What We’re Reading: Kids’ Edition

From Beth-Anne

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Recipe for Adventure Hong Kong by Giada De Laurentiis

Continuing along with this series, my eldest chose this book for his Cereal Box Book Report. The story followed the same pattern of siblings, Alfie and Emilia, being magically transported to another country to learn about its food and culture. I am amazed by how much my son does learn about other cultures from these books, and it’s mostly from the conversations that occur after he’s closed the cover. To honour our ritual we will be dining in an authentic Chinese restaurant. After reading Naples, we indulged with pizza at Libretto, Mother’s Day was extra special by enjoying a fancy schmancy Parisian dinner here and I still owe him a New Orleans dining experience. Any Torontonians, I welcome your suggestions for both New Orleans and Chinese!

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Leroy Ninker Saddles Up by Kate Di Camillo

My middle son thoroughly enjoyed the entire Mercy Watson series and is delighted that the adventures continue with Leroy Ninker’s charming spin-off. Di Camillo is a favourite author in these parts, and judging by the snickers that I hear coming from his room and how excitedly he retells the chapters to me, she doesn’t disappoint with this book either!

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Knuffle Bunny Trilogy by Mo Willems

My youngest has fallen for Knuffle Bunny just as his older brothers before him. Can I just say, I love these books? My youngest has a strong attachment to his “Georgy” and this trilogy from Mo Willems serves as the perfect books to engage his critical thinking. I like to ask him questions that encourage him to make connections to the text (the classic: relate and reflect) and to infer what’s going to happen next.   But put all of that learning aside, these books are just so much fun! The illustrations using a combination of photography and drawing could be great inspiration for a summer writing project for older kids. Now that I think of it . . .

From Nathalie

Like Beth-Anne, we love all of Mo Willems’s books in this house, especially the learn-to-read Elephant and Piggie books.

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I am of the opinion that Mo Willems should rule the world, but children’s author world dominion dreams aside, I am all about imaginary wish fulfillment.

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Enter The Candy Conspiracy by Carrie Snyder, who has been our guest on the blog and whose books for adults we have loved.  Carrie has invented a world made of candy, with lollipop trees and a cupcake castle.  So far, so sweet, but the Juicy Jelly Worm who resides in the castle does not like to share, and all the kids in Candyville can only stand and watch while their monarch gobbles all the goodies himself.  Candy-craving kids get clever (and alliteration gets contagious, apparently!), and candy-flavoured democracy will have its day.

For middle grade readers, Middlest and his friends are loving the Big Nate books by Lincoln Pierce.  Told in comic strip style, they feature hapless and endearing Nate, who finds himself in trouble again and again.  And the boys have read and reread these books again and again.  One added bonus of my son and his best friend reading these books is that they’ve also gone back to the classic Calvin and Hobbes, which does a mother’s heart good to see.

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Finally, for young adults, I recently read Mad Miss Mimic by Sarah Henstra.

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The protagonist of this novel is Leonora Summerville, a bright spark, a beauty, an heiress and a thorn in her older sister’s side because Leo may prove difficult to marry off.  A speech disorder causes her to stutter, but it also allows her to imitate other people’s voices with eerie precision, earning her the moniker Mad Miss Mimic.  Set in 19th century London, where opium fever is raging, the book is full of period detail.  Medical and political intrigue abound, as her brother-in-law’s medical use of opium and her suitor’s political ambitions come under threat from the bombing campaign of the mysterious Black Glove Gang, who oppose the government’s proposed ban on the importation of opium.  Add two handsome and charismatic young men who vie for Leo’s attention and affection, and you have the ingredients for a ripping good yarn.  I read it in a single sitting.  Sarah and I were in graduate school at the University of Toronto together, and she is now a professor of English literature at Ryerson University.  Mad Miss Mimic is her first novel, and what an outing it is!

From Carol

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In The King’s Equal by Katherine Paterson, Prince Raphael will inherit the kingdom from his dying father provided he can find a woman equal to him in beauty, intelligence and wealth.  This proves rather tricky, since Raphael is an arrogant and conceited fellow.  The story of how Rosamund overcomes Raphael’s vanity and prejudices is at once magical, clever and lyrical.  Nathalie will be horrified, but I didn’t register the author of the book before reading it, although the writing soon prompted me to check.  Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia, had my boys were riveted. We read so many books, and I love the exposures to so many adventures, but I recognized immediately the quality of writing in this book, and my children’s response to it revealed that they did too.

