The Runaways (1997), by Kristin Butcher

It was surprisingly nostalgic to read Kristin Butcher’s The Runaways. The feeling grew on me slowly, undefined until a scene in the later part of the story when Nick, the protagonist, is trying to learn more about a favourite childhood author. Nick goes to the library, where he first checks newspaper reports, and then is pointed by the librarian to Who’s Who. It was at this point that I was compelled to check the publication date: 1997, when the Internet was in its infancy and not every middle-school student had a cell phone. The pre-digital narrative was refreshing, especially given Nick’s interest in investigative journalism, yet it caused me to wonder how middle-school readers today would respond to the story. Is this now a period piece? I’m hoping that young readers will not be put off by the unfamiliarity of earlier research techniques, because the story itself carries a message that is as strong and pertinent today as it was in 1997.

The scene opens on Nick running blindly, flat-out, escaping from a situation he finds unbearably painful: his mother and despised step-father are having a baby. Nick ends up spending the night in an abandoned house on the top of a hill over-looking his town. There, in the morning, he is found by Luther, a homeless man well-known in the community, whose “home” he has invaded. When the police come looking, Nick recognizes Luther’s need not to be found, and says nothing about their meeting. But the seeds of have been sown, and what begins as a curiosity about Luther develops into a more serious social interest in the lives of the homeless. Nick takes on the subject as a school research project and with the help of Cole, his step-father, investigates the real lives of people on the streets.

Cole is a journalist for the Andersonville newspaper and becomes Nick’s ally against maternal concerns about investigating the rougher side of town. Their shared interest gives Cole a platform upon which to build a meaningful relationship with his new step-son, and through their shared adventures, Nick begins to both understand and appreciate Cole’s new role in his life. In contrast to Cole’s active overtures towards Nick, Luther works to maintain an emotional distance, but his reticence runs up against Nick’s insatiable curiosity, tempered though it is by respect for Luther’s obvious intelligence.

The Runaways is very much about taking the time to really think about other people’s lives; it is about developing empathy, not only for people who are obviously “other” (Luther and the homeless community) but also for those closer to us, whose strengths we might not see clearly.

Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (2015)

One of the cool things about the teenaged girls in my life having less-than-perfect organizational skills is that friends sometimes leave interesting things at our place rather than just piles of dirty clothes, shoes, make-up, questionable forms of former-food stuffs…

The other day I stumbled upon a graphic novel, Lumberjanes, the owner of which has apparently disappeared into the Black Hole of Lost Friendships. Perfect, I said: I can read that and pass it on to the Women’s Family Shelter, which is where old clothes and reviewed books from our house go to live a second (or third) life.

Lumberjanes

Written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis; Illustrated by Brooke Allen; Colours by Maarta Laiho; Letters by Aubrey Aiese

I’d heard of Lumberjanes; in fact, I recall seeing it on a display table at Emerald City Comicon, but foolishly passed it by. A shame, really, as I could have got a special “Emerald City Comicon special cover”…

My daughter tells me that the novel is strongly feminist, and fun, but that really is not giving the cleverness its due. Adventures are had! Canoes are paddled! Inter-textual allusions are made! Stereotypes are overturned! Puns are constructed! Math is employed! Lumberjanes has something for everyone. Seriously. Or not.

I had to admit, though, that I was not sure if there was going to be any degree of humour as I began, nor was I sure there would be any disrupting feminist portrayals. The introduction is a very artfully constructed expression of an ideology strongly paralleling that of the Girl Guides of Canada—without the imperialist military history—and thus deeply normalized in my own experience of being a teen. The textual precursors to the graphic narrative in each chapter likewise seem to present the characteristic woodcraft challenges Girl Guides engage in (or used to) and the social and emotional development they strive towards. Sort of.

