It’s that time of the year again, when we join together to celebrate national pride by taking stock of some the best recent books for children and teens.
Well, I didn’t say which nation, did I? Canada Day being today, this is an excellent time to look back at the last few months to see what treasures have made their way across the border. Perhaps it’s something to do with a national character that sees fit to support children’s publishing with government grants, perhaps it’s just all that maple syrup, but there’s something distinctive and wonderful about the Canadian children’s-book world. Eschewing the American tendency to jump on trends, Canadian publishers consistently turn out books that provide a refreshing break from the typically more-commercial stuff we see below the 49th parallel.
Here’s a round dozen—consider it a Canadian sampler.
Two recent picture books shine a light on the Inuit experience. From Annick Press, When I Was Eight, by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard, distills the experiences of young Olemaun at the “outsiders’ school.” Though she locks in battle with a particularly vicious nun, the little girl persists to the goal that caused her persuade her father to send her in the first place: “[N]ow I could read,” she proudly tells readers at the end of a book Kirkus found “[u]tterly compelling.” And from Nunavut-based Inhabit Media, Kamik, by Donald Uluadluak and illustrated by Qin Leng, present young Jake, who is struggling to train his first sled-dog puppy. With a little help from his gentle, experienced grandfather, both boy and dog bond.
Qin Leng’s been busy this year, as she also illustrated Jennifer Lloyd’s The Best Thing About Kindergarten, published by Simply Read Books. In it Mrs. Appleby reviews the kindergarten year and all the things that were “best” about it with her students on kindergarten graduation day. It’s a sweet and genuine celebration of the first year of school. Heather Hartt-Sussman’s Noni Is Nervous, illustrated by Geneviève Côté and published by Tundra Books, looks at the other end of the school year as little Noni strives to master her anxiety on the first day of school. What will she wear? Where was she sick? What will her teacher be like? All is well at the end of the day.
Caroline Adderson also looks at the everyday experiences of children in Left Behind, illustrated by Ben Clanton and published by Kids Can. In this book for slightly older children, Jasper John Dooley struggles with the emptiness he feels when his beloved Nan goes on vacation without him, writing a story that is so long he requires staples—and that he accidentally staples to his stomach. Kirkus wrote, “The concerns of this early grade schooler are so aptly, charmingly and amusingly depicted that it's impossible not to be both captivated and compelled.” Caitlin’s experiences in Wren Handman’s Last Cut, a swift thriller for teens from James Lorimer Press, aren’t nearly so gentle. The 17-year-old aspiring actress turns down a part in her school’s production of West Side Story for a movie job that compromises her relationships and her integrity in what Kirkus called “an alluring character study and morality tale.”
A couple of other notable books look at the experiences of kids far away. Alma Fullerton’s A Good Trade, illustrated by Karin Patkau and published by Pajama Press, takes readers to Uganda, where barefoot Kato negotiates what is clearly a long, routine journey to fetch fresh water, traversing the countryside and passing armed soldiers with his heavy jerrycan. The pictures reveal much about this child’s difficult youth even as the joyous text celebrates the treasure he trades for and shares. And in Not a Chance, by Michelle Mulder and published by Orca, a 13-year-old regular Canadian visitor the Dominican Republic must confront the cultural gulf between her and her 14-year-old best friend. Daughter of two doctors, Dian can’t understand why Aracely, who has become engaged over the winter, would choose an ordinary village life over studying medicine in Canada.
A cultural gulf of another sort is explored in My Neighbor Is a Dog, by Isabel Minhós Martins, illustrated by Madalena Matoso and published by Owlkids. The little-girl narrator is enchanted by the new neighbors in the apartment building, a dog who plays saxophone, elephants who wash cars and a crocodile who comes with gifts—but her parents are not, and, fearing the differences, they leave. The absurdity of their intolerant stances underscored in the final illustration, when readers see that this human girl has giraffes for parents.
As we all know, difference led to death during the Holocaust, and Ken Setterington provides a valuable look at the experiences of gay men under the Nazis in Branded by the Pink Triangle, published by Second Story Press. Without ever dismissing the colossal suffering of Jews, Roma and Sinti, and other victims of Nazi genocide, Setterington uncovers for teens the largely untold story of the victimization of gay men, braiding the personal stories of several young men into his historical overview.
Lest I inadvertently leave American readers with the unjustified impression that the Canadians are irretrievable sobersides, I will close with two fizzy picture books that are almost lighter than air. In Groundwood Books’ What a Party! readers are taken to Rio de Janeiro for an ever-expanding birthday celebration that, thanks to a chain of passed-along invitations, becomes “the craziest, wildest, funnest party ever.” Written by Ana Maria Machado, illustrated by Hélène Moreau and translated by Elisa Amado, it’s an “effervescent celebration of the best possibilities of urban multiculturalism,” as Kirkus wrote. And Rainbow Shoes, by Tiffany Stone, illustrated by Stephen Czernecki and published by Tradewind Books, presents little fashionistas with 14 rollicking poems celebrating the possibilities of clothing in blazing Technicolor. “Stone and Czernecki's text and illustrations are in perfect harmony,” Kirkus wrote about this collection, which we found “[c]onsistently surprising and equally delightful.”
So this Canada Day, raise a glass of ginger ale (Canada Dry, of course) with me in toasting the inventiveness and dedication of Canadian children’s publishing.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.