Wings of War (2014), by John Wilson

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.1.

Wilson - Wings of WarJohn Wilson is not only a careful historian, but a powerful weaver of tales. Wings of War joins And in the Morning (2003), Red Goodwin (2006), and Shot at Dawn (2011) to tell the story of World War One through the eyes of those the war touches, both in the trenches and on the home front. Wings of War, though, takes to the skies, exploring the life of young Edward Simpson, who learns to fly in his uncle’s wheat fields and ends up flying over Beaumont-Hamel during the most devastating battle in the war.

World War One saw a new form of warfare: no longer did men face one another only on the battlefield with guns and bayonets, but with tanks, flamethrowers, poison gas—and above, with airplanes. Eddie Simpson is already infected with the flying bug before the war begins; he knows that from the relative safety of his airplane cockpit, high above the barrage, he can contribute to the war effort. Like so many young men, he goes to war inspired by idealism, a sense of the rightness of his involvement. He recognizes early his advantages over the soldiers caught in the trenches, suffering in ways that have little to do with the enemy bullets that bombard them. It isn’t long, though, before Eddie is faced with death—both of his friends and of German soldiers shot down by his squadron. Learning the ways men handle the killing and the fear of being killed, he grows up quickly; the new recruits, older than he, seem young, innocent. At the age of seventeen, Eddie is a seasoned veteran of the air; as he says, he has already “acquired the tired look around the eyes that marks those of us who have been here longest” (146).

Eddie’s emotional and psychological development moves us; we watch as his idealism slips away and a hardened maturity grows in its place. What makes Wings of War especially engaging, though, is Wilson’s artful weaving of Eddie’s story with the technical details of early flight: airplane construction and handling, and the specialized techniques required for successful aeronautic battle. Airplanes and flying are Eddie’s life, but he struggles to reconcile the sense of freedom flying gives him with the destruction it enables. It is only fitting that his story centres around that which moves him most deeply: flying, planes, and his role as a pilot and a soldier.

The Village That Loves Oysters (2014), by Dustin Milligan

Illustrated by Meredith Luce.

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.2.

Milligan - Oysters

Dustin Milligan’s The Village That Loves Oysters pays homage to the little Prince Edward Island town of Tyne Valley, “home of the Canadian Oyster Shucking Championship” ( Meredith Luce’s lively illustrations are reminiscent of the children’s cartoon The Magic Schoolbus, which creates (for many) a familiar feel, and may bring to the readers’ minds the more factual aspects of Milligan’s descriptions of Tyne Valley and oysters. For The Village That Loves Oysters is a combination of whimsical nonsense and real fact: Tyne Valley has been holding its annual oyster festival every summer for over 50 years, with a multitude of various oyster-inspired culinary treats and activities; I suspect, though, that they don’t have their own oyster-themed dictionary… still, I could be wrong.

What causes this delightful concept to be less than what one would hope is its poetry. Children respond to rhythm and rhyme; strong patterns in meter and sound not only render poetry delightful but also aid in the retention of the message carried through the verse. A primary requirement of poetry for children is thus—almost without exception—a consistent meter and a sufficiently strong rhyme scheme. That The Village That Loves Oysters fails to deliver on the first of these requirements is in many ways a show-stopper: the first line is classic iambic pentameter (five feet with the accent on the second syllable of each foot); the second line has an extra half-foot (“From”) prepended; the third line has six and half feet. After the first stanza, the single line “The villagers love oysters” is inserted, then the poem continues. The poem’s effective rhyme scheme is not sufficient to carry the reader through: without a consistent meter to provide rhythmic flow, the reader stumbles through the lines, tripping over the clever, chuckle-inducing images Mulligan creates.

It is not easy to write poetry; that is why poets have traditionally been so highly respected in literary circles. It is, however, still necessary to produce poetry that scans well, especially for children exploring language and learning the beauty of imagery, of rhythm, of rhyme.

The Gospel Truth (2015), by Caroline Pignat

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.3.

Pignat - Gospel TruthI must admit to having read no other verse novel, so I am not sure if it is the genre or Caroline Pignat’s particularly effective use of it that renders The Gospel Truth so haunting and so captivating. Phoebe’s story is told in her voice and the voices of those around her; the several voices reflect vastly differing perspectives on slavery on an 1858 Virginia tobacco plantation. The language is not so poetic as to be hard to parse; while the narrative flows smoothly, it is rich with moments of poetic beauty, “the best words in their best order” (Coleridge).

Phoebe is owned by the Master’s daughter, Tessa. Phoebe sits in on Tessa’s lessons, and is given Tessa’s hand-me-downs (including a scribbler), and so teaches herself rudimentary reading and writing. In 1858, teaching a slave to read or write was a punishable offence, for it might lead exactly where Phoebe ends up going…

Phoebe’s life is relatively stable—she serves Tessa; helps the cook, Bea, in the kitchen; and enjoys time with Shadrach, whose attentions are obvious and not unwelcome. Enter “The Birdman,” Dr. Ross Bergman, whose character is based on the Canadian physician, naturalist, and abolitionist, Alexander Milton Ross, who also appears (as himself) in Barbara Smucker’s well-known Underground to Canada (1977). Dr. Bergman is a “watcher,” like Phoebe herself, but Phoebe is not sure why it is he is watching her, particularly. Readers, too, wonder, for the lyric minimalism of the Pignat’s narrative shows us a multitude of truths, each partially masked by the internal voices that tell their stories as if to themselves. One of the refreshing strengths of Pignat’s writing is just this: the stories are being told, but they are not told to the reader. We feel as if we are eavesdropping on the candid thoughts of the characters as they puzzle out their lives. We learn that Phoebe is learning to read to try to sneak a peek at the Master’s ledger and find out to whom her mother was sold; we learn that Shad resents his brother Will’s attempts to escape, which he sees as desertion; we learn of the Master’s concern over financial affairs, despite external appearances; we learn that Dr. Bergman does want something from Phoebe… but we are not told initially what that is. Ultimately, with his help, Phoebe learns that

It takes courage
to see truths
that we’d rather not.

It takes courage
to speak up
when the way things is,
ain’t the way they should be.

It takes courage
to go beyond what you know
to the places you don’t. (315)

We watch as Phoebe reaches inside herself for that courage, and in the end finds it.

Trip to the Moon (2013), by Vera Evic

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.2.

Evic - MoonTrip to the Moon tells of three Inuit boys enjoying their world in the fashion of boys everywhere: they ride their bikes, skip stones in the water, and go poking in the dirt. What Kevin, Jacob, and Michael find, though, is an old oil drum, situating them in a rural environment as much as does mention of their town: Pagnirtung, Nunavut. The simple story in English is repeated below by the same story (I assume) in Inuktitut. The drawings are simple—in differing and mixed media—with the sky a seeming homage to Emily Carr.

The oil drum, it turns out, is magic, and transports the boys to the moon, where they meet a race of little people and explore the moon’s environment much as they explored back home. When their stomachs rumble, they begin their return flight, only to have Michael slip off the drum and … “he landed—on the floor, next to his bed” (20), conforming to the “all just a dream” motif.

The story is simple, almost clichéd; the language is plain and uninspired, containing no poetic rhythm or language, no echo of oral story-telling. The drawings are acceptable, but what makes this book special is the parallel English and Inuktitut, providing a story of their culture, in their language, to young readers in Nunavut. “Inuktitut books for children” is a very slowly growing library: any addition is greatly to be welcomed.