Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon (2018), by Karen Autio

I’ve been waiting for this book for a while now: ever since I read and loved Karen Autio’s Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter (2015). Responding to my review, the author told me of her new project, a history of the Okanagan for young readers, that she was working on with illustrator Loraine Kemp. I have to admit that my interest is not only because Kah-Lan is so marvellous, but also largely because I was born in the Okanagan and raised in the Similkameen, and was excited by the prospect of a history of my home. And now, here it is, in my hand. First, something about the illustrations: Karen Autio chooses her artist-colleagues well. Sheena Lott’s playful watercolours of sea otter pups first drew me to Kah-Lan, reminding me how much I love the ocean. Loraine Kemp’s paintings bring forth memories of dust and sage and pine in the air, and I can almost feel the blistering Okanagan sun on my skin. (Well, except for the winter scenes, which cause me to shiver in a similar but less-welcome nostalgic response.) The illustrations pair perfectly with the narrative, each painting adding subtly to the reader’s understanding of the historical moment. As for the text, the opening is auspicious: the book is “Dedicated to the syilx people, on whose lands this story unfolds.” Sqilxw (skay-lo-heh), we are told in the glossary that begins the book, means simply “the people”—the original inhabitants of the Okanagan Valley and Wild Horse Canyon—and it is with them that the story begins. The protagonist of Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon—the character who grows up—is not human, but a ponderosa pine tree, planted in 1780 by happenstance just as a young Okanagan boy paints his message on the rock wall of the canyon. As the tree grows through the decades, we watch the Okanagan people’s lives in the canyon and the valley, the coming of European fur traders along the Okanagan Brigade Trail that runs from Fort Okanagan on the Columbia River north to Kamloops, the capture and sale and culling of the wild horses that were the wealth of the Okanagan people, the settling of the valley by non-Indigenous people, two world wars, and the devastating forest fire in 2003 that kills the 223-year-old tree that has lived through so much. Despite that this is a history rather than a gripping narrative of personal endeavour, when the fire hits, we really do feel the loss, not only of our tree, but of so much else. Perhaps I feel this more personally than some: I remember watching the news in 2003, praying that my grandparents’ cabin—the old CPR bunkhouse at Chute Lake, now restored and owned by my cousins—would survive. We were fortunate: it did, while the forest and trestle and other homes were destroyed. The reprieve we felt is echoed in Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon in the description of the aftermath of the fire:
Seeds from many plants … have been waiting for decades to sprout and now begin to grow. … A seedling sheltered by the giant fallen tree in the canyon is a new ponderosa pine.
The firestorm cleared areas of the park, which then returned to rocky grassland. Bighorn sheep once lived in the park and can now live there again [and] in the Okanagan Valley south and west of Wild Horse Canyon, mostly on reserve land, several hundred wild horses survive and still roam free. (25-26)
This celebration of the cycle of life, as expressed in the slow growth and quick destruction of the ponderosa pine, and the ebb and flow of lives lived in its shade, is deeply satisfying. I hope young readers will feel at the end, as I did, that it is worth continuing, for the real history lesson lies in the pages that follow. In addition to a timeline (which is almost as satisfying to my hyper-organized mind as the map that opens the book), “More About Wild Horse Canyon and Area” includes more factual descriptions of the history and ideas touched on in the narrative. The combination of narrative and historical fact renders Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon not only fascinating for any young reader interested in our history, but even more appropriate as an addition to school and classroom libraries throughout BC and Canada.
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The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), by Johann David Wyss

wyss-1stI read this book once. Only once. Ever. While it is (or at least was) a classic of European children’s literature, it has certainly not aged well. I cannot bring myself to read it again to review it, so what follows are my recollections from reading it oh-so-many years ago. This might be unfair, but the novel stands out for me as one of the great literary disappointments of my life. For the story of the Swiss Family Robinson—a family marooned on an island who MacGyver together a fabulous treetop home—is the stuff of magical imagination. It speaks to the heart of the child who built elaborate road systems for little cars, and dreamed of a toy train set, just for all those fabulous track junctions… Not so the novel as it was written. Or rather, as it was translated into English by William H.G. Kingston in 1879, which is the edition I read.

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Granted, the idea of racing on the back of an ostrich is appealing to the adventurous child, I think no modern reader—young or old—would be able to get past the Robinson family’s habit of killing an animal in order to determine what it is: “Oh, look, what an amazing, elegant, beautiful creature: let’s kill it.” And while the notion of building an elaborate treehouse from the ground up, so to speak, really does appeal to the engineer in all of us, the glory of bamboo-punk does not outweigh the boredom resulting from the stilted writing and the episodic narrative. But remember, this is a novel of its time and culture. The mechanical engineering that I admired so much is now a solid stereotype about Swiss and German cultures, and the penchant for killing animals just because they could was sadly common amongst European and British explorers—and imperialist conquerors—of the time. Remember the dodo? Or the herds of buffalo shot by men riding past on the railroad? Or the tiger, hunted almost to extinction? It is hard, with modern knowledge of how we have devastated the natural world, to engage completely with The Swiss Family Robinson.

