stay in Moscow in 2011. My first sighting of Red Square, an amazing sunny afternoon strolling the Arbat, and the must-see Metro itself.  My one huge regret? Not talking Miss Healthy Eating-Obsessed into letting us sample something from Kroshka Kartoshka. Next time? You bet!

Delaney, Rachelle. The Metro Dogs of Moscow. Penguin Canada, 2013.
224 p.
Nominated title - Silver Birch Award, Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading 2014.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Uplifting. Crushing. Touching. Devastating. I recently watched the 2013 Sundance Film Festival winner, Fruitvale Station. As I sat in the stunned silence of the theatre as the credits rolled; tears streaming down my face, I knew it would be awhile before I could put into words what I had just participated in. I deliberately say "participated," as opposed to "witnessed" or "viewed." First time writer and director, Ryan Coogler has done an unbelievable job of bringing the viewer along on a day-in-the-life of his main character.

It's not just any day though. This is the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III, the real-life young, unarmed, Oakland resident who was shot by a uniformed transit police officer on New Year's Day, 2009. And while the facts of the headlines, themselves, should be enough to reduce anyone to tears - and in many cases do - it is when the viewer comes to know Oscar as a real person that the horror of the event becomes real.

And how does Coogler achieve this? In an 89 minute film, Coogler paints the most 3D portrait of a film character that I can remember. Oscar has his demons, for sure: a drug past, and a volatile temper, to begin with. And yet, he is also portrayed as a loving father, friend, son, brother, and partner. In his own words, he is "trying to start off fresh, but it's not working out." Conversations can be had about this very point. Is the loss of this life any different than the innocent loss of any life - say, if the protagonist is not such a likable character? I'm not sure what my emotional response would be, had I not become so invested in Oscar as a loving young man trying to get his life on track. As I came to know Oscar in Fruitvale, I came to like him. His relationships mattered to me. And I wept for the loss that all those characters endured, and continue to experience.

Much has been written about the brilliance of Michael B. Jordan's portrayal of Oscar. I have long been a fan of this young actor, and was cognizant of his amazing talent when he starred as quarterback Vince Howard on Friday Night Lights (ahh, FNL - I'm still in withdrawal). The facial acting Jordan performed in the many confrontations with Coach and others, has been further developed in Fruitvale. This talent should definitely be rewarded come Oscar time. A superb supporting cast rounds out the production.

It's not easy, but a film that needs to be seen. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Authors As Rock Stars

I recently read a tweet by CBC broadcaster, Jian Ghomeshi, in which he applauded Canada for being a country where authors are treated as rock stars. This acclamation came in response to the Giller Prize Awards which he had hosted the previous evening.

I must share. The one and only time I was able to attend the Festival of Trees - the culminating awards ceremony for the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading program, I was blown away with the same sentiment. A couple of years ago, on a sunny May day at Harbourfront Centre in downtown Toronto, I watched close to 4,000 elementary students scream like they were witnessing the arrival of the British Invasion, when their favourite author was introduced and walked across the stage. Later, they eagerly stood in line with nary a complaint, for what seemed like an eternity; clutching their copies of the nominated titles and waiting to say a few words to the author and have him or her sign their book. As a member of the children's literature community, it is an event to be experienced.

Similarly, I had the fortune to attend the TD Canadian Children's Literature Awards gala last month, in Toronto. Again, I witnessed the celebration of the written word and the elevation of Canadian authors to celebrity status. Like Mr. Ghomeshi, I too am proud to "live in a country where authors are rock stars."

As I write this, I am waiting for the delivery of my Forest of Reading titles. I have been answering students queries for weeks now about the books, and when we can get started. A few of the intermediate girls were so excited to hear that our school board has purchased copies of the nominated titles in eBook format. As a small school, we will definitely benefit from this freeing-up of hard copies.

At this time of year, I will finish up some of my personal reading choices and move on to the Forest titles. Over the next 6-8 weeks I will start to formulate some plans and ideas to help bring these books to life for the students who sign up for this extra-curricular reading group. I would love to hear from anyone else in the education and children's book community who are involved in the Forest of Reading.

For those readers who are not familiar with the program, it goes like this - nominated titles are made public by the selection committee in mid-October. The categories are arranged in the following manner:

Blue Spruce - students in JK- Grade 2.
Silver Birch - students in Grades 3-6. Fiction and Non-Fiction, with the Express list specially suited for students in grades 3 and 4.
Red Maple - students in Grades 7 and 8. Fiction. Non-Fiction titles are included in alternating years.

There is also a category for High School students (White Pine), French students (Le Prix Peuplier and Le Prix Tamarac), and Adult readers (Golden Oak and Evergreen).

Readers must read a minimum of 5 of the 10 nominated titles, in order to vote for their favourite in April. In May the winners are announced at Festival of Trees ceremonies in Toronto, London, and Thunder Bay.

