Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a 12-year-old genius cartographer who lives on a ranch in Montana. He maps everything, from creek drainage systems to corn shucking movements to cicada wings. His teachers are not appreciative of the effort T.S. puts into his Grade 7 school projects. For the unit on photosynthesis, T.S. made intricate diagrams of the opening and closing of a plant's stoma. "Mr. Stenpock had given me a C on the project for not properly following his instructions, but I was later given some vindication by publishing the illustration in Discover." His work has also been published in a number of other scientific magazines and at the Smithsonian Institute. Illustrations and footnote-like asides take up about a third of each page in this novel, adding a whimsical touch and giving us insight into the unusual workings of T.S.'s mind.

T.S. and his parents and sister are each grieving privately the death of the youngest member of the family, 10-year-old Layton. Not a lot of communication happens in this family. When someone from the Smithsonian phones to tell T.S. he has won a prestigious award and to invite him to speak at an upcoming banquet, T.S. decides not to disabuse the man of the notion that T.S. is an adult. He also decides not to say anything to his parents, but to get to Washington, D.C. on his own. It is a road trip as unique as the boy making the journey.

This is primarily a novel for adults, but anyone from about Grade 5 and up who likes reading about interesting characters will enjoy this funny and tender story.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Mitochondrial Curiosities of Marcels 1 to 19 by Jocelyn Brown

Dree's 15th birthday does not go at all as she had planned it. Her father had told her he was saving money in a special account for her and she intended to use the funds to fly to Toronto to attend the Renegade Craft Fair. Instead, her father died suddenly and so she was attending her father's memorial pancake breakfast in Edmonton. When Dree decides to search for the special account her father mentioned, she uncovers some pretty big family secrets.

Dree's voice is entertaining throughout her trials. "All of Edmonton is desolation as per usual, like the set of a low-budget apocalypse movie, so low-budget they used old white sheets for both the sky and the ground. [...] So I look up at the trees because trees are a sign of life, the symbol of life, are they not? Dead. I look at dead branches splayed against a milky sky, completely sinister, because it's all about pollution. And I think, as I do in moments of difficulty, about my blog, which features a weekly craft, as in, potentially, crafts for emotional release when you've missed the bus to your father's memorial and the skirt you made for it totally sucks and you've just turned fifteen meaning there could be another fifty or so years to go, and because of the planetary situation, not to mention your own psychological issues and recent crimes, which can't be considered just now, these fifty years will be more painful than even you can imagine. Something simple, I'm thinking. And soft. Maybe with fleece."

It's funny. It's angsty. It contains quirky handicraft instructions. I loved it and now I want one of those sock creatures named Marcel.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story by Ari Folman and David Polonsky

In 1982, there was a two-day massacre of Palestinian civilians who were living in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. Lebanese Christian militiamen killed men, women and children, while Israeli defense forces controlled the entrances to the camps. Hundreds of refugees were marched out of the camps and afterwards unaccounted for and bodies were bulldozed under rubble in the camps as well, so the death toll is uncertain. The number of dead may be 700 (the official Israeli figure) or as many as 3,500 (the Palestinian estimate).

Ari Folman was an Israeli soldier stationed in Beirut at the time of the massacre. He was barely 19 years old. He had no memory at all of the events, however. It wasn't until 2006, when a friend talked to him of his nightmares that were related to the atrocities of that time, that Folman decided to retrieve his memories and face his own culpability.

Waltz with Bashir was originally an animated documentary. David Polonsky was the art director and chief illustrator for the film. Polonsky's realistic artwork in the book version uses sombre shades of full colour.

Folman explores the senselessness of war. I was reminded of Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers - the way Birdy cannot see any reason or larger purpose in the madness - when Folman's friend Carmi describes the pressure and fear and "shooting like maniacs" at anything they see. At one point, an Israeli officer is watching porno on television. He gives Folman his orders without looking at him, without taking his eyes off the screen: "Listen, we got a hot tip. A red Mercedes is going to explode on your men, so when the car comes, blow it up." Folman asks, "Every red Mercedes?" And the reply is, "Are you some kind of idiot or what?"

Folman is definitely not an idiot. He documents his search for the truth and his own humanity in this very powerful memoir.