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Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham also made an impression on my boys. When Tashi’s mother becomes too sick to pick tea leaves in the Himalayan mountains with the other workers, Tashi tries to go in her place. Too small for the task, and frightened for her mother’s health, she finds aid from unlikely friends, who gather for her the rarest of teas in the world. The plight of the working poor, heightened by the nasty Overseer, is depicted effectively enough that it’s unsettling that only Tashi and her mother’s dependence on the work of picking tea are alleviated at the story’s end. Beautifully illustrated by Juan Wijngaard.
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One of the things I deeply envy about my husband is a large cardboard box in the basement which holds the best reads from his childhood. He wanders down there when he’s looking for a new novel for the kids, and emerged one night with Witches by Roald Dahl.  Shortly after he read it to my boys, my eldest (who just turned 9) asked me to read it again.
A young boy (the nameless narrator) and his grandmother (his parents die early on) first try to avoid and then are forced into the world of “real witches”, who are cleverly disguised as ordinary women.  After personally and irreversibly experiencing what the witches are planning to unleash on children in England, the narrator must try to stop them.
It was such a fun read, with perfect illustrations by Quentin Blake, and is poignant without sentimentality. I loved the matter-of-fact mutual adoration and interdependence of the narrator and his grandmother. The adventure and fantasy are wonderful, but the understated love between this unlikely pair resonates at least as much.

If you buy any of these books from Indigo, we will get a teeny tiny percentage of the sale.  If you buy any of these or other kids and teen books in-store between June 5-7, you will get 10 times the plum points.

Carrie Snyder’s Word for 2014

I’ve been choosing a word-of-the-year for nearly a decade, a tradition I’ve shared with a friend who initiated it; several years ago we invited another friend into our circle. I look forward to our annual meeting—in front of a wood stove on a dark winter’s night—like I’m preparing to unwrap an exciting gift. We meet to reflect on how we used (or didn’t) our chosen word from the previous year, and then we reveal our new words, along with the hopes and baggage and dreams and fears and intentions going forward.

My word of the year for 2014 was “success.”

As always, I tested out several different words in the weeks leading up to our meeting, believed I’d landed on one, and at the eleventh hour switched to another. This is a consistent pattern for me. We’ve observed over the years that words can carry with them their opposites, their shadow sides, and I approach my choice with a certain amount of caution as well as excitement. Last January, I decided to go into what frightened me, and dig deep.

Just a few months earlier, I’d sold my third book, and first novel, Girl Runner, to a number of publishers around the world. This was the culmination of twenty years of discipline, work, and outsized dreaming, and to be perfectly honest, I was terrified of what would come next. I couldn’t begin to see it. The word “success” seemed to encapsulate my fears: success carried with it a weight of expectation, and the potential for failure on a previously unsuspected scale. It sounds perhaps silly and ungrateful to fear success, but I was acutely attuned to all that could go wrong. I did not want to disappoint anyone, most especially myself.

What did it mean to succeed? Why did the thought of success fill me with dread and fear, anxiety, even shame?

I spent the year unpacking this, as I’d hoped. In fact, this year was the first that I extended the word-of the-year project to include regular written meditations. Over the course of twelve months my thoughts on success changed in ways both subtle and radical.

At first, I focused on identifying the positive aspects of success—the notion that an achievement is a starting point, not an end, and that success offers a platform to look beyond and tackle even greater obstacles. I thought of Nelson Mandela, who wrote, “But I have discovered the secret, that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb,” which helped me cope with the paralyzing anxiety—that I might have nothing more to say, having achieved what I’d set out to achieve all those years ago. No. What looks like success might, in retrospect, prove to have been simply a catalyst for possibilities as yet unguessed-at, which can only be explored using all of the tools that brought you to this moment. In other words, go bravely into the darkness.

When my book was published in Canada this past fall, success took on a harsher shade, a glare. I was fortunate to receive good media attention and good reviews, and to be invited to festivals and events to share my work. But with the attention crept the doubt. Was I deserving? Did I have anything interesting to say? Had I written the book I’d hoped to write? The more comfortable I became with being on stage, the less comfortable I became with being alone. I liked the light. Was this dreadful of me, was I becoming a spotlight-hogging narcissist? Was I losing myself? Was my self so superficial that it could get lost this easily?

