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.


Innocent (2015), by Eric Walters

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.


Walters - InnocentEric Walters’s Innocent is part of Orca Publishers Secrets series, a parallel series to Sevens, a set of seven novels by seven different authors, featuring seven male cousins each set on a quest to accomplish in order to claim their portion of their grandfather’s inheritance. The premise of Secrets is that seven self-proclaimed “sisters”—orphans in the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls in Hope, Ontario—are sent out into the world when the orphanage burns down. Each of the “sisters” is given an envelope by their beloved headmistress, Mrs. Hazelton; the envelopes contain information about their pasts, providing paths for them to take towards their futures.

Betty Shirley is unquestionably innocent, but her naïveté is presented at times as an unexpected ignorance—despite her high grades—and always through a narrative voice that seems not naïve so much as infantile. Throughout the book, we are repeatedly reminded of her goodness: Mrs. Hazelton gushes that her “optimism has been a blessing to us all … you always seem to see the positive in everything” (15); Joe, the cook, comments on her internal strength and goodness (26); and the servants of the family she ends up serving welcome her as a daughter: “starting today,” the housekeeper. Mrs. Meyers coos, “you do have a family—us” (54). Little things throughout the text enforce this artificial feeling of security and support: Mrs. Remington invites her servant Betty (now Elizabeth) to sit a the dinner table—“so we can talk and I can get to know you better” (59)—and drinks with her son to Elizabeth’s health at her arrival (84). In fact, Mrs. Remington orchestrates Elizabeth’s return to Kingston, as Elizabeth’s mother, Victoria, had been a maid in their home before she died. “We all knew and loved her” (61), Mrs. Remington tells Elizabeth. When Victoria became pregnant out of wedlock, Elizabeth marvels, “the Remingtons, rather than asking her to leave, … had made a place for us, and the staff had been like my family” (64). When Richie Remington wants to take Elizabeth to visit Victoria’s and his father’s graves, Elizabeth is surprised: “No one … objected to my taking the time off. In fact, Mrs. Remington had not only agreed but had asked Ralph [the gardener] to pick two big bunches of flowers” (93). It is all too lovely to be true, and the enchanted life Elizabeth leads is not sufficiently mitigated by the mystery that darkens her past.

In her envelope, Elizabeth had found a 1950 newspaper clipping describing her father’s conviction for the murder of her mother. Despite her naïveté, and an insecurity that makes her hesitant to walk to the local bank alone (130), she goes to visit him in prison. In keeping with the ethos of the novel, he “burst into tears” at seeing his “little angel” again, as he proclaims his innocence (144-47). The mystery that develops as Elizabeth and her new police-officer boyfriend, David, delve into the history of her father’s conviction is as unsurprising as its conclusion: corruption within the police force and the oligarchy, leading to murder and false conviction. The red herring in the case is the Remington’s son Richie, who has an undefined mental disability sometimes resembling Down’s syndrome, sometimes autism. Richie’s erstwhile affection for Victoria and Elizabeth, combined with his mental deficiency, are suggestive, as is a scene in which he wrings one of his pigeon’s neck—albeit because the bird was dying (172).

Reading Innocent, I couldn’t really get past the literary ghosts of Porter’s Pollyanna (1913) and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937). All in all, the stereotypic characterization and predictable plot suggest that Eric Walters, so capable in many others of his books, was not fully engaged in the production of this story.

In the Hand of the Goddess (1984), by Tamora Pierce

Pierce-Hand of GoddessThe sequel continues Alanna’s adventures, and at the end reveals her gender identity to those around her. Pierce continues with her ability to cast Alanna as a successfully ungendered individual until the middle of the book, when both George and Jon, who know her as a girl, begin to show interest.  Alanna’s response at this point becomes less credible than her earlier lack of interest was.  Kristin Cashore deals much more effectively with the balance between female sexuality and independence within a patriarchal society in Graceling (2008).  Still, Pierce’s writing is good, and the story compelling, albeit less successfully in this book than the first.

I Owe You One (2011), by Natalie Hyde

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 17.2.

I Own You One

“How does a guy go about paying back a life debt anyway? And what if it involves a transmission tower, an ice-cream truck, and a few sticks of dynamite?”  How could any young reader resist a book whose back cover asks this question?  I Owe You One lives up to expectations, providing a fun-filled “house-that-jack-built” story of connections, both logistical and emotional.  Wes, the protagonist, builds on his dead father’s lessons of respect and honour, and learns the value of community and giving. The sacrifice he makes to help the old woman—once an adventurous ski-racer—who saved his life, and to whom he feels he owes a “life debt,” ultimately is about love and respect, not the “one” he feels he “owes” her.
It is seldom that a text written simply, for younger readers, makes me both giggle and tear up.  Natalie Hyde has created characters with humourous traits, realistic flaws, and yet a sense of integrity and community that restore one’s faith in people.  There is sufficient suspense, and juvenile pranks, to grip young readers’ imaginations, yet the ethical and moral code that Wes is striving to adhere to does not come across as didactic or incongruous. The balance is effective, resulting in a text that is as rewarding to give to a child as it will be for the child to read.