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.