The nominated titles for the 2014 Forest of Reading (Elementary School) can be found here.

Stay tuned for more Forest updates as the program progresses.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Summer Days, Starry Nights

I recently discovered a new-to-me author. And she's Canadian!

Last month I stumbled upon Vikki VanSickle's Words That Start With B, and I loved it. Although I was anxious to continue the Clarissa and Benji series, lo and behold, I caught wind of Summer Days, Starry Nights. I even had to put a hold on it at my public library - usually a good sign.

OMG! I enjoyed Summer Days even more than I did Words. I am not sure how Ms. VanSickle packs as much as she does into a small 219-page novel, but this middle-grade book has it all: memorable characters, wonderful descriptive passages, believable events, and relevant themes.

Although set in 1962, the story is timeless. The author readily captures that time and space between childhood and young adulthood, and she does such a bang-up job of it. My emotional response to Reenie Starr returned me to the days when I couldn't decide if I was in a hurry to be grown up, or wanted to remain in the protective cocoon of childhood for eternity. I dare anyone to read this novel and not feel 13 again.

I was also transported back to the Muskoka summers of my youth; in my case, the 1970's version: endless days of reading, diving from the dock, canoe trips with just my Dad, oh, and learning the all-important skill of making mixed drinks for our adult visitors. Ms. VanSickle's beautiful descriptive language is to be credited for this response. My all-time favourite book in this genre is Kit Pearson's Looking at the Moon (Book Two in the Guests of War trilogy), and it is for this very same reason. The author realistically and effortlessly plunks the reader down in the middle of Ontario cottage country during simpler times.

On a serious note, I was particularly struck by the author's sensitive and realistic approach to the subject of mental illness in the form of depression. Her unique way of introducing and handling this relevant subject makes for a great conversation starter. Summer Days, Starry Nights would be an excellent book club choice for a mother/daughter or middle-grade book club.

I'm looking forward to more from this author.

VanSickle, Vikki. Summer Days, Starry Nights. Scholastic Canada, 2013. 219 p.
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
Audience: Grade 5+

Starred review Canadian Children's Book Centre's Best Books for Kids and Teens 2013.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Terror Behind the Walls

Last Fall, I enjoyed an absolutely AMAZING long weekend in Philly. The historical sites, the museums, the Reading Terminal Market, the Philly Cheese Steak, the BYOB restaurants, the out-of-this-world-picture-perfect weather - I loved it all.

The Sunday afternoon found us soaking up the sun and lingering over flights of craft beers at a local, while listening to the cheers of Eagles' fans watching their home opener. I began doing what I always tend to do on road trips -  postponing our departure; trying to pack in just one more activity.
 We made the decision to visit one last site before hitting the road. Don't worry! Mr. Fun was our driver and he was only getting little sips of the delicious seasonal brews. Our choice? Eastern State Penitentiary.

Opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary was a product of the Enlightenment. Today it stands in "controlled ruin." Historically, architecturally, socially -  I found it fascinating, and would highly recommend a visit to any Philly visitor. Since time was a bit of an issue, we opted for the self-guided audio tour and one additional interactive tour with a staff member. There are numerous ways to experience ESP, but count on spending two hours minimum.
What I don't think I could recommend, though, is the annual Terror Behind the Walls that ESP puts on each October. I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that I had chills walking around this place on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I know my limits - I could not handle the scarefest of Terror Behind the Walls. But that's not to say that it wouldn't suit the fright needs of others.
I recently came across an NPR piece about this Halloween treat. You can check it out here. ESP also has an excellent website: It is chock-full of historical and research resources, and educational extension activities.

I just read in the Travel section of my newspaper this morning that the new Benjamin Franklin Museum has opened in Philly.  Now there's a place a life-long learner can sink her teeth into. Was Ben not one of modern times' original life-long learners? I believe it's soon time for a return visit to the City of Brotherly Love.

Monday, October 7, 2013

My Library Helper

I, like many school librarians, have a library helper. Carley takes her job very seriously. She bounds into the Library each day to see if there are books waiting in her bin to be reshelved. Sometimes I try to warn her that the container is too heavy and she should take two or three loads. Nothing doing. She is a strong girl, and regardless of how full it is, she always carries the bin from the library cart over to the picture book area, and quickly gets to work - announcing each letter where the book will be shelved. On the days when I haven't yet emptied the Book Return and no books are waiting for her, she gives me a distinct look that lets me know she is disappointed in me.

The other day I thanked Carley for doing such a great job. She then told me that she is going to high school (as in next September). She hugged me, and told me how much she is going to miss me. Not nearly as much as I, and our whole school community is going to miss her.

It just so happens that my library helper has Down Syndrome.

