Isobel’s Stanley Cup (2018), by Kristin Butcher

That the basic plot of Isobel’s Stanley Cup is predictable does not take away from the rush of happiness we experience when Isobel helps save the day. So what is it, then, that raises this common story of girl-impersonates-boy-and-succeeds to a new level? I’m going to go with Kristin Butcher’s ability with character. I have always loved her young adult fiction, especially Truths I Learned from Sam (2013), and without exception it is her characters who pull me into the stories and hold me there, caught up in their lives until the end of the novel, often longer. With a chapter book such as Isobel’s Stanley Cup, of course, we do not have as long an engagement with the story, yet even with only 84 pages to build the connection, we cheer as loudly as any hockey fans when nine-year-old Isobel Harkness helps her brothers win against the team of local hockey bullies.

The story is set in 1893, the year after Lord Stanley, Governor-General of Canada, created the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup award, now the famous Stanley Cup. The award was created, we are told, at the instigation of his children—including his own daughter Isobel—who were all avid hockey fans. Isobel Harkness idolizes Isobel Stanley as an example of girls who have broken through the ice ceiling, and promises herself and her family that times are changing and that she will be a part of it. In a brief meeting with her hero, our Isobel learns a basic truth of life for smaller people: if you can’t be physically large and strong, be fast, or smart, or agile, or… whatever it takes. In hockey, Isobel is told, fast is the way to go.

In imitation of Lord Stanley’s award, the Harkness siblings—Isobel and her five older brothers—plan their own challenge amongst the local teams, hoping adult-referred games will discourage cheating and bullying. Isobel, who cannot contribute on the ice, is tasked with finding the prize, which turns out to be an old silver bowl that mother attaches to a base of wooden blocks: Isobel’s Stanley Cup. Faithful to the trope, two players are injured out of the final game, and for her brothers to have a chance, Isobel must play, dressed in her brother Billy’s clothes. Her speed, agility, and deep understanding of hockey techniques—gained through weeks of “coaching” her brothers in their practices—enable her to make the final assist, her brother Freddie the final goal, to win the challenge.

At first the Harkness family appears to be the stereotypic, patriarchal Victorian family, with father laying down the law regarding his daughter’s activities, mother supporting him, and the boys living an entitled life of masculine freedom. This is belied, though, by the obvious fairness and affection amongst the family members; by Isobel’s brothers’ willingness to help her circumvent parental authority and join them on the ice; by her mother’s encouragement of skating—if not hockey; and finally by her father’s ability to admit when he is wrong. These very believably drawn characters work together to give us a story that highlights the strength of a young Victorian girl making the smallest of cracks in that ceiling of discrimination. Although Isobel’s individual triumph is played out on a small, flooded field, her determination to follow in the footsteps of Isobel Stanley and other women who were creating a space for women in sports, transcends her historical moment: young readers of all genders will identify fully with her need to prove herself and her inner strength to do so.


Isobel Stanley (in white) and friends, playing hockey in Ottawa c1890 (image held by Library and Archives Canada). This is purportedly the first photo of women playing hockey in Canada; it is included in the historical information at the back of Isobel’s Stanley Cup.

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Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon (2018), by Karen Autio

I’ve been waiting for this book for a while now: ever since I read and loved Karen Autio’s Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter (2015). Responding to my review, the author told me of her new project, a history of the Okanagan for young readers, that she was working on with illustrator Loraine Kemp. I have to admit that my interest is not only because Kah-Lan is so marvellous, but also largely because I was born in the Okanagan and raised in the Similkameen, and was excited by the prospect of a history of my home. And now, here it is, in my hand. First, something about the illustrations: Karen Autio chooses her artist-colleagues well. Sheena Lott’s playful watercolours of sea otter pups first drew me to Kah-Lan, reminding me how much I love the ocean. Loraine Kemp’s paintings bring forth memories of dust and sage and pine in the air, and I can almost feel the blistering Okanagan sun on my skin. (Well, except for the winter scenes, which cause me to shiver in a similar but less-welcome nostalgic response.) The illustrations pair perfectly with the narrative, each painting adding subtly to the reader’s understanding of the historical moment. As for the text, the opening is auspicious: the book is “Dedicated to the syilx people, on whose lands this story unfolds.” Sqilxw (skay-lo-heh), we are told in the glossary that begins the book, means simply “the people”—the original inhabitants of the Okanagan Valley and Wild Horse Canyon—and it is with them that the story begins. The protagonist of Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon—the character who grows up—is not human, but a ponderosa pine tree, planted in 1780 by happenstance just as a young Okanagan boy paints his message on the rock wall of the canyon. As the tree grows through the decades, we watch the Okanagan people’s lives in the canyon and the valley, the coming of European fur traders along the Okanagan Brigade Trail that runs from Fort Okanagan on the Columbia River north to Kamloops, the capture and sale and culling of the wild horses that were the wealth of the Okanagan people, the settling of the valley by non-Indigenous people, two world wars, and the devastating forest fire in 2003 that kills the 223-year-old tree that has lived through so much. Despite that this is a history rather than a gripping narrative of personal endeavour, when the fire hits, we really do feel the loss, not only of our tree, but of so much else. Perhaps I feel this more personally than some: I remember watching the news in 2003, praying that my grandparents’ cabin—the old CPR bunkhouse at Chute Lake, now restored and owned by my cousins—would survive. We were fortunate: it did, while the forest and trestle and other homes were destroyed. The reprieve we felt is echoed in Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon in the description of the aftermath of the fire:
Seeds from many plants … have been waiting for decades to sprout and now begin to grow. … A seedling sheltered by the giant fallen tree in the canyon is a new ponderosa pine.
The firestorm cleared areas of the park, which then returned to rocky grassland. Bighorn sheep once lived in the park and can now live there again [and] in the Okanagan Valley south and west of Wild Horse Canyon, mostly on reserve land, several hundred wild horses survive and still roam free. (25-26)
This celebration of the cycle of life, as expressed in the slow growth and quick destruction of the ponderosa pine, and the ebb and flow of lives lived in its shade, is deeply satisfying. I hope young readers will feel at the end, as I did, that it is worth continuing, for the real history lesson lies in the pages that follow. In addition to a timeline (which is almost as satisfying to my hyper-organized mind as the map that opens the book), “More About Wild Horse Canyon and Area” includes more factual descriptions of the history and ideas touched on in the narrative. The combination of narrative and historical fact renders Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon not only fascinating for any young reader interested in our history, but even more appropriate as an addition to school and classroom libraries throughout BC and Canada.