Well. No. (Although perhaps temporarily, yes.)

When prize season rolled around and my book was a finalist for a major literary award (but not for the glittering-est and most coveted), and when it did not win, I underwent some very unpleasant, even ugly, internal emotional battles. Did my notion of success hinge entirely on external acknowledgement? I countered the ugliness by practicing gratitude and savouring the pleasures that came with being nominated. I tried to be mindful and careful to name the pleasures, even if only to myself, so that I would not get caught up in envy or greed or self-loathing.

I knew that my idea of success—the success that I wanted to embrace—was not about envy or greed or self-loathing (which may seem an odd addition to the list of ugly internal emotions, but there it lurked).

Over the course of this year, I’ve learned what I probably knew all along, but needed to know even more deeply, needed to live inside: that success is not only about work. I do love my work. And that is a great fortune. But I consider myself successful when I share my life with people whom I love, and when I respond to needs and responsibilities with care and love—within myself, within my family, within my community, and within the larger world.

It isn’t about what’s visible, necessarily; success doesn’t always get acknowledged. Success, ultimately, is extremely personal.

Here’s what I’ve learned this year: It doesn’t matter if the world tells you that you’re successful if you don’t believe it yourself. And, likewise, it doesn’t matter if the world doesn’t notice your success if you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished. Success is progressive, cumulative, built on deep layers; it doesn’t anoint you in an instant. It isn’t a place. It isn’t a thing. It isn’t definitive.

Finally, while it’s good to remind myself that acknowledgement is not the same as success, it’s also good to remind myself to express gratitude and thanks for acknowledgement when it comes—that is something I need to work on, a lot. I need to work on accepting acknowledgement with grace, gratitude, and, um, acceptance (to repeat myself). Know what I mean? What I noticed this year is that I doubt acknowledgement—I disbelieve the sincerity and assume people are just being nice—because I see every flaw in my work and efforts, and I don’t love my flaws very much, at all. (Hm… new word for next year, buried somewhere in there?)

As the year comes to a close, I think I could easily spend the rest of my life exploring the idea of success, which is the way it feels at the end of a year when a word choice has really struck home.

But onward, friends, to a new year and with it a different word, with a different flavour to spice our intentions and reflections.

Walk into the fear! Go deep! Unwrap with excitement.

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Carrie-Snyder-e1412714186377Carrie Snyder is mother of four, writer, dreamer, planner, mid-life runner, teacher, photographer, blogger. She is the author of three books of fiction, most recently Girl Runner, published this fall in Canada and coming this winter to the US, the UK & Australia. She looks for the light and embraces transitional moments: winter solstice is one of her favourite days of the year.

 

Grateful for Canadian Women Writers

We are transitioning this week from our September theme of the return to school, to gratitude, our theme for the month of Thanksgiving.

After running around like a madwoman all September, I am ready to sit down and create some space for myself and to reflect on what has kept me sane for the past month.  What keeps me sane is my bulging bookshelf of books to be read.  More than sane.  It delights me.  What I am most grateful for in this month of Thanksgiving is the incredible talent of the Canadian women whose work has made my down time such a joy.

In spite of the insanity of the blur that was September, I still managed to read a lovely pile of books.  I recommend one and all and hope that you, too, will find something to love and to be grateful for.


imgres-2Girl Runner

Carrie Snyder

Toronto: Anansi, 2014.

I have reviewed Carrie’s work here before.  Her Juliet Stories are a favourite of mine, and I could not wait to read her latest.  Girl Runner is everything I had hoped it would be.  It is crisp and smart and lyrical.  It is a page-turner.  Last, but not least, there is a gorgeous illustrated map at the beginning of the book.  It reminded me of Ernest Shepard’s map of the Hundred Acre Wood.  It has beautiful little houses, neat rows of crops and trees, and a lighthouse in the middle of farmland; a mystery in the middle of a rural landscape.  It is preparation for the mystery at the heart of the story of the novel’s protagonist, 104-year-old Aganetha Smart.  Olympic runner.  Nursing home inmate.

The book begins on the day that Aganetha is sprung from her nursing home by two strangers claiming to know her.  The novel then progresses with flashbacks of Aggie’s life as they take her home to the farm where she grew up.  Aggie’s girlhood on the farm, her working life in the city, her training as a competitive runner and her winning Olympic gold for Canada in the 1928 Olympics, her friendships, work and ambition.

