Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink (2020), by Karen Autio

I’m a bit late for the early launch of Karen Autio’s Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink at the Vancouver Aquarium (22 September 2020), but in time for you all to buy copies for Christmas for the young ecologically minded readers in your lives. Inside Vancouver also recommends it as representative of Vancouver and [my hopeful interpretation] our environmentally sensitive ethos. Why, you might ask? What makes this book special amongst all the animal stories out there? The answer is partially given in my review of Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter when it came out in 2015. Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink contains the same level of interest and delight, with an added message of concern for our environment.

Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink

Kah-Lan is growing up. He longs “to leave the raft of female sea otters and pups … to explore the coastal waters. But not alone” (1). He remembers the dangers away from the raft, but his yearning is stronger than his fear.

The oldest male in the raft, Kah-Lan is unsuccessful at convincing other males to go with him, and so he does set out, alone, to find a raft of males to join. The descriptions of the sea otter pups frolicking in the currents, the power of the ocean waves that toss them, the octopus shooting its “cloud of black ink” at them create a feeling of other-worldliness tempered by the simple, accessible language. There is security in these descriptions, and familiarity. When Kah-Lan strikes out on his own, though, readers feel his wariness, a maturity learned from his antics with Yamka in his first book. Rejected by the male raft he approaches, Kah-Lan sets out to find other male youth, hoping to establish a new raft for mutual protection. More than a shortage of food and deadly orcas, Kah-Lan is now aware of another potential threat, one he does not fully understand: “Those strange furless ones that walk on their hind legs” (7-8).

Throughout his journey, the descriptions of what he sees and thinks are presented in words that reduce our complex world to a fictional sea otter’s comprehension: sea trees and sea forests; “strands of fish-web”; the furless Elders and furless pups; the “big shiny creatures that pass by the raft” (19); and of course the “stink-ink,” with its “smell from the shiny creature but worse” (23). Autio creates and effective and interesting balance between Kah-Lan’s understanding and diction and what is really happening as the “furless Elders”—in fact marine rescue workers—perform actions readers will recognize but he does not. The marine rescuers’ words are presented in italics, allowing a cognitive switch between Kah-Lan’s perspective and the reader’s world. We can feel Kah-Lan’s trepidation, the fear and curiosity combined, as he is taken to be healed from his encounter with the “stink-ink.” Again, as in the first Kah-Lan book, the real dangers of life in the wild, and the hazards—both natural and of human creation—are not glossed over. Danger and death are a part of a sea otter’s life. This knowledge is reinforced in Kah-Lan and the Stink-Ink, and this time, the danger comes not from orcas but from a very real environmental threat. It is never to early to teach our children the dangers humans present to the ocean and all its inhabitants. It’s a damaged world we older generations have passed on to our children; the least we can do is help them understand the need to do better than we did. I would love to see Kah-Lan and the Stink-Ink not only on the shelves in elementary school libraries, but taught as part of the curriculum.

[Okay. That’s really not a comment I often make, and—interestingly—the book I most recently felt this strongly about was (wait for it) Karen Autio’s Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon, for a completely different reason. I stand by my recommendation in both cases.]

Perhaps the message has been getting through. Last week (8 December 2020), Amy Attas published an article in West Coast Traveller about the return of the sea otter to Haida Gwaii after 150 years. Let’s all keep at it, and maybe our oceans can be successfully restored.

A Hole in My Heart (2014), by Rie Charles

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 19.5.


Nora will never be happy again. Her mother has recently died, and her father has moved her to Vancouver to be closer to her older sisters, who are studying nursing at St. Paul’s Hospital. The year is 1960, and Rie Charles has nailed the historical moment. My mother graduated from Pen High in 1957, and from St. Paul’s nursing program in 1960. She taught me the “special tight corners and pulling the bottom sheet so hard your fingers almost fall off” (18) that St. Paul’s demanded of their students (my husband still teases me about them…). Like Nora, I was condemned to wear “saddle shoes,” and hated every minute of it, standing out from other students who had more graceful shoes or cooler runners. The foods Nora’s family eats, the clothes they wear, the names of classes at school, the level or responsibility 12-year-old Nora is given babysitting: these all bring back vivid memories. Adults will recognize the historical accuracy, but it is harder to convey the 1960s ethos to young readers today. Charles does a fairly good job, but occasionally over-explains things to the reader. For example, Nora’s cousin Lizzy – in Vancouver for open heart surgery – gushes to Nora when they wake up one morning: “I bet that’s Mum making her special applesauce to go with her usual at-home Sunday morning pancakes” (112). The girls have grown up together in Penticton, and are best friends as well as cousins: Nora would already know intimately her Aunt Mary’s special Sunday breakfast. Nora’s father tells her that he and Nora’s mother “both grew up just up the road from Penticton, in Summerland” (98), but anyone from the Okanagan (which Nora of course was) would know where Summerland is. Other things, too, like the complete elision of the Catholicism of St. Paul’s, or Nora checking the front step for milk in the evening rather than the morning, sit awkwardly with Charles’s poignant presentation of the internal struggles Nora goes through as her family grieves for their mother and worries about Lizzie’s upcoming surgery for Tetralogy of Fallot (“blue baby” syndrome), an experimental procedure at the time.