There is an underlying sarcasm to the tone of the Lumberjanes Field Manual that increases as the novel progresses. For the “Everything Under the Sum” badge, for example, Lumberjanes are expected to “map accurately and correctly from the country itself the main features of a half mile of road, with 440 yards each side to a scale of two feet to the mile, and afterwards draw the same map from memory.” She must “be able to measure the height of a tree, a telegraph pole, and a church steeple”; “to measure the width of a river estimate the distance apart of two objects a known distance away and unapproachable”; and “have a basic understanding of theoretical mathematics and the basic laws of physics.” (I wonder if this is actually taken from some archaic nautical test book?) The basic knowledge of theoretical mathematics, though, does turn out to be crucial. A bit of plot now to elucidate…

Lumberjanes Jo, Mal, Molly, April, and Ripley are infamous for sneaking off from their cabin leader, Jen, and getting into trouble. At first, on their “Up All Night” badge, they encounter a pack of demon foxes with three eyes, who tell them to “Beware the Kitten Holy…” Jo picks up an oval metal disk, like a Celtic scarf toggle, that doubtless has a role the plots of future volumes of the series. We see this symbol again when the Scouting Lads become possessed by evil powers, but that is our only hint. In their “Naval Gauging” badge, the Lumberjanes encounter a river-monster (again with three eyes); and an eagle (with three eyes) steals their chocolate bar. In trying to retrieve it, Ripley inadvertently opens a downward spiralling tunnel, which she immediately jumps into because: Tunnel. Adventure. Lumberjane. Duh.

They find themselves in a cavern with no way out but forward. This is the crux of the story, and the allusions to other adventure narratives are beginning to be unmistakable. There are of course Mal and Ripley as names (and one wonders that little bit about Jo and Louisa May Alcott). Also the trope of the spiralling descent into the underworld, and the challenges to overcome to move forward. And Molly’s echo of The Emperor’s New Groove surprised aside when she leans against a lever in the wall: “Why is that even there?” The nature of the challenges themselves are especially familiar: arrows shooting across the tunnel triggered by a step, Molly reaching back under a falling stone door to retrieve her hat, and the maze of stone pillars crossing a chasm, with numbers rather than letters that need to be jumped on in the right order. And now we are back to the “Everything Under the Sum” badge: rather than the name of Jehovah that Indiana Jones needs to recall from his classical studies, the Lumberjanes must follow the Fibonacci series, in which, Jo tells us, “each number is the last two numbers added together: zero, one, one, two, five … All the way to infinity and beyond! [!] Or in this case, 233.” This is followed by Molly sorting out an anagram carved into the wall of the cavern, which leaves them, as in childhood games, “Home free!”

But tropes are also overturned: when they steal borrow the golden bow and arrows from the plinth that is significantly not booby-trapped like the golden head in Raiders of the Lost Ark, they considerately leave a note explaining that they will return it. And in their encounter with the Scouting Lads, gender stereotypes are flipped. The adventurous girls, battle-weary, with scratches and poison-ivy stings, are brought into the homey cabin of the nurturing Scouting Lads and given tea and cookies. The Scout Master, on the other hand, is the quintessential he-man. After lambasting the boys for entertaining “womenfolk,” he slams out of the cabin: “I AM GOING TO CATCH A FISH BY WRESTLING IT AWAY FROM A BEAR.” To which April comments in stupefaction “Wow…” and Barney replies in the language of teenaged girls: “I know, right? He’s the WORST.”

In a final Indiana-Jones-worthy scene, the Lumberjanes escape the now possessed posse of Scouting Lads and achieve their “Robyn Hood” badge, shooting the anchors of a rope bridge with their “borrowed” golden arrows. They are safe for now, but the evil Scout Master is rallying his troupes for volume 2, Lumberjanes: Friendship to the Max.

Aesop’s Secret (2012), by Claudia White

white-aesopI’ve just finished Claudia White’s Aesop’s Secret (well, obviously, because here I am reviewing it). They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case I think maybe you can. Larissa Kulik’s drawing of Melissa, one of the two protagonists, is alluring, whimsical yet uncanny, and thus very fitting with the content of the book.