Readalikes: Notes for a War Story by Gipi; The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert et. al.; Alan's War by Emmanuel Guibert; Shooting War by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman; Palestine by Joe Sacco; Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi; Deogratias by Jean-Philippe Stassen

Friday, September 25, 2009

My Tiki Girl by Jennifer McMahon

Maggie Keller used to be popular. She had the leading role in her Grade 8 school play. She had a mother that her friends loved. One car crash changed everything. Maggie's mother is dead. Her father is emotionally distant. With her scarred leg and severe limp, Maggie feels like Frankenstein girl and no longer connects with her old friends.

In Grade 10, a new girl appears to be the answer to Maggie's search for someone who will understand her. Dahlia Wainright is beautiful, but she doesn't follow fashion rules and she doesn't appear to care one bit what other people think. Maggie is soon enveloped by Dahlia's quirky family. Mother Leah tells stories with dolls, one for each member of the family. Maggie's doll is a sad clown and Maggie's new name is LaSamba. She finds herself on a dangerous path to self-discovery, feeling something more than friendship for Dahlia.

43 Old Cemetery Road by Kate Klise

The book that I grabbed just before taking public transit yesterday was Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness. As I opened the novel, which is about a man with Alzheimer's, I realized I'd made a mistake. I wished I had brought Goethe's Theory of Colours with me instead. I read two chapters of The Wilderness and then gave up. There is no question that it is beautifully written: it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and was on the long list for the Man Booker this year. The problem is that I wasn't in the right sort of mood for literary fiction.

Sometimes the right book is a goofy spoof of ghost stories, like Dying to Meet You, Book 1 of 43 Old Cemetery Road. The series is written by Kate Klise and illustrated by her sister, M. Sarah Klise. The story, told mostly in letters, is about a cranky children's book author, I. B. Grumply, who gets more than he bargained for when he rents an old Victorian mansion in Ghastly, Illinois. An 11-year-old boy, Seymour Hope and his cat, Shadow, are also living in the house. And, of course, there is also a ghost. Good fun and bad puns. Grades 4 - 6.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Squirrels of North America by Tamara Eder

Cheeky squirrels teasing my dog in my Edmonton neighbourhood prompted me to pick up this new book published by Lone Pine. 66 species in the squirrel family are described; they include chipmunks, ground squirrels, tree squirrels, marmots and others.

Red Squirrels, the tree squirrel encountered in Edmonton, are small: up to 250 g. The Eastern Gray Squirrel can be as large as 700 g and also comes in an all-black form. Its natural range ends on the eastern side of the Great Plains, but populations have been introduced to places like Calgary and Vancouver. The Eastern Gray Squirrels in Calgary are the black form.

I learned that the name woodchuck is likely derived from the Algonquian name for this animal, wejack. It is also called a groundhog, but is not to be confused with a prairie dog, nor is it a ground squirrel, nor a gopher (which is in an entirely different rodent family) -- the woodchuck is actually a kind of marmot. Woodchucks can weigh up to 5.4 kg. The hoary marmot can be as large as 9.1 kg.

At the other end of the size scale are the chipmunks. The Least Chipmunk, which is the most common around these parts, weighs between 28 and 50 gm. Unlike other members of the squirrel family, the female chipmunk is larger and stronger than the male of the species. Most chipmunks don't put on a layer of fat before hibernating, so they have to wake up frequently to eat during the winter.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What You Never Knew About Beds, Bedrooms, & Pajamas by Patricia Lauber

A fun look at sleeping customs in a whirlwind trip through the ages, from prehistoric to modern days. Cartoon speech bubbles and colourful illustrations by John Manders add interest for readers in Grades 2 to 5.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Potential by Ariel Schrag

Using comic strip format, Schrag documented her experiences as she went through her high school years in Berkley, California during the mid-90s. She sold photocopies to her fellow students at the time. Her freshman (Grade 9) year is appropriately summed up with the title Awkward. Sophmore year - in which Schrag sorts out whether her sexual identity is bisexual or lesbian - is called Definition. These two are now collected into one volume, published by Simon & Schuster in 2008.

