Elatsoe (2020), by Darcie Little Badger

Misinterpreting a comment in her introduction, I at first thought that Elatsoe (eh-lat-so-ay) was Darcie Little Badger’s first book, but it turns out that she is quite prolific. More books to add to my “want to read” pile, I guess.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.

Elatsoe is full of magic realism that blends seamlessly with the imagination of youth and the stories of the Lipan Apache Nation. This seamlessness was actually a problem for me, as I am almost totally unversed in the Apache culture. At one point, Ellie tells her father, “Dad. We’re Apache. Wendigo is a monster for the northerners” (chapter 7). You can hear the eye-roll. Wendigo, however, is a creature I recognize; “northerners” includes Canadian Indigenous cultures… So while it was a learning experience, but my lack of knowledge rendered me unable to tell where magic realism and imagination bordered on—or overlapped—Indigenous story.

That aside, the combination was, well—magical. We have zombies and vampires and spiritualists and wizards all practicing under the auspices and control of governmental agencies. Ellie herself is intending to go into training as a paranormal investigator: “Her second goal was paleontologist, since she could always double-check her reconstructions with careful use of ghost dinosaurs” (chapter 4). Which brings us to what makes Ellie such an interesting protagonist.

So. Backing up to the opening pages of the book, then. I admit to being a bit flummoxed, but both the initial intrigue and its resolution spurred my interest and anticipation in reading on.

Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van). After bringing the purchase home, she dug through her box of craft supplies and glued a pair of googly eyes in its shallow sockets. [So far, so normal…]

“I got you a new friend, Kirby!” Ellie said. “Here, boy! C’mon” Kirby already fetched tennis balls and puppy toys. Sure, anything looked astonishing when it zipped across the room in the mouth of an invisible dog, but a floating googly skull would be extra special. [At this point I thought: “Imaginary friend? How old is our protagonist?”]

Unfortunately, the skull terrified Kirby. He wouldn’t get near it, much less touch it. Maybe it was possessed by a demonic vacuum cleaner. More likely, the skull just smelled weird. …

“Look, a treat!” Ellie put a cheese cube in the skull’s mouth. Although ghosts didn’t eat, Kirby enjoyed sniffing his old favorites: chicken kibble, peanut butter, and cheddar. …

The world Ellie lives in only gets better. Ellie has inherited the natural abilities of “Six-Great,” her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, also Elatsoe, a legendary and “formidable warrior” who had learned how to raise the dead. The dead can also come to Ellie in her dreams, and when her cousin Trevor visits her one night to tell her his death was not accidental, asking her to discover the truth, her father believes her: “We will honor your cousin’s last wishes, ” he said. “Together. As a family.”

Here, Elatsoe veers off the path of expectation. Tradition—in late twentieth-century Western children’s literature at least—is for the parents to be either absent or problematic for the youthful protagonist developing a sense of self. I admit that this has changed in the last couple of decades, but it still seems true that Western youth approach adulthood through a sense of separation; in Elatsoe, maturity is acknowledged as an acceptance of and engagement in the power of family and community. I am sure that children’s literature critics have addressed the coming-of-age trope in Indigenous versus Western cultures; if not, here is fodder.

The investigations of Ellie and her friend Jay—himself part fairy—lead them to crash a charity ball held by a prominent doctor in a nearby community. Not only Ellie and Jay, but Ellie’s mother and aunt, and Jay’s sister, her basketball friends, and her vampire fiancé (and of course Ellie’s grandmother’s ghost mammoth—but you’ll have to read the book) all join in to prevent a paranormal catastrophe. They work together. And succeed. As a family.

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares (2010), by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares (2010), by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

With the Netflix version of this YA series appearing in time for Christmas 2020, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that the first book
—the one I read—is set over the Christmas holidays. I should have read it a month ago…

Like the book, the movie opens with Dash finding a red moleskin journal on the shelves of a bookstore reminiscent (for us West Coasters) of Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. Intrigued, he takes the book and reads the hand-written challenge inside: “I’ve left some clues for you. If you want them, turn the page. If you don’t, put the book back on the shelf, please.” What self-respecting teen reader could resist? What follows is the exchange of the moleskin journal between them, with cleverly planned dares each to the other, requiring such (for a teen) socially awkward situations as sitting on Santa’s knee, poking about under pillows on the beds in a department store, or going to a children’s movie alone.