I have to admit it took me a little while to get into the story; the language is not as light and flowing as other books I have read recently. But then it began: I sunk deeper and deeper into the story, completely uncertain where White was taking us. The more I read, the more I honestly didn’t know, couldn’t tell, where we were headed… which of course drew me deeper still.

The concept in Aesop’s Secret is refreshingly original. A race of Others living among us (okay, not so original yet), called Athenites, used to live in harmony with humans but were forced by history to conceal their abilities. This name is purportedly based on the Greek goddess Athena’s ability to transform into other animals. Now, if you think about Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the title is a bit of a give-away), it is not only Athena, amongst the gods, who has this ability. But I’ll give White that one; after all, Athena’s mother Metis was known—more than other mythological characters—as a shape-shifter. Melissa and Felix Hutton’s mother is about to publish a treatise revealing that Athenites are real, not mythological. She seems exactly the right anthropologist to do so, as the Huttons themselves are Athenites. But someone doesn’t want that research published.

Athenites’ abilities manifest as they mature; shape-shifting is genetic and connected in some way to their hemoglobin. This sets up nicely for a plot involving biological manipulation for at least one character’s nefarious purposes. I really don’t want to say more than that; you’ll have to read the book. The originality lies largely in the parts I am not telling you: sorry. While there is some catering to the narrative expectations of child readers—I can tell you that it all works out in the end—there were quite a few “oh—didn’t see that coming” moments to keep readers on their toes.

Aesop’s Secret is the first of a trilogy, all of which are written, published, and available now to be read: the second book is Key to Kashdune (2014) followed by Servalius Window (2015), itself a novel in three parts. White avoids the “well, I might as well write another volume” problems that so much series fiction has these days. At the end of the novel, you can see how the story can go on, but you are still left satisfied. The best place to be: you can read on, but you don’t have to in order to find closure.

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Speechless (2015), by Jennifer Mook-Sang

I really struggled with this review. The book is so simple, so refreshing, even though it is dealing with what are, to an elementary school student, major issues. It was a delight to read; I hope that comes across sufficiently.

Speechless

mook-sang-speechless“Jelly”—Joe Alton Miles, or J.A.M.—has a problem. Well, Jelly has a collection of problems, but one in particular: stage fright. It wouldn’t be a big issue except for the school speech competition, with the amazing prize of a tablet computer with enough power for online gaming. Which brings up Jelly’s next problem: Victoria, a popular but sly and manipulative classmate.

As a character, Victoria might seem to be a bit of a stereotype, but sadly, her type is all too common in our schools. I’m pretty sure you all know her: the girl who demands adoration, the one weaker classmates strive to appease because, as Jelly’s friend Samantha affirms, “if you want any friends, you have to friends with Victoria.” (Sam, notably, feels no such compulsion: “Too much drama” (50).) Victoria is the student Jelly needs to beat to win that tablet, and Victoria excels at winning. She also plays nasty: spreading rumours about Jelly, faking injury when he pushes her slightly, making snide sotto voce comments at all his efforts. Everyone who has ever suffered under unjust adult discipline will feel Jelly’s pain: he’s smart, a good kid trying to help others, and yet the adults are duped by Victoria’s manipulations.

Supported by his developing friendship with Parker’s twin sister, Sam, Jelly navigates the social quagmire of elementary school. They manage to diffuse the effect of Victoria’s rumours, but Jelly still flounders about in a tangle of playground politics. This is perhaps what I liked best about Speechless: Jennifer Mook-Sang really gives us a sense of how daunting life can be to an eleven-year-old boy. There is a simplicity to Jelly’s thought processes that belies the importance of the complex life lessons he is learning. Standing up to bullies, both physically and intellectually; missing sleep to help others because he promised; figuring out ways to succeed in spite of his insecurities and fear: all these are big life lessons, but Speechless is in no way heavy-handed. Jelly’s cheeky narrative voice and personality, at once both clueless and self-reflective, make us both smile at his youth and cheer his growing maturity.