Two White Rabbits (2015) by Jairo Buitrago

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.

Two White Rabbits

Illustrated by Rafael Yockteng

Buitrago - RabbitsThis 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 xxx

“The little girl in this story is travelling with her father, but she doesn’t know where they are going,” begins the dust-jacket description. As a premise, it is “moving and timely,” but the story we are given mostly confuses. A child reader, encountering the first few pages, will view it as a counting book. “When we travel, I count what I see…” are the first words the narrator gives us. The next 6 page-spreads are about counting: animals, birds, “people who live by the tracks,” the clouds… But as a counting book, it is disappointing. First, the narrator counts the animals in the barnyard: four hens, five cows, and the dog who travels with them, but she misses the seven chicks watched over by the hens; second, there are 42 birds in the sky, not the 50 she claims to count. Small things, perhaps, but the sort of detail young readers often grab on to and would find frustrating.

The destination-less travel, combined with the expressive illustrations of migrant workers, creates a powerful sense of unease (obviously intentional) and manages to synthesize very successfully the child’s experience of trust in her father with the insecurity of their flight. The soldiers that appear in both the text and illustrations, though, bring up questions that would perhaps be better to have answered. With neither a “whither” nor a (perhaps more important) “why” to the journey, there is too great a sense of troubling confusion. The father and daughter spend some time with a boy and his grandmother, who give the girl two white rabbits along with pitying glances as they leave. So in the end, the girl has “two white rabbits” to count… and we are no closer to knowing anything about their story.

The Two Trees (2015), by Sally Meadows

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 21.2.

The Two Trees

Meadows - TreesI’m not really aware of all that is out there in picture-book-land dealing with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); most of it seems to be aimed prescriptively at children who are actually on the spectrum. The increased incidence of ASD seems to warrant more representation, especially in books that focus on the experiences of siblings and friends of children on the spectrum.

The Two Trees is the story of Jaxon, who brings home two seedlings to plant: “One was for me. One was for my older brother.” Planted close together, Jaxon’s tree grows while Syd’s does not, until it is moved into its own space. The metaphor is not actually this obvious, although it is one of the “Questions for Readers” at the end of the book. As the story progresses, Syd’s behaviour becomes increasing possible to identify as ASD, but initially it feels too much like just bad manners. That is undoubtedly part of the point, but it could be confusing to younger readers. Syd’s ASD characteristics, and Jaxon’s responses to them, are presented in simple, understandable ways for younger readers, but I think that The Two Trees needs to be introduced as being about ASD for the story to have a successful impact.

Rereading the book after I knew Syd had ASD made it a lot easier to understand, and the complexity of the relationship between the brothers took on new meaning. These complexities are part of what initially made me question the book as suitable for younger readers, but without them it could not be an honest portrayal of ASD. Overall, Meadows does an admirable job of representing a very difficult narrative space. Syd’s characteristic rigidity is balanced by Jaxon’s learning to better interpret Syd’s behaviours and comments. The final moment, when we see that Syd’s tree has grown as tall as Jaxon’s, and Jaxon giving Syd an unsolicited (of course) hug, shows how far Jaxon has come. It is, after all, his story.

Trip to the Moon (2013), by Vera Evic

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.

Evic - MoonTrip to the Moon tells of three Inuit boys enjoying their world in the fashion of boys everywhere: they ride their bikes, skip stones in the water, and go poking in the dirt. What Kevin, Jacob, and Michael find, though, is an old oil drum, situating them in a rural environment as much as does mention of their town: Pagnirtung, Nunavut. The simple story in English is repeated below by the same story (I assume) in Inuktitut. The drawings are simple—in differing and mixed media—with the sky a seeming homage to Emily Carr.

The oil drum, it turns out, is magic, and transports the boys to the moon, where they meet a race of little people and explore the moon’s environment much as they explored back home. When their stomachs rumble, they begin their return flight, only to have Michael slip off the drum and … “he landed—on the floor, next to his bed” (20), conforming to the “all just a dream” motif.

The story is simple, almost clichéd; the language is plain and uninspired, containing no poetic rhythm or language, no echo of oral story-telling. The drawings are acceptable, but what makes this book special is the parallel English and Inuktitut, providing a story of their culture, in their language, to young readers in Nunavut. “Inuktitut books for children” is a very slowly growing library: any addition is greatly to be welcomed.

The Truth Commission (2015), by Susan Juby

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.

Juby-TruthNormandy (“Norm”) Page lives in the shadow of her almost-megalomaniac sister, Keira, author of a popular and successful graphic novel series… based on their home life. Norm has never revealed how deeply her sister’s biting commentary—positioned as humour—has hurt her. Her pain remains hidden; she has never dared to probe into the truth of her feelings towards her dysfunctional family, always on edge to ensure that the sensibilities of Keira, artistic prodigy, remain undisturbed.

Enter the Truth Commission, organized by Norm and her two best friends, Neil and Dusk, in an attempt to reveal truths hidden in the lives around them. The dynamic between these three friends is so real; the way they communicate, the way they respond to their world, rings true. Like many teens, their youthful focus on what seems important (for them, the revealing of objective truth) misses a greater fundamental understanding of human nature and society. But that’s okay; they get there in the end. This is essentially what The Truth Commission is about: Norm and her friends growing into a deeper—if painful—understanding of the relationship between objective and functional truth. This understanding has been explored in a multitude of fictional forms (Ibsen’s 1884 Wild Duck springs to mind, as does a particularly poignant set of panels from Berkeley Breathed’s 1980s comic, Bloom County… ). The Truth Commission stays true to the message in these representations: knowing the truth does not always increase human happiness, or as Norm puts it, “The truth … is like an onion. You don’t want to peel that sucker all at once or you might never stop crying” (308).

The Truth Commission is presented as Norm’s Grade 11 “Spring Special Project” at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, a fictional fine-art school set in Nanaimo, BC. The school-epistolary narrative structure may seem somewhat derivative, but Susan Juby raises the bar in the subgenre, avoiding the expected clichés and self-indulgent narration. Norm exhibits both the insecurities of a 16-year-old following in the footsteps of an excessively successful older sibling and the sardonic voice of a verbally precocious, intelligent young woman exploring her own artistic and psychological space. Norm’s project is a creative non-fiction writing assignment, suggested by and written for her creative writing teacher, Ms. Fowler, whom she addresses in numerous footnotes. The project-based nature of the novel allows Norm (and Juby) to play with notions of genre, voice, structure, and selection of detail in a way that forces readers to think about the metanarrative: the story is not only about Norm, but about Norm writing her own story and in so doing learning what that story really is.

While at times the footnotes seem a little more like Juby talking to the reader than Norm talking to her teacher, one of the most successfully aspects of The Truth Commission remains Norm’s narrative voice: intelligent, humourous, mildly approval-seeking, self-aware and self-deprecating, both deferential and cheeky. Norm is naïve about her effect on others at the same time as she actively strives to understand the complexities of her own life and the motivations of those around her; this combination of confusion and self-assurance are revealed subtly in the way she tells her story.

Norm learns a number of truths—some good, some bad, some painful. In retrospect, Norm tells her readers, knowing the truth didn’t obviously set her free: “that’s kind of the thing about the truth. It’s never complete and it’s never simple” (309), a lesson Norm learns to both her benefit and detriment.

Breathed - Carrot