Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (2015)

One of the cool things about the teenaged girls in my life having less-than-perfect organizational skills is that friends sometimes leave interesting things at our place rather than just piles of dirty clothes, shoes, make-up, questionable forms of former-food stuffs…

The other day I stumbled upon a graphic novel, Lumberjanes, the owner of which has apparently disappeared into the Black Hole of Lost Friendships. Perfect, I said: I can read that and pass it on to the Women’s Family Shelter, which is where old clothes and reviewed books from our house go to live a second (or third) life.

Lumberjanes

Written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis; Illustrated by Brooke Allen; Colours by Maarta Laiho; Letters by Aubrey Aiese

I’d heard of Lumberjanes; in fact, I recall seeing it on a display table at Emerald City Comicon, but foolishly passed it by. A shame, really, as I could have got a special “Emerald City Comicon special cover”…

My daughter tells me that the novel is strongly feminist, and fun, but that really is not giving the cleverness its due. Adventures are had! Canoes are paddled! Inter-textual allusions are made! Stereotypes are overturned! Puns are constructed! Math is employed! Lumberjanes has something for everyone. Seriously. Or not.

I had to admit, though, that I was not sure if there was going to be any degree of humour as I began, nor was I sure there would be any disrupting feminist portrayals. The introduction is a very artfully constructed expression of an ideology strongly paralleling that of the Girl Guides of Canada—without the imperialist military history—and thus deeply normalized in my own experience of being a teen. The textual precursors to the graphic narrative in each chapter likewise seem to present the characteristic woodcraft challenges Girl Guides engage in (or used to) and the social and emotional development they strive towards. Sort of.

There is an underlying sarcasm to the tone of the Lumberjanes Field Manual that increases as the novel progresses. For the “Everything Under the Sum” badge, for example, Lumberjanes are expected to “map accurately and correctly from the country itself the main features of a half mile of road, with 440 yards each side to a scale of two feet to the mile, and afterwards draw the same map from memory.” She must “be able to measure the height of a tree, a telegraph pole, and a church steeple”; “to measure the width of a river estimate the distance apart of two objects a known distance away and unapproachable”; and “have a basic understanding of theoretical mathematics and the basic laws of physics.” (I wonder if this is actually taken from some archaic nautical test book?) The basic knowledge of theoretical mathematics, though, does turn out to be crucial. A bit of plot now to elucidate…

Lumberjanes Jo, Mal, Molly, April, and Ripley are infamous for sneaking off from their cabin leader, Jen, and getting into trouble. At first, on their “Up All Night” badge, they encounter a pack of demon foxes with three eyes, who tell them to “Beware the Kitten Holy…” Jo picks up an oval metal disk, like a Celtic scarf toggle, that doubtless has a role the plots of future volumes of the series. We see this symbol again when the Scouting Lads become possessed by evil powers, but that is our only hint. In their “Naval Gauging” badge, the Lumberjanes encounter a river-monster (again with three eyes); and an eagle (with three eyes) steals their chocolate bar. In trying to retrieve it, Ripley inadvertently opens a downward spiralling tunnel, which she immediately jumps into because: Tunnel. Adventure. Lumberjane. Duh.

They find themselves in a cavern with no way out but forward. This is the crux of the story, and the allusions to other adventure narratives are beginning to be unmistakable. There are of course Mal and Ripley as names (and one wonders that little bit about Jo and Louisa May Alcott). Also the trope of the spiralling descent into the underworld, and the challenges to overcome to move forward. And Molly’s echo of The Emperor’s New Groove surprised aside when she leans against a lever in the wall: “Why is that even there?” The nature of the challenges themselves are especially familiar: arrows shooting across the tunnel triggered by a step, Molly reaching back under a falling stone door to retrieve her hat, and the maze of stone pillars crossing a chasm, with numbers rather than letters that need to be jumped on in the right order. And now we are back to the “Everything Under the Sum” badge: rather than the name of Jehovah that Indiana Jones needs to recall from his classical studies, the Lumberjanes must follow the Fibonacci series, in which, Jo tells us, “each number is the last two numbers added together: zero, one, one, two, five … All the way to infinity and beyond! [!] Or in this case, 233.” This is followed by Molly sorting out an anagram carved into the wall of the cavern, which leaves them, as in childhood games, “Home free!”