So I no longer even have this novel on my shelf, but I will hold it forever in my mind as an example of the fact that, while literature can tell us so much about a time and place, that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

(So popular was this story that there are numerous “in words of one syllable” editions and other such accessible versions.)

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A Boy Called Bat (2017), by Elana K. Arnold

arnold-bayBixby Alexander Tam (aka BAT, for more than just the obvious reason) finds navigating life a bit difficult. When we are introduced to him, he is in a conundrum: he wants a snack, but has to have the fridge open to find one, but hates having the fridge open because that wastes energy. To top it all off, there is no food there to eat… which is to say that there are no vanilla yoghurts left, and he won’t eat the yoghurts with the fruit chunks on the bottom. Well, I mean, who would, right? It is a scene from our household, but apparently not everyone’s.

There’s not much action in A Boy Called Bat, but that really isn’t the point. What the novel lacks in excitement it more than makes up for in depth of understanding and characterization. The little ways that Bat responds to his world—his unique way of sorting his room; his sensitivity to smells and sounds, unless he is fascinated by something else; his inability to understand what others sometimes mean; his frustration when he knows he is not understanding—are really the essence. I wonder to what degree readers who do not have first-hand experience of children who refuse to eat mushrooms but want mushroom-flavoured ramen, or cannot focus on math but will spend hours learning the names of dinosaurs, understand what is going on in Bat’s world. At what point in the narrative do all of the little clues coalesce into understanding? Is it the opening confrontation with his sister Janie over the yoghurt? Or when he makes his mother reset the trip meter for each trip to school? Or when he “ran through the list of things he was supposed to remember to say to people?” (96)? Or when his father makes chili?

Bat didn’t like chili. Dad knew he didn’t like it. Bat didn’t like mushy foods. Except for oatmeal with brown sugar. [Which isn’t the same as mushy legumes: duh.]
“I don’t like chili,” Bat said.
“Maybe you’ll like it tonight,” Dad said. “I tried a new recipe.” (70-71)

I almost cried: his father—who of all people should—doesn’t understand that texture, not taste, is the issue. How can we expect outsiders to get it? Bat marches to the beat of a different bagpipe.

Bat is not autistic in the same way as Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), but Elana K. Arnold’s technique of letting us see the world through Bat’s eyes, rather than telling us what is going on for him, echoes the effectiveness of Haddon’s classic narrative. I’m not sure that young readers on their own would necessarily understand why Bat is different (the text is aimed at about a grade 3-5 audience). If they recognize Bat’s characteristics in some of their classmates, having seen the world through Bat’s eyes will help them empathize in a way that Bat is only himself learning to do.

Aesop’s Secret (2012), by Claudia White

white-aesopI’ve just finished Claudia White’s Aesop’s Secret (well, obviously, because here I am reviewing it). They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case I think maybe you can. Larissa Kulik’s drawing of Melissa, one of the two protagonists, is alluring, whimsical yet uncanny, and thus very fitting with the content of the book.

I have to admit it took me a little while to get into the story; the language is not as light and flowing as other books I have read recently. But then it began: I sunk deeper and deeper into the story, completely uncertain where White was taking us. The more I read, the more I honestly didn’t know, couldn’t tell, where we were headed… which of course drew me deeper still.

The concept in Aesop’s Secret is refreshingly original. A race of Others living among us (okay, not so original yet), called Athenites, used to live in harmony with humans but were forced by history to conceal their abilities. This name is purportedly based on the Greek goddess Athena’s ability to transform into other animals. Now, if you think about Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the title is a bit of a give-away), it is not only Athena, amongst the gods, who has this ability. But I’ll give White that one; after all, Athena’s mother Metis was known—more than other mythological characters—as a shape-shifter. Melissa and Felix Hutton’s mother is about to publish a treatise revealing that Athenites are real, not mythological. She seems exactly the right anthropologist to do so, as the Huttons themselves are Athenites. But someone doesn’t want that research published.

Athenites’ abilities manifest as they mature; shape-shifting is genetic and connected in some way to their hemoglobin. This sets up nicely for a plot involving biological manipulation for at least one character’s nefarious purposes. I really don’t want to say more than that; you’ll have to read the book. The originality lies largely in the parts I am not telling you: sorry. While there is some catering to the narrative expectations of child readers—I can tell you that it all works out in the end—there were quite a few “oh—didn’t see that coming” moments to keep readers on their toes.

Aesop’s Secret is the first of a trilogy, all of which are written, published, and available now to be read: the second book is Key to Kashdune (2014) followed by Servalius Window (2015), itself a novel in three parts. White avoids the “well, I might as well write another volume” problems that so much series fiction has these days. At the end of the novel, you can see how the story can go on, but you are still left satisfied. The best place to be: you can read on, but you don’t have to in order to find closure.

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