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.

Red Zone Rivals (2014), by Eric Howling

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.

Howling - Red ZoneI don’t know much about football, but the opening scene of Eric Howling’s Red Zone Rivals seems to carry the excitement fans—and players—must feel during tense moments in the game. It certainly engages the reader sufficiently to carry us through meeting Quinn Brown, who doesn’t start out with a very attractive attitude. His hubris loses him the affection of his girlfriend, Emma, and we can see that he has some learning to do both on and off the field. Fortunately, Howling craftily leads Quinn into and through situations that ring true; the lessons he learns are solid and in keeping with the psychological space a high-school football star might find himself in.

Slightly stereotypically, Quinn is a great quarterback, but a lousy math student. When he finally accepts his need for a tutor, he is assigned to Walker, a new student with a limp and a brilliant mind. Quinn had previously taunted Walker for his limp but, conforming to narrative expectations, learns the truth of Walker’s injury as they bond over their math books. When Quinn gets in trouble for throwing the first punch in defending Walker against bullying by his rival quarterback, Luke, we begin to see the changes that losing Emma and knowing Walker have set in motion. And we begin to really like Quinn.

It is not easy to accept punishment for an action you know to be morally right, but Quinn must: and he does so respectfully. His ability to accept the consequence of his action—even when it seems unfair—opens him to accept the guidance their new coach gives and the self-discipline demanded of Walker’s tutoring. The lessons he learns are part of what we all hope our children will learn in high school, and one of the reasons some parents encourage their children in team sports: the adage “there is no ‘i’ in team,” of course; but more than that, lesson in maturity, ethical principles, and honourable behaviour. Quinn is rewarded not only by his rekindled relationship with Emma, and a growing friendship with Walker, but by knowing himself to have grown in the ways that matter.