When we were working on our One Book One School activity last year, we used Natalie Merchant`s song Wonder. R.J.Polacio has shared that the song played a part in the writing of her bestseller.
  Coincidentally, the song Wonder by Natalie Merchant came on the radio that night, as I was thinking about the ice cream incident, and something about the words to the song just got to me. I started writing Wonder that very night. (from the author`s website)
I found a Youtube video of Natalie Merchant performing Wonder where she discusses her involvement with children with special needs, and the inspiration for the song. I absolutely adore this version, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Wonder Video

Monday, September 30, 2013

TD Canadian Children's Literature Awards - Here I Come!

Everyone loves an awards ceremony. And luckily enough, there is one to suit just about any taste. If social depravity is your scene, you just had a big score last month - but enough has been written about that elsewhere. If, like me, you try to avoid that whole 'weeping for our future' sentiment, and instead like to be inspired by real talent and positive creative spirit, children's book awards may be right up your alley.

I just received my invitation to the 2013 TD Canadian Children's Literature Awards, and I am so excited! A number of awards will be offered that evening:

Monica Hughes Award for
Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Girl With Borrowed Wings
Written by Rinsai Rossetti
Dial Books

Island of Doom:
The Hunchback Assignments IV
Written by Arthur Slade
HarperCollins Publishers

Rebel Heart
Written by Moira Young
Doubleday Canada

Written by Rachel Hartman
Doubleday Canada

Shadows Cast by Stars

Written by Catherine Knutsson
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

John Spray Mystery Award

Becoming Holmes
(The Boy Sherlock Holmes)
Written by Shane Peacock
Tundra Books

Written by Michael Betcherman

Devil's Pass
(Seven the series)
Written by Sigmund Brouwer
Orca Book Publishers

The Lynching of Louie Sam

Written by Elizabeth Stewart
Annick Press

Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure
(The Neil Flambé Capers)

Written and illustrated by Kevin Sylvester
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Geoffrey Bilson Award for
Historical Fiction for Young People

A Call to Battle
(I Am Canadian)
Written by Gillian Chan
Scholastic Canada

The Lynching of Louie Sam
Written by Elizabeth Stewart
Annick Press

Making Bombs for Hitler
Written by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Scholastic Canada

Violins of Autumn
Written by Amy McAuley
Walker Publishing Company, Inc.

Yesterday's Dead

Written by Pat Bourke
Second Story Press

Norma Fleck Award for
Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction

Going Up! Elisha Otis's Trip to the Top

(Great Idea)
Written by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by David Parkins
Tundra Books

Kate & Pippin: An Unlikely Love Story

Written by Martin Springett
Photographs by Isobel Springett
Puffin Canada

Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War
Written by Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books

Real Justice: Fourteen and Sentenced to Death - The Story of Steven Truscott

(Real Justice)
Written by Bill Swan
James Lorimer

Rescuing the Children: The Story of the Kindertransport
Written by Deborah Hodge
Tundra Books

Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

Mr. King's Things

Written and illustrated by Geneviève Côté
Kids Can Press

Mr. Zinger's Hat

Written by Cary Fagan
Illustrated by Dušan Petričić
Tundra Books

The Stamp Collector
Written by Jennifer Lanthier
Illustrated by François Thisdale
Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Uncle Wally's Old Brown Shoe

Written and illustrated by Wallace Edwards
Orca Book Publishers

Virginia Wolf

Written by Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Kids Can Press

TD Canadian Children’s
Literature Award

Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War

Written by Deborah Ellis
Groundwork Books

One Year in Coal Harbour

Written by Polly Horvath
Groundwood Books

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen
Written by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books

The Stamp Collector
Written by Jennifer Lanthier
Illustrated by François Thisdale
Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Virginia Wolf
Written by Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Kids Can Press

TD Fan Choice Award
*New for 2013*

Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War
Written by Deborah Ellis
Groundwork Books

One Year in Coal Harbour

Written by Polly Horvath
Groundwood Books

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen
Written by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books

The Stamp Collector
Written by Jennifer Lanthier
Illustrated by François Thisdale
Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Virginia Wolf
Written by Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Kids Can Press

The awards are administered by the Canadian Children's Book Centre (CCBC) and were established in 2004 to recognize outstanding Canadian authors of books for children aged 1-12.
This year's Fan Choice Award is something new. Know a young reader who would love to win a trip to Toronto to see their favorite author awarded? Let them click on the link and nominate one of the books.
I have written about a couple of nominated titles in this blog. Readers may remember how moved I was by Susin Nielsen's Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen when I reviewed it here. I have also gushed about Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch's Making Bombs for Hitler in this post. For now, I have a few more titles to acquaint myself with before the big night. Oh, and finding the perfect outfit to wear, too. I hear it is quite the gala!

Monday, September 23, 2013


One hundred years ago, this month, my favorite bay girl entered the world.