What makes this book delightful are the quirky voices of our protagonists. Both share an esoteric love of language and tangential thinking that allows them to decipher the other’s clues, binding them together intellectually before they ever meet. This is where—for me—the movie fails utterly. I didn’t manage to get past the first few pages (as it were) of the narrative. Dash is a snarky, unattractive personality in the film, where he is a sarcastic but engaging voice in the novel; the opening scene of the film has him arrogantly correcting a bookstore staff member, who is himself obnoxious in response. We start out with a sour taste in our minds… As Lily’s words are read out in the film, too, her voice is insultingly challenging, the taunts sounding more like a schoolyard bully than the clever, humourous voice of the novel’s character. The “please” in the written version of the opening challenge creates a lighter, engaging tone that is missing from the movie.

But enough of that. The book itself is lovely. The challenges the teens present to each other are clever, but not inconsistent with what would be possible, in terms of the characters’ personalities or the real-world setting. Not surprisingly for David Levithan (I’ve not read anything else by Rachel Cohn), the psychology is sound. I like, too, that the multicultural aspects of life in New York—Christian, Jewish, gay, etc.—are integrated seamlessly into the narrative. The plot does focus on these differences, nor does it turn on an unexpected ending. It is grounded firmly on the developing relationship of two normal teens and the interesting challenges they devise for each other. It is a delightful example of the journey, not the arrival, mattering .

2021 Reading Challenge

A list like this came down on Facebook, so I thought I’d try it. I’ve changed up the items to make them less inane —more meaningful, diverse, and hopefully interesting. I’ll update it as I go along; if you want to play, please do so as well, in the comments, to give others (well, me) some recommendations for good books. Do note whether or not you actually consider your choice a good book.

Karyn’s 2021 Reading Challenge

At some point in 2021, read a book that falls into each category. One book can not be used for two categories. Books for any audience, in any language, read on any platform, are acceptable. It can be a book you have read before, but you have to read it again in its entirety.

If you want to share this as you go, I suspect your friends will appreciate the recommendations. I would at least.

Having finished a book last night, I’ll start, and update as the year goes on.

Read a book…

1       set in a school.

2       featuring the medical profession.

3       with dual universes.

4       by an author who is deceased.

5       strongly advocating a particular ideology.

6       with a protagonist with the same name as a family member.—The Cybernetic Tea Shop (2016), by Meredith Katz; short, simple story with interesting world-building that deserves a deeper exploration by an author with a more sophisticated writing style; also a tad derivative from Philip K. Dick’s We Can Build You; protagonist Clara is an AI and robotics specialist

7          by an author with only one published book.

8          in the 900s of the Dewey Decimal System.

9          set in a Mediterranean country.

10        with a title related to the word “fire”.

11        set in Canada.

12        that teaches you a new skill.

13        incorporates a cultural mythology.—Wildfire at Midnight (1953), by Mary Stewart; I really did enjoy this one, although the relationship between protagonists is rather dated; ; set on the Isle of Skye, the mystery revolves around Celtic mythology

14        set in Australia.

15        mentioned in another book.

16        set before the 18th century.

17        with a character on the run.

18        with steampunk elements.

19        with a deckled edge.

20        made into a TV series or movie.

21        by a Canadian author not set in Canada.

22        that is a family saga.

23        with an unexpected ending.

24        that you think should be read in schools.

25        with multiple character POV.

26        with an author of colour.

27        set in Africa.

28        that includes a historical event you know little about.

29        featuring the environment.

30        Watch out for dragons!

31        set in India.

32        with an unsympathetic protagonist or an anti-hero.

33        that features adoption.

34        that you’d rate 5 stars.

35        that includes magic.

36        with a nameless narrator.

37        by two authors.—Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares (2010), by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan; sweet, somewhat predictable YA novel

38        recommended by your local library.

39        that is an alternate-history novel.

40        that you like, recommended by a friend.

41        with an endorsement by a famous author on the cover.

42        that is historical biographical fiction.

43        with a character with a pet cat.

44        that features a garden.

46        that is a bildungsroman (coming of age novel).

46        that won a National Book Award—any nation, any year.

47        with a significant character with a disability.

48        intended for a teen audience.

49        with a flavour, colour, or scent in the title.

50        that focuses on environmental issues.

51        published in 2021.

52        that repeats one of the previous 51 categories.

Here are my and others’ recommendations (the list is in italics so that I don’t get confuse while scrolling!):

Read a book…

1 set in a school.

2 featuring the medical profession.

3 with dual universes.—The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

4 by an author who is deceased.

5 strongly advocating a particular ideology.

6 with a protagonist with the same name as a family member.—This will depend, of course, on your family…

7 by an author with only one published book.

8 in the 900s of the Dewey Decimal System.

9 set in a Mediterranean country.—Moira recommends My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell

10 with a title related to the word “fire”.

11 set in Canada.

12 that teaches you a new skill.

13 that incorporates a cultural mythology.

14 set in Australia.

15 mentioned in another book.

16 set before the 18th century.

