A Country of Our Own: The Confederation Diary of Rosie Dunn, Ottawa, Province of Canada, 1866 (2013), Karleen Bradford

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 19.3.

Part of the Dear Canada series

Mack-CountryHaving read one or two volumes from girls’ pseudo-historical series such the Dear America series, or the British My Story series, I did not expect great things from Dear Canada; I didn’t want to see my own history similarly fictionalized beyond sufficient claims to historical authenticity. Then I looked at the authors contributing to the Dear Canada series. The list is extensive, and each author there is a familiar name to young Canadian readers; each author there is respected for his or her authorial integrity. Karleen Bradford’s Confederation Diary of Rosie Dunn is a welcome addition to the well-researched and well-written Dear Canada library.

It is 1866, and young Rosie Dunn has had to take her older sister’s place in service with a politician’s family destined to move to Ottawa, the capital of the new Dominion of Canada. Rosie’s father is keen on politics, so she is used to hearing the news, but not always understanding what it means. Her keen interest and intelligence, but lack of raw information, make Rosie the perfect vessel for bringing political knowledge to the young reader.

On 31 December 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the new capital of the Province of Canada; by 1866, when Rosie Dunn arrives, Ottawa is still little more than a back-woods community, with mud instead of sidewalks and small wood houses instead of the attractively designed and solidly constructed homes of Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, or Quebec City. The “hardships” Rosie’s employers have to endure make her an admirable servant: she is industrious, honest, clever, and used to working in less-than-luxurious conditions. Rosie’s story is a rich combination of life in 1860s Ottawa and a lay-person’s understanding of the political events that accompanied the birth of our nation. We learn much of what the common people might have thought about the politics of the time, of the relations between the British ruling class and the Irish and French Canadian working classes, and of the day-to-day activities of the working people in each community. The feeling Bradford creates in her story—the characters, the setting, the honest human emotions—remind me strongly of one of my favourite novels for young Canadian readers, Lyn Cook’s much earlier The Secret of Willow Castle (1966). Both books take a significant moment in Canadian history and bring it to life for young readers. What better way to engage with our history than through the eyes and ears and minds of well-constructed fictional counterparts?

Bye-bye, Evil Eye (2014), by Deborah Kerbel

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.

Kerbel - Evil EyeDani has been given an amazing opportunity: she has been invited to accompany her best friend, Kat, on a trip to Greece, Kat’s family’s homeland. The conditions of Dani’s travelling are to heed Kat’s mother, Mrs. Papadakis, and to actively engage in learning about Greek history and culture. Dani’s responses to her mother’s rules are those of a rebellious teen: more interested in her own enjoyment, she actively engages in swimming, flaunting Mrs. Papadoakis’s rules, and trying to find a boy for her more-innocent friend to kiss. The girls’ experiences overlay a superficial, even stereotypical portrayal of Greek culture: the leering young Greek Lothario, the maternal Aunt, the reticent but strong Uncle, and the American-Greek boy, Nick, who becomes Dani’s love interest.

Dani seems to be plagued with a run of bad luck, which Kat—stereotypically superstitious—attributes to the Evil Eye. When Dani’s bad luck follows the girls home to Toronto, she begins to believe Kat’s concerns, and appeals to Mrs. Papadakis for folkloric cures to the curse. The plot is complicated by Dani’s attraction to Nick, and her concern that Kat—who is distancing herself from Dani—is jealous.

Of course it all works out in the end. The problem with this novel for me—other than its reliance on so many cultural stereotypes—is the portrayal of teen sexuality. Dani and Kat are thirteen, but precocious for their years, obsessed with boys and little else. Or rather, Dani is obsessed with boys. Kat, it turns out, is obsessed with Dani. For me, the inclusion of Kat’s lesbianism as little more than a plot device belittles the experience of teens who are struggling with their sexuality. While Kerbel foreshadows the event in Kat’s seeming jealousy of Nick, there are no other clues. Kat kisses Dani on page 161, nine-tenths of the way through the narrative, which leaves the girls—and readers—very little space in which to explore the psychosocial issues that must arise from such a revelation. While it is reassuring that Kat’s kiss does not interfere with their friendship, the eliding of the emotions such a revelation must call forth is problematic. In the end, Dani does explain how she was flattered more than otherwise, and will support Kat in any decisions she has to make, but Kat’s lesbianism is not a sufficiently well-integrated part of her character.

Share (2014), by Sally Anne Garland

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.

Garland - ShareShare describes a situation than most children will relate to. I have certainly heard my own mother tell this story repeatedly: the older child is asked to share, and the younger child doesn’t get the idea. The older child obligingly shares, and moves to another toy, only to have the younger child demand that as well. This is intensely frustrating for the older child (in this case bunny), and I think Sally Anne Garland has captured this frustration admirably. The young bunny wants to be just like his older cousin; once the older cousin realizes her position as mentor—or hero—her attitude changes, and what was frustrating becomes gratifying. That the young bunny in Garland’s book does actually show his affection in the end solidifies Garland’s message. In the end, Share is not so much about sharing as it is about patience, compassion, and setting a good example.

While the message is solid and effectively presented, and the illustrations delightful, Share falls short in terms of its poetry. Often, the lines do not scan; this is especially problematic when the lines also span across page breaks, the interruptions adding to the disjuncture created by the jerky rhythm. With a little more attention to the poetry, Share would be excellent; as it is, the story and message and illustrations still work together to create a pleasing, if not poetically inspired, whole.

The Line (2013), by Paula Bossio

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.

Bossio - LineThe title and the cover of The Line bring Crockett Johnson’s masterly Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) immediately to mind, and certainly The Line has much of the same charm; yet it is, fortunately, refreshingly different. Our line is not drawn by the protagonist, telling a story as she goes, but rather, the charcoal line lies waiting at the bottom of the page, a tool for her lively imagination. The text has no words, leaving the readers to focus exclusively on the childishly drawn girl in the simple red dress. The pages are grey with smudges of charcoal where the “child”-artist has rubbed against the edges; the line is not perfectly straight, even as it lies along the ground; and the colours of the girl’s hair and dress are scribbled, almost within the lines.

The storyline is simple but engaging: the girl picks up the line, and with the bight in her hand heads off onto the next page. There, she wiggles it up and down like a skipping rope, making waves in the air. Her story continues page to page as she slides down one of her waves, pushes a hoop, blows bubbles, swings like a monkey, and balances on her head for her line-drawn audience. The she encounters some frightening monsters and bears, who chase her across the last pages, until she is saved by a cuddly teddy bear, whom she hugs in thanks. On the back of the final page, we see the source of her line: a young boy in a blue shirt, giggling as the charcoal pencil trails behind him.

I’m not certain about the gender stereotypes inherent in the girl in the red dress following a line created and controlled by the boy in blue shirt… but for those to whom this is not problematic, The Line is a beautifully conceived and artfully executed story.