In the late 1950s, St. Paul’s was a significant player in the nascent field of pulmonary surgery research, one of the few non-university hospitals with a cardiac catheterization lab. As such, St. Paul’s was the site of a number of successful open-heart surgeries, the first performed in 1960 on a 12-year-old girl from Kelowna. It is not clear whether or not this historical moment was the impetus for Charles’s plot. Being able to link such an emotionally successful story with an actual historical incident would increase the power of the narrative, but there are almost certainly social or legal implications in telling the story of someone who is still living… Still, the parallels are real (for example, Lizzie is not the first such patient) and lend veracity to the overall narrative. Nora and Lizzie share a special bond, a friendship that helps them both to weather the uncertainty of Lizzie’s operation at a time when there was a real recognition that she could as easily die as live. This is the strength of A Hole in My Heart: the human players in this drama are honestly drawn and emotionally consistent. Despite the uneven historicity, the difficulties and ultimate success of Nora’s navigating her challenging, constantly changing adolescence make this novel well worth reading.

Transmigration (2012), by Nicholas Maes

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.


Whoa. What a ride! Nicholas Maes’s Transmigration is brilliant: a well-conceived fantasy with a unique premise and a gripping storyline. The novel begins with a talking bunny, but there is nothing cute or cuddly about the sinister alternative world history that Maes creates so carefully. It should perhaps have been a clue that a West Coast bunny talks with a Brooklyn accent, but I admit I found it only a bit out of place—until the plot progressed. In Maes’s history, a species of souls—bolkhs—coexists with humans as we have developed through the evolutionary process: a species that wants now to take back what was once theirs, destroying all human life. Young Simon Carpenter, of Vancouver, BC, is a tool they need for their war against humanity. When he learns this, his comfortable world is shaken to its foundations, and he must flee for his own safety and that of his family. The complicated relationships between players—different types of souls and their various connections with physical bodies—are adeptly explained to the reader through Simon’s own learning experience. I almost needed to create a rubric, but Maes brings in the terms just often enough to help the reader learn his nomenclature and the associated characteristics of his world.
The talking bunny seems an unlikely scenario for the introduction of a YA mystery-fantasy, but the bunny’s very cuteness is the first tool used against Simon by the bolkhs in their battle for supremacy. The bolkhs inhabit animals, as well as some humans, and their plan would have all bolkhs incarnate and powerful, at the expense of humankind. What ensues is a series of flights and confrontations that takes the protagonists from Vancouver to Europe—both of which the author obviously knows well—where Simon confronts the leader of the bolkhs, Tarhlo, who almost convinces him of the righteousness of the bolkh cause. Tarhlo’s logical argument is based on empirical scientific knowledge: the bolkhs argue that their ascendancy now is a natural part of the evolutionary process, as right and understandable as the Cro-Magnons prevailing over the Neanderthals. So well-crafted is Maes’s story that we are honestly not sure what Simon’s choice will be.
Ultimately, Simon travels to New York and a final confrontation, after which we are left with the protagonists safe for the moment, but still threatened: the final sentence assures us that “[w]hile the first confrontation with the bolkhs was over, the war was only getting started” (244). This is the one flaw in this otherwise spectacular piece of YA fiction: the end does not present any closure; it demands—rather than merely anticipating—a sequel. Please, authors: write novels that stand alone as narrative entities; refrain from publishing what amounts to the first installment of an indeterminately long narrative cycle. It is not fair to readers to create a book-length cliffhanger: leave such commercial tactics to the pulp serials. The degree of disappointment in the inconclusive ending is proportional to the level of engagement Transmigrations elicits: if it were a less engrossing story, we wouldn’t care so much that the ending disappoints.

Wishing Star Summer (2001), by Beryl Young

A simple text telling of the visit of a young Belarus girl suffering from the unhealthy atmosphere of the post-Chernobyl landscape.  Tanya comes to Vancouver on a relief program to stay with Jillian Nelson and her family, but despite wanting to have a friend badly, Jillian finds it difficult to be a friend. The story is written with a young beginning reader in mind (ages 6-8?)—or rather, the narrative voice is simplistic enough that older readers will find it too young.  The highlight of the story is not in the plot, but in Beryl Young’s insightful portrayal of the tensions between the protagonist and her Belarus guest: I don’t think I have ever read a text which manages to portray the protagonist so successfully as a jealous, spoilt, 11-year-old and yet retain my interest and affection for the girl.  The characterization of the other members of the cast is equally powerful, and raise an otherwise banal and predictable story to one worth reading and sharing.