Potential covers Grade 11, Schrag's junior year. She has her first real relationship with a girl and covers all the other things going on in her teenage life: her parent's divorce, getting drunk and stoned, her desire to have sex with a boy, studying for school, and the importance of the right clothes. Passion, confusion, insecurity - Schrag lays herself bare, sometimes literally. Her autobiographical work is gutsy, fresh and funny.

In an homage to Alison Bechdel's book store scenes in Dykes to Watch Out For comics, Schrag changes the titles of the books on the shelves in her bedroom from panel to panel. Stuart Little becomes the lesbian classic Rubyfruit Jungle. The Celluloid Closet transforms into The Good Mother in the panel where Schrag's mother pops her head in the doorway. I was pleased to see one of my very favourite books on her shelves: Opal.

I look forward to the final installment of Schrag's high school chronicles, Likewise, which was published earlier this year. Schrag is currently on tour with Sister Spit; sadly for me, their only Canadian show is in Toronto.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I'm really happy that Atwood has revisited the dystopian future she described in Oryx and Crake. The Snowman and Crake are on the periphery this time. Her new novel is even better because the central characters are likable women: Toby, a cynical herbalist, and Ren, an innocent exotic dancer. Both were members of the God's Gardeners cult for a significant portion of their lives.

God's Gardeners base their teachings on the Christian bible. They are vegan environmentalists. The Gardeners have a long list of saints: people like Dian Fossey, Rachel Carson, Jacques Cousteau and David Suzuki.

Atwood's sly humour is evident in Adam One's sermons to the Gardeners: "Some say that the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a fig, others prefer a date, yet others a pomegranate. It would have made sense for this foodstuff to have been truly evil - a meat object, such as a beefsteak. Why then a Fruit? Because our Ancestors were fruitivores, without a doubt, and only a Fruit would have tempted them." When a certain Gardener is said to have backslidden, she had "joined an entirely different religion called the Known Fruits, who claimed it was a mark of God's favour to be rich because By their fruits ye shall know them, and fruits meant bank accounts."

Atwood's wit is also seen in the names she creates for products and things, like Anooyoo Spa (where non-surgical beauty treatments like "iguana-based hue changes" are offered) and Mo'Hair sheep (genetically engineered to provide replacement hair transplants for humans). The Secret Burgers! Because Everyone Loves a Secret! franchise keeps costs low by grinding up any animal protein, including the two-legged kind.

The tale is absorbing and thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Adoption Papers by Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay uses three viewpoints to tell her autobiographical account of being a black baby girl adopted by white Scottish parents: the adoptive mother, the birth mother and the daughter. The other poems in this, her first collection (1991), address various issues related to racism and queer identity. Spirited, feminist and insightful.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Geektastic edited by Holly Black & Cecil Castellucci

A collection for teens subtitled Stories from the Nerd Herd, written by stellar authors like M.T. Anderson, Libba Bray and David Levithan... who knew they would all identify with the world of geekdom? Barry Lyga and John Green both wrote from a girl's point of view. Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci wrote a joint story about role-playing games, which sparked the idea behind this anthology and was also the topic of stories by Garth Nix, Scott Westerfeld and Cassandra Clare. I cared about Sara Zarr's theatre geek and Lisa Yee's baton twirler geek and Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith's Buffy geek. There are even cool comics between each story, penned by Black and Castellucci with artwork by Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O'Malley. Geeks unite!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Water Baby by Ross Campbell

Brody Arakawa is a Florida surfer girl with plenty of attitude.

When a shark bites off one of her legs, she isn't going to let that slow her down. About a year after the attack, Brody's old boyfriend, Jake, comes around, but Brody says she isn't interested. She announces to her best friend and roommate, Louisa, "I'm totally goin' back to girls." Louisa has heard that before. Even though Brody gives Jake the cold shoulder, she does let him crash at her place for a night. Which turns into days of Jake mooching their food and beer and leaving a mess everywhere. He offers to pay in foot massages. As if it wasn't enough that Brody has to deal with nightmares and physiotherapy and a prosthetic, now she has a deadbeat ex on her hands.

