Sadie by Courtney Summers

SadieSadie by Courtney Summers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m part of the White Pine Steering Committee this year for the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading. Part of my role was to read Sadie, and develop teaching resources for it. I enjoyed it on so many levels.  Did you ever see that episode of Friends where Joey has to put Stephen King’s The Shining in the freezer when it gets too scary?  That’s how I felt about Sadie. As a parent and a teacher of teens, this book was so suspenseful. The other thing that Summers does really well, is to write violence. There are moments when Sadie has to approach a violent act, she knows it’s coming and yet she feels powerless. I’ve had nightmares over and over again like that where I want to attack, but all my strength suddenly leaves me. I felt like this psychological thrill was almost too much, the way Summers writes, and so I’d have to put the book back in the freezer. I’m so glad that she actually developed the podcasts to go with it too, and I can’t wait to hear what teens think about it.

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Trickster Drift by Eden Robinson

Trickster DriftTrickster Drift by Eden Robinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eden Robinson you have created such delicious characters. If Jared or Georgina or any of them knocked at my door and said, “There’s an emergency! The coy wolves are eating the dolphin people and they need your help!” I’d shape-shift into my amphibious alter-ego, take their hands and jump into another dimension. I want to believe and Robinson’s books have helped him get closer than ever.

Jared’s enemies are worthy of his gradual transformation in that they are both based in a harsh reality and so unspeakably evil that they must be fantastical. As Jared realizes his true self and increasingly gravitates towards magic, the revenge that the reader seeks becomes enticingly like a feast laid out on a table.

I devoured this sequel after picking it up like a true fangirl at one of Robinson’s more corporeal visits in Oakville last month. You know when you’re reading a great book and it calls to you when you have to leave it to go back to reality? This is that book.

If you’ve read and enjoyed (of if you’ve finished these two books and are waiting impatiently for the third like me):
Half World and Darkest Light by Hiromi Goto
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

I hope Ms. Robinson gets to hang out with these authors, and if not, maybe we could arrange a party in her honour and I could simply serve canapes while eavesdropping on their banter. I am going to get everything else she’s ever written, right now.

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Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

Son of a TricksterSon of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A set of this book was generously purchased for our school by our First Nations, Metis and Inuit (FNMI)consultant at the board office. 5 pages into it many of our teachers were too scared to teach it and put it down. Boldly daring to say “You can’t scare me!” Eden Robinson, I read the whole thing ….you know, with my ‘I love reading anything fantasy’ brain, not with my ‘I run a secondary school library and must consider my sensitive audience’ brain. And I loved it! Would I teach it to a whole class at once? No. But we summoned our courage to offer it as a selection to senior level English classes in a literature circle format, and it was chosen, read and students loved it.

And who wouldn’t? There’s a healthy amount of crass language, for sure, but that shouldn’t keep readers away from Robinson’s rich characters and the trouble that Jared encounters.

As an FNMI choice, Robinson introduces us to some Heiltsuk beliefs but not in an instructional way. I mean, I feel enticed to know more about the culture but not in a way that is pedantic or alienating. As a reader, I’ve been invited to participate in an immersive cultural experience set in modern day but with timeless implications for these stories. I think this approach will also be appealing to readers.

After hearing Robinson speak this month in Oakville, I hope she would be happy to learn that this book doesn’t belong in an FNMI canon of literature but instead as part of a canon of great writing. As someone who enjoys fantasy fiction, who is open to new ideas, cultures and language, and as someone who certainly wants to understand truth and be part of reconciliation, I highly recommend this book.

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Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

ScarboroughScarborough by Catherine Hernandez

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my favourite book that I’ve read this year HANDS DOWN. It first came to my attention because I enjoy reading from the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen book list each year.  I enjoyed the audiobook version through Audible as Hernandez narrates her own book. I listen to audiobooks a lot on my commute to and from work, but this summer, I used the audiobook to motivate me as I was weeding my garden. I found myself, on more than one occasion, weeping openly in my yard.

It’s a small but mighty hyperfocus on a neighbourhood in Scarborough, Ontario. It centres around the a Family Literacy centre which feels so real that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Catherine Hernandez has done this work before, which is to say, scraping together a program and creating a culture of welcome using virtually nothing at all. The families that come and go each come to the centre for a different reason, and each child has unique challenges. 3 children’s lives, in particular, are emphasized: Bing, Sylvie and Laura. Through their lives, Hernandez calls the reader to attention and reveals the crucial necessity of outreach programming.

The book is so poignant, so concise, as if no words are wasted. The overlapping timelines, character development and continuous threads allow the reader to see cause and effect repeat with often catastrophic results. Hernandez masterfully builds hope and then thwarts it with a harsh blow of reality, making each development really earn its place in building to the conclusion.

