Cybils Nominees Featuring Animals

Cybils 2016From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the Cybils nominees I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features four books in which a pet or an animal play a key role.

Pandas on the Eastside by Gabrielle Prednergast

Pandas on the EastsideWhen ten-year-old Journey Song hears that two pandas are being held in a warehouse in her neighbourhood, she worries that they may be hungry, cold and lonely. Horrified to learn that the pandas, originally destined for a zoo in Washington, might be shipped back to China because of a diplomatic spat between China and the United States, Journey rallies her friends and neighbours on the poverty-stricken Eastside. Her infectious enthusiasm for all things panda is hard to resist, and soon she’s getting assistance from every corner of her tight-knit neighbourhood.

Pandas on the Eastside is alternative historical fiction, something I hadn’t previously come across in middle-grade fiction. The author’s note at the back of the book states, “In 1972, the government of China gifted two giant pandas […] to the people of the United States[.]” Prendergast notes that although the relationship between China and America was strained that year, the gift of the pandas went “went off without incident.” Her story imagines an alternate narrative “in which the panda’s journey was not quite so smooth.” I found this book tackled two unique topics for middle-grade fiction: a child’s perspective of international diplomacy (conducted via pandas!) and neighbourhood life in an impoverished area of 1970s Vancouver. Journey learns how to engage in activism with the support of a varied cast of characters who live in her neighbourhood, including shop owner Mr. Huang, teacher Miss Bickerstaff, and homeless man Kentucky Jack. There are a lot of historical references in here, including hippie life, racial tension, and American war deserters.

Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Review @ CanLit for Little Canadians | Add to GoodReads

When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin

When Friendship Followed Me HomeBen Coffin has never felt like he fits in. A former foster kid, he keeps his head down at school to avoid bullies and spends his afternoons reading sci-fi books at the library. But that all changes when he finds a scruffy abandoned dog named Flip and befriends the librarian’s daughter, Halley. For the first time, Ben starts to feel like he belongs in his own life. Then, everything changes, and suddenly, Ben is more alone than ever. But with a little help from Halley’s magician father, Ben discovers his place in the world and learns to see his own magic through others’ eyes.

Sad happenings fill the beginning and ending of this book. Some of those happenings could have been removed, probably to the improvement of the narrative. Halley comes across as a toned-down manic pixie dream girl, or at least a kind of inspirational cancer patient cliche. But Ben has a good outlook on life, and a nice relationship with his dog. Ben trains Flip as a service dog who assists children in a reading program at the library. That was my favourite part of the story. I don’t think Halley’s story needed to conclude as it did. Overall, not as sad as you might expect from all that happens in the first few chapters.

Review @ Book Diva Nerd | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

Wish by Barbara O’Connor

WishEleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite. But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all.

I prefer this ‘dog book’ over the one above. Charlie’s had a rough time. She’smoving to the mountains to live with relatives because her father’s incarcerated and her mother’s not well enough to take care of Charlie. Every day she makes the same wish. Will it ever come true? Charlie eventually recognizes that good people surround her in her new home, including friend Howard, stray dog Wishbone, and caregivers Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus. I appreciated that Charlie had a rough temper and had to learn how to manage it.  I think the cover of this book captures the mood well – a soft and warm story about finding family.

Review @ My Shoestring Life | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby

The Nine Lives of Jacob TibbsCaptain Natick does not want to take a kitten on board his ship when it sets sail in 1847, but his daughter convinces him that the scrawny yellow cat will bring good luck. Onto the ship the kitten goes, and so begins the adventurous, cliff-hanging, lucky life of Jacob Tibbs. At first, Jacob’s entire world is the ship’s hold, where the sailors heave their heavy loads and despicable, long-tailed rats scurry in the darkness. But before long, Jacob’s voyage takes him above deck and onward to adventure. Along the way, Jacob will encounter loss and despair, brave thunderous storms at sea, face down a mutiny, survive on a desert island, and above all, navigate the tricky waters of shipboard life and loyalties.

One of my favourite books growing up was Ragweed by Avi. I also enjoy stories of ships and sailing adventures. Jacob Tibbs, therefore, suits my tastes just fine. It may appeal only to a particular type of reader – this is, after all, historical fiction narrated by cat. I have only read bout a third of the book so far. There have been sad moments and humorous moments. The tough life aboard the ship is not toned down. Tibbs, being the only cat on ship, is fairly isolated. We get glimpses into the lives of men from what Tibbs overhears. (The cat tells the story in first person.) I like the style, with its touch of formality that reflects the time. I would call this a classic adventure book, especially a solid read for those who loves cats! (And I see on Goodreads even some self-declared dog lovers enjoy the book…)

Review @ Surreal Talvi | Add to Goodreads

Do you have any favourite middle-grade stories that feature animals?

