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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Alibi (2014), by Kristin Butcher

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.

Butcher-AlibiOnce again, Kristin Butcher has created a protagonist teen readers will readily identify with. Christine is curious, attentive, and logical, but still sometimes can misinterpret her world. When she visits her Great-aunt Maude in the fictional Witcombe, BC, and learns of a spate of petty robberies in the area, her interest—and imagination—are piqued. At first she suspects Simon, an amateur magician who is working his way west to Vancouver from Calgary. When his alibi is established, she has to dig past the obvious to find clues to the real identity of the thief—or thieves. Other suspects’ alibis complicate Christine’s investigations, but with Simon’s help she narrows the field until a trap can be set to catch the thief in the act.

Underlying this simple story—part of the Orca Current series of high-interest novels aimed at reluctant readers—is a truth we all (one hopes) learn at some point: as Simon tells Christine, “the first law of magic [and life] is that things are not what they seem” (92). Christine, like most teens, is troubled by “the realization that [she] can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys” (58). We’d most of us like our world to be easier to interpret: none more than teens who are learning to negotiate the complications of the adult world. Alibi provides the necessary (if somewhat stereotypic) elements of a narrative of teen-enablement: the eccentric (read: non-parental) adult who nonetheless provides security; the somewhat mysterious outsider, a narrative foil who provides companionship; a threat presented by the adult world; and the internal means (awareness, psychological strength, intelligence) to face the threat successfully. Christine doesn’t learn an important “life lesson,” but she grows in self-awareness and understanding of the word around her, both necessary qualities on the road to adulthood.

The ACB with Honora Lee (2012), by Kate De Goldi

Drawings by Gregory O’Brien.

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 19.4.

The ACB with Honora Lee

De Goldi - ACBPerry collects dead and dying bumblebees; she is fascinated by them; she “was thinking of becoming a zoologist when she grew up” (8). Bumblebees, however, are only one of Perry’s fascinations: she loves most aspects of the world around her, drawing the things and people that interest her in a style that reflects her feelings about them. She often annoys her loving but too-busy professional parents with her questions and her childishly logical view of the world. She is unconventional, she learns, revelling in the new word. She is, in fact, “wrong in all the right ways,” to quote a popular song, and young readers will love her and her approach to her world.

Perry’s life is over-scheduled, but when her Music and Movement teacher strains her back and cancels class for the semester, Thursdays become free. Perry comes up with the solution: she will visit her grandmother at Santa Lucia, the care-home with a community elderly people who intrigue Perry. Perry, with her unconventional ways, appreciates the residents’ eccentricities as much as they appreciate her attention and understanding. Together, to complete a school assignment, Perry, her grandmother, Honora Lee, and their friends, create an abecedary: but “It’s not really an ABC … It’s an ADV, so far. Gran does it out of order” (46).

Perry and her “accomplices” take the reader though the process of learning language and a multitude of disconnected facts, at that same time as they develop their patience, acceptance, and affection. The ACB with Honora Lee is written in an engaging child’s voice, and the illustrations effectively express the tangential ideas that form in Perry’s head. The one improvement would be if the illustrations mirrored the text’s description of Perry’s art; her ideas and interpretations are unique, and we would like to see them on the page. Overall, though, The ACB with Honora Lee reveals strongly how a both the child’s and the elderly person’s alternative view of the world can enrich the lives of those around them—if only others take the time to listen.

Awake and Dreaming (1996), by Kit Pearson

Pearson-AwakeTheodora is the daughter of a single mother who is barely managing to keep herself—never mind her child—in food and clothing.  Theo dreams of having a real family, of not being a pariah at each of the subsequent schools she is sent to as her mother moves from place to place, bad job to bad job, all within Vancouver.  On the ferry to Victoria, when Theo’s mother is taking her to her Aunt’s home—giving Theo away so she can be with her new boyfriend—Theo falls into a dream of being with a family: but the dream is real.  She begins to fade in her new life, though, and awakes, still on the ferry.  Arriving in Victoria at her aunt’s, she finds that the life she knew, the family she was part of, do exist, but are not as ideal as in her waking dream. It is not until she meets the ghost of the author in whose house the family lives that she begins to understand what had happened to her.  Her new knowledge gives her the strength to stop only dreaming, and to work to make her own, real-life situation more endurable.

Despite others’ glowing reviews of this text, and an almost universal lauding of Pearson’s plot and technique, Awake and Dreaming is not—in my opinion—one of Pearson’s best. It does, however, present a unique premise and interesting relationship between the text and the real world.