It turns out that Hernandez splits her time between writing and the theatre which maybe why I can tell that we’re kindred spirits. This book could easily be staged or turned into a film. The images in my mind while listening were like a movie. I’ll be following Hernandez’s work and waiting impatiently for the arrival of whatever she’s written. I can’t say enough about the power of this book. Just go get it.

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School Library Makerspaces: Grades 6 – 12 by Leslie Preddy

School Library Makerspaces: Grades 6-12School Library Makerspaces: Grades 6-12 by Leslie B Preddy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a secondary librarian, without planning time, without my own students focused on design/construction/creativity, I’m launching a full-time makerspace this fall that is filled with mostly donated items from the now-extinct home economics and fashion programs at my school. We have a severe shortage of electricity because we were built when libraries contained only books and the occasional microfiche reader. Nonetheless, after successfully executing at least 1 makerspace per semester for the first two years, I’m confident that a full-time makerspace will bring two qualities to my library learning commons (LLC) culture that I struggle to maintain on a daily basis: creativity and community. What I mean by that is that libraries were made for consuming information and to truly understand the nature of manufacturing/designing/inventing we need to shift to becoming as much creators as we are consumers….in life, in general, for all people, but certainly for the students in my LLC. The other thing that students (if not all people) are sorrily missing is community. They need to have places to hang out and learn from each other while enjoying the company. Flashback to the quilting bee, the hunt club, or as I experienced it, the 4-H homemaking club.

So with these ideas already in mind, I approached this book, particularly excited because it’s aimed at grades 6 – 12 whereas so many other resources on makerspaces are targeted at elementary folks. I purchased the book after having listened to author Leslie Preddy speak at a library research conference called Treasure Mountain in Connecticut a few years back. Maybe I read it already, maybe I’ve picked up most of what Preddy has to say through other means, but I found that for a book devoted to secondary makerspaces, that it was lacking in innovation. I suppose what I wanted most was to feel a reassuring hug with a few sure-fire strategies for success and didn’t. In fact most of the book is devoted to Pinterest-style pages of what to do with very little. I already thought of that.

The meat of this book is in the first 8 pages where Preddy suggests creating library-style pathfinders with instruction videos on how to get started. This is an idea I’ll definitely take away. She suggests that signage and mentoring are the best ways to get students started. She also says that it might take some time for students to move to independent experimentation and to just keep the students coming back and soon it will take off. She briefly mentions some sort of badging or achievement system where students can move from novice to mentor, but doesn’t really expand on it.

I’ll be continuing my quest for secondary makerspace guidance as Preddy’s book, for me and my needs, fell short of the mark.

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I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb

I'll Take You ThereI’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge Wally Lamb fan and I have read just about everything he is written so of course I was excited to sink my teeth into I’ll Take You There. This is a purely selfish choice ….just love me some Wally Lamb.

Wally Lamb seems to be playing with more magical realism in this novel than I’ve seen before in his other work. There is a certain feeling of playfulness as our main character Felix experiences a sort of “It’s a Wonderful Life” / A Christmas Carol visitation by the ghosts of his past in order to work out a future plan of action. Felix is a film projectionist and heroines of classic movies invite him to step into the film of his life at certain points. It feels a bit like a Deus Ex Machina allowing Felix to re-experience his life. Some of the major events in the book are revealed through this revisiting, allowing Felix’s adult-self to observe his child-self dealing with family trauma. At times this writing technique seems contrived, but once I got to the halfway point in the novel, I couldn’t put it down. It’s not Felix, but his sister Frances, who is the centre of the huge family secret, and she captured my attention and I devoured the rest of the book in a day.

If you like your Beach Reads sad (and who doesn’t? for the Catharsis alone!), then this is a great little gem.

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Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan E. Coyote

Tomboy Survival GuideTomboy Survival Guide by Ivan E. Coyote

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ivan’s voice is so refreshingly Canadian…I feel so strongly about this voice (new to me but not new) and its place in the Canadian canon. Ivan speaks from the heart of the Yukon, and then BC and although they have had lots of urban experience, there’s a rural twang that’s everlasting. Ivan speaks of rural isolation, attachment to family, and struggling to make ends meet. Interwoven in this memoir is the gradual revelation of Ivan’s sexuality and gender identity, which becomes more certain as Ivan does. This book is not only sensitive and sweet, it’s really freakin’ funny. I laughed out loud while listening to the audiobook on my commute. If I had to compare Ivan’s sense of humour in their writing to another author, I’d say somewhere between James Herriott (the veterinarian stories you read in your grandma’s bookshelf) and Terry Fallis (a sardonic wit mixed with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town). I think Ivan E. Coyote should be considered for the prestigious Stephen Leacock award. There. I said it. Don’t miss out on this gem.

