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Sunday, October 1, 2023

A Green Velvet Secret, written by Vicki Grant. tundra, Penguin Random House, 2023. $23.99 ages 10 and up

"It's not like I'd lost touch with reality or 
anything. I just decided I didn't want to 
spend quite so much time with it. Gidge 
always said, "Imagine the world the way
you want it to be and anything is possible."
That's all I was doing, imagining my perfect 

Yardley and her grandmother Gidge are best friends. When Gidge is told she has terminal cancer, she makes some big life decisions: she writes a note to everyone in her life that she might have hurt, she gets rid of all things most important to her, and she makes a plan for an assisted death when the pain overwhelms. As they spend time together in her final days, Gidge encourages Yardley to find a friend her own age, and to find something to keep her busy when Gidge is gone. 

The grief felt and the yearning to see her grandmother again leads Yardley on a long and difficult path to acceptance. She shares her grandmother's belief in reincarnation, and begins to see signs of Gidge in many places. She works in a vintage clothing store, owned by Gidge's friend, with his grandson Harris. The two set out to help each other solve a mystery that centers around a woman who comes into the shop to claim a package left for her. It is Gidge's green velvet dress, and convinces Yardley that the woman is Gidge reincarnated. 

The admirable characters are absolutely believable, and reeling with grief and loss. They work hard to deal with the many difficulties left to them as they learn to live without Gidge. Yardley and Harris have an uneasy relationship because of unshared secrets, but learn to depend on each other when it is most needed. What about Mrs. Johnson who picked up the dress? Who is she really? 

Though the issues are challenging, they are handled with assurance and a delicate touch. The opening lines are essential to the storytelling; the story itself is both buoyant and heartfelt. It is an exceptional read, and has found a place on my 'keepers' shelf.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Weird Rules to Follow, written by Kim Spencer. Orca Book Publishers, 2022. $12.95 ages 10 and up


"I start looking around and admiring the 
women's beautiful silver and gold West
Coast carved Native jewelry. Some women 
wear bracelets practically to their elbows. 
I always think that's what I want to look 
like when I grow up. 

My mom is wearing her gold carved 
pendant and gold wolf earrings, which 
is our family's crest. I have a silver 
carved bracelet, but it's from when I 
was a baby so it doesn't fit me anymore.

On this National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I want to share Mia's first-person narration of life with her mother, grandmother, and extended family members in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The time is 1985, and the short vignettes offer a picture of life for an Indigenous 10-year-old whose best friend Lara lives on the same cul-de-sac. Mia loves fun, is sensitive, looks at life seriously and with astute observations, and accepts her circumstances. This is a story of one Indigenous girl's experience in a small coastal town. It reminds readers that it takes everyone to break down those barriers that show our differences rather than our similarities. 

Lara lives a very different life. She and her Mexican-Hungarian family live large in a house that faces the mountains; Mia and her family live in an old wartime house backed onto a retaining wall. Through the years of their friendship, which begin in fifth grade and carry through to the eighth, Mia takes notice of the differences between community members. Mia faces racism and subtle but offensive comments in a variety of ways. She pretends not to hear some of the things Lara's family members say. The contrasts between their lives are consistently evident. Some flashbacks to earlier days are also mentioned in realistic, meaningful remembrances. Topics addressed include not knowing a father, residential schools, and alcoholism. 

The differences between them become more apparent as time goes by. The two girls begin to drift apart. As they do, Mia makes new friends and becomes more understanding and aware of the world around her. Her connections to her culture are stronger and more relevant to the life she is living, and she finds identity in what she is learning. 

"I don't think either of us expected to part ways like we did. Never would we have envisioned it. High school seemed to carve out two separate paths for us. I was assigned to the basement floor with the headbangers and smokers even though I was neither, and Lara was placed in a prime location outside the library. She went off in one direction, and I in the other. It felt like we had very little control over any of it."

The novel's honest depiction and sensitivity to the challenges Mia faces ensures that the book will find an audience. It is always engaging and never overwhelmed by its issues. It mixes laughter, poignancy, sweet memories and difficult lessons. It invites readers to realize that we are not all that different when it comes to growing up. 

Friday, September 29, 2023

Elliot Jelly-Legs and the Bobblehead Miracle, written by Yolanda Ridge and illustrated by Sydney Barnes. Orca Book Publishers. 2023. $12.95 ages 9 and up


"I never find out what Grandpa said to Mom 
and Dad about skates. Or if he said anything 
at all. But it doesn't matter. I need new ones,
and I can't wait any longer. 
I tackle the neighbor's leaf pile after school 
the next day. Thanks to the first snowfall of 
the year - just enough to make people serious
about cleaning up their yards before it's too 
late - I pick up some extra jobs raking other 
lawns as well.