What I most loved about the book is the description of Aganetha’s ambition.  I don’t think there are enough stories about female ambition.  Snyder describes ambition not as something hard or calculating, but as if it is something organic, born and not made by the goal-setting cheers of the chorus of life coaches that seem so loud in the 21st century.

Aganetha reflects that

Somehow it never went out of me–the desire to compete, to line up against others, win or lose, part of a rhythm larger than myself.  One turning wheel in a crowd of effort.

That image of gears could stand equally well as a metaphor for how the book is constructed, with successive gears setting each other in motion, and when you arrive, breathless, at the end, the final gear clicks into place and the whole story makes a different and piercing kind of sense.

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Caroline Adderson

Toronto: Harper Collins, 2014.

When Caroline Adderson set out to write this book, she did so with a particular goal in mind: to write a book that walked and talked like a novel but that could be taken apart into standalone stories.  Ellen in Pieces.  Ellen.  In Pieces.  She knocked it out of the park.

The cover art is especially apt because not only can the novel’s structure withstand being fractured, the book looks at the fragments of a woman’s life and at how romance, motherhood, friendship and a sense of self can all survive being shattered.  And it has to be said, there is shattering.  There is also humour, sex, and some damn fine writing about the frustrations and difficulties of being a single mother:

She met the American novelist in the restaurant of the Hyatt to review his schedule.  Interviews, bookstore signings, then the grand finale, the Reading.  He asked straight out, “Did you love my book?”

“I did,” Ellen said.  She’d only read the beginning and the end and some of the middle bits.  “It’s brilliant.”  It was middling, actually, but you don’t feed two children on honesty.

Ellen is not an entirely likeable character.  This also has to be said.  But I really enjoyed seeing how Adderson made her character succeed in spite of her faults.  She is feisty and often selfish, but she is loved, and her friends are loyal, and I found it a marvel to watch how they rally around her.

imgres-2Interference

Michelle Berry

Toronto: ECW Press, 2014.

Interference, another novel in stories, takes its title from the rules of hockey: a penalty is called if an opponent impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal, obscures too aggressively his line of sight.  Sight, obscured and predatory and sinister, is what this book is all about.  How do we see?  How are we seen?  Who is watching?  The book is a collection of short stories about the inhabitants of a small Canadian town: the members of the Senior Ladies Leisure Hockey League, local teens, a mysterious man with a disfiguring scar.  The stories are interspersed with written ephemera: letters to parents from the school principal,  a list of myths about cancer, emails and legal Cease and Desist letters.  Sometimes, though, these bits of information raise more questions than they answer.  I absolutely loved how the book kicks off with a letter from the principal:

Dear Parents and Guardians,

This morning we became aware of an incident that occurred at another school this week.  We are forwarding this information to you, because we know you need to be aware of what is going on and we need to have an open dialogue between staff and parents.  We have found that if we don’t have this kind of discussion some of our parents get very upset.  Last year’s incident with the ice cream and the hermit crabs was just such an example of this.

In effect, “Parents, we are watching you.  We don’t like how you gossip.  This is the one true version of events.  Everything is under control.”  The letter goes on to describe an incident of a possible attempted abduction, and the threat of a pedophile lurking around haunts the rest of the book.  Everything is decidedly not under control, and disquiet hovers.  But, damn, all I wanted to know on page 1 was what happened with the ice cream and the hermit crabs!

imgres-3All the Broken Things

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

Toronto: Random House, 2014.

All the broken things includes my heart.  This novel tells the story of Bo, a refugee from Vietnam, his mother Rose, and his sister, who is severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange.  It tells the story of Teacher, who tries desperately to do the right thing for Bo and his family, having sponsored them through her church, but failing utterly to understand how hard it is for Bo to accept her goodwill because he feels proud and alien and 14, for Pete’s sake.  It is about Emily, Bo’s schoolmate and neighbour, who has an otherworldly wisdom and an ability to connect with his hidden sister.  It is about getting swept up in putting on a school play, the story of Orpheus, and it is, improbably and perfectly reasonably, about a Vietnamese boy finding a home in Canada by performing in the theater of the circus: bear wrestling.  He is given his own cub to raise, and like the great writhing mass of his emotions, he has to keep her hidden from sight.