Campbell's black and white ink wash illustrations show an ethnically diverse cast of teens. I liked that the amputee in this story is so feisty and that her main problem is what to do about an ex-boyfriend. In one panel, Louisa is wearing a raunchy pair of short shorts with 'Wet Moon' across the back; a sly reference to other work by this author/illustrator.

Bird by Zetta Elliott

Mehkai is a young African American who loves to draw. He says that with art "you can fix stuff that's messed up / just by using your imagination / or rubbing your eraser / over the page." What he can't fix are the troubles in his family, like his older brother's drug addiction. His granddad tells him, "Some broken things can't be fixed."

Shadra Strickland's delicate artwork has a lightness to it that adds to the ultimate hopefulness of Elliott's free verse. This is an excellent book for adults to initiate discussion with children in Grades 1 through 6.

Note added May 8, 2011: Zetta Elliott wrote about representations of Blackness in Canadian youth literature in her blog recently. See Navigating the Great White North.

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

"One day when I was eleven, my mother drove me out here and while I was in the toilets at the 7-Eleven on the Jellicoe Road, she drove off and left me there."

Taylor Markham has lived at the Australian boarding school on Jellicoe Road ever since her mother abandoned her. She is now 17. Her legal guardian is a woman named Hannah who lives next to the school grounds. Taylor is searching for pieces to the puzzle of her history - where is her mother? who is her father? does Hannah know? Taylor has only a fragmented memory of her father, like riding on his shoulders when she was seven. "I remember love. It's funny how you can forget everything except people loving you. Maybe that's why humans find it so hard getting over love affairs. It's not the pain they're getting over, it's the love."

Meanwhile, there is a 3-way territory war underway between the boarding school students, the town kids and the cadets who camp nearby every year for a six week survival experience. Taylor is the reluctant leader of the school forces. The leader of the cadets is Jonah Griggs, a boy who betrayed Taylor three years earlier when she had run away to search for her mother. This is war, all right.

Jellicoe Road surpassed my high expectations based on Marchetta's earlier novels: Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca. Her prose flows smoothly, the characterization is rich, the plot is clever, there is thematic depth and I cried. Highly recommended for Grade 9 all the way up to adults.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall

Montreal in the emotionally charged times of the Quebec Referendum - 1995 and 96 - is the setting for this novel about falling in love for the first time and learning to let go when the relationship has run its course.

Eve is small, shy and adamantly femme. "With my scrawny torso, A-cups and slight hips, any physical femininity was going to come through my hair. I dyed it white blond last weekend." She is 18 when she falls for Della, an artist 10 years older than herself.

"The first time I met Della, she was wearing a white wife-beater tank top. She'd scrawled boy beater across the chest in red marker. The shirt showed off her muscled arms painted in two bright sleeves of tattoos. She was wearing baggy green army pants and had scraggly blue and black hair that was molded and pointed in peaks like she was straight out of a comic book. At first glance I wasn't sure if she was a boy or a girl and it didn't matter. I was slack-jawed and near tourretic and trying unsuccessfully to hide it."

Eve struggles with jealousy. Della's ex maintains such a powerful influence that Eve refers to her only as 'xxxx' instead of by name. Eight months into their relationship, Della finally says, " 'I want you to be mine. All mine.' She said it in French but I understood perfectly. And like that, as I felt the booze burn a hole through my core and then warm it up, we tried on a snowsuit of monogamy." I love Whittall's poetic use of a garment that is easily removed when it becomes too warm.

I enjoy reading about women whose lives are different from mine. It isn't often that I read something with so many aspects that parallel my own experiences: coming out as a teen into a queer community where everyone seemed to be older and better informed than I was; falling hard for flawed women; polyamory and submersion into lesbian feminist politics. Whittall references the Michigan Women's Music Festival and the Androgyne bookstore; I have a poster on my wall of the Michigan festival and I bought it at Androgyne in 1981. Even passages that make it clear Eve is from a younger generation, as she gets around the city on her skateboard, bring mental images. I remember walking to a lesbian dance in about 1995 and being surprised that the "kid" who passed me a couple of minutes earlier on a skateboard was stepping on the end of it to carry it inside at the entrance to the community hall; a baby dyke old enough to drink.