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Review: The Wizard’s Dog by Eric Kahn Gale

The Wizard's DogAuthor: Eric Kahn Gale
Title: The Wizard’s Dog
Format/Source: ebook/Publicist
Published: 17 January 2017
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Why I Read: Light-hearted fantasy – something I needed!
Rating: ★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | Amazon

I received a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review.

Meet Nosewise. He’s spunky. He’s curious. And he’s a dog who can’t understand why his pack mates Merlin and Morgana spend all day practicing magic tricks. If it’s a trick they want, he’s the dog to ask! He can already Sit!, Stay!, and Roll Over! But there’s no way Nosewise is Stay!ing when his master and best friend, Merlin, is kidnapped. There’s nothing Nosewise won’t do to get Merlin back, even if it means facing the strange Fae people and their magic-eating worms, or tangling with the mysterious Sword in the Stone. But it may take more than sniffing out a spell to do it! Nosewise’s hilarious escapades and steadfast loyalty get him and his companions through King Arthur’s Dark Ages.

Arthurian legend is one of those literary fields I have always assumed would interest me, but it is one I have yet to properly pursue. (The Once and Future King has been on my TBR for longer than Goodreads has existed. My best knowledge of King Arthur probably comes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail…). It’s taken a tale told from a dog’s perspective to ease me into the literary retellings! 😉 The Wizard’s Dog stars Nosewise, a dog Merlin rescued who has an exceptional nose (even for a dog). The story describes Nosewise’s adventure in rescuing Merlin and Morgana, with the help of young Arthur. No spoilers, but this isn’t the most traditional retelling of how Arthur pulled the Sword from the Stone!

Nosewise is definitely the star of this tale. He is an easy character to love, sounding just like you might imagine a loyal dog would. His unique perspective as a dog infuses humour (ex. when the magical Asteria allows him to speak, he’s excited that he’s learned a trick no dog has learned before because that will impress Merlin [20]) and difficulties (ex. he’s a dog; he can’t open doors!) into an Arthurian fantasy that’s likely never been told like this before.

Speaking more generally, I haven’t read a lot of (any?) stories that have an animal speaking regularly with humans in a world where animals don’t speak. That normally doesn’t work for me (I prefer all or nothing), but I think The Wizard’s Dog balances the human-animal interactions well. Nosewise doesn’t chat throughout the whole book – there is a chunk where he has lost the Asteria and is without his voice.

Black and white shaded illustrations appear throughout the book. I like their style – not too cartoony or simplified. Nosewise’s silly expression on the cover is as animated as the characters get. My favourite illustrations are the darker ones depicting castles, magic, or fae. The story wraps up neatly, though not without leaving room for further adventures of Nosewise, Arthur, and the gang.

The Bottom Line:

A light-hearted tale narrated in first person by a dog, I recommend The Wizard’s Dog to those who might enjoy an ‘animalistic’ twist on Arthurian legend.

Further Reading:

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Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 – WWII + Japanese Experiences

Multicultural Children's Book Day 2017Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017! A perfect day to kick of my series of Cybils nominee recommendations that will run for the next few weeks.  The goal of MCCBD is “to not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these books into classrooms and libraries”. Check out the Twitter chat at 9PM EST to discuss with the state of children’s book publishing (and maybe win an excellent MCCBD book bundle!). Use the hashtag #ReadYourWorld.

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Cybils 2016From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the books I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features three books that explore Japanese or Japanese-American experiences of World War II.

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Coveer of Paper Wishes

Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family’s life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It’s 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese American, which means that the government says they must leave their home by the sea and join other Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat, but she is caught and forced to abandon him. She is devastated but clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn’t until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can accept all that has happened to her family.

This is a short tale that would be a good introduction to the interment of Japanese-Americans. I liked the characters, and thought Manami’s withdraw demonstrated how difficult the experience was. A somewhat sad and quiet story, the story of the lost dog provides a way into Manami’s life to which children may relate.

