December 19, 2013

Christmas stories from the Maritimes

A Maritime Christmas Treasury: Stories, Songs, and Poems to Celebrate the Season

Nimbus Publishing has put together a cheerful and heart-warming collection of Christmas tales and poems. As with many compilations, there are hits and misses, but overall, the volume makes for fun holiday reading. It begins well with the hilarious Gadzooks: The Christmas Goose before becoming a little sentimental with A Christmas Dollhouse, which also suffers from a minor editing problem (a few words were missing in my review copy). Snow for Christmas is short and sweet, Love from Katie is the most heartfelt, while The True Meaning of Crumbfest puts a unique spin on the traditional Christmas tale (although having the names in all-caps was slightly distracting). 

A Forest for Christmas is the longest story. It's a fantasy about a girl named Emily who can talk to birds and animals, a magic hat, and a villain named Buggleysmug. He wants to cut down the forest to build a whatzit factory, so it's up to Emily and the animals to save it. The story has the most full-page illustrations, adding to its appeal. 

Unfortunately, when stories are condensed into compilations such as these, pictures tend to get smaller or are cut altogether. I was disappointed that the twelve drummers drumming were excluded from A Bluenose Twelve Days of Christmas. It would be best to seek out the picture book version instead.

Interspersed between the stories are nostalgic holiday poems, including one by Louisa May Alcott. Her poem nicely recalls the joy of Christmas.

This is my final post of the year. Look for new reviews beginning January 8, 2014.

December 17, 2013

Message of the Birds

by Kate Westerlund 

Long ago, a baby was born in a stable. The animals and birds listened to the baby's coos and heard a song of blessing. But now, the old owl says, people rarely listen to the song anymore. A young robin suggests that they sing the song to children, for children would listen and understand. So the song is passed from bird to bird and child to child, calling for peace on Earth.

A gentle picture book for quiet holiday reading.

December 11, 2013

Play outside!

Step Outside
by Doretta Groenendyk
(Acorn Press)

"Hey you! Yes you!Doretta Groenendyk calls, "Unplug yourself and step outside". Turn off the computer, remove the headphones, and unplug the cords. Instead: dance in the rain, fly a kite, play in the dark, climb a tree, explore your neighborhood, or just be, for the world holds a promise waiting to be discovered.

Groenendyk's collage illustrations using photos, watercolours, words and paints encompass entire pages, inviting children to walk right in. A vibrant welcome to the world out-of-doors.

December 4, 2013

Story saved by pictures

by Marion Lewis

Kaugjagjuk and his sister are separated from their parents when they become trapped on an ice floe. Carried to a distant shore, they struggle to survive. Kaugjagjuk's sister does not make it, but Kaugjagjuk comes across a small village. Unfortunately, the villagers are very cruel and subject Kaugjagjuk to more hardship. Loved only by the dogs, Kaugjagjuk is helped by the Man of the Moon, who whips him until he has grown tall and strong. With his strength, Kaugjagjuk is able to kill three polar bears that threaten the village. The villagers finally regret their mistreatment of Kaugjagjuk, but he walks away.

In an epilogue, Lewis explains the meaning of the Kaugjagjuk legend, and in an author's note, talks about the different adaptations of the story. Often, these adaptations are quite violent and bleak. Lewis' version is more positive; however, children may find it a bit unsettling. It may help if they're encouraged to think of an alternate ending. Remind them that Kaugjagjuk is not alone, he still has the dogs for company. 

November 27, 2013

Reaching reluctant or bored readers

It can be a challenge finding books that are interesting and easy to read for reluctant or bored readers. High Interest Publishing publishes books and e-books specifically written, edited, and designed for reluctant or struggling readers from ages 8 to 18. HIP's series of books are realistic, gritty, and action-filled for teens and pre-teens, or adventurous, mysterious and funny for younger readers. There's even a fantasy series for those who prefer dragons and other supernatural elements.

With so many titles, it may be difficult to choose, but here are a few books to whet the appetite:

by Sylvia McNicoll

Owen has just three days to prove to his father that Hero will be no trouble, or back to the shelter he goes. But Hero's still a puppy, so he can't help messing up the floor or eating Owen's homework. Will Hero live up to his name?

