Never Give Up: A Story about Self-Esteem (2015), by Kathryn Cole

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.

Never Give Up

Illustrated by Qin Leng.

Cole - NeverNever Give Up is the second book in Second Story Press’s new I’m A Great Little Kid series, following Fifteen Dollars and Thirty-five Cents: A Story About Choices and preceding Reptile Flu: A Story About Communication. The series is “designed to empower children to think and act in positive ways” (Second Story website), and so far does an excellent job at achieving this goal. In addition to stories that will engage and instruct child readers, the series includes a Facilitator’s Guide, and teachers can attend corresponding workshops through the Boost: Child and Youth Advocacy Centre (information found at their website).

In Never Give Up, Nadia watches her friend Shaun struggling to learn to ride a bike. She watches as their other friends laugh and tease him, and watches Shaun try, and try, and try again. Ashamed at herself for not defending him, Nadia brings her Dad to come and teach him. Shaun’s perseverance pays off, and he learns to ride on his own.

The cycle of Shaun trying, failing, being teased, trying, falling and skinning his knees, then (with Nadia’s help) finally succeeding, is paralleled by Nadia’s father. He joins the children, trying to jump rope, failing, stumbling and skinning his elbow, then receiving aid from Nadia, who had brought Band-Aids “just in case.” This narrative structure, with the final giggle of Nadia providing first aid for her father, telling him to “try again,” solidifies the message that perseverance is a life skill even adults need to practice.

There is just something so honest in Cole’s characters and their stories. Her children are real, her adults compassionate and reasonable without being sappy. The bullies are not evil, just thoughtless friends. In Reptile Flu, the third book in the series, Kamal regrets teasing Shaun, when he is afraid of being teased himself. A subtle little moment can have a great impact on the reader, and Cole’s stories provide a number of such learning moments.

Neil Flambé and the Bard’s Banquet (2015), by Kevin Sylvester

Sylvester - BardNeil Flambé (or should I say Kevin Sylvester) strikes again. We know him (Neil, not Kevin) as an arrogant, self-assured 15-year-old chef with a penchant for trouble. He is plagued by unwelcome mysteries, such as a piece of paper preserved in an ancient jar of honey that finds its way into his kitchen. Frustrated, he explicitly refuses to engage; all he really wants is to “just run the restaurant, in peace for a change” (6). Readers know, of course, that this will not be his fate.

Neil has been commissioned by Lord Lane to use the case of honey to make an exquisite meal—which Neil is of course confident he can do—but in the making of the meal, he is forced to open the ominous jar of honey, revealing a poem in Elizabethan script, a cypher to unravel. Neil hands the paper over to Lord Lane and washes his hands of the situation. Readers know, of course, that this will not be the end of it. When Lord Lane goes missing, Neil—as the last person to speak with him—is called to help. Accompanied by his cousin Larry, and eventually his girlfriend Isabella, he and his unerring sense of smell set off to England. The usual gripping and humorous adventure ensues, revolving around British culture and history, especially the history of the Elizabethan theatre: William Shakespeare, Will Kemp and his nine-days Morris dance, and the rivalry between the two men.

The narrative is rife with Sylvester’s trademark punnery and clever names (such as Arthur Gawain, the Oxford scholar) but also brings in new layers of allusion for precocious readers: for example to Harry Potter (97), the Lassie series (131), and the obscure cult film Green Eggs and Hamlet (213). Neil’s slovenly attention to his schooling is represented differently, as well. Not only does Larry show him up with his eclectic knowledge, as usual, but in numerous situations Neil’s lack of knowledge of basic highschool content—most notably Shakespeare’s plays—excludes him from the action. Being forced to recognize this failing grate, and his discomfort is a strong advocate for better study habits; I would not be surprised if curious readers leave this novel and go directly to Shakespeare in some form (Manga Shakespeare is actually very good. As Isabella’s friend Rose dryly observes (as she gains entrance into an exclusive archive), “Academic accreditation opens doors. Stay in school, kids.” (129).

What stands out most in this fifth book in the series is Neil’s development as a young man. Reading over past reviews, I note that in each novel, we’ve watched as Neil grows that little bit more mature, beginning to recognize the value of others—and others’ abilities—in his life. In The Bard’s Banquet, we see a monumental change: Neil moves beyond a recognition of the social contract, and the flutterings of emotional connection to others, to actual behavioral change. He says “please”—twice in a row, shocking his cousin (14); he contritely recognizes the validity of Jones’s criticism of his inflated ego, and sincerely apologizes (165); and he commends Isabella for her prowess: “complements never flowed easily, unless he was talking about his own food, so this was new” (113). A greater emotional epiphany comes when Larry saves him from potential death (not that they haven’t been here before), and Neil breaks down. This scene is a moment of poignancy amongst the adventure and humour: “It’s cool, cuz. … I’ve been waiting for a little emotion to break through that gruff cheffy exterior,” Larry tells him reassuringly: “There’ve been glimpses before, but this is good. Don’t hold back any more” (206). The sixth book in the series, Neil Flambé and the Duel in the Desert is due out next month (March 2016); I am greatly looking forward to seeing how Neil continues to develop as a character.

Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure (2013), by Kevin Sylvester

Sylvester-Tokyo“The Chefs gave him a mission: to keep the world safe and well fed. … He became the greatest Chef of them all…” (5). Kevin Sylvester’s fourth installment of the Neil Flambé Capers—Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure—opens suitably with a foray into the world of manga. The short excerpt from Neil’s cousin Larry’s new online manga, The Chef, sets us up for Neil’s adventure in Japan, where his cousin Larry’s reported death leads Neil to grapple with illegal fishing practices and a maniacal competitive chef.

The pathos that news of Larry’s death produces is honest and heartfelt. Although we know that Larry can’t be dead—Sylvester wouldn’t do that to us… would he?—we tear up with Neil as he slices onions with Larry’s knife, contemplating Larry’s joie-de-vivre and laissez-faire attitude. This is a growing moment for Neil Flambé, as much as his humbling jail-time in The Marco Polo Murders (2010), or his eye-opening visit to the slums of Mexico City in The Aztec Abduction (2010). When Neil discovers an alteration in The Chef that only Larry could have made, he optimistically sets out to find his cousin and solve the mystery he knows is brewing like the finest Saki: warm and subtle, with a sharp bite at the end.

The search for Larry sets Neil up against the environmentally unethical chef Matsumoro Nori. Accompanied by Sylvester’s usually droll punnery, we travel with Neil to Japan, where he engages in a culinary competition that is straight out of James Bond, with poisoned ingredients and losers as shark bait. Between the numerous gastronomic removes of the competition, Neil and his friends collaborate on solving the mystery of Larry’s disappearance. The clues Neil receives, the cultural knowledge and wordplay required to solve them, and Sylvester’s inimitable humour make Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure a gripping, chuckle-inducing adventure. Such a delicate balance between humour and suspense is seldom achieved by other authors; it is not surprising that Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure is up for two awards this year.

The Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading awards are adjudicated by young readers, so winning a Silver Birch award must be extremely gratifying for an author. Sylvester is no strange to such gratification, though: Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders won the award in 2011; Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction was runner-up in 2012; and Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse was in 2013.

The Children’s Book Centre John Spray Mystery Award will be announced tomorrow (22 October 2013), which is why I have had to rise up out of my slough of inarticulateness and get this review written and posted tonight! Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure is up against four other books, all of which were written for an older reading audience. The best of these—Devil’s Pass by Sigmund Brouwer—will certainly give Neil Flambé a run for its money… I am not sure whether to be disturbed by the imbalance of having a humourous adventure book for 8-12 year olds set up against YA realist mysteries, or impressed that Neil Flambé should be included in such a collection. I suspect I will subscribe to the latter opinion if it wins, and almost certainly the former if it does not. So best of luck to Neil Flambé on his latest adventure out in literary-award-land. May the best chef win.

No Cafés in Narnia (2000), by Nikki Tate

I am currently over in Victoria, BC, at a conference, and each day cycle past the gate in the hedge that surrounds the fields of Dark Creek Farm, where Nikki Tate lives with her turkeys and goats and bantams… So I really wanted, during this week, to re-read and review her No Cafés in Narnia, remembering how much I enjoyed it years ago when I first read it.

No Cafés in Narnia (2000)

Tate-Narnia
When her beloved grandfather dies, Heather tries to escape into her literary worlds: the world she creates through her own nascent writing ability and the world of the books she reads. Sometimes she wants to “push through the coats at the back of an old wardrobe,” meet Mr. Tumnus, and “even find Lucy in the forest and the three of [them] could sit at a little table at the café together eating Turkish Delight and discussing how to solve all the problems of the world” (28): problems like how to manage when her mother slips into depression, and she has to face her troubling adolescent world, seemingly alone.  To top it all off, she has thoughtlessly insulted “one of the only people at school who has spontaneously said anything nice to [her]” (70). With the problems in her family, and her trouble with friends, Heather is sure: there are No Cafés in Narnia.

Heather is fascinating, very real child protagonist: her mind wanders; she can’t focus easily; she struggles with being an outsider on the little island her family has recently moved to. She articulates her world through the eyes of her own protagonist, Writer Girl. Her alter ego’s attitudes and responses actually help her to see herself more objectively, to understand the balance she must create between being the child and striving to find the maturity her family needs from her. Her imagination blossoms in her self-assessments, in her diary entries, and in her letters to her best friend in Toronto. Her narrative ability is far more vibrant in her thoughts than she is able to get down on paper—but she continues trying. Ultimately, with the help and guidance of those around her—young and old—Heather makes the right choices, and the crises in her life become manageable.

What I like best about No Cafés in Narnia is Nikki Tate’s complete presentation of her characters’ lives. Even though in general “people like to read about danger, excitement, and romance,” Tate knows that “real writers take advantage of every moment, every experience, to enrich their work. They use all the mundane details…” (90). While this knowledge does not stop Heather from trying to write a murder mystery, it does reveal Tate’s belief about a writer’s goal, and the artistry of Tate’s own fiction.