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

24 February 2017

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.

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?

The Road to Afghanistan (2013), by Linda Granfield

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.

Illustrated by Brian Deines

Granfield-AfghanistanThe Road to Afghanistan tells in simple but poetic language the story of Canadian soldiers going to and coming home from war. Through the brief history of a great-grandfather, a grandfather, and a soldier returned from the current war in Afghanistan, readers are given a glimpse of the sacrifices made to ensure peace in our world.

The dust jacket mentions only the Afghan war, and perhaps it would have been better for the author to focus on the soldier’s recollections of Afghanistan, of “its scenery and its people, the challenges faced and the successes achieved.” Instead, we learn more about the great-grandfather’s experience in World War One and his return home, and are given only a brief mention of the grandfather having fought in World War Two. Images of the current conflict mirror the battle scenes from the World War One pages, and pages 24 and 25 show soldiers from all three wars. This artistic comparison is perhaps too subtle; it feels as if the author has reused images, until one looks carefully at the headgear, the miniscule outlines of planes in the pastel skies, or the shape of the guns. A stronger distinction between periods and soldiers may have helped the narrative to feel more balanced, better structured.

The parallel is invoked again—less successfully—in the soldiers’ experiences. Where the great-grandfather had his arm blown off, our soldier ominously tells us: “I took my next step…” but then when we turn the page, nothing happens; there is no resolution to the comparison. “That step could have been my last,” we are told, but narratively speaking, every step on Afghani soil could have been the last. There is no explanation for why this step, in particular, mattered.

On the final page, we are shown the young female soldier as she stands proudly on Remembrance Day. This unexpected revelation really does cause readers to rethink their cultural expectations, and brings home that Canadian men and women are fighting and dying for peace. The message of this book is one that deserves to be told; but while the concept of the parallel structure is promising, its execution does not evoke an emotional response equal to that of the message.

Lower the Trap (2012), by Jessica Scott Kerrin

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 17.5


Lower the Trap

On the dust-jacket of Lower the Trap, we read that it is “the first book in the Lobster Chronicles, a trilogy about how life changes for three boys in a small coastal town when a giant lobster is caught in a trap.” What is most intriguing for the adult reader here is how the author will sustain interest in this seemingly small incident over three entire books, especially if—as is suggested earlier in the blurb—“the right thing would be to set the lobster free.” The description does not give the skeptical reader much hope, but this skeptical reader was surprised on every count.

Jessica Scott Kerrin has managed to take the smallest incidents of life in a Maritime village and give them an importance that young readers will not only understand, but identify with. Her child protagonists are carefully and artfully constructed. Their language, thoughts, and actions are simple and straightforward, both reflecting primary school children’s more simple modes of expression and allowing the young reader access to their thought and feelings through simple language. At the same time, the narration of the story includes sophisticated vocabulary that will ask young readers to stretch their knowledge: words such as “reverberation” (12), “behemoth” (21), “imperative” (62), “manically” (71), and “crustacean” (79). That she also includes local-knowledge vocabulary such as “mummichogs” (9) and “shoal” (75) adds to the depth of the setting, either as familiar or exotic, depending upon the reader.

The plot is equally simple and effective. There is the requisite conflict between the cannery owner who does not know or understand the community, or care to, and the fishermen who toil daily to survive. This conflict extends to the cannery owner’s son, Norris, and our protagonist, Graeme. When Graeme’s father traps the biggest lobster the town has seen in 50 years, the mystery of its history and its fate is tied up in a more straightforward mystery that Norris has tricked Graeme into helping him solve: who destroyed the teacher’s prize cactus. The two plots coalesce in the end, with Graeme learning a lesson in trust—of both his friends and his own instincts. More than this simple and necessary lesson, though, Graeme discovers that the despised Norris might share some of the integrity and community spirit that connects Graeme with his other friends. Even more than the ultimate fate of the lobster, this discovery provides ample scope for further stories of Graeme and his close-knit community.