The story broke my heart because Bo has too much responsibility and wrestles with too much loss for one so young.  He is swept up in so much turmoil, and while the pathos is never gratuitous, I found it so very moving to read about a boy still so adrift after making landfall in Canada.  When Teacher invites Rose to help make the costumes for the play, Bo chafes at seeing his mother at school:

He wasn’t embarrassed.  He was ashamed.  And he wasn’t ashamed of Rose.  It was something deeper.  It was the shame Teacher conveyed, by trying to fix things.  He wanted to shout that these things were just broken.  He wanted her to understand about the pride of broken things.

That Bo is simultaneously so wise and so lost is the story’s best and, yes, most heartbreaking, tension.

Please share the book love!  Tell us what you’re reading and what we should read, too.

The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder

The Juliet StoriesThe Juliet Stories

Carrie Snyder

Toronto: Anansi, 2012.

Carrie Snyder, aka Obscure Canlit Mama, has a new collection of stories out this month, and it is glorious.  I know Carrie.  We met at the University of Toronto, in a graduate English class on Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant.  There is a part of me that, for this moment, wishes that I did not know Carrie because it would make it easier to gush and to tell you that these stories remind me so vividly of the excellence to be found in Munro’s and Gallant’s stories of young girls and women and to have you believe me.  I can have no claim to objectivity, but I can tell you that this collection is one my favourite reads of the past year.

The Juliet Stories are divided into two halves, the first half set in Nicaragua and the second in Canada.  The stories set in 1980s Nicaragua span the years when Juliet is 10 and 11.  She moves from America to Nicaragua where her parents work as peace activists protesting the American involvement in the war, and the pacing and narration of these stories is pitch-perfect.  Snyder captures perfectly the disequilibrium of the third culture kid, children who are raised in a culture other than their parents’ home culture.  Perhaps because I, too, was a third culture kid, I feel particularly drawn to this half of the book, and I was immediately engrossed by Juliet’s experience of learning how to cope in a new country.  Juliet’s mother, Gloria, is heart-breakingly overwhelmed and feckless, and Juliet seems stranded not only in a new country but unmoored even within her own family:

At home in Indiana, Gloria was just her mother, warming homemade soup on the stove as Juliet and her best friend, Laci, burst through the front door for lunch, or standing framed in the front window watching Juliet climb to the top of the school’s monkey bars and walk across, the only girl in grade three who dared.  But here, in this strange city, Juliet glimpses the stranger Gloria could become, giddy in her jubilation, separate and apart from her children: hardly a mother at all.  A novel sensation grips Juliet’s gut–shame.  She is angry at herself for feeling this way, but mostly at her mother, for making her feel this way. (7)

Isn’t that so much like Alice Munro’s girls becoming women?  Painfully aware of a shame that has suddenly and unaccountably found a place in her psyche.  And like Gallant’s Linnet Muir, this girl will be ruthless in how she uses the material of her life for her writing.  When Juliet discovers Renate, their ungracious and unwilling host for their first weeks in Nicaragua, kicking their belongings across the floor in disgust, Renate calls her a rat, even though Juliet has no intention of telling her mother what she saw.

But Renate is right. 

Juliet is a little rat. 

Just for now, she’s a packrat, adding to her piles, her secret stash; but one day, someday, she will be that other kind of rat, she will tell, in her own way, wearing the sheerest of disguises, quite remorseless.  And none of it will be true; and all of it will be.  And even that is not true, because there is nothing absolute about telling: there are only fragments, shards, the rare object retained whole, ciphers removed from original context, hoarded by shifty, impecunious memory. 

The stories are full of passages like this one: marvelously clear moments of understanding that build out of the chaos of experience.  Even in the second half of the book, where the stories have somewhat less coherence because they span a much larger stretch of time, Snyder hits the big landmarks–death, divorce, pregnancy, marriage–in crisp snapshots.  The joy of reading a collection of linked stories is that those moments of understanding come frequently, and each story, while it builds on what has come before, gives the reader a satisfyingly rounded experience of a finishing a story well-crafted and well-told. 

I could not put the book down, read it almost in a single sitting, and immediately went back to the beginning again to re-read the passages I had marked.  I cannot recommend it highly enough and wish Carrie and her book all possible success.