A Boy Called Bat (2017), by Elana K. Arnold

arnold-bayBixby Alexander Tam (aka BAT, for more than just the obvious reason) finds navigating life a bit difficult. When we are introduced to him, he is in a conundrum: he wants a snack, but has to have the fridge open to find one, but hates having the fridge open because that wastes energy. To top it all off, there is no food there to eat… which is to say that there are no vanilla yoghurts left, and he won’t eat the yoghurts with the fruit chunks on the bottom. Well, I mean, who would, right? It is a scene from our household, but apparently not everyone’s.

There’s not much action in A Boy Called Bat, but that really isn’t the point. What the novel lacks in excitement it more than makes up for in depth of understanding and characterization. The little ways that Bat responds to his world—his unique way of sorting his room; his sensitivity to smells and sounds, unless he is fascinated by something else; his inability to understand what others sometimes mean; his frustration when he knows he is not understanding—are really the essence. I wonder to what degree readers who do not have first-hand experience of children who refuse to eat mushrooms but want mushroom-flavoured ramen, or cannot focus on math but will spend hours learning the names of dinosaurs, understand what is going on in Bat’s world. At what point in the narrative do all of the little clues coalesce into understanding? Is it the opening confrontation with his sister Janie over the yoghurt? Or when he makes his mother reset the trip meter for each trip to school? Or when he “ran through the list of things he was supposed to remember to say to people?” (96)? Or when his father makes chili?

Bat didn’t like chili. Dad knew he didn’t like it. Bat didn’t like mushy foods. Except for oatmeal with brown sugar. [Which isn’t the same as mushy legumes: duh.]
“I don’t like chili,” Bat said.
“Maybe you’ll like it tonight,” Dad said. “I tried a new recipe.” (70-71)

I almost cried: his father—who of all people should—doesn’t understand that texture, not taste, is the issue. How can we expect outsiders to get it? Bat marches to the beat of a different bagpipe.

Bat is not autistic in the same way as Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), but Elana K. Arnold’s technique of letting us see the world through Bat’s eyes, rather than telling us what is going on for him, echoes the effectiveness of Haddon’s classic narrative. I’m not sure that young readers on their own would necessarily understand why Bat is different (the text is aimed at about a grade 3-5 audience). If they recognize Bat’s characteristics in some of their classmates, having seen the world through Bat’s eyes will help them empathize in a way that Bat is only himself learning to do.

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.

A Year of Borrowed Men (2015), by Michelle Barker

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 21.3.

A Year of Borrowed Men was deservedly short-listed for the 2016 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award.

A Year of Borrowed Men

Illustrated by Renné Benoit.

Barker - Borrowed MenA Year of Borrowed Men tells a story from World War Two that will be unfamiliar to many readers, but is nonetheless a moving part of the history of the German-Canadian community. The author writes from her mother Gerta’s recollections, bringing to life the engaging voice of the younger Gerta, whose family hosted three French prisoners-of-war on their German farm in 1944.

World War Two from the German perspective remains somewhat problematic: how do we reconcile decades of erroneous equation of “German” with evil, with the real experiences of many Germans during the war? While the topic is dealt with effectively in some textsT– Roberto Innocenti’s Rose Blanche (1985), Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005), John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2006), among othersT– it will take so many more stories for truth to overcome the stereotypes. A Year of Borrowed Men contributes positively and significantly to our understanding of the compassion of some of the German populace, placed themselves in an almost untenable psychological and ideological situation.

Gerta’s father was “borrowed” by the German army, and in his place the government sent three French prisonersT– Gabriel, Fermaine, and AlbertT– to work the land. Gerta’s innocent narrative perspective ensures that the dark reality of Germany’s forced labour policy is not brought out. With the egalitarianism of young children, Gerta cannot understand why the three must live with the animals, and eat in the “pig’s kitchen,” where the slops were prepared. That was the rule though: these men were prisoners and were to be treated as such. Inviting them in to dinner one night almost sent Gerta’s mother to prison herself, yet the family could not deny their fundamental humanity. Despite regulations, in the face of threats, Gerta and her mother find little ways of making the Frenchmen’s lives more tolerable: extra butter on their bread, catalogues to cut into elicit decorations at Christmas, sneaking treats for them to eat. The men reciprocated with affection for their little German freunde: “I couldn’t keep the borrowed men here,” Gerta observes at the end of the war, “but we were friends– and I could keep that forever.” The story is made more powerful by the fact that Gerta did indeed keep that friendship alive: enough that her daughter has retold their story for her grandchildren’s generation to learn.

When Santa Was a Baby (2015), by Linda Bailey

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 21.1.

Illustrated by Geneviève Godbout.

When Santa Was A Baby

Bailey - Santa BabyThis 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 xxx

The first thing that strikes one about When Satan Was a Baby is Geneviève Goudbout’s clever artistic style, which replicates the wrapping paper and illustration of Christmases in the 1960s and 1970s. The muted autumnal pastel drawings, the pencil-crayon poinsettias against the moss-green background, the red button noses and shiny apple cheeks of the characters: all these speak of a heartwarming nostalgia that is reinforced by the story.

Linda Bailey’s Santa is a normal little boy… except for his booking baby voice, and maybe his love of red over every other colour, and perhaps his propensity for re-wrapping his birthday presents… Things begin to become clearer to the reader when he harnesses his hamsters to a matchbox to pull around the house. Part of the joy for the young reader will be that Santa’s parents still haven’t figured it out. “Extraordinary!” his father proclaims; “He’s so creative!” coos his mother. “Don’t they get it?!” the young reader will ask in an exasperated, or perhaps superior, voice.

Bailey’s humour is giggle-inducing and sustained throughout the story; allusions to perhaps the most famous Santa poem—“A Visit from St. Nicholas”—are subtle and effective. The story is all wrapped up neatly in the end, when Santa’s parents comment, with a revisionist view of his youth, “That’s what we always thought he’d do … We knew it all the time.” And Santa replies “HO HO HO!”