Missing Nimâmâ (2015), by Melanie Florence

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.

On 17 November 2016, Missing Nimâmâ was awarded theTD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the highest honour (and greatest monetary award) available for writers of children’s literature in Canada.

The intended age group for the picture book was listed in the competition literature as 9-12, which differs from my earlier assumptions in writing this review.

Missing Nimâmâ

Illustrated by François Thisdale.

Florence - Missing“Once upon a time there was a little girl, a little butterfly, who flew to the telephone every time it rang, hoping against hope that her mother was coming home.”

Missing Nimâmâ is a truly beautiful book. I’m not sure, though, who the audience is. François Thisdale’s illustrations enhance this poignant story of a young Aboriginal mother torn from her family in an unexplained way, like so many Aboriginal women in Canada have been. Kateri’s mother is lost; Kateri is being raised by her nôhkom, her grandmother, while her mother’s spirit watches over her.

The story is told in both voices. We hear the spirit of the young mother as she watches her daughter grow to womanhood. We watch as Kateri tells her own story as she matures under the loving care of her grandmother. We never learn what happened to Kateri’s mother; Kateri is a young woman, married, and expecting her first child when the call comes that they have found her mother. What happened is not the issue, though, so much as the years of not knowing, of growing up without a mother, or missing a daughter, a sister, a wife – and having no answers. The depth of this ongoing tragedy is hauntingly portrayed through Florence’s poetic words and Thisdale’s evocative illustrations.

But to return to my earlier question: who is this book for? It is truly beautiful, but perhaps too powerful for young readers, even if presented through the filter of an adult reader. But who am I to say? I have not lost a mother; I have not needed this story. And it is a story that needs to be both told and heard.

Mouse Vacation (2016), by Philip Roy

roy-mouse-vI really like Happy the Mouse. He makes me… happy. It seems impossible to read Happy’s adventures without at least a giggle or three. I was wondering, when I read Mouse Pet, the third of Philip Roy’s Happy the Pocket Mouse series, whether the humour would be sustained; it certainly has been so far. In Mouse Vacation, the fourth in the series, Happy is bored and wants to travel; John, predictably parent-like, attempts to stave him off. As in Mouse Pet, Happy’s contemplation opens the narrative:

“We never go anywhere.”
“Mmmhmm?”
“We never go anywhere, John.”
“Yes we do, Happy. We go places.”
“No, we don’t, John. When do we ever go anywhere?”
“We went to the store yesterday.”

Planning the vacation, John says, is half the fun. So the two begin to plan. John suggests local nature outings; Happy suggests exotic destinations. Andrea Torrey Balsara’s delightful illustrations make all of the suggestions highly appealing.

Happy’s very-mature-child voice will be familiar to readers of all ages, his self-confidence both engaging and humorous:

“Do you know where our neighbour Mrs. Farrell went last year, all by herself? … Alaska. She went all the way to Alaska, John. By herself.”

You can just hear the derision in his voice: adults can be so dense sometimes. But Happy, in his näiveté, fails to understand the economics of travel to the Taj Mahal, New Zealand, or Egypt. The pair do come to a compromise: Happy is excited to go on an overnight bus trip to the seashore to see the tall ships; John is pleased as a bus trip is within their budget. The pragmatics that John has to consider are a real part of family life, and Roy gives voice to both the child and parent perspective such that Happy, like the child reader, will be satisfied and engaged, even if they are not destined for Egypt.

In Mouse Vacation, Happy the Pocket Mouse learns a little more about how the real world works, with an adult who is obviously loving and considerate. Geography, though, obviously still escapes him:

“Hmmm … Hmmm … John?”
“Yes?”
“Do you think maybe we can stop at the Grand Canyon on our way home from the seashore?”

Too adorable. I want my own Pocket Mouse, almost as much as I want a House Hippo.

My Mother Always Tells Me (2015), by Sharla Kinsman

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 20.4.