This is a terrific read for kids who love hockey, and for those who enjoy a hopeful story about perseverance, teamwork, and just plain hard work. Elliot loves hockey, despite his inability to stay upright on the ice. His grandfather supports that love, while his mother is always too busy and his father considers hockey an unnecessary family expense. Despite that, Elliot persists and works hard to find a place on the team. When their goalie is sidelined, Elliot offers to take his place in hopes that he will play better when he doesn't have to skate. His first game in goal is a disaster; Elliot soldiers on. 

His admiration and respect for the Montreal Canadiens' goalie Carey Price has him turning to Carey's bobblehead figure for support. To his great surprise, every time he wishes upon it, he has success in net. Could it have magical powers? Convinced it does, Elliot continues to make his wishes for good games, always hoping no one else discovers his secret. As he does get better and his teammates offer their support, he gains confidence. His family offers that same support from the stands. 

Elliot's first-person voice is authentic and often dumbfounded by his improved play. His descriptions of the hockey action will attract many fans to his cause. Though he is a longshot for success, they will hang in to see how the games progress and root for him as he becomes more competent and confident. The story moves quickly, and is highly entertaining. A hopeful ending will have readers wanting to meet Elliot again. Dedicated hockey card collectors will appreciate the addition of a variety of cards provided in art by Sydney Barnes.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

The Big Sting, written by Rachelle Delaney. tundra, Penguin Random House. 2023. $22.99 ages 9 and up


"He hurried after the intruders, who were 
already pulling up chairs around the kitchen 
table. Since there weren't enough chairs for 
everyone, one of the Bumblers - a man with 
extremely long legs - hopped up on the 
countertop. Leo had a feeling they'd been 
in the kitchen before, and an even stronger 
feeling that Grandpa wouldn't want them there.

Both mystery and adventure are at the heart of this novel that sees Leo and his younger sister Lizzie make a visit to Heron Island to spend time with their grandfather. Their grandmother has recently died, and their parents have decided to spend that time with Grandpa to help him cope with the many changes. 

Their father loves the city, and finds living on the island, without a link to the greater world, a bit too much. When a chance to spend time in a nearby spa arises, he convinces the kids that their mom needs a break. Off they go, leaving the children alone with Grandpa for a few days. The three have a lot to learn about each other. After Grandma's death, Grandpa has learned all he can about beekeeping to preserve the 12 bee hives she so dearly loved. 

When a neighbor arrives early the first morning to let them know the hives are gone, Grandpa is determined to find them and bring them home. To that end, he enlists the help of his grandchildren. Where can the hives be, and who has taken them? It is their task to solve the mystery.

Readers will very much enjoy the adventures that eventually lead to the culprit, and allows them to discover the reason for the hives' disappearance. Leo is cautious, Grandpa is often grumpy, and the issues encountered during their search are numerous. Grandpa likes to drive fast, isn't afraid to hitch rides when they are needed, and encourages trespassing when he thinks he knows what has really happened. Lizzie is unconcerned, and spends her time caring for a feral kitten she has named Mayhem. Adventure seems to be her cup of tea. 

Middle graders will enjoy this cast of memorable characters, and the danger inherent in their quest. to discover the truth. Often funny, with 'punny' language that will evoke a few hearty laughs, this is a book that would make a great read aloud in a grade four/five classroom. Someone there is sure to want to read it again. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Dear Elsa, written by Marco Franticelli. Red Deer Press, 2023. $14.95 ages 9 and up

"... You worry too much. If I was your 
grandmother, I'd say, "Suck it up, Leo.
There are people in the world with real 
problems. Amanda, a girl in my class, 
says that people like us who live in the 
rich part of the world, mainly have 
"champagne problems." I guess that 
compared to people who have nowhere
to live or nothing to eat, the kind of 
problems we have aren't so bad.

I have recently completed committee work that had us reading 25 junior and intermediate novels. Once again, we were all excited to find a number of books that we found worthy of inclusion in a fall journal. I am going to start a bit of a run this week to let you know about some of them. I hope you will see something here to read with your middle years students, or to suggest for their personal reading. They are worthy of your attention. 