I've written about Little Nanny in earlier posts. To say that she had an impact on my life would be a serious understatement. She was strong. She loved unconditionally. And she was so unimpressed with wealth and status. The way to her heart? Be an honest, hard-working, family person. And if you found a way into her heart, you were richly rewarded. And I haven't even mentioned the cooking part, yet. Happy Birthday, Nanny. I love you and miss you.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet another bay girl in the fictional character of Kit Ryan.  I have been anxiously awaiting the publication of Heather Smith's Baygirl since I first heard about its impending arrival last spring. And I wasn't disappointed. This gritty, realistic, coming-of-age story is about family and friendship; love, loss, and forgiveness.

Set in a Newfoundland outport on the eve of the 1992 Cod Moratorium, this YA novel follows the story of 16 year-old Kit and her family as they struggle with unemployment, displacement, and alcoholism. Kit has a tough life, and it's about to get a whole lot tougher. Leaving her friend Anne-Marie, and her refuge - her Nan, behind in Parsons Bay, Kit moves with her family to St. John's. The plan is to bunk in with her mother's brother until they get their feet on the ground. It seems, however, that bad times have befallen Kit's hip and young uncle, as well, and all does not go according to plan. In addition to the domestic upheaval that Kit endures, she also faces adversity from her new townie classmates. A gripping cast of characters helps Kit move beyond the initial angst, and when the unthinkable happens, she has a full supporting cast to carry her through.

Kit, herself, is such a likable character. She is strong-willed, sharp-tongued, and possesses one heck of a sense of humour. I have met this character before. Coincidence? I think the island breeds this type of feistiness. Regardless, Ms. Smith captures it perfectly. The language is also spot-on. Although a bit "salty" at times, it is this verisimilitude that has readers buying into the authenticity of the story.

Although I loved the characters, the language, the pacing of the story, and the narrative itself, I think it was the theme of hope and forgiveness that I appreciated the most. The details of the family's hardships are not sugar-coated by any means; yet, all is not bleak. Hope exists for Kit, and it comes at the hands of forgiveness.

And the cover art? Is anyone else blown away by the talent of Teresa Bubela, Steve Feltham, and Getty Images. Well done!

Smith, Heather. Baygirl. Victoria: Orca Book Publishers, 2013. 275 p. (pb)

Genre: Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction

Audience: YA, Teen (subject matter - alcoholism, mild language)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Carnegie Charm

A few weeks ago, while on vacation, I happened upon an old Carnegie library in Petoskey, Michigan.

There is something so familiar and comforting about these architectural gems of the past - stalwart reminders of an earlier generation.  I can still remember, as a child, driving somewhere with my family, when I first heard the term. My Dad had pointed out a "Carnegie Library" and I was intrigued and eager to hear more. I was also thrilled to learn that our own "Old Library" was, itself, a gift from this generous philanthropist.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Andrew Carnegie was a very wealthy industrial baron who had made his fortune in the steel industry. Being a strong believer in the value of education, he sought a suitable recipient for his legacy, and found it in the public library system. Working in partnership with communities, Carnegie established the Carnegie Library Building Grant. 2500 libraries, worldwide, were assisted by the Carnegie Foundation; 125 such buildings in Canada.

I have very vivid memories of being taken to my town's Carnegie library, by my older cousin, to sign up for my first library card. I was perhaps about five years old. I had big, stone steps to climb in order to gain entrance to this magical building. Once inside, adult patrons continued up another flight of stairs to the Adult Department; while younger visitors descended downstairs to the Children's Department. I remember taking such care to print my name in a neat and legible hand. Some things never change - I still list perfect penmanship as a must-have quality.

Equally as impressive as the old Petoskey Library, was the town's new library directly across the street. I was moved by the architectural detailing and the sense of history that was captured.

Entrance to the Children's Department

And of course, I was taken by the Hemingway connection to a "local" Ontario newspaper.

Daughter1, Daughter2, and OnlySon were frequent visitors of another Carnegie library when we lived in a beach town along the shores of Lake Huron. I was fortunate to visit that library again this summer. It is still operating as the public library, and never looked better. Such wonderful memories.


Do you have memories or photos of a Carnegie Library? I would love you to share them.

All photos my own

Thank you to the following wikispace for excellent background information:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

One Last Gasp at Summer

Ahh, where did these July days go?

They were good while they lasted. But it is August now. And not only August, but late August.