Bottle Rocket Hearts had me reliving the complex emotions that went along with my early coming out years. For various reasons, it also brought the writings of other authors to mind as I went along. I don't mean to imply that Whittall's work is derivative. It was more that I felt lots of openings into a larger lesbian literary world: Michelle Tea (a young femme in a larger sea of queer culture), Nairne Holtz (Montreal and queer subculture), Stacey May Fowles (prominent role of setting), Kristyn Dunnion (queer punks) and more. A single word, 'furious', was enough to invoke Erin Moure's poetry. It was an intensely personal reading experience.

I look forward to reading Wittall's about-to-be-released novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why read?

"I don’t read for entertainment; I don’t read to pass the time. I read because reading is a way to live more lives than the one I’ve been confined to, and to better understand the lives around me."

Margo Lanagan

Margo Lanagan's reasons for reading mirror my own. Maybe that's why I love her books so much. Read the entire interview here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Half World by Hiromi Goto

At a book launch party recently, I learned that some people always skip reading prologues and introductions and go straight into Chapter 1. If you are one of those people, please try to change your habits... for this book at least.

In the prologue we learn about the nature of three realms of existence: The Realm of Flesh, the Realm of Spirit and Half World. In the introduction, we meet a young couple, soon to have a baby, fleeing from evil Mr. Glueskin in the Half World. Chapter 1 opens with Melanie Tamaki at 14; she is the child born of the fleeing couple.

Like When You Reach Me, this novel is hard to categorize. The copy I read has a blurb from Neil Gaiman on the cover: "Half World is a haunting combination of a coming-of-age novel and a spiritual quest, a mad funhouse of horrors and a tale of redemption and love. Wonderfully odd, and quite unforgettable." How wonderful for Goto to have Gaiman's words on the dust jacket! His fans (Grade 6 and up) will probably enjoy her book. Another readalike that comes to mind is Clive Barker's Abarat. Ambitious readers intrigued by the metaphysical aspects of Half Life might like to tackle Physics of the Soul: The Quantum Book of Living, Dying, Reincarnation and Immortality by Amit Goswami.

Kudos to Goto for having invented the monstrous, mentally unstable Mr. Glueskin. I'll take you back to the introduction and the setting of the scene for Half World: Putrid fumes rise from Mr. Glueskin, who whispers, 'I'm so hot I'm melting!' "The inside of his mouth dripped downward, gooey and soft, threatening to spill from his thin lips. He sucked the gluey whiteness inward with a squelching slurp." Later, "He yawned dramatically. Body temperature cooling, the inside of his mouth no longer sagged like melting cheese."

That last line echoed a passage in When You Reach Me, which I had read earlier on the same day. Miranda tells the reader about her Mysteries of Science poster project, Why Do We Yawn? "My own theory, which I included on my poster, is that yawning is a semipolite way of telling someone that they're boring everyone to death. Either that or it's a slow-motion sneeze." Later on, in one of the mysterious notes Miranda receives, there is a P.S.: "Yawns do serve a purpose. They cool the brain by bringing air high into the nasal passage, which has the effect of increasing alertness."

Both of these novels will keep readers alert... and turning pages.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Miranda is in Grade 6. She and her mother live in New York City. Miranda's favourite book is L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time; she reads it over and over. Things are pretty normal in Miranda's life, except for the puzzle of anonymous notes that she has received. Notes with correct information about future events, like the fact that her mother has been selected to be a contestant in a tv game show.

This book is hard to categorize. It is a bit like Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, but suitable for much younger readers - Grade 4 and up. The opening quotation is from Albert Einstein: "the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious." That sets up this delightful tale perfectly.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Every couple of months, I read a book in French in order to maintain my fluency. When I come across an English translation of a French title, I check to see if the original language edition is available at the public library. That's how I ended up reading Barbery's L'Elegance du herisson... but I'll blog about it in English. (I can't even get diacritical marks in the text I've just typed for the title, so it would be really frustrating to try typing everything in French. And I have no idea how many people reading this blog understand French. Please feel free to comment.)

