Smile is perfect for young readers experiencing their own dental dramas

Smile
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
★★★★☆
Genre: Graphic Novel
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication Date: 
Review Source: Borrowed copy

I wish there were more fun stories like Smile out there. I went through my own dental dramas in my pre-teen years that lasted through to my sophomore year so Raina’s story really resonated with me. Losing teeth and watching the shape of your face change leaves people–not just kids and teens–with a lot of insecurity. Sharing these stories can really help remind some of these people in extreme situations that they aren’t as alone as they might feel.

I’d recommend Smile to children ages 8-12, especially those of whom are beginning to go to orthodontists themselves, or those who really enjoy comics and graphic novels, or those who aren’t keen readers. The dialogue is very beginner-friendly, and anyone who knows someone with braces will be able to enjoy the humour that Telgemeier spins from these sometimes painful and awkward years.

Only one more week before My Beautiful Birds releases in Canada!

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My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo
★★★★★
Genre: Picture Book
Publisher: Pajama Press
Publication Date: March 1, 2017 (CAN) / March 8, 2017 (US)
Review Source: Review copy

My Beautiful Birds is both sad and touching, compelling and infuriating, heart-wrenching and hopeful. It is the story of a young, Syrian boy named Sami. He and his family flee their war-torn home in search of a place of refuge and Sami experiences a great deal of distress. However, Sami’s distress is not directly associated with fear for his own life, or sadness of leaving his home—he suffers not knowing if his pet birds, who got left behind, are OK. Sami and his family find a refugee camp and are lucky enough to find shelter, build a garden, have neighbours to socialize and play with; but Sami’s distress impedes his daily life. One day, three birds settle in the refugee camp and Sami finds comfort in these new friends and his healing process begins.

I highly, highly recommend this book. The whole idea for the story began when Suzanne Del Rizzo herself set out to research the Syrian refugee crisis so she could explain and discuss the news with her own children. There is no political overtone or explanation in this book, but the setting and the illustrations nod toward the realities Syrian people are subjected to, making it appropriate for the youngest of readers, but also relevant and engaging for an older audience.

This is a debut in storytelling for Del Rizzo, as well as delving into a new medium (polymer clay) for her illustrations. The development in her artistic skill is amazing: the detail in the feathers and wings of the birds is something I could just stare at while petting the page because I expect it to feel as soft as the feathers look.

This book belongs in every library and classroom (grades 1-6 especially) and on the family bookshelf, too. I cherish my advance copy and I can’t wait to share it with friends and family. I’m so proud to see books like this being published.

The Elephant Man is a classic I’m thankful my Dad passed on to me

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The Elephant Man by Christine Sparks
★★★★
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: March 31, 2016
Review Source: Purchased copy

The Elephant Man is a well-written and touching story based on the life of John Merrick. With some brief research it appears as though Sparks was well researched and included many major events of Merrick’s life surrounding the time he was in the care of Frederick Treves and the London Hospital. Some details (like his knowledge of his mother) may have been fictionalized, but ultimately I enjoyed the book enough to research more and I consider it to be successful for that reason.

This story takes into consideration the society and social treatment Merrick was subjected to as an “incurable” suffering from a condition that was unknown to doctors at the time–and even to this day research is inconclusive as to what syndrome he had. The reader is introduced to many characters who treat Merrick like an animal, but there are those who show compassion. Albeit, those who treat Merrick with even a glimmer of decency are few and far between, so on many occasions events were incredibly heart-wrenching. Sparks’ fictionalization, however, likes to emphasize the compassion exuded to Merrick, and so the scum are there to highlight the importance of the few caring individuals.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. The read is not too dense or over-loaded with symbols and tropes making it a quick read, but the content is not always necessarily nice or enjoyable to imagine and so the book is one I did take my time to digest. My dad gave me this book to read in my teens, and although I may not have appreciated it as much at 16 I wish I hadn’t taken eight years to get around to it!

The Hill by Karen Bass Review: Go Get Your Copy NOW

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The Hill by Karen Bass
★★★★★
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 256
Publisher: Pajama Press
Publication Date: March 31, 2016
Review Source: Pajama Press Review Copy

Wow! I wanted to read The Hill because of all the hype, but it managed to still exceed my expectations.

Karen Bass has delivered a well-researched and masterfully-crafted story of a rich city boy named Jared who survives a plane crash in the middle of nowhere. He wakes up to find a Cree boy named Kyle who is trying to help make sure he and the pilot are alive after the crash. In a fit of panic and desperation, Jared thinks leaving the crash site to climb a nearby hill to find cell phone reception is the best course of action. Jared fails to heed Kyle’s warnings about the hill, and since Kyle doesn’t want to feel responsible for Jared’s death, he follows him up against his better instinct. Not only does the hill not provide Jared with any reception, it leads them to a monster and a world neither of them are prepared to deal with alone. Only by working as a team and trusting each other do Jared and Kyle stand a chance at saving themselves, and even protecting their loved ones.

