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.

A Country of Our Own: The Confederation Diary of Rosie Dunn, Ottawa, Province of Canada, 1866 (2013), Karleen Bradford

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 19.3.

Part of the Dear Canada series

Mack-CountryHaving read one or two volumes from girls’ pseudo-historical series such the Dear America series, or the British My Story series, I did not expect great things from Dear Canada; I didn’t want to see my own history similarly fictionalized beyond sufficient claims to historical authenticity. Then I looked at the authors contributing to the Dear Canada series. The list is extensive, and each author there is a familiar name to young Canadian readers; each author there is respected for his or her authorial integrity. Karleen Bradford’s Confederation Diary of Rosie Dunn is a welcome addition to the well-researched and well-written Dear Canada library.

It is 1866, and young Rosie Dunn has had to take her older sister’s place in service with a politician’s family destined to move to Ottawa, the capital of the new Dominion of Canada. Rosie’s father is keen on politics, so she is used to hearing the news, but not always understanding what it means. Her keen interest and intelligence, but lack of raw information, make Rosie the perfect vessel for bringing political knowledge to the young reader.

On 31 December 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the new capital of the Province of Canada; by 1866, when Rosie Dunn arrives, Ottawa is still little more than a back-woods community, with mud instead of sidewalks and small wood houses instead of the attractively designed and solidly constructed homes of Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, or Quebec City. The “hardships” Rosie’s employers have to endure make her an admirable servant: she is industrious, honest, clever, and used to working in less-than-luxurious conditions. Rosie’s story is a rich combination of life in 1860s Ottawa and a lay-person’s understanding of the political events that accompanied the birth of our nation. We learn much of what the common people might have thought about the politics of the time, of the relations between the British ruling class and the Irish and French Canadian working classes, and of the day-to-day activities of the working people in each community. The feeling Bradford creates in her story—the characters, the setting, the honest human emotions—remind me strongly of one of my favourite novels for young Canadian readers, Lyn Cook’s much earlier The Secret of Willow Castle (1966). Both books take a significant moment in Canadian history and bring it to life for young readers. What better way to engage with our history than through the eyes and ears and minds of well-constructed fictional counterparts?

Dark Times (2006), edited by Ann Walsh

Walsh - Dark TimesI once write a chapter for a book about Robert Cormier, an author well known for his starkly realist novels for young adults. Cormier explained his novels’ popularity by stating readers “say I tell it like it is. This is the way life is, and they are tired of books where everyone walks off into the sunset together” (in Herbert Foerstel’s “Voices of Banned Authors,” in Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries (Westport, CN: Greenwood, 2002) 150). The collection of short stories in Dark Times strikes a similar note of stark realism, revealing a number of harsh incidents and situations that real teens in our world have to deal with every day. Dark Times, however (unlike Cormier’s more lengthy and troubling œuvre) contains glimmers of hope. The protagonists’ situations are not always alleviated; the adults don’t ride in on white horses to save them; there are not always happy endings and walking off into the sunset. That is not reality now, any more than it ever has been, but in these stories “as in real life, the darkness lifts” (Walsh 9). Ann Walsh has chosen stories that show readers the strength that young adults can have: perseverance and optimism even in the darkest of times.

I have to admit that I have never reviewed a collection of stories before, and I found it difficult. It seems impossible to address the collection as a whole, sufficiently, when each of the stories themselves is so rich in meaning. Dark Times comprises 13 stories, all dealing with some form of loss; each character’s loss is unique, however similar the feelings of grief can seem. In “Snow Angel” (Carolyn Pogue), adopting a cousin with fetal alcohol syndrome has a devastating effect on Mary’s family. In “The Canoe” (Lee Maracle), a son needs to restore his relationship with his distant father after the loss of his mother. In “All is Calm” (Ann Walsh), Katie struggles with her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, until one of the “popular” boys in her school shares his own story. In “Kick” (Betty Jane Hegerat), Justin has to find closure when the bully who taunted him dies. In “Sisters” (Sarah Ellis), the family complications of Charlotte’s “foster grandmother” are revealed at her death, helping Charlotte come to terms with her own sister’s desertion. In “Explaining Andrew” (Gina Rozon), James feels smothered as a “baby-sitter” for his brother Andrew, who suffers from schizophrenia. In “Cold Snap” (Diana Aspin), Cassie is filled with hatred when she discovers her father is having an affair. In “the sign for heaven” (Carrie Mac), Della learns to love a little girl she is teaching sign language to, only to lose her to pneumonia. In “A Few Words for My Brother (Alison Lohans), Hailey’s adopted brother, Devin, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, is responsible for the death of a friend and his other sister’s hospitalization. Hailey struggles to come to terms with her brother’s crimes and the guilt she feels for her sister’s injuries. In “Dear Family—” (Donna Gamache), Melinda reconnects with her estranged mother, who left to “find herself” as an artist in the wilds of BC. In “Dreams in a Pizza Box” (Libby Kennedy), a mother and her two daughters run from an abusive situation and end up on the streets. Struggling with illness, poverty, and homelessness, the mother does the best she can for her daughters, but in the end must leave them at a women’s shelter, where she hopes they can be cared for properly. In “Hang On” (Patricia McCowan), Kevin feels guilty when his dare-devil friend Randy ends up in a coma after a prank. The final story in the collection, “Balance Restored” (Jessi May Keller), takes us through the stages of grieving with Alexandra, whose boyfriend has died in a car crash she survived.

