The Runaways (1997), by Kristin Butcher

It was surprisingly nostalgic to read Kristin Butcher’s The Runaways. The feeling grew on me slowly, undefined until a scene in the later part of the story when Nick, the protagonist, is trying to learn more about a favourite childhood author. Nick goes to the library, where he first checks newspaper reports, and then is pointed by the librarian to Who’s Who. It was at this point that I was compelled to check the publication date: 1997, when the Internet was in its infancy and not every middle-school student had a cell phone. The pre-digital narrative was refreshing, especially given Nick’s interest in investigative journalism, yet it caused me to wonder how middle-school readers today would respond to the story. Is this now a period piece? I’m hoping that young readers will not be put off by the unfamiliarity of earlier research techniques, because the story itself carries a message that is as strong and pertinent today as it was in 1997.

The scene opens on Nick running blindly, flat-out, escaping from a situation he finds unbearably painful: his mother and despised step-father are having a baby. Nick ends up spending the night in an abandoned house on the top of a hill over-looking his town. There, in the morning, he is found by Luther, a homeless man well-known in the community, whose “home” he has invaded. When the police come looking, Nick recognizes Luther’s need not to be found, and says nothing about their meeting. But the seeds of have been sown, and what begins as a curiosity about Luther develops into a more serious social interest in the lives of the homeless. Nick takes on the subject as a school research project and with the help of Cole, his step-father, investigates the real lives of people on the streets.

Cole is a journalist for the Andersonville newspaper and becomes Nick’s ally against maternal concerns about investigating the rougher side of town. Their shared interest gives Cole a platform upon which to build a meaningful relationship with his new step-son, and through their shared adventures, Nick begins to both understand and appreciate Cole’s new role in his life. In contrast to Cole’s active overtures towards Nick, Luther works to maintain an emotional distance, but his reticence runs up against Nick’s insatiable curiosity, tempered though it is by respect for Luther’s obvious intelligence.

The Runaways is very much about taking the time to really think about other people’s lives; it is about developing empathy, not only for people who are obviously “other” (Luther and the homeless community) but also for those closer to us, whose strengths we might not see clearly.

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The Red Bicycle (2015), by Isabella Jude

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 20.5.

The Red Bicycle

Jude - BicycleJude Isabella’s The Red Bicycle shares some of what is best in another picture book about bicycles: Pedal It! (Orca, 2013). While the award-winning Pedal It! is a non-fiction look at a myriad of uses bicycles are put to around the world, The Red Bicycle is a fictional account of one bike, and how its owner passes his affection for his bike forward.

Leo saves his money for months to buy the bike he names “Big Red,” and Big Red becomes not only a method of transportation, but an inanimate best friend (a sentiment I am sure many readers will identify with). When he outgrows Big Red, Leo is told about a system designed to give old bikes new life. Big Red thus ends up en route to Africa, courtesy of an unnamed charitable organization. Once in Burkina Faso, Big Red helps a family rise out of poverty sufficiently that they can afford a second bike. Big Red later becomes a bicycle ambulance, helping save lives in an area where there are no cars, and few roads to drive on.

Leo’s story, though, is told in a narrative voice that is stilted and uninteresting: just that little bit too “Run, Spot! Run.” for the target audience. While the illustrations are fun, and fit with the story well, the font chosen seems too mundane, sapping energy from the illustrations.

One of the strongest points of the book is not the story, but the message of charity, supported by informative notes at the end (“What You Can Do To Help”) outlining various organizations that put old bikes to good use, as well “A Note for Parents and Teachers” with ideas about how to further engage readers in a cycling culture.

Ready, Set, Kindergarten! (2015), by Paula Ayers

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.

Ready, Set, Kindergarten!

Illustrated by Danielle Arbour.

Ayer - KindergartenReady, Set, Kindergarten! shows us a young girl excited about her first day of kindergarten, and (seemingly) the activities she finds there: getting ready, spotting letters in signs as she walks with her mother (assumedly to school); painting, cutting paper, playing outside, but then… “baking a cake with a bucket and sand” in her swimsuit. All of a sudden she is not at kindergarten, but in various other spaces: at the beach, at home in the bathroom, having a tea party with her dolls, in a play room fighting with a friend—because of course we need to introduce conflict so the character can have something to learn in terms of acceptable social behaviour, like being ready to say she’s sorry—helping with dinner, getting ready for bed, eating breakfast, getting dressed, going to kindergarten… wait, what? What was she doing on the first page, then?

The storyline is convoluted at best. While we follow the little girl though her day, we have been expecting something more to do with kindergarten than just being ready for various aspects of life (including kindergarten, which she apparently goes to the next day). Aside from the repetition of the word “ready,” there is no rhyme, nor rhythm, and the text becomes unmemorable. Children respond well to words that lilt, as much as to images that cause pleasure, sight and sound together resting in their memories or inciting their imaginations. While the illustrations in Ready, Set, Kindergarten! are delightfully lively and colourful, they do not quite redeem a text that has very little to recommend it.

Reptile Flu: A Story about Communication (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.

Reptile Flu

Illustrated by Qing Leng.

Cole - ReptileReptile Flu is the third 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 Never Give Up: A Story About Self-Esteem. 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).

Reptile Flu stars Kamal, a young boy who is afraid of reptiles, and of being teased in class about that fear. He is unable to tell his teacher how much he dreads the class field trip to the reptile refuge. He tries to tell his parents, but his small, fearful voice is not heard. His anxiety grows until the morning of the trip, when it bursts forth in a shout of anguish: “I’m terrified of reptiles! … And I really, REALLY, REALLY don’t want to go…” His teacher’s understanding leadership of her class is heartfelt and honest, and all is well.

A number of elements combine to make Reptile Flu so successful. The multicultural student body—reflected both in their names and in Qin Leng’s joyful illustrations—is presented as normal. No comments are made about the children’s ethnicities or any cultural difference: Kamal and his classmates are all just elementary students together. The story thread through the series is subtle but real, which will help young readers feel they are a part of Kamal and his friends’ world. The little things that might seem insignificant to adults are presented from a child’s perspective; the characters are honestly constructed; the language is both simple and engaging enough to captivate young readers.