The story is set in an apartment building in Paris and is told in two voices in first person. Renee, 54, has been the building's caretaker for decades. She describes herself as a widow, short, plump and ugly. She is also extremely well-read and hides her intelligence from the rich folk who live in her building. Paloma, 12, is also an expert at concealing her intelligence. She lives on an upper floor with her diplomat father, neurotic mother and bossy older sister. Paloma has decided that adult life offers nothing of interest and therefore plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

An elderly tenant dies and a new one moves in. The new guy is like a fresh breeze blowing the dust out of the rest of the inhabitants. The changes are especially marked for Renee and Paloma.

I hope the English translation does justice to Barbery's breadth of vocabulary. While I read, I kept my four-volume Dictionnaire Quillet de la langue francaise close at hand. (My mother thoughtfully bought me a compact French/English dictionary last year after seeing me go back and forth with the massive set of Quillet - I think I was reading Proust at the time. Unfortunately, only about one in ten of the words I'm looking for are in the compact dictionary, so it isn't very helpful.)

I was pleased to understand 'tergiversations' without consulting any dictionary, however. It was a new word to me when I read Muriel Spark's A Far Cry from Kensington (in English, of course) in July. Here, in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I found it again, two months later. (Tergiversate: to practice evasions or subterfuges; to equivocate.) I won't tergiversate in my whole-hearted recommendation of this witty and moving novel of two unforgettable people.

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore has a new novel - Gate at the Stairs (an excerpt is available online) - but I'm about number 19 on the waiting list at the library, so I decided in the meantime to read a collection of her short stories published in 1998. All but one of the stories appeared in earlier forms in various magazines, but they fit nicely together in Birds of America.

The stories feature sad and slightly broken people and their coping strategies for life. Moore's graceful language and ability to find humour amidst the mundane lifts her prose into the sublime. For example, in Agnes of Iowa, when a couple's romantic life becomes stagnant, they "struggled self-conciously for atmosphere" in their bedroom, where "frantic candlelight flickered on the ceiling like a puppet show."

In Community Life, Nick meets Olena at a library reference desk and invites her out for coffee. Nick orders espresso for them both. "She usually didn't like espresso, its gritty, cigarish taste. But there was in the air that kind of distortion that bent you a little; it caused your usual self to grow slippery, to wander off and shop, to get blurry, bleed, bevel with possibility. She drank the espresso fast, with determination and a sense of adventure. 'I guess I'll have a second,' she said, and wiped her mouth with a napkin."

There is something positively addictive about these stories.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Gilgamesh by Joan London

Edith is seventeen and pregnant. She is living on a hardscrabble farm with her older sister and mentally ill mother in western Australia. Edith decides to find the baby's father, but all she knows is that he is probably somewhere in Armenia. World War II is about to begin.

This character-driven novel packs a lot of punch into 256 pages. Very satisfying.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Love & Lies by Ellen Wittlinger

Love & Lies (2008) is the sequel to Hard Love, which was published in 1999. In Hard Love, sixteen-year-old John deals with his broken family life by writing a zine and falls in love with another writer, Marisol, who is a lesbian. Love & Lies starts four months after the first book ended and picks up Marisol's story. It isn't necessary to have read the first book to enjoy the second, but the first one is really too good to miss.

The second one is also too good to miss. It's the kind of book that exemplifies why I love teen novels: an invigorating immersion into what it feels like to grow up. Marisol's voice rings true as an 18-year-old lesbian, out for two years. Her repartee is witty and self-assured but readers are witness to her inner doubts. She negotiates the minefields of love and friendships as best she can, sometimes making mistakes.

Marisol's roommate Birdie is a gay guy who brings home strays of all sorts, including a new boyfriend, Damon. Damon is still figuring out his sexuality. Marisol's mother, Helen, is active in PFLAG. Helen invites Birdie and Damon to a family supper and quizzes Damon about how supportive his family is about his being gay, offering to advocate if necessary:

'Finally, Birdie interrupted her. "Helen, Damon is bisexual. At the moment."
"Well, isn't that wonderful!" my wacky mother announced.
Dad was bustling in by then. "Hello, sorry I'm late." He crossed to my chair and gave me a brisk cheek kiss, the only kind I'd ever gotten from him. "Hello Birdie. Glad you could all come," he said, without actually looking at either Birdie or Damon. "What have I missed?"
"Not much," I said. "Mom was just about to ask Damon for the details of his bisexuality."
Dad and Damon both took on a greenish pallor.
"I was not!" Mom said. "Marisol, you're terrible!"
"She is, Helen," Birdie agreed. "Our girl is very bitter these days. Methinks she needs to find herself a girlfriend." '

Easier said than done, especially when the one Marisol wants is not the girl who falls in love with her.