My Mother Always Tells Me

Kinsman - Mother“My mother always tells me…” In fact, I think it is safe to say that many of our mothers always told us the same things… and Sharla Kinsman is right: we tell our daughters, and it is likely they will tell theirs. This continuity between generations is made explicit in the last pages of My Mother Always Tells Me; up until then, we are merely captivated by the marvellous drawing of the cheeky little girl responding to her mother’s time-tested sayings. The balance between admonition and praise ensures that the book does not come across as prescriptive or didactic. It is more the life of a real child moving through her fun-filled world, learning the rules that will guide her, yet under the watchful eye of a loving mother. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem too utopic, either: just real, and joyous.

Each page has a different piece of motherly advice; the daughter’s response is reflected more in the pictures than the words: the eyes of the little girl are alight with mischief, her body expressing the energy she exudes. I’ll leave you to imagine the disgust on the girl’s face when, broccoli on fork, she tells us: “My mother always tells me, / ‘Eat those veggies on your plate,’ and I know if I chose not to, / my dessert will have to wait.”

MINRS (2016), by Kevin Sylvester

MINRS has just been short-listed for the Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children Award, so I thought I had better finish my review and post it post-haste. I read the novel in early February, and it took me this long to review it because 1) I didn’t think I could review it without spoilers (but I think I managed), and 2) I didn’t think I could really do it justice (and I’m not sure I have managed). Regardless, here is my review…

MINRS

Sylvester - MINRS

To begin, any of you who have read my reviews about novel series in which each book does not stand alone will know how much I hate cliffhangers. And MINRS definitely has a cliffhanger. The last three words. That is all it took. Up until that point, I thought I knew where it was going. Thank you, Mr. Sylvester. No, I take that back. Or maybe not, as up until those three words, MINRS is one of the most gripping YA space novels I have read in a long, long while.

When I first read the description, I thought “ Well, that concept seems a bit derivative…” but I was very wrong. The dust-jacket flap tells us that

Earth is running out of resources, so Melming Mining looks to space and launches the Great Mission to Perses, the newest planetoid in the solar system. It’s humanity’s only hope for survival. … Christopher and a small group of young survivors are forced into the maze of mining tunnels below the surface of Perses. The kids run. They hide. But can they survive?

Space exploration and settlement as “humanity’s only hope for survival,” of course, is not a new concept, nor is having a group of teenagers separated from their adults in order to save humanity; but in MINRS, interesting scientific concepts couple with strong, consistent characters to create an unpredictable plot that holds us in thrall.

The novel opens with a tension in the small community fuelled by the upcoming Blackout, a two-month period when the sun will lie between Perses and the Earth, causing not total darkness but a full communication blackout. To assuage anxieties, the adults are convinced to throw a “Blackout party,” which goes really well… until it doesn’t. Instead of fireworks to mark the moment blackout is complete, bombs are hurled down from the sky above them, decimating the terra-formed field. Then the more accurate energy-pulse bullets rain down, killing everyone they can reach. Christopher is one of the teenagers successfully pushed towards the mines, one of only a handful of survivors hidden from the mineral-ore raiders who believe they have annihilated the population. Christopher’s father makes him promise to keep the others safe, and tells him of a beacon placed deep inside the mines by a few of the more pragmatic adults. But the beacon will not work in the blackout; the teens must find a way to survive in the shell-damaged mines for the next two months.

That is the set-up for the action that follows: the running, hiding, and eventual pillaging of the “Landers” storeroom and sabotaging of their machinery. My description makes it sound way less innovative and impressive than it is. What really moves me is Sylvester’s insightful expression of the balances of power that develop amongst the teens, and the internal and external conflicts that inform that balance. Underlying more traditional explorations of the bildungsroman development of character is a sense of noblesse oblige: Chris and his best friend, Elena, discovering that their unique strengths create an obligation to use those strengths for the good of the group, regardless of individual desires. Again, my description makes it sound far more trite than the emotional depth Sylvester shows us. In the tunnels of Perses, Chris and his rag-tag fugitives (sorry, I had to) learn more than just how to survive: they learn some of the darker secrets of the company that created Perses and of what people—even those they admire—are capable of.