The shift in pace seems to have happened almost overnight. I am madly jotting notes and reminders on my phone, a scrap piece of paper, the backside of a receipt - whatever is on hand. Not only am I anxiously anticipating another school year myself, but OnlySon needs to get set up for his second year of uni. He lived in residence in his first year, but this year, as tradition tends to be, is living in a big old house with a bunch of classmates. So there have been trips to IKEA and Costco; trailers to borrow (oh yes, we will need to have a trailer hitch installed on your car says Mr. Fun, and we might want to pick up a bottle as a thank you gift for the trailer owner); trips to the uni town to assemble and install said IKEA furniture, and clean the house itself (we are paying this much rent and it was left in this condition?); insurance appointments to make (Mom - some guy just rear-ended me. Yes, I'm OK, but Dad's car isn't). Oh, and tuition payments to make. As I sit outside on a quiet Sunday morning, I am trying to ignore the frenzy that has taken on a life of it's own around me. Actually come to think of it, the frenzy seems only to inhabit my own being. I appear to be the lone individual overwhelmed by all that remains to be taken care of. I think that says something about who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that another school year begins without a hitch. Or, who assumes they are the one responsible.

In the spirit of that new school year, I think I will take a moment to look back on my last week of summer vacation 2013 - a week that included a few of days of sun, sand, serenity, and a little bit of Pure Michigan.

 All photos my own.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

February in August

Dedicated readers will remember that I suffered a serious back injury this past winter. While long, long walks and near-constant motion helped in my physical rehabilitation, it was the steady engagement of my intellect that kept my mind sane and focused. One of the programs that I was fortunate enough to listen to in it's entirety was the CBC Canada Reads Turf Wars. This annual Battle of  the Books features well-known Canadian personalities pitching their favorite book from the shortlist presented. Regional fiction was the genre this year, and each celebrity was matched to his/her geographical area of Canada. Podcasts and televised episodes are available in the event that one is unable to listen to the live radio broadcast. I highly recommend tuning into this program and cannot wait to hear what is planned for 2014.

Newfoundland-born comedian, Trent McClellan, successfully defended Lisa Moore's February. It was chosen as the Canada Reads 2013 winner. Perhaps it would have been more beneficial if  I had read the book before listening to the Canada Reads program. Nonetheless, the discussions that ensued caused me to immediately include February on my To Read list. Although I had known of Lisa Moore, I had not read any of her work at this point. I must confess that a good friend had given me a copy of Moore's Degrees of Nakedness, with high praise. That was a few years ago. And although I gave it a try, I just couldn't seem to get into this collection of short stories. I will certainly be giving it another go.

I can't even begin to describe Moore's writing style. What can you say about a novel that has so much dialogue, yet does not include one quotation mark? And yet, it is so easy to follow along. Even when the past and present are intertwined in the narrative. Isn't that how real life is played out? The past is such a feature in our lives that we often live interchangeably between the two. Like the main character, our dreams and memories become a part of our present reality. And then there is the word choice and placement. Moore expertly crafts her narrative. I began by marking sentences and phrases that attached themselves to my senses. Not only could I envision the scene, but I could hear, smell and feel it as well. Many of the words just sounded delicious on my tongue. To avoid completely marking up my whole copy, and to preserve the enjoyable reading experience, I soon abandoned this practice. And enjoy the book, I did.

Although the book has a big event at it's centre: the real-life sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger on Valentine's Day, 1982, the story is really about a collection of small, everyday events that occur to Helen O'Mara, a 56 year-old mother of four, widowed by this catastrophe. The reader is taken along this journey of Helen's life, from her teen years to the present (2008). Each of the life stages that she encounters are described so realistically that Helen O'Mara ranks right near the top of my list of identifiable characters. Of course, anyone who knows me well, knows that I love reading books that are set in a familiar locale. I loved picturing Helen walking along Bond Street (where Daughter1 lived while working in St. John's) while she goes into labour. Or, Helen and Barry going to Quidi Vidi to watch the New Year's fireworks - just as we did when we ushered in 2013. Moore is also able to effortlessly capture the Newfoundland dialogue in realistic snippets, while not overdoing it. I can certainly see how February was chosen as a representative of Atlantic Canada fiction. Overall, just very well done. I gave it 4 out of 5 stars (remember: I very rarely give out 5's).

Saturday, August 10, 2013

10 For 10

Inspired by a recent Nerdy Book Club blog post, I set out to join in the fun and on August 10 compile a list of my Top 10 Picture Books. Not an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination. I was smitten with some of the lists from previous years, and their creative approach to make the 10 for 10 specific and personalized. Since many of the librarians and teacher-librarians that I follow online are American, I thought I would go the nationalistic route and choose my Top 10 from the True North, Strong and Free. This was still a very daunting task. There are so many amazing Canadian authors and illustrators. And so many wonderful picture books to choose from. I just hate the thought that I am omitting some well-deserved mentions. My selections are based on my own private likes, as well as the ones that never fail to elicit a strong reaction from my students. So, without further ado, I present, in alphabetical order, my

Top 10 Picture Books by Canadian Authors/Illustrators That Need To Be In Every Library

 Fernandes, Eugenie. The Tree That Grew to the Moon. Scholastic, 1994.
IMAGINATION! That's what this book is all about. Fernandes' beautiful dialogue, combined with her vibrant and detailed illustrations, have made this book a well-loved pick for close to 20 years.
 Fitch, Sheree. There Were Monkeys in my Kitchen. Illustrated by Marc Mongeau. Doubleday, 1992.
Again, lots of imagination and detailed illustrations.  There is a fair amount of text, but Fitch uses lots of silliness and rhyme to make it a favourite for the younger crowd. There's even an appearance by the RCMP - what could be more Canadian than that?