The Little Broomstick (1971), by Mary Stewart

In anticipation of Studio Ponoc’s upcoming release of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I thought I would read Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, upon which the movie is based. Mary Stewart is, after all, one of my favourite adult authors. It turns out that The Little Broomstick is not all that easy to find, but yesterday my copy came in the post, shipped all the way from the wilds of North Yorkshire.

Mary Stewart is a mistress of descriptive writing, as much in The Little Broomstick as in her novels for adults, but this is not perhaps a strength: the child reader will likely not want to savour the lengthy, intimate description of Great-Aunt Charlotte’s gardener, or even the garden he inhabits, with its “sad, beautiful smell of autumn” (13). But maybe I am unfairly imposing the sensibilities of a modern child reader on a book written in 1971; for me, timeless classics such as Black Beauty (1877) and Swallows and Amazons (1930) fail in this regard just as strongly. The intelligence and sophistication with language that are a trademark of Stewart’s writing are similarly weakened when aimed at a younger readership. Again, though, modern sensibilities may be at fault in my evaluation, for her narrative style does effectively meld childish linguistic simplicity with a hint of fairy tale rhetoric. There is something almost Diana-Wynne-Jonesian about her narrative voice, which can only be a good thing in a story about witches.

The story begins in a rather recognizable way, with a young girl sent off to live with an aged relative (à la The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950). Lonely, she wanders into the autumn-dying garden, and encounters the taciturn gardener and a robin flitting about “as if it were his familiar” (à la The Secret Garden, 1911). The discovery of a magical flower (the “witch’s flower” of the anime) and its animation of a little broomstick Mary finds, lead her to Endor College for witches. I am certain that J.K. Rowling has read this book. From here, though, The Little Broomstick branches out on its own, refusing to conform to the trope of schools for good witches and wizards such as Hogwarts, Larwood House, or Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The students at Endor College are learning “spells of the simpler kind. Turning milk sour, blighting turnips, making the cows go dry” (51), and chanting distorted versions of children’s verse (à la Alice in Wonderland (1865), but lacking any levity) that are unquestionably intended to harm. Mary is quite sure that, despite the cat Tib and the Little Broomstick having brought her here, this is not a school she wishes to attend.

Again disrupting current narrative tropes, Mary’s magic does not come from any hereditary propensity to witchcraft, but rather from her finding the witch’s flower and rubbing its pollen on the broomstick handle. Or so one could choose to believe, if one did not want to consider Mary in any way connected with the evil that is Endor College. And Mary does distance herself irrevocably from the institution, actually effecting its demise. But the question still remains: why, on her first foray into the woods, did Mary find the magical flower that blooms only once every seven years? And why did she find the Little Broomstick hidden in a corner that replaced the unwieldy besom the gardener hands her to use? And why does the invisibility spell work so well on a neophyte, unless she possesses some latent magic of her own? These questions remain unanswered in the light of the logical, “daylight world” dénouement provided, but readers are allowed still to wonder…

So despite my initial reservations, coming from a strong habit of reading Mary Stewart’s writing from adults, I have to say that The Little Broomstick satisfies in every way: it refused to present a warm-cuddly version of witchcraft and magic; it has a simple yet exciting plot that takes place in a number of days rather than weeks or months (more satisfying for younger readers); and it leaves readers with something to wonder about, even while it presents an easily accepted narrative path for Mary’s future. I can imagine reading this to a young child over the space of a week, but perhaps not at bedtime. I wish I had found a copy ten or twelve years ago, and read it to my own children.

The Merlin Conspiracy (2003), by Diana Wynne Jones

Like her Tam Lin retelling, Fire and Hemlock (1985), this tale does not rise to the level of effectiveness that the Chrestomanci series or Howl’s Moving Castle (1996) does. The characters are all interesting, and the plot cleverly arranged and effectively sustained, but there are… it is hard to describe… just too many words. The narrative, like Fire and Hemlock, would have been more effective if reduced about 30% in length. While Diana Wynne Jones’s concept of multiple parallel universes is fascinating, this is not the best example of her use of that narrative paradigm. Sacrilege thought it may be in the world of children’s literature to suggest such a thing, I would love to have seen these of Jones’s concepts in the hands of a more adept author.