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This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education by Jose Vilson

This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and EducationThis Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education by Jose Vilson

I had the privilege to interview Jose Vilson in 2015 the first time I read his book.  This is the second time I’ve read this book and like any great book I learned new things each time. Same words, different me, I guess. The first time through I was interested in the systemic nature of race and class barriers in education. Now I’m interested in how classrooms can be more culturally responsive and how teachers can develop better relationships with students. Each time, Jose’s words have given me pause for thought on these topics.

Jose’s unique perspective, as someone who identifies with more than one cultural community and who is a teacher in an urban setting, is very touching. There are very human things that this teacher talks about but he also doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. I also hope it is a new narrative….that the radical transparency that Vilson displays here in his book becomes contagious, infecting North America with revolutionary diversity. If you want to hear more perspectives check out the book club run by TVO on this book: https://www.teachontario.ca/community…

Interview part 1: https://youtu.be/tAQQcuV-iOA

Interview part 2: https://youtu.be/nI65X3-oG3o

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The Pain Eater by Beth Goobie

The Pain EaterThe Pain Eater by Beth Goobie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maddy is gang-raped by her masked classmates when she is alone and vulnerable but she knows another person was witness to it. At first, she is only able to calm her traumatic thoughts through self-harm. Going to school each day everyone notices the change in Maddy but only a few know why. In English class, they are assigned a collaborative novel to write one student at a time. The mean girls try to make the story about the rumours about Maddy, and Maddy is tormented through gossip and verbal harassment encouraged by her attackers. Slowly Maddy also develops allies in some of her classmates and the class novel becomes more and more about the redemption and triumph of The Pain Eater. It reminds me of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and E.K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear but with a unique angle on recovery.

As Maddy begins to put the puzzle together of who her attackers are, she wrestles with withdrawal, suspicion, rage and finally, a will to survive. Beth Goobie writes with an intensity that may be off-putting for some readers. However this raw and authentic exploration will appeal to anyone who can see through lesser writer’s tricks to avoid difficult conversations. Goobie tackles assault, bullying, self-harm and more head-on and young readers will appreciate her candor. I read this book as part of the Ontario Library Association’s White Pine program for teen readers and I will recommend this book to any student in my school library who likes realism.

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Exo by Fonda Lee

Exo (Exo #1)Exo by Fonda Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. I know as a secondary school teacher-librarian that I’m supposed to remain neutral at all times, but I loved this book. Through this universe in which current generations of humans have joined forces with alien governance, Fonda Lee is able to explore the effects of colonization. It reminds me of Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave and its deeper than Eve Silver‘s book Rush. It explores polarization without the artifice of Hunger Games’ Districts or Divergent’s Factions.

Donovan is a political agent entirely designed by his parents. His father is the Prime Liaison: a political position devoted to negotiations and ultimately satisfying the will of the colonizing aliens. His mother rejected the submission to the aliens and instead leads a rebellion against them. Donovan’s childhood body was experimentally subjected to transformation in order to accept an ingrained body armor called an Exocel. Donovan has the body of an athlete and has been raised to be the warrior within it…until he reconciles with his mother. Suddenly the black and white world of Exocel vs. rebellion isn’t as clear anymore. Donovan realizes the compromises that have been made on both sides in order to gain peace. He risks losing everything but feels compelled to stick up for both sides and to open up negotiations again for greater understanding.

It’s not often that a science fiction novel can spark tears in me, yet it did. I better leave it there to tempt you, rather than to risk any spoilers. I read this book as part of the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading in the White Pine nominees. I liked it better than Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves and that is saying something. Don’t overlook this book if you’re new to science fiction. I would highly recommend it to everyone but especially to any teacher who is looking for a way to explore topics of colonization with their classes.

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Subject to Change by Karen Nesbitt

Subject to ChangeSubject to Change by Karen Nesbitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Declan’s family is falling apart as his single mother works beyond her limits to keep the family together, and his brother struggles with addiction as a way to avoid confronting responsibility. Declan battles with which of his family’s secrets to keep and which to keep secret until he is pushed beyond what he can handle. Thankfully thee adults in his school are first to notice that Declan is slipping away and assign him a tutor. Through his tutor’s own example of dealing with family struggle, Declan begins to gain hope that his family could come together. Declan’s story is both a story of surviving trauma and coming-of-age, in that through his family’s hardships he realized that his role is greater than his self. This realization transforms Declan from a child into a man, and he learns to appreciate the grey areas between black and white.

I read this book as part of the Forest of Reading White Pine program for grades 9 – 12. I have difficulty believing that a) this is Nesbitt’s first novel as it is so well crafted and still authentic and b) that Nesbitt is an educator as there is a lot of raw, crass exploration of the teen lexicon and lifestyle choices that make it feel as though she has lived it. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who needs hope or who needs to understand how much the average teen is hiding and dealing with on their own.

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