One Hungry Heron (2014), by Carolyn Beck and Karen Patkau

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 20.3.

Beck - HeronI’ve always been particularly fond of herons, especially in art, so One Hungry Heron immediately appealed. The beauty of Karen Patkau’s rich illustrations of pond life springs out of the pages, the main element of the book’s engaging graphic layout. Creatures from the drawings on the right creep, swim, slither into the white-space where Carolyn Beck’s simple poem counts up from one hungry heron to ten tiny turtles… only to quickly slide back down through the numbers as raindrops on the water send the creatures to seek cover. In the upper left corner of each page spread, too, Patkau has decorated the brightly coloured numbers with small pictures of the pond’s creatures, complementing the larger pictures on the right.

The movement in the structure of the poem is paralleled by the onomatopœia: “dragonflies / hover and dip. / Whiz! Pause! Whiz! / Zoom! Zoom! Zip!” The images and sounds together create a rolling, fluid experience for the young reader, interrupted only by the occasional stilted syntax of some of the verses or uneven meter of the poetry. It is unfortunate when such a beautiful little book is marred by imperfect poetics; One Hungry Heron comes so close to being a spectacular book. Certainly, it is still beautiful, but the overall reading (listening…) experience will be lessened by the uneven meter and imperfect rhyme scheme.

Once Upon a Balloon (2013), by Brie Gailbraith (Illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant)

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.

Once Upon a Balloon

Illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant

Gailbraith-BalloonNo one can explain the world better than a beloved sibling. At least, that’s Theo’s view of his world. When he loses his balloon, his father’s flippant explanation that it had gone to the moon does not satisfy; nor does his mother’s more scientific explanation that it would pop when it reached a higher altitude. When Theo’s brother Zeke begins to explain, his childish imagination tells a story that Theo can believe—or at least is happier believing, because after all, “Zeke knew everything about everything, so he knew everything about Frank.”

Frank, Zeke tells Theo, lives in Chicago, collecting all the balloons that find their way there… Zeke’s story is both elaborate in the way children love—balloons, strange tools, robots, and an imaginative plan to get a message to lonely Frank. On the final page, the narrative slips from imagination into reality, as Frank receives his balloon message and, “happy because finally one of the balloons was for him… tinkered until his robot was no longer a dream.”

Galbraith’s Zeke tells the story in a voice so like a real older sibling that readers will be captivated and believe, as Theo does, that the lost balloon is in a happy place. This theme is slightly reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, but for much younger readers. Malenfant’s illustrations, too, have a Tanesque quality in the foreground images, but layered over soft, swirling backgrounds that bestow a dream quality on Zeke’s imaginative tale. Between the story and the illustrations, functioning so perfectly together, Once Upon a Balloon is a magical story that leaves young readers with a sense of security and contentment… despite the lost balloon.

Outcasts of River Falls (2012), by Jacqueline Guest

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 18.1.

Outcasts of River Falls

The Red River Resistance (or Rebellion) of 1869, the North-West Resistance (or Rebellion) of 1885; these are pivotal moments in Canada’s history. In the first act of resistance, Métis leaders Louis Riel and Gabrielle Dumont succeeded in establishing a provisional government and treating with the Canadian Government (although it ultimately did not go so very well); in the second, the Métis were completely defeated, and Louis Riel was hanged for high treason. So much is well known, but after the North-West Resistance the fate of the Métis people slips into the fog of history, silenced by a loud English-speaking voice from the politically powerful East. In Outcasts of River Falls, Jacqueline Guest creates a strong voice for the Métis people, telling a small part of their history in a way that young readers will not only learn from, but enjoy.
In Belle of Batoche (2004), Guest introduces us to Belle Tourond, who during the North-West Resistance comes to recognize her own fortitude and abilities. In Outcast of River Falls, Belle helps her young niece Katy discover her own strength and establish a pride in being Métis. Raised in Toronto without any knowledge of her Métis heritage, the orphaned Kathryn is sent to Alberta to join her Aunt Belle. Landed in a strange and hostile environment, Katy must not only learn a new culture, but adjust her sense-of-self to incorporate her new social position as one of the Road Allowance People: the Métis, who were not permitted to own land and so lived on the government-owned road allowances (that is, until someone White or otherwise privileged wanted the land). Katy’s confusion, the mistakes she makes, the questions she has but is afraid to ask: all ring true. Her position as not-visibly Métis complicates her experiences, and helps her—and the reader—truly understand the evils of prejudice and bigotry. The plot involves a mysterious Robin Hood figure who has been righting some of the smaller injustices perpetrated against the Métis people. Add in a crooked, offensive police officer, and a murdered bank guard, and you have the recipe for a culturally sensitive situation to which, ultimately, Katy must actively contribute. In acting to save her Aunt Belle, Katy finally accepts her true heritage: she ends with her Toronto dreams of being a lawyer firmly reestablished, but now altered: she will not only be a female lawyer on the vanguard of Canadian social progress, but a female Métis lawyer, bound by conscience to fight for the rights of her people.
Outcasts of River Falls comes with an effective Novel Study Guide, which includes synopses of the chapters as well as activities (for example, a 1900 Eaton catalogue to price purchases Katy might have made) and thoughtful study questions. This very engaging novel combined with the study guide will help elementary school teachers of early Canadian history immensely.

One False Note (2008), by Gordon Korman

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 14.4.

One False Note

Rick Riordan opened The 39 Clues series with the gripping Maze of Bones, and Gordon Korman’s second installment maintains the reader’s interest in both the characters and the mystery.  While Riordan and Korman are both known as superlative authors for boys, The 39 Clues series is markedly ungendered: Amy and Dan Cahill are presented alternately as primary protagonist, and young readers will relate to both characters, regardless of gender.  That being said, one of the more interesting elements of One False Note is its focus on the importance of Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, and less so her brother.  While both the extent of the Cahill family influence and the children’s ability to travel the world accompanied only by their teenaged au pair, Nellie, seem rather far-fetched to the adult mind, sufficient justification is provided to permit the suspension of our disbelief.  The history that the search for mysterious clues uncovers is both fascinating and obscure.  Readers will undoubtedly come away with a better understanding of the connections between historical figures and events than any elementary history text is likely to provide.  But One False Note, as part of the series, is more than just a story: it is “a multiplatform adventure series” (cinematical.com). The books come with cards for access to an online game in which the reader becomes a member of the Cahill family and attempts—like Dan and Amy—to discover the 39 clues.  The online component of the story is fun and engaging; readers continue their learning experience through the mild role-playing online, as well as learning (if not already mastered) computer navigation and keyboarding skills.  Despite my initial hesitancy over another “gimmicky” virtual–physical merchandising combination, the positive elements of One False Note, like The Maze of Bones before it, outweigh any reservations.