But tropes are also overturned: when they steal borrow the golden bow and arrows from the plinth that is significantly not booby-trapped like the golden head in Raiders of the Lost Ark, they considerately leave a note explaining that they will return it. And in their encounter with the Scouting Lads, gender stereotypes are flipped. The adventurous girls, battle-weary, with scratches and poison-ivy stings, are brought into the homey cabin of the nurturing Scouting Lads and given tea and cookies. The Scout Master, on the other hand, is the quintessential he-man. After lambasting the boys for entertaining “womenfolk,” he slams out of the cabin: “I AM GOING TO CATCH A FISH BY WRESTLING IT AWAY FROM A BEAR.” To which April comments in stupefaction “Wow…” and Barney replies in the language of teenaged girls: “I know, right? He’s the WORST.”

In a final Indiana-Jones-worthy scene, the Lumberjanes escape the now possessed posse of Scouting Lads and achieve their “Robyn Hood” badge, shooting the anchors of a rope bridge with their “borrowed” golden arrows. They are safe for now, but the evil Scout Master is rallying his troupes for volume 2, Lumberjanes: Friendship to the Max.

A Year of Borrowed Men (2015), by Michelle Barker

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.

A Year of Borrowed Men was deservedly short-listed for the 2016 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award.

A Year of Borrowed Men

Illustrated by Renné Benoit.

Barker - Borrowed MenA Year of Borrowed Men tells a story from World War Two that will be unfamiliar to many readers, but is nonetheless a moving part of the history of the German-Canadian community. The author writes from her mother Gerta’s recollections, bringing to life the engaging voice of the younger Gerta, whose family hosted three French prisoners-of-war on their German farm in 1944.

World War Two from the German perspective remains somewhat problematic: how do we reconcile decades of erroneous equation of “German” with evil, with the real experiences of many Germans during the war? While the topic is dealt with effectively in some textsT– Roberto Innocenti’s Rose Blanche (1985), Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005), John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2006), among othersT– it will take so many more stories for truth to overcome the stereotypes. A Year of Borrowed Men contributes positively and significantly to our understanding of the compassion of some of the German populace, placed themselves in an almost untenable psychological and ideological situation.

Gerta’s father was “borrowed” by the German army, and in his place the government sent three French prisonersT– Gabriel, Fermaine, and AlbertT– to work the land. Gerta’s innocent narrative perspective ensures that the dark reality of Germany’s forced labour policy is not brought out. With the egalitarianism of young children, Gerta cannot understand why the three must live with the animals, and eat in the “pig’s kitchen,” where the slops were prepared. That was the rule though: these men were prisoners and were to be treated as such. Inviting them in to dinner one night almost sent Gerta’s mother to prison herself, yet the family could not deny their fundamental humanity. Despite regulations, in the face of threats, Gerta and her mother find little ways of making the Frenchmen’s lives more tolerable: extra butter on their bread, catalogues to cut into elicit decorations at Christmas, sneaking treats for them to eat. The men reciprocated with affection for their little German freunde: “I couldn’t keep the borrowed men here,” Gerta observes at the end of the war, “but we were friends– and I could keep that forever.” The story is made more powerful by the fact that Gerta did indeed keep that friendship alive: enough that her daughter has retold their story for her grandchildren’s generation to learn.

When Santa Was a Baby (2015), by Linda Bailey

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.

Illustrated by Geneviève Godbout.

When Santa Was A Baby

Bailey - Santa BabyThis 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 first thing that strikes one about When Satan Was a Baby is Geneviève Goudbout’s clever artistic style, which replicates the wrapping paper and illustration of Christmases in the 1960s and 1970s. The muted autumnal pastel drawings, the pencil-crayon poinsettias against the moss-green background, the red button noses and shiny apple cheeks of the characters: all these speak of a heartwarming nostalgia that is reinforced by the story.

Linda Bailey’s Santa is a normal little boy… except for his booking baby voice, and maybe his love of red over every other colour, and perhaps his propensity for re-wrapping his birthday presents… Things begin to become clearer to the reader when he harnesses his hamsters to a matchbox to pull around the house. Part of the joy for the young reader will be that Santa’s parents still haven’t figured it out. “Extraordinary!” his father proclaims; “He’s so creative!” coos his mother. “Don’t they get it?!” the young reader will ask in an exasperated, or perhaps superior, voice.

Bailey’s humour is giggle-inducing and sustained throughout the story; allusions to perhaps the most famous Santa poem—“A Visit from St. Nicholas”—are subtle and effective. The story is all wrapped up neatly in the end, when Santa’s parents comment, with a revisionist view of his youth, “That’s what we always thought he’d do … We knew it all the time.” And Santa replies “HO HO HO!”

The Case of the Missing Moonstone (2015), by Jordan Stratford

stratford-moonstoneIllustrated by Kelly Murphy.