I have too many great things to say about this book. I loved the characters; I loved the humour and laughed out loud numerous times, in public places; I enjoyed the plot; I was gripped by the suspense; I was intrigued by Bass’ use of language and several of her metaphors and analogies; and I felt satisfied by the ending: it wasn’t rushed, and it tied together any loose ends. Most importantly, it makes me so happy to see more Canadian literature being published about Indigenity. I haven’t read a ton of Indigenous lit. but I feel as thought Bass was very respectful of her treatment of the trickster figure, Wesakechak, and of Wîhtiko. Not once did The Hill jarr me from my understanding of the Native oral tradition, creation stories, or trickster stories. I am completely open to discussion on this point, however, as I have no Native heritage myself and therefore have lots to learn.

There is quite literally only one piece of criticism I have for this story, and that is that I noticed a particular phrase used twice. However, many people might not even notice that if they weren’t reading this book as fast as I was, because there were several chapters between each use.

I think The Hill would make a great book for elementary- and secondary-school students learning about Canada’s history or Indigenous cultures. One of the things I loved most was the narrative voice and Bass’ use of language. I didn’t feel as though the plot, the jokes, or any references to Cree tradition or language were being spoon-fed to the reader. There was plenty of nuance and subtlety that made this–although quick and relatively easy read–a thoughtful and important read. This very well be a YA novel, but even those who don’t tend to read it would enjoy The Hill.

Two thumbs up. Five stars. Highly Recommended… all that jazz!

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Adrift at Sea is an important contribution to Vietnamese-Canadian history

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Adrift at Sea by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illustrated by Brian Deines
★★★★★
Genre: Picture Books
Pages: 40
Publisher: Pajama Press
Publication Date: September 22, 2016
Review Source: Pajama Press Review Copy

Adrift at Sea is Tuan Ho’s story of how he fled Vietnam with his mother and sister when he was only 6 years old. They’re boat, with 60 people crammed aboard, sprung a leak and was adrift in the Indian Ocean for days before an American Aircraft Carrier crossed their path and saved Tuan and his family.

This picture book is one of a kind. First of all, it is absolutely stunning. Brian Deines’ illustrations are simply mesmerizing, and I know I will catch myself flipping through this book just to admire his work. Marsha Skrypuch teamed up with Tuan Ho to tell his story of escape and survival over 35 years after Tuan has comfortably started a life in Canada. There are many stories like Tuan’s–perhaps not nearly so many with such a happy ending as Tuan’s family was fortunate enough to have–but unfortunately a dismal number of them have been shared in a book made for children. The historical notes at the end of the book that provide photos of Tuan and his family, photos of Vietnam, maps, and notes on the Vietnam War offer extra context for parents to help answer young children’s questions about why Tuan had to leave his home. Adrift at Sea will be an excellent companion to help spark a discussion about the various difficulties refugees face and experience in the wake of the current refugee crisis.

Sky Pig is inventive, playful and visually mesmerizing.

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Sky Pig by Jan L. Coates, illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo
★★★★☆
Genre: Picture Books
Pages: 32
Publisher: Pajama Press
Publication Date: September 15, 2016
Review Source: Pajama Press Review Copy

I thought Sky Pig was an exceptional picture book. It shattered my expectations, it mesmerized me with it’s artwork, and the relationship between Ollie and Jack reminded me of that between Pooh and Christopher Robin.

Ollie the Pig wants to fly. Like any pet owner, Jack understands Ollie even without a shared language between them. Jack helps Ollie to create wings from branches, and just when Ollie thinks he’s flying he comes crashing down to the ground. Together they invent several flying devices, and every time they try something new they learn from their past mistakes and employ more modern technology into their attempts. Will one of those attempts help Ollie achieve his dream of flying?

Coates’ writing is clear and fun. Whether or not she intended to draw inspiration from Winnie the Pooh, she has managed to create a story about a boy and his best, non-human friend that is original and current.

The artwork by Suzanne Del Rizzo is absolutely brilliant. This book is colourful, fun, detailed, and textured. Sky Pig can be read over and over again, and each time a new detail will catch your eye as you flip through, keeping the experience fresh and exciting.

This picture book is suitable for many children. Toddlers will love the expressive faces of the clay characters, the bright colours, and the sillyness of the messes Ollie gets into. And children old enough to know the expression “when pigs fly” will also enjoy this book because the plot brings the expression to life and they may be familiar with some of the technology that Jack and Ollie use to try flying. I highly recommend it. 4 stars.

The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee Review

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The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee
★★★☆☆
Genre: Drama/Mystery
Pages: 262
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Review Source: ECW Press ARC

Jen Sookfong Lee’s most recent publication, The Conjoined, is a great read that delivers suspense, emotion, and even humour in an otherwise dark and mysterious setting. Every day this book was on my mind and I couldn’t wait for my commute or the end of the day to sit down and delve further into the story.

After stumbling on two dead bodies in her late mother’s deep freezer, Jessica loses touch with herself. She questions who she thought her mother was, her relationship, and her career. Family secrets abound, love interests clash, and Jessica’s identity shatters as she tries to uncover the truth about the lives and deaths of the sisters Casey and Jamie.

Lee has a knack for drawing believable characters and evoking sympathy for the “bad guys.” The one thing I found disappointing was that the biggest mystery of the story was not resolved. It made the ending feel abrupt and so I found it to be a bit lackluster. Had I gone into the story recognizing it to be more of a literary drama I think I would have been more satisfied with the ending.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Conjoined and I definitely recommend it to others, especially if you are a fan of family drama. Readers from Vancouver will also delight in Lee’s depiction of the city. 3 stars!