Together, these stories reveal a depth of human situations and responses that, taken all at once, could be overwhelming—rather like reading Robert Cormier’s novels one after the other, only (being short stories) somewhat less traumatic. Perhaps the best way to approach the collection would be to read one a day, and really think about what the story is saying. The messages are strong; each separate story—each separate voice—should be heard on its own.

Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots (2010), by Abby McDonald

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 16.1.

Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots

McDonald-BearsI’m from British Columbia, where Abby McDonald’s Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots is set.  More interestingly, I’m from a small town in the mountains of BC, about 2 hours from Kamloops, albeit in a different direction from McDonald’s fictional Stillwater.  I think, though, that it does not take being from small-town BC to recognize some of the errors that McDonald produces, such as: Canadian teens would never call Grade 10 and 12 students “sophomores” and “seniors” (42); the text’s geography is wrong (2 hours east of Kamloops is the Shushwap lake district, not yet the Monashees, the beginning of the Rockies; in fact, you don’t drive through the Rockies—certainly not for more than four hours—to get to anywhere in BC from Vancouver), and 2 hours from Kamloops towards the mountains means that Revelstoke or Kelowna would be the “city” for an outing; even Field, BC (population 200) has its own website; and maple syrup (being from Quebec and Vermont) is more expensive in BC than in New Jersey (and therefore not really “one of the bonuses of being north of the border” [53]).  There are other more subtle problems with characterization and narrative consistency, such as when the protagonist Jenna talks about her “(only) ex” on page 77, but yet rationalizes on page 212 that she’d “kissed guys before. Guys I liked, guys I didn’t, guys who attacked my mouth like their tongue was a whirlpool, and guys who just kid of smushed their lips against mine and stood there, waiting”; the contrast in levels of experience jars, even after 135 pages.  The Stillwater teens are equally inconsistent, but once their beings solidify into recognizably stable characters, we begin to like them; they are typical teens: thoughtless and caring at the same time, looking for excitement, and bored with most of what surrounds them.  The author, however, repeatedly attributes attitudes and knowledge to her characters that they would almost certainly not hold: no adult would lend a teen a stick-shift vehicle she couldn’t drive (56); even a thoughtless teen would not take a newbie kayaking over falls when there was a lake nearby to train on (75-81); no teen boy would wear cut-offs over board shorts to go to the lake to swim (95); international trade treaties, not environmentalists, are responsible for the shutting down of BC lumber mills (100); and not even a teen from New Jersey would need to be told that some mountains have permanent snow (188). Little details, perhaps, but the sort of little details that lend authenticity to a narrative or, in this case, fail to do so.
All of this is a shame, too, because the underlying message of the text—balance, consideration, and mindfulness in one’s attitudes—is positive and powerful.  Jenna learns that her “Green Teen” almost-radical environmentalism is the one-sided perspective of a city dweller who has never experienced life in tandem with nature.  The teens of Stillwater are less-than-environmentally aware, but their perspective has some validity. Beginning to recognize the reality of life in Stillwater, Jenna wonders “if all [her] talk of sustainable eco-friendliness is making [her] sound like a good Green Teen activist—or just a spoilt brat” (70): the strength of the novel lies in Jenna’s developing realization of the multitude of economic and political realities that inform the adult world she is growing into.