Jordan Stratford begins the notes at the back of The Case of the Missing Moonstone by telling us that “the year 1826 itself is practically a character in the book,” and it seems that in fact the year 1826 might just be the most historically accurate character in the book. In his story, Stratford brings together a plethora of well-known historical personages (Ada Lovelace and her half-sister Allegra Byron, Mary Godwin and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont, Charles Babbage, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens), adjusting their ages, rewriting their characters, and conflating their stories to construct his narrative. He provides factual accounts of each of their lives in his notes, wherein he explains his decisions, and how the real historical characters were connected (and they all are, in interesting and complicated ways).

The novel opens with the unconventional young Ada being upgraded from a governess to a tutor. Mary Godwin is introduced into the equation when she comes to learn with Ada under the tutelage of Percy Bysshe Shelley—Peebs, as Ada calls him, based on his initials. The two girls form The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, named after Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous advocate for women’s rights. As such an enterprise would be unacceptable for young ladies in their time (Mary Wollstonecraft’s advocacy notwithstanding), the young Charles Dickens is co-opted as their courier. At the end of the novel, the girls are joined by Allegra and Jane, in preparation for the sequels to follow.

The two protagonists’ reflect the complementary strengths of their namesakes: while Ada Lovelace is famous as a mathematician, Mary Shelley—as Mary Godwin eventually became—is known for her literary prowess, writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. “In real life,” Stratford tell us, “Mary was eighteen years older than Ada … But I thought it would be more fun this way—to cast these two luminaries as friends.” Despite that Stratford does tell us that Percy Bysshe Shelley “ran off with sixteen-year-old Mary to Switzerland, and they were married two years later,” the difference between his Mary Godwin and Mary Shelley the author is not only striking but problematic. It would be difficult, however, to create a novel for middle-school readers that tells the truth of the extremely unconventional lifestyles that Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary, and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont (who was the real Allegra Byron’s mother) engaged in before Shelley’s early death by drowning. “While in reality Peebs had died even before our story begins, I have extended his life so that he, Ada, and Mary can be in this story together.” “As with Mary,” Stratford continues, “Jane’s timeline is moved so that she can be young alongside Mary and Ada,” and “in real life, Allegra died of fever at the age of five.”

These alterations do a great disservice to young readers; Stratford’s intent of creating an engaging story peopled with historical figures is perhaps well intentioned, but more problematic than effective. Young readers interpret story as reflecting reality in some way: the expressive-realist error, no doubt, but not surprising in the middle-school audience this mystery is intended for. While it is fascinating to read a well-written novel set in a historical period and learn from the research the author has engaged in, when it is difficult to discern where history ends and fiction begins, the novel becomes far less valuable as a vehicle of knowledge acquisition—which young readers will take it to be.

It really is a shame that Stratford plays so lose and easy with the characters, as his research is strong, and he incorporates the factual history smoothly into his story. Ada is brilliantly constructed as an excessively intelligent young girl, with strong characteristics of high-functioning Asperger’s. Anyone who lives with such a child will recognize both the frustrating and the rewarding aspects of living with someone like Stratford’s Ada. Ada’s mathematical and scientific investigations are described in just enough detail to inform the reader without boredom, and the dynamics between the socially oblivious Ada and the more psychologically astute Mary are delightful. When the characters are this engaging, and the plot interesting and well constructed, we can forgive the author some degree of liberty with historicity.

And herein lies another issue with The Case of the Missing Moonstone, at least for me: as I read through it, having suspended my disbelief regarding the characters—I quite enjoyed Ada’s youthful eccentricities and Mary’s rampant imagination—I couldn’t help but feel that I had read this plot before… The title should have been a dead giveaway, but it didn’t occur to me that an author would unabashedly copy an earlier plot.

Again in his notes, Stratford is entirely forthcoming, telling us about Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), commonly accepted as the first detective novel written in English. “Our mystery,” he admits, “is a nod to some of the elements of this classic.” More than just a nod, Mr. Stratford, when your plot can be so readily anticipated through knowledge of Wilkie Collins’s. Middle-school readers will almost certainly not have read The Moonstone, so we can see how Stratford’s idea that “it would be fun to have the world’s first computer programmer and the world’s first science-fiction author solving the world’s first fictional detective mystery” could appeal. The writing is of course all Stratford’s, and he has an effective authorial voice, hints of sarcasm underlying the more straightforward narrative that young readers will really enjoy. But yet the novel bothers me. The use of an already well-known and successful premise, the drastically changed biographies of well-known historical figures: for me, these infringe upon my appreciation of the strong characterization of Ada and the interesting explorations of nineteenth-century science and literature. If it were only Ada, with a supporting cast of unknowns, in a story with an original plot… but it is not, and it is up to my readers to decide to what degree the lack of historicity and originality impacts their enjoyment. For me, it was too much.