Knucklehead: Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Sciesczka by Jon Scieszka

Jon Scieszka, author of The Stinky Cheese Man and many other great books for kids, grew up in Flint, Michigan in a family of six boys in the 1960s. "We didn't have any sisters. Even our dogs and cats and fish were boys." After reading about the zillions of goofy - and sometimes dangerous - stunts that Jon and his brothers cooked up, I'm grateful that I grew up with three sisters and that my brother was the youngest in the family. I could definitely identify, however, with his experiences of being taught by nuns in Catholic school and being part of a large family - including crowded car travel that generated a lasting Scieszka family phrase: "stop breathing my air." Scieszka has an entertaining way with anecdotes and children in Grade 4 and up will love this. It would work well as a read-aloud too.

The Country Nurse by Jeff Lemire

Anne Quenneville is a travelling nurse in Essex County in southern Ontario. Scenes of her daily routines visiting contemporary patients are interposed with those of an orphanage in the same area in 1917. The connections between the people in both timelines are neatly stitched together like the patchwork quilt that Anne sews in the evenings.

This is the third volume in a trilogy and it completes the story lines from the first two: Tales from the Farm and Ghost Stories. (They are also now available in one collected volume, Essex County.) It is best to read them all in order to get the full effect of this subtle and rather mournful portrait of country folk. Lemire's black and white artwork isn't beautiful but it is compelling and full of emotion. His storytelling is amazing.

Suitable for Grade 9 to adult.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederic Lemercier

Didier Lefevre was a French photographer who was assigned to cover a Medecins Sans Frontieres mission in Afghanistan for three months in 1986. He and a small group of doctors and nurses illegally crossed the border from Pakistan and spent a gruelling month walking over several mountain passes to get to a rudimentary hospital. Walking in daylight risked being spotted and shot at by Russian pilots. Stepping off the narrow footpath risked getting blown up by a land mind. Once arrived at their destination, they treated victims of the war between the Russians and the Afghan Mujahideen as well as anyone else needing medical attention.

When the summer draws to a close, Robert, a doctor, and Evelyne, a nurse, will stay behind in the village over winter and wait for another MSF mission to arrive the next year. Didier asks Robert how he feels about staying on, and Robert describes the hardships of a previous mission, including wolves that prevented people from going outside at night and a lack of food that reduced their diet to a few tree leaves boiled like spinach. He said the people were the reason he came back.

"I'll tell you a story to give you an idea of the generosity of these people. Every day, they'd bring us bread. As time went on, that bread became more and more disgusting. By the end, there was more soil than bread in it! One day we told the baker, pretty tactlessly, that we didn't want any more, that we were going to throw it out. He looked at us a bit sheepishly and asked us not to throw it out but to give it back to him. That afternoon we found out that, for the previous month, nobody in the area had been eating bread. All the families had scraped the bottom of their wheat stores so that Sylvie and I could continue to have some. So naturally, once you've lived through something like that, you come back and you do it again."

Guibert's colour illustrations are combined with Lefevre's words about his experiences and a selection of photos from the 139 rolls of black & white film taken during the trip. The result is a very powerful book about humanitarian aid in wartime. Have kleenex ready.

Janes in Love by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

Jane Beckles is my kind of girl. She uses art to fight fear and ignorance. Jane's move from the big city to a small town happens in the first book, The P.L.A.I.N. Janes. She makes friends with three other girls named Jane (plus one gay guy) at her new school and together they carry out secret acts of street art. In this sequel, love is in the air. High school love life is not all roses and chocolates, of course. Jane Beckles has bigger worries than who she will ask to the next dance. Is art worth getting arrested for? Where will she find funding for art supplies? ... And will her mother get over her fear of leaving the house?

Minx is a graphic novel imprint designed especially for teen girls. For more books like these, check out their website.