Review @ The Children’s War | Add to  GoodReads

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just herThe Last Cherry Blossom and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

I visited Hiroshima a couple of years ago. Visiting the Peace Memorial Museum was one of the most sobering experiences I’ve had. This book compliments historical artifacts and information by focusing largely on what life was like for a young girl growing up in Japan during WWII. Told in first person, Burkinshaw’s writing is sensitive yet evocative. Burkinshaw’s mother’s experience surviving the Hiroshima bombing loosely inspired the story. Like Paper Lanterns, The Last Cherry Blossom would make an excellent introduction to the atomic bombing of Japan.

Review @ Randomly Reading | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

Click Here to Start by Denis Merkell

Click Here to Start coverTwelve-year-old Ted Gerson has spent most of his summer playing video games. So when his great-uncle dies and bequeaths him the all so-called treasure in his overstuffed junk shop of an apartment, Ted explores it like it’s another level to beat. And to his shock, he finds that eccentric Great-Uncle Ted actually has set the place up like a real-life escape-the-room game! Using his specially honed skills, Ted sets off to win the greatest game he’s ever played, with help from his friends Caleb and Isabel. Together they discover that Uncle Ted’s “treasure” might be exactly that—real gold and jewels found by a Japanese American unit that served in World War II. With each puzzle Ted and his friends solve, they get closer to unravelling the mystery—but someone dangerous is hot on their heels, and he’s not about to let them get away with the fortune.

This story differs from the other two in that the Japanese connection is not the main focus of the story. The main character is a Jewish-Japanese American whose now deceased great-uncle fought in World War II. The story has a lot of fun action-adventure components. It also deals with how second and third generation Americans navigate their cultural identities.

Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Goodreads

Be sure to check out some of the other posts in the Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 link-up.  What other books (picture books, MG, YA, anything) about Japanese experiences in WWII would you recommend?

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Two More Reading Challenges

I have found two more reading challenges to sign up for this year. Both compliment my 2017 reading goals.

2017 Diverse Reads Book Challenge

2017 Diverse Reads bannerHosted by Mishma @ Chasing Faerytales and Shelly @ Read, Sleep, Repeat, the purpose of this challenge is to “encourage the reading and support of diverse books and marginalized voices, and therefore this challenge hopes to help you read more diversely in 2017!” I remember seeing this challenge back in December, but I totally forgot about it when I wrote my looking forward post. Thankfully January hasn’t ended and there’s still time for me to complete this month’s mini-challenge. The monthly challenges are one of the reasons why I like this challenge in particular. I plan on reading a book for this challenge and reviewing it for Naz’s Read Diverse challenge. Here’s my reading list (subject to my reading mood whims. Throughout the year, I hope to find more new releases/lesser known books to read):

  1. JanuaryWhen the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin (based on/inspired by diverse folktales/culture/mythology)
  2. FebruaryShadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older (POC/biracial/multiracial MC – Latinx)
  3. MarchHandbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell (disability – club foot)
  4. April More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera (mental health – depression)
  5. MayAmina’s Voice by Hena Khan (religious diversity – Muslim)
  6. June and JulyWhen the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemoreIf I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, Nevada by Imogen Binnie (sexuality and gender identity – trans)
  7. AugustOne Half From the East by Nadia Hashimi (non-Western setting – Afghanistan)
  8. SeptemberSanaaq: An Inuit Novel by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk (Own voices – Inuit)
  9. OctoberA Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma-Nee Chacaby (Intersectionality – LGBT+ and Indigenous)
  10. NovemberThe Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember (Diverse retelling – lesbian Little Mermaid)
  11. December -TBD (2017 release)

Newbery Reading Challenge

Newbury Reading ChallengeI stumbled upon this challenge via Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf. Hosted by Julie @ Smiling Shelves, this is a points-based challenge, where points are awarded for each Newbery medal winner (3 pts), Newbery honour book (2 pts), and Caldecott book you read (1 pts). I’m aiming for the first level – L’Engle (15-29 points). I’m undertaking this challenge because I think it will help me with my goal of reading more classic children’s literature.

Between these two and Read Diverse, Canada 150, and Diversity Bingo, I think I’m all set for challenges! I suppose it’s about time I update my 2017 Challenges page… What reading challenges are you undertaking this year?
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Family Reads: Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Lawrence Hill’s Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On being black and white in Canada

Black Berry, Sweet Juice - Family ReadsWe had tried reading two novels about Ireland for this month’s Family Reads. Unfortunately, we found both novels to be incredibly dull. I asked Mom if there were any books by authors she liked that she hadn’t yet read. That’s how we ended up on Lawrence Hill’s author page. Mom has read and enjoyed The Book of Negroes, The Illegal and Blood. I knew virtually nothing about growing up biracial in Canada. Thus, we chose Black Berry, Sweet Juice for our January Family Read.

In BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE, Hill movingly reveals his struggle to understand his own personal and racial identity. Raised by human rights activist parents in a predominantly white Ontario suburb, he is imbued with lingering memories and offers a unique perspective. In a satirical yet serious tone, Hill describes the ambiguity involved in searching for his identity – an especially complex and difficult journey in a country that prefers to see him as neither black nor white.

Interspersed with slices of his personal experiences, fascinating family history and the experiences of thirty-six other Canadians of mixed race interviewed for this book, BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE also examines contemporary racial issues in Canadian society.

Our Discussion

Hill explores how one’s personal identity can differ from the external identity thrust upon them by those looking at them from the outside. Hill writes about how people are judged by their skin colour as to what their identity is. But that, of course, is a dangerous and often wrong assumption to make. A person’s internal understanding of their identity might not have anything to do with their skin colour.

Hill’s book was an eye opener for Mom and I. We are White in every direction I can see on the family tree. We’ve never had to think about the possible discord between our identities and our skin colours. We’ve never had to think, “Oh, I’m White, I need to make a concentrated effort to connect with the White community, learn about my cultural identity, etc”. We are just that way, we are just White and we don’t have to do anything in particular to confirm that. In contrast, Hill and the people he interviews have all had to give conscious consideration, in one way or another, to their racial/cultural identity.

Hill writes about a “brewing interest in my racial identity” (64). This quote stuck out to me, as I’ve never had to ‘brew an interest’ in my racial identity. Mom and I can’t fathom what it must be like to have to actively learn about racial identity, cultural history, etc. Mom pointed out that she has never considered herself ‘German-Canadian’ (her father came to Canada when he was 19 years old). She has never had to assert that aspect of her identity or consider it in the way that biracial Canadians do. She and I have never had to ‘choose’ to be White, i.e. choose to fit in with that community – that’s the White privilege we have.

The Question

Towards the end of the book, Hill presents an imaginary dialogue of the ‘race’ question, an infamously pervasive question in Canada (and similar countries, I imagine):

STRANGER: “Do you mind my asking where you are from?” [This is code for “What is your race?”]

ME: “Canada.” [This is code for “Screw off.”]

STRANGER: “Yes, but you know, where are you really from?” [This is code for “You know what I mean, so why are you trying to make me come out and say it?”]

ME: “I come from the foreign and distant metropolis of Newmarket. That’s Newmarket, Ontario. My place of birth. [Code for “I’m not letting you off the4 hook, buster.”]

STRANGER: “But your place of origin? Your parents? What are your parents?” [Code for “I want to know your race, but this is making me very uncomfortable because somehow I feel that I’m not supposed to ask that question.”]

Mom and I discussed how that question, “Where are you from?”, takes on a completely different tone depending on who it is presented to. If someone asks us (my White Mom or I) where are you from, we generally know they mean it literally. If they want to know our family background, they ask directly. It’s not a challenge; usually it’s just polite conversation. Rarely is that question asked of a person of colour for the sake of polite conversation. As Hill notes, it becomes a challenge to a person’s Canadian identity (177). Part of our White privilege is never having people challenge our Canadian identities.

Many Experiences

Hill’s stories about growing up biracial added another dimension to his exploration of race, as we had not considered the identity struggles a biracial child may experience. Mom told me about a friend with a biracial daughter. Mom had never considered that that child may have difficult time growing up because of the different racial identities of her parents.

We appreciated that Hill includes interviews with a number of other Black-White biracial Canadians. Sharing various points of views shows that everyone’s situation can be different. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the question of how to manage a biracial identity. Black Berry, Sweet Juice really hits home that a single voice cannot an entire community represent. Nearly all interviewees, however, understand they will almost always struggle with being defined against Whiteness. Because White people do not consider biracial people to be White, they cannot find acceptance in those communities like they may find acceptance in Black communities.

For many people with one black and one white parent, it appears to hurt more when we are rejected by the black community than when we are discriminated against in the wider community for being black (106).

“When white people look at you, they’re never going to see white. They’re always going to see black. Therefore you’re black.” (110)

Final Thoughts

Mom and I both learned a lot from this book. We highly recommend it, especially to White people who, like us, had never really considered how the experiences of biracial people may differ from those who are ‘all Black’ or ‘all White’.
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Read Diverse 2017
This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!