Forler, Nan. Bird Child. Illustrated by Francois Thisdale. Tundra, 2009.
Just when you thought I was stuck in the 90's, I have come to put a current offering on the list. From my friend and colleague, this is the book that needs to be on every library shelf. Forler's beautiful and lyrical text, along with Thisdales' almost-photographic artwork, present bullying from the bystander's viewpoint. This touching and emotional story is perfectly suited for older primary students. I cried the first time I read it.

McFarlane, Sheryl. Waiting for the Whales. Illustrated by Ron Lightburn. Orca, 2002.
I am crazily in love with this gentle and timeless book. The illustrations showcase the beauty of the Canadian West Coast, and the text so amazingly captures a sense of peace and purpose. The grandparent/grandchild relationship is presented, as well as a hint at the natural human life cycle. A perfect bedtime or quiet time story.

Munsch, Robert. The Paper Bag Princess. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Annick, 1992 (First published Turtleback books, 1980).
Although born in the U.S., Robert Munsch is considered one of Canada's best-known children's authors. He has been presented with the Order of Canada, and has even won a Juno Award. The Paper Bag Princess, written in 1980 is still relevant and beloved. And it's main character remains a popular Halloween costume. A strong female role model, and a warning about judging outward appearances - all presented with humour and in a non-preachy format.

Reid, Barbara. Perfect Snow. North Winds Press, 2009.
What can I say about Barbara Reid and her fantastic plasticine artwork? Really, if you are not familiar with this author/artist you are really missing out. You can even check youtube out for a demonstration of her amazing and original methods. Students, young and old, are simply captivated by this book. And, of course, I always save it for a very snowy day. Right before recess is best. It provides lots of inspiration for building and for teamwork and cooperation.

Stehlik, Tania Duprey. Violet. Illustrated by Vanja Vuleta Jovanovic. Second Story Press, 2009.
A touching story of a young girl of mixed-race who just wants to fit in. The message of the story is far from subtle, yet it is presented in such a unique and non-limiting way that it provides an excellent entry point for discussions of culture and diversity. It has also been well-accepted by students who know they are different in some way, and allows them to see this difference as a point of celebration.  Beautiful and quirky illustrations really add to the richness.

Stinson, Kathy. Red is Best. Illustrated by Robin Baird Lewis Annick Press, 1982.
Another oldie, but a goodie. Such a perfect little story for the very young who are wanting to assert their independence. I'm sure everyone can relate to the "juice tastes better in the red cup." Love it. Just thinking about this book again "makes my hair laugh."

Watt, Melanie. Scaredy Squirrel. Kids Can Press, 2006.
Melanie Watt has added to her Scaredy Squirrel series and all of them are delightful and loved by students at all of the schools I have worked. I think young children are better able to face their own fears when they see how much fun it is when Watt's character faces his. Although a little challenging to do as a read-aloud, it is well worth it. On one of the first warm "spring fever" type days of the year, I like to bring a couple of picnic blankets, a basket, and big conch shell outside and do my storytime under the shade of a tree. The students LOVE this.

Wishinsky, Frieda. You're Mean, Lily Jean. Illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton. Scholastic, 2009.
Everyone can relate to a bossy newcomer who upsets the status quo. This authentic portrayal has sometimes been needed for a few grade 2-3 girls who think they are the directors of the recess playground. Great dialogue and I have always been enamoured with Denton's illustrations.

So, there you have it. What do you think of my list? Anything that you would add?  I am looking forward to discovering all kinds of new favourites on August 10 when I read all the entries in the 10 for 10. You can follow along on Twitter using the hashtag #pb10for10. Or go to Reflect and Refine: Building a Learning Community or Enjoy and Embrace Learning for lots more good stuff.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What We're Reading in the Fun Household

I am hard at work on a special post for August 10 - joining an online community that is working together to share and promote literacy. So, I just thought I would let you in on what everyone in the Fun Household is currently reading:

Me - February by Lisa Moore, 2013 Winner of CBC Canada Reads

Mr. Fun - Tripwire by Lee Child

Daughter1 - Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo

Daughter2 - What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

OnlySon - Kill Shot by Vince Flynn

Make sure you check back August 10 for my Special Feature!

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Fault (May Not Be) In Our Stars

OK. I am actually going to do this. Regardless of what the rest of the world thinks, I am going to share my thoughts on John Green's The Fault In Our Stars.

