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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Missing Nimâmâ (2015), by Melanie Florence

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 21.3.

On 17 November 2016, Missing Nimâmâ was awarded theTD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the highest honour (and greatest monetary award) available for writers of children’s literature in Canada.

The intended age group for the picture book was listed in the competition literature as 9-12, which differs from my earlier assumptions in writing this review.

Missing Nimâmâ

Illustrated by François Thisdale.

Florence - Missing“Once upon a time there was a little girl, a little butterfly, who flew to the telephone every time it rang, hoping against hope that her mother was coming home.”

Missing Nimâmâ is a truly beautiful book. I’m not sure, though, who the audience is. François Thisdale’s illustrations enhance this poignant story of a young Aboriginal mother torn from her family in an unexplained way, like so many Aboriginal women in Canada have been. Kateri’s mother is lost; Kateri is being raised by her nôhkom, her grandmother, while her mother’s spirit watches over her.

The story is told in both voices. We hear the spirit of the young mother as she watches her daughter grow to womanhood. We watch as Kateri tells her own story as she matures under the loving care of her grandmother. We never learn what happened to Kateri’s mother; Kateri is a young woman, married, and expecting her first child when the call comes that they have found her mother. What happened is not the issue, though, so much as the years of not knowing, of growing up without a mother, or missing a daughter, a sister, a wife – and having no answers. The depth of this ongoing tragedy is hauntingly portrayed through Florence’s poetic words and Thisdale’s evocative illustrations.

But to return to my earlier question: who is this book for? It is truly beautiful, but perhaps too powerful for young readers, even if presented through the filter of an adult reader. But who am I to say? I have not lost a mother; I have not needed this story. And it is a story that needs to be both told and heard.

Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter (2015), by Karen Autio

Kah-Lan takes place on the BC coast, which I have made my home; Karen Autio also has a picture book coming out entitled Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon (2016), which is set in a valley of the Okanagan-Similkameen, where I was born and raised. Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon will tell the history of the area through fictional means and again, beautiful illustrations, this time by Loraine Kemp. Given her choice of subject matter, and the promise of Kah-Lan, Autio is definitely an author I intend to follow.

Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter

Autio - Kah-LanKaren Autio’s Kah-Lan has recently been short-listed for the Green Earth Book Award, which seems completely appropriate, given the verisimilitude of Autio’s depiction of the interaction between the young seal pup, Kah-Lan, and his natural environment.

I think what drew me first to Kah-Lan, though, was Sheena Lott’s peaceful watercolour on the cover. Also, I love sea otters. And the BC coast. I was truly delighted when the content of the book lived up to the expectations aroused by the delightful cover. Kah-Lan opens with a lively description of two sea otter pups in a kelp forest, weaving and leaping through the kelp, nipping each other in play. The fluid motion of sea otters is captured perfectly; Kah-Lan and Yamka are real sea otters, with just enough anthropomorphism to satisfy young human readers. When his mother calls him to safety, Kah-Lan is “tired of obeying … he figures he has plenty of time to escape” (11), but then he watches as an orca stuns then consumes an Elder from his raft. The world of Autio’s fictional sea otter contains real-life dangers.

The sea otter pups must balance their play with a necessary obedience to the parental members of the raft and the constant need to feed. Ostensibly just searching for food (as any teen would rationalize disobedience), Kah-Lan gets caught in a riptide and pulled far from his familiar hunting grounds. Once he discovers a greater abundance of food in this new location, he still has to find a way to return to his raft, a daunting challenge given the currents and dangers of the tumultuous waters off the BC coast. Presenting Kah-Lan’s choices as consistent with his sea-otter nature, Autio is able to create a narrative that is exciting, and an animal character that nonetheless replicates human children’s need for both belonging and individuation.

Bench Brawl (2014), by Trevor Kew

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 20.2.

Kew - BrawlIn 1994, the title of Canada’s National Sport was divided into Canada’s National Summer Sport (still lacrosse) and Canada’s National Winter Sport (now hockey). It is surprising that it took so long: for decades before that, hockey dominated the sport scene from early autumn until late spring in most communities in Canada. An easy-read, high-interest novel about the dynamics between hockey teams and players is thus fitting for its Canadian audience. The message in Trevor Kew’s Bench Brawl is admirably one of tolerance and the benefits of teamwork, but the delivery fails to hit the goal.

Luke plays for the Upper Great River “Helmets,” firm rivals of the Lower Great River “Gloves,” and Luke is our spokesman for the aggression he and his teammates feel towards the only opponents in their small-town junior league. When the town is given the opportunity to participate in the Vancouver Invitational Hockey Tournament, the coaches determine that their only chance is to amalgamate the Helmets and Gloves into one larger team with the manpower to perhaps succeed. The players are irate, and Luke is one of the most vocal against the decision.

While team rivalry and even antagonism is perhaps common in team sports, the attitudes presented by almost all of the characters in this book leave a bitter taste. Some of the players refuse to play; some of the parents refuse to let their sons play. Few characters (the coaches, and Luke’s best friend, Cubby) articulate a balanced understanding of the situation, and their voices are not sufficiently loud. Luke’s responses, even to Cubby, are excessive: “I don’t care if Cubby is my best friend. Right now, I feel like grabbing him and shaking him and shouting, Not a big deal? What’s wrong with you? Right in to his stupid, fat face” (26). The language the boys use is often highly derogatory, and while high school students would use such language, there is little to balance against Luke’s aggressive narrative voice. Kew attempts to create this balance through Jean-Baptiste (JB), who has recently moved to Great River fro Quebec. JB lives on the Lower side of the river, but is introduced when he comes over to shoot in Luke’s drive with Luke and Cubby. He is exceptional at hockey, and incites Luke’s adversarial nature as much as he creates any bond between the rival factions.

In the end, at the tournament, the players are still at odds (Luke noting that “This team is a disaster, just like I knew it would be” [101]) until Cubby’s rich father provides a new set of hockey jerseys. All of a sudden, “something has changed [, Luke] can’t tell what it is” (108): they become a team—the Great River Vikings—working together to win a crucial game. The turnabout is too abrupt, though, too unfounded in the characterizations of Luke and his teammates. The lesson provided is valuable and one that all of us need to learn—and team sports is one of the best places to learn it—but we do not feel, at the end of Bench Brawl, that the lesson has sunk very deep.