17 with a character on the run.

18 with steampunk elements.

19 with a deckled edge.

20 made into a TV series or movie.

21 by a Canadian author not set in Canada.—Anil’s Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje

22 that is a family saga.

23 with an unexpected ending.—The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

24 that you think should be read in schools.—Moira recommends Indian Horse

25 with multiple character POV.

26 with an author of colour.

27 set in Africa.

28 that includes a historical event you know little about.

29 featuring the environment.

30 Watch out for dragons!

31 set in India.

32 with an unsympathetic protagonist or an anti-hero.

33 that features adoption.

34 that you’d rate 5 stars.—Moira recommends The Goldfinch, by Donna Tarte

35 that includes magic.

36 with a nameless narrator.

37 by two authors.

38 recommended by your local library.

39 that is an alternate-history novel.

40 that you like, recommended by a friend.

41 with an endorsement by a famous author on the cover.

42 that is historical biographical fiction.—Remarkable Creatures, by Tracey Chevalier

43 with a character with a pet cat.

44 that features a garden.

46 that is a bildungsroman (coming of age novel).

46 that won a National Book Award—any nation, any year.

47 with a significant character with a disability.

48 intended for a teen audience.

49 with a flavour, colour, or scent in the title.

50 that focuses on environmental issues.

51 published in 2021.

52 that repeats one of the previous 51 categories.

Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink (2020), by Karen Autio

I’m a bit late for the early launch of Karen Autio’s Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink at the Vancouver Aquarium (22 September 2020), but in time for you all to buy copies for Christmas for the young ecologically minded readers in your lives. Inside Vancouver also recommends it as representative of Vancouver and [my hopeful interpretation] our environmentally sensitive ethos. Why, you might ask? What makes this book special amongst all the animal stories out there? The answer is partially given in my review of Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter when it came out in 2015. Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink contains the same level of interest and delight, with an added message of concern for our environment.

Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink

Kah-Lan is growing up. He longs “to leave the raft of female sea otters and pups … to explore the coastal waters. But not alone” (1). He remembers the dangers away from the raft, but his yearning is stronger than his fear.

The oldest male in the raft, Kah-Lan is unsuccessful at convincing other males to go with him, and so he does set out, alone, to find a raft of males to join. The descriptions of the sea otter pups frolicking in the currents, the power of the ocean waves that toss them, the octopus shooting its “cloud of black ink” at them create a feeling of other-worldliness tempered by the simple, accessible language. There is security in these descriptions, and familiarity. When Kah-Lan strikes out on his own, though, readers feel his wariness, a maturity learned from his antics with Yamka in his first book. Rejected by the male raft he approaches, Kah-Lan sets out to find other male youth, hoping to establish a new raft for mutual protection. More than a shortage of food and deadly orcas, Kah-Lan is now aware of another potential threat, one he does not fully understand: “Those strange furless ones that walk on their hind legs” (7-8).

Throughout his journey, the descriptions of what he sees and thinks are presented in words that reduce our complex world to a fictional sea otter’s comprehension: sea trees and sea forests; “strands of fish-web”; the furless Elders and furless pups; the “big shiny creatures that pass by the raft” (19); and of course the “stink-ink,” with its “smell from the shiny creature but worse” (23). Autio creates and effective and interesting balance between Kah-Lan’s understanding and diction and what is really happening as the “furless Elders”—in fact marine rescue workers—perform actions readers will recognize but he does not. The marine rescuers’ words are presented in italics, allowing a cognitive switch between Kah-Lan’s perspective and the reader’s world. We can feel Kah-Lan’s trepidation, the fear and curiosity combined, as he is taken to be healed from his encounter with the “stink-ink.” Again, as in the first Kah-Lan book, the real dangers of life in the wild, and the hazards—both natural and of human creation—are not glossed over. Danger and death are a part of a sea otter’s life. This knowledge is reinforced in Kah-Lan and the Stink-Ink, and this time, the danger comes not from orcas but from a very real environmental threat. It is never to early to teach our children the dangers humans present to the ocean and all its inhabitants. It’s a damaged world we older generations have passed on to our children; the least we can do is help them understand the need to do better than we did. I would love to see Kah-Lan and the Stink-Ink not only on the shelves in elementary school libraries, but taught as part of the curriculum.

[Okay. That’s really not a comment I often make, and—interestingly—the book I most recently felt this strongly about was (wait for it) Karen Autio’s Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon, for a completely different reason. I stand by my recommendation in both cases.]

Perhaps the message has been getting through. Last week (8 December 2020), Amy Attas published an article in West Coast Traveller about the return of the sea otter to Haida Gwaii after 150 years. Let’s all keep at it, and maybe our oceans can be successfully restored.