Elsa lives in Boston; Leo has just moved to Toronto. They are 10-year-olds and in the fifth grade when their teachers pair them up to be pen pals through email. Neither one is particularly eager to write to the other in messages that must be 250 words or more. Beginning in September and coming to an end in August, readers are privy to these messages that reveal many truths about each as time moves forward. 

Leo isn't at all interested in having a girl for his pen pal. As they begin their correspondence, Leo proves himself to be pretty self-absorbed: he doesn't like Toronto after living in Montreal, he complains about his teacher and new school, he has no friends, he hates following all the imposed rules, he is not pleased with being forced to send uninteresting emails to Elsa or having to write poetry.  

To prove just how different they are, Elsa loves rules. Her parents are divorced and she's willing to offer advice to Leo about any number of things. He thinks she must be popular; she responds that she has only a few good friends and goes about her life quietly. As their notes go back and forth, Leo learns some interesting lessons about himself. One is that he now likes writing haiku to share when writing to Elsa. Leo doesn't seem to notice that Elsa isn't telling him much about her herself, faced with the amount of complaining he continues to share. It takes time, but she begins to let him know more about herself. Readers learn about her life living with divorced parents, a trip she and her dad take to Mexico, her love for music (not the violin), and what it's like to need a wheelchair to get around. 

This debut novel by a seasoned grade five teacher uses his many years of listening to and spending time with children similar to the ones he creates for this thoughtful, engaging look at growth, friendship, and learning about differences while also finding things they have in common. It is a very interesting relationship that changes over time. The haiku written by Leo and sent to Elsa is a highlight, and might encourage budding poets to give the form a try. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Little Green Envelope, written by Gillian Sze and illustrated by Claudine Crangle. Groundwood, 2023. $19.99 ages 5 and up


"The little green envelope liked hearing
stories about their journeys: some by boat, 
crossing a wide blue sea, others by plane, 
crossing a wide blue sky.
More and more the little green envelope
longed to set off.

Olive is not her usual happy self when she arrives at her grandfather's house for their weekly Sunday visit. Her loud sighing, gray mood, and lack of interest in their usual pursuits signals a dilemma.  

"Whispers were sent from the lamp to the books
to the clock and on and on until every teaspoon
and page learned the reason: 

Olive's friend had moved away."

Grandpa makes a suggestion; perhaps Olive can send a letter to her friend. As luck would have it, a little green envelope hears their conversation. That envelope knows the sadness of watching legions of other envelopes leave the shelf that is its home. Just as Olive wishes she could visit her friend so far away, the envelope's wish for travel never diminishes. Advice from others assure that the envelope's turn is coming. 

Hope returns as Grandpa reaches for an envelope. ... a white one! Hope fades. Olive has a better idea. Her penchant for color wins out; the green envelope is her choice! First, the mailbox and then any number of hands help the tiny missive makes its way from Olive's house to exactly where it is supposed to be. What joy it finds as its journey ends! 

Artwork is a combination of paper construction and printmaking techniques, and provides endless interest for those reading this book. Details in the writing materials that grace its pages assure attention and interest. Emotions of the child and the envelope are evident throughout the telling.   

 The book ends with a diagram for making your own envelope.                                                                         

Monday, September 25, 2023

Eleanor's Moon, written and illustrated by Maggie Knaus. Owlkids, 2023. $21.95 ages 4 and up

"As Eleanor grew, her grandpa
taught her to love the moon. 
They observed full moons, 
waning crescents,
waxing crescents, 
and tiny slivers. 

Some months, 
they were lucky enough 
to see two.

It is one of the things that makes my heart happy as a Nona whose granddaughters live so far away. I look up at the moon and know that they are seeing exactly the same thing I am seeing on any given night (providing that the skies cooperate). It is a warm, loving feeling! 

When Eleanor is born at the time a spectacular harvest moon graces the night sky, her grandfather holds her in his arms and makes her a promise. 

No matter where I am, we will always share the moon.” 

Together, they share countless moons. Night and after night and season after season, the two find a way to keep their eyes on it. Sometimes, Eleanor could even see an outline in the sunny daytime sky. She and Grandpa both do their best to be the one to see it first. 

When her mom gets a new nob, and the family must move, Eleanor is heartbroken. The distance is too far; she will miss her grandpa every day in every way. It is hard for her to see the nighttime spectacle from her bedroom window in the city lights. No matter where she looks around her, something reminds her of the moon, and her beloved grandfather. Oh, how she misses him. 

The two work hard to help each other overcome their shared sadness ... pictures, letters, and always time to look for the moon that connects them. It is a constant reminder of the love they share. 

Lovely atmospheric illustrations add to the allure.