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.


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.


The Line (2013), by Paula Bossio

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 19.2.

Bossio - LineThe title and the cover of The Line bring Crockett Johnson’s masterly Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) immediately to mind, and certainly The Line has much of the same charm; yet it is, fortunately, refreshingly different. Our line is not drawn by the protagonist, telling a story as she goes, but rather, the charcoal line lies waiting at the bottom of the page, a tool for her lively imagination. The text has no words, leaving the readers to focus exclusively on the childishly drawn girl in the simple red dress. The pages are grey with smudges of charcoal where the “child”-artist has rubbed against the edges; the line is not perfectly straight, even as it lies along the ground; and the colours of the girl’s hair and dress are scribbled, almost within the lines.

The storyline is simple but engaging: the girl picks up the line, and with the bight in her hand heads off onto the next page. There, she wiggles it up and down like a skipping rope, making waves in the air. Her story continues page to page as she slides down one of her waves, pushes a hoop, blows bubbles, swings like a monkey, and balances on her head for her line-drawn audience. The she encounters some frightening monsters and bears, who chase her across the last pages, until she is saved by a cuddly teddy bear, whom she hugs in thanks. On the back of the final page, we see the source of her line: a young boy in a blue shirt, giggling as the charcoal pencil trails behind him.

I’m not certain about the gender stereotypes inherent in the girl in the red dress following a line created and controlled by the boy in blue shirt… but for those to whom this is not problematic, The Line is a beautifully conceived and artfully executed story.

Lily and Taylor (2013), by Elise Moser

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 19.1.

Lily and Taylor

Moser-Lily“They stuffed her brain inside her chest” (1). With an opening like that, readers are at odds to guess even the genre of Elise Moser’s novel: science fiction? fantasy? police drama? We soon learn that Taylor is watching an autopsy. A strange activity for a teen, so readers from a privileged world might assume that this is some sort of educational experience. For Taylor, it is not; Taylor is viewing the autopsy of her sister, Tannis, killed by her boyfriend in domestic abuse. The genre is now obvious: stark realism. Taylor’s life and experiences are not those of the average teen… or maybe they are. Maybe those of us living sheltered lives have no idea of what happens to far too many individuals living below the poverty line, or on the streets, or with drug or alcohol addicted guardians, or in abusive relationships that they just don’t know how to get out of.

Taylor’s story brings home the helplessness young women might feel when they do not have the strength, or more importantly the means, to escape. Lily’s life is different, but becomes intertwined with Taylor’s when Taylor is taken to live with her grandparents after Tannis’s death. Lily is alone, looking after her brain-damaged mother, who is nonetheless proclaimed capable enough to remain Lily’s legal guardian. Lily stands outside of normal teen society, but by choice. Taylor respects Lily’s strength, her individuality, and begins to stand up to those around her. The fly in the ointment is Taylor’s abusive boyfriend, Devon, who she has left behind. She is torn between fear of Devon’s unreasonable violence, and her own need to be loved by anyone. As her friendship with Lily grows, and she begins to create a normal life for herself, Devon’s telephone calls become more frequent and more threatening. When he finally appears, the girls find themselves in a very dangerous—even life-threatening—kidnapping situation. It is here that the realism of Moser’s novel comes to the fore, because it is in no way obvious which way she will take her plot. For the next 100 pages, we are fraught by the fear the girls face, the thin line between their survival and Devon’s abuse. How each of them deals with the threat they face almost tears them apart. In the end, their affection for and understanding of each other wins out, but Moser gives them—and us—nothing for free. Such is life, she tells us, when you have so few options. For Lily and Taylor, their friendship is all that is they can cling to: but they have learned that their respect, love, and loyalty might be enough.

Last Cut (2012), by Wren Handman

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 18.2

Last Cut

“A Cautionary Tale for Young Divas” is how I would subtitle Wren Handman’s Last Cut. The protagonist—16-year-old Caitlin—is carefully crafted as a self-interested aspiring actress with talent, and serious attitude. Initially, I wondered whether young readers would continue with the book; there are perhaps too many subtle clues of Caitlin’s real nature for readers to like her. Maybe that’s not necessary, though, for all readers. Those who persevere with the novel will be rewarded with an intimate glimpse into the dangerous and damaging problems into which naïve hubris can lead one.
Overly sure of her acting ability, Caitlin tries out for—and lands—a role in a “professional” movie. To take part, she has to skip school, which requires lying to her parents. She also has to be 18, which requires lying on her contract… which she doesn’t read anyhow.  In telling her friends about the audition, she lies that “they totally loved me … they even asked me to stay for, like, a second audition afterwards that they only give to the people they really want to see” (31). My patience with Caitlin by this point was growing thin, but my respect for Handman’s authorial abilities was increasing. I may not like Caitlin, but I have to admit that she and her friends seem very much like high school girls I know, with the same relationships, the same catty games, the same petty jealousies, well expressed.  When Caitlin surfaces from her work to attend a party, her friends Hannah and Suzanne are overjoyed to see her; her response is telling: “they’re overdoing it just enough that I can tell they don’t mean it. I mean, it isn’t that they’re not happy to see me. It’s just that they know they hurt my feelings on Wednesday, so now they’re overcompensating to try to make me feel good. They’re acting so excited to see me that it really feels fake, and I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm” (89). The relationship between honesty, sincerity, acting, and artifice finally comes home to Caitlin, but it is too late: in the end she learns a hard lesson, and has gambled away most of what she thought she had for a dream of stardom that was doomed at the outset by her own dishonesty.
My one real reservation about the novel lies in where we are left. Topless photos of a Caitlin, aged 16, are circulated by the movie’s publicity people before her age is discovered. The severity of this situation is earlier alluded to by the casting director—before we know any photos have been released—but we are left with no indication of what this ultimately will mean for Caitlin, for her family, or for the movie producers. Child pornography is a very serious issue, and it feels like Last Cut trivializes the situation by leaving it unresolved. The final scene exacerbates the problem; Caitlin’s boyfriend is angry enough to leave her, telling her that her concerns are pointless, that “the whole world doesn’t revolve around you” (141), when in fact her concern is at least partially founded on the fact that her stupidity has caused considerable legal problems—perhaps criminal prosecution—for the movie producers who gave her a chance. Perhaps the teen reader will not care, but personally prefer to have real-world legal problems not left hanging. The criminal justice system within which Handman—as a realist author—is writing provides many possible answers: it would be nice if we were told which Handman envisions for her characters.