A fun read, this is a warm-hearted story with an ending any reader will love.

by Paul Kropp

Todd works in a small-town gas station. One night, while working alone, he has to deal with a holdup, a clogged toilet, a woman giving birth, and the meanest teacher in the whole world. Plus his girlfriend won't stop calling him.

Wacky and unbelievable, this is perfect for kids who like their humour with a dose of slapstick.

by Paul Kropp

Based on a true story, this is a gripping account of a winter hike that turns deadly.

November 21, 2013

Pirate adventure

Owen's Pirate Adventure
by Patti Larsen (Acorn Press)
illustrated by Shaun Patterson

Owen loves everything about pirates and longs to be one someday. His wish is granted when a fishy-smelling band of pirates take him aboard their flying ship. But after attacks by a green sea monster and an angry cloud, the pirate life loses its allure.

A fun story for kids to read on their own or aloud to younger siblings. Patterson's big-eyed characters are fun to look at, too.

November 19, 2013

Cat wants to act

Tallulah the Theatre Cat
by Jennifer Brown (Acorn Press)

Tallulah the cat dreams of life on the stage, but everyone keeps shooing her away. However, every cat must follow her bliss, so Tallulah manages to interrupt a few performances. This doesn't sit well with the theatre folk, who rudely tell her off. Feeling hurt, Tallulah disappears for a while. But she returns when she discovers how much she is missed.

A cheerful, true story about a furry thespian in Victoria-by-the-Sea, Prince Edward Island. Brown's colourful artwork form the perfect backdrop for her bouncy, light verse. It's easy to see why her book has won the L.M. Montgomery Award for Children's LIterature. Tallulah is irresistible!

November 13, 2013

A book about peace

The Enemy
by Davide Cali and Serge Bloch

There are two holes. In each hole is a soldier. They are enemies. 

Simply told, this is a direct and powerful story about the pointlessness of war.
HIghly recommended.

November 6, 2013

Young spy in Paris

Violins of Autumn
by Amy McAuley

It's Paris, France in 1944. The world is at war and the Allies are about to invade at any moment. Helping the cause is 17-year-old Betty Sweeney, code name Adele Blanchard. A member of the Special Operations Executive, her mission is to deliver crucial messages for the French Resistance. A skilled liar, fluent in French and German, Adele soon finds herself training soldiers and sabotaging bridges. Yet the novel begins with a prologue in which Adele is tortured by the Germans. The main narrative describes the events leading up to her capture.

There are many tense and exciting moments, with close calls and compromised safe houses. These are balanced by scenes of friendship and romance, allowing the reader time for breath. Strong and courageous, Adele grows from teen to woman in the face of war's brutality.

A gripping and engaging read.

October 31, 2013

Vampire stories

The Big Book of Vampires
by Denise Despeyroux
illustrated by Fernando Falcone

Vampire stories from around the world are featured in this oversized book. Nine stories are adaptations of vampire stories written by the likes of Bram Stoker, Alexandre Dumas, and A.K. Tolstoy. Some of the tales are written from the victim's point-of-view, while others are portrayals of female vampires. The final four stories are vampire legends from China, Spain, Poland, and Denmark. The Chinese and Spanish legends are particularly intriguing, as they describe fox-tailed vampires and a black fly vampire respectively. The creepiness is further heightened by Falcone's drawings, which portray pale, elongated, sharp-clawed creatures.

For maximum scares, read each story in a dimly-lit room. 

October 29, 2013

Scary Inuit tales

The Shadows that Rush Past
by Rachel A. Qitsualik

Qitsualik introduces young readers to four of the scariest creatures from Inuit mythology: the amautalik, an ogress who steals little children; the akhlas, giants who eat people; the nanurluk, a massive polar bear; and the mahaha, who tickles people to death!

Written in a conversational tone in keeping with an oral storytelling tradition, these are frightening tales that are quite different from ordinary ghost stories. The creepy pictures are sure to haunt many readers. 

Best read with all the lights on!