A blend of melancholy, sweet, philosophical, and funny. Green shows us true love…and it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.” -New York Times Book Review

“Green’s best and most ambitious novel to date. In its every aspect, The Fault in Our Stars is a triumph.” -Booklist, starred review
“A smartly crafted intellectual explosion of a romance.” -Kirkus, starred review

“Green writes books for young adults, but his voice is so compulsively readable that it defies categorization. The Fault in Our Stars proves that the hype surrounding Green is not overblown.” -NPR

 In most instances, I find it so much more rewarding reading a book when I have heard very little hype about it. When a trusted friend or colleague hands me something and says to give it a read - they know I will enjoy it, I enter with a blank slate, so to speak.

Such was not the case with The Fault in Our Stars. There was so much buzz about this book, as evidenced by the respected reviews above. It won all kinds of awards and everyone LOVED it! However, I have to disagree with NPR - I found the hype severely overblown. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the book. I rated it 3 out of 5 (and I rarely give out 5s). But I just didn't HEART it, like I fully expected to. I have to wonder if I would feel differently had I not had such high expectations.

I kept coming across all these crazy gifs of ugly crying that the reader was assured to be reduced to. Now I'm not an overly emotional person. But put kids, cancer and first love together and it should definitely pull on my heart strings. The thing is, there was no crying at all. Not even a little misty-eyed or choked up. To be honest, I wanted to have emotions for Hazel Grace and Augustus, just like I wanted to like this book. I really did. I just did not feel invested in the characters enough to empathize with them. To me, they never became more than flat paper dolls of  wise-cracking adults in teen clothing. And I never "got" their relationship. The author tells me that the two teens fell in love, but I never felt it. And I wanted to feel it, as I did with the love relationship that develops between Eleanor and Park (that I talked about here). Maybe I was missing something. What did you think?

Green, John. The Fault in our Stars. Dutton books, 2012.
YA Realistic Fiction

For further information about the author consult his website here.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Wonder for Teens?

Funny, hopeful, foulmouthed, sexy and tear-jerking, this winning romance will captivate teen and adult readers alike. (Fiction. 14 & up) Kirkus Reviews

 Pretty much says it all ...

Last week I had the pleasure of reading Eleanor and Park: a novel by Rainbow Rowell. A few things I wasn't so crazy about, but there was so much I liked about this book: the depth of the main characters, the tone of the alternating third person narrative, the realism of the family dynamics, the exploration of teen relationships, and just the whole way these two misfits fell in love. Their story had me engaged and rooting for them right from the start.

A Young Adult Romance / Realistic Fiction, Eleanor and Park is not your typical romance novel. Everything is just sort of off in this book. For starters, the characters are nothing like the expected knockout couple that usually star in a teen romance. Eleanor and Park features a heavy-set red-haired girl (Eleanor) and a Korean-American boy (Park). The setting is not New York, Beverley Hills, or some East Coast beach town. It takes place in Omaha, Nebraska! I shouldn't judge. I have never been to Omaha, but I haven't seen it featured in too many romances either. And the main characters are far from popular kids who come from wealthy families. It's the gritty realism employed by the author that makes the book so impressionable. Much of what happens throughout the novel is not pretty nor nice. But the relationship that grows between Eleanor and Park is really very beautiful. And it is how Rowell  develops this first love that I found unique and compelling.

One issue that I have with Eleanor and Park is the language. There is bad language - and a lot of it. Now don't get me wrong. I can handle the language easily enough. It's just that I would love to share this story and the language creates a problem. I would never be able to purchase this book for my school library. And that's unfortunate, for Eleanor and Park was something like a 14A version of Wonder for me. There are a whole pile of Choose Kind initiatives that could be applied to this novel - if only a PG13 edition was available!

Set in 1986, Eleanor and Park uses many cultural references that transport the reader back to the late eighties. I enjoyed these reminders of that decade. However, one term seemed abruptly anachronistic - "Asian." As I mentioned, I have never been to Omaha, but unless the residents there were more advanced than most North Americans, they would not be using the term "Asians" in 1986. "Oriental" was what was used in my part of the world. I think this may have been an oversight, for if Rowell was conscious of being politically correct then she should have paid more attention to constantly spelling out Park's mother's (Korean-American) dialogue in a phonetic fashion. This is just a minor point, but worth mentioning, as it didn't fit with the realness of the story.

When I first finished Eleanor and Park, the ending was a real disappointment for me . But after thinking about it for awhile, I was able to reconcile some issues and see it a little more open-ended. Maybe more hopeful than I had at first thought. It would be great to hear from people who have read the book and see what their interpretation of the ending was.

Not just for girls. And not just for teens. Eleanor and Park is a reminder that not everyone has the same advantages and blessings, but that everyone deserves to fall in love.

Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor and Park. St. Martin's Griffin, 2013.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Reconstructing Amelia

I could hear the sound of a steady rainfall when I woke up the other morning. As I contemplated getting up, I found myself thinking about my personal state of affairs over the past few months. There was a time, not too long ago, when I would have given almost anything to be able to lay in bed - when the pain from my back injury left me with one bearable position: vertical. The stress that I would encounter at the end of the evening when other people started to prepare for bed was almost too much - I knew what awaited me over the next six or seven hours. After going weeks without getting sleep of any kind, I found one particular position that would afford me a couple of hours of much-needed sleep - that was until the effects of the pain medication wore off, and I needed to get up, remedicate, and start walking again. If only I had been aware of Nan's Rent-a-Sister offer at that point! She sounds like the definition of an angel and would have been so appreciated. Through the grace of God, though, I somehow made it through to the other side of that very dark period. Luckily, these days, it's looking like early dawn.

But back to last Friday. Just because it was raining, and because I had nowhere that I needed to be, and I had a new book right beside me, and just because I could, I picked up that book and started to read. What a delicious feeling! It felt like a rainy day at the cottage during Summer Break. The book was this book:

It's a good thing that it was an all-day rain, because other than the odd break here and there, I stayed in bed and read all day long. Finished the book in one sitting. Touted as Gossip Girl meets Gone Girl, you may remember that Reconstructing Amelia was one of the Summer Reads that I was looking forward to enjoying this year. I was not disappointed.  It is a suspenseful  who-done-it with a heavy dose of  priveledged teenagers, secrets, lies, love, and cyberbullying.

Kate Baron, a New York litigation attorney and single mother, is left to reconstruct the life of her daughter Amelia, after the over-achiever's apparent suicide. The tale is told through alternating point of view (Kate's and Amelia's) and through the use of mixed media - facebook status updates, text messages, emails, blog posts, and first and third-person narratives. Bit by bit, by sifting through the digital footprint left by Amelia, Kate learns the true life that was lived by the daughter with whom she believed she was very close. McCreight is adept at this format. The story flows very naturally and the reader is enticed by the short sections to keep reading "just one more entry."

Having been a teenaged girl myself at one time, and having been around them practically my whole life, the teenagers in Reconstructing Amelia are believable to me. Fortunately, in my real life I have never encountered mean girls to the same extreme as in this book, but I do not doubt that they exist. Amelia's portrayal of a conscientous student who wants to do the right thing should ring true with the reader. Even good kids have stuff to deal with and this reconstruction is really a coming of age story for Amelia. Kate, herself, is a likeable and indentifiable character. As a mother I could relate to her wanting to know the truth, but being afraid of what she might discover.

 It is probably in my relation to Kate that I got thinking more about the cyberbullying issue. I found myself going "Phew! Thank God I'm not just starting out on my parenting career." I would be a sleep-deprived basket-case as a parent of young teens today. I think back on how much anxiety I experienced trying to limit exposure to negative influences and in creating a safe and positive environment for Daughter1, Daughter2, and OnlySon. While at the same time, not turning them into paranoid creatures afraid to venture out in the world. Although I often felt like " a voice crying out in the wilderness," it was a balancing act that I believe Mr. Fun and me did a decent job of - I have the sleep issues to testify to it. And this was before our full-blown digital age. Today's parents require more diligence than at any time in history. For most, gone are the days when the one family computer was situated in an open and heavily-supervised room of the house. When children asked to be logged in to the dial-up network. Our children are assualted 24/7 by outside forces - many of these are beneficial connections that certainly enhance their experiences and education. However, many more are not. I listened to an NPR segment awhile back regarding the parental role with technology. One speaker spoke about the change she has noticed in keeping in touch with her children's moods and behaviour. There was a time when a child came home and a parent could see that he or she was in a good/bad/excited/contemplative mood. Unless the phone rang, the parent would be privy to any event that occured that would change that mood. Now, with a constant connection to the outside world in their pocket, something could change in that child's world at any second. You add the annonymity of technology, some teen drama, and the normal lack of communication that many teens exhibit during these years, and a parent can be pretty clueless to what is going on in their child's world.

Don't worry. Reconstructing Amelia really isn't that deep of a novel. That's just the way my brain works. In a nutshell, it is a fast-paced, suspenseful, coming of age (in a digital world) story that features real and believable characters. The clues to what really happened are revealed gradually and lead to an ending that, although a little underwhelming, I still did not see coming. The one issue I found fault with was the way the investigating detective brought Kate along with him to interview all the persons of interest. For a lawyer herself, I would think that McCreight would have thought this unlikely, if not implausible. However, it does move the plot along and is quite handily overlooked. I can easily see Reconstructing Amelia being adapted to film.

So, what's next on my reading list?

I am just about finished Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin's Griffin, 2013) and am really enjoying this quirky YA read so far. More to come .... And guess what? It's raining again today.