October 23, 2013

Pumpkins at sea

Spin to Sea
written & illustrated by Izra Fitch

Carved pumpkins are set afloat in this luminous picture book. This is Izra Fitch's first book, and it's a credible accomplishment. She ably conveys the warmth and joy of this particular harvest festival. However, there are a few minor problems. While the words are lovely, the rhyme scheme is uneven. The verses that have few or no rhymes sound much better. Also, though the story is set in Nova Scotia, the final picture seems to depict a medieval village instead. It has a distinct European look. Perhaps some background information is needed - did the festival originate in Europe?

Still, this is an attractive book. It will be interesting to see what Fitch will create next.

October 16, 2013

Menacing spirits in an apocalyptic world

Shadows Cast by Stars
by Catherine Knutsson

Sixteen-year-old Cassandra Mercredi lives in a world where Plague is ravaging the planet, and aboriginals are hunted for the antibodies contained in their blood. Threatened by searchers, Cass and her family flee to an island where they'll be protected by the Band. The Island also confines the Spirit World - a collection of supernatural creatures trying to break free. Cass and her twin brother Paul can sense these spirits, and that puts them in even greater danger. Helped by the village healer, Cass tries to harness her powers to help the spirits, a task made treacherous when the evil ones kidnap Paul.

Knutsson skillfully weaves together aboriginal culture, Greek and Arthurian mythology, romance, coming-of-age, sci-fi, and fantasy into an intriguing mix. With multi-faceted characters and otherworldly suspense, it should keep readers fascinated. Open-ended plot points, especially regarding Paul's fate, suggests a sequel may be in the works. 

October 9, 2013

Historical mouse tales

The Malagawatch Mice and the Church that Sailed
by Caroline Stellings

Gentle rhymes tell the story of a congregation of mice, whose church is about to be moved out from above them. When a rummage sale doesn't earn enough to finance their move, they put an antique quilt up for sale. Saved by Grandpa mouse, the quilt helps them follow the barge to the church's new location.

A uniquely historical tale, with lovingly rendered watercolours reminiscent of Beatrix Potter.

Based on a true Cape Breton story.

The Malagawatch Mice and the Cat who Discovered America
by Caroline Stellings

The Malagawatch Mice are enjoying life until a large orange cat takes up residence in the church. Henry is a no-good stray and will always be a no-good stray and to that end is determined to eat up every last mouse. But Grandpa's convinced that if Henry knew his family history - he is a descendant of Prince Henry Sinclair, who first discovered Nova Scotia - he would behave more honorably (and not eat mice).

Once again, Caroline Stellings has written a uniquely creative historical tale with a happily ever after ending. The story is also a lovely tribute to the Mi'kmaq people, who were the first inhabitants of Nova Scotia.

October 2, 2013

Love story

by Cathy Ostlere

On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi is assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards. The murder sparks riots in New Delhi, with Sikh men being targeted and killed in retribution. It is into this chaos that fifteen-year-old Maya and her Sikh father, Amar, find themselves after arriving from Canada. They have come to India to dispose of her mother's ashes. Maya's mother was Hindu, and was unable to overcome the differences of belief between her and her husband. 

Maya is torn between four cultures - Hindu and Sikh, Indian and Canadian. She doesn't know where she fits in, and the riots only add to her turmoil. Separated from her father and traumatized by the horrors she witnesses, Maya loses her voice, further endangering her life. Her only hope is a boy named Sandeep. 

Ostlere has written a sweeping historical romance, beautifully written in free verse. Imbued with great compassion, it is a novel of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. A novel to be treasured.

September 25, 2013

Songs that mean trouble

My Big Mouth: 10 Songs I Wrote That Almost Got Me Killed
by Peter Hannan

It’s not easy being the new kid in ninth grade. For Davis Delaware, this means some unwanted attention from Gerald “the Butcher” Boggs. Forming a band with the Butcher’s girlfriend doesn’t help either. Understandably, Davis spends a good deal of time trying to avoid Gerald. This is hard to do, especially when Davis becomes his school's newest poetry star.  

Davis jots down his poems (actually song lyrics) in an ever-present notebook, which is also filled with unflattering caricatures of students and teachers. When the pages fall into the wrong hands, Davis is in big trouble